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Faculty Positions

  1. Sep 5, 2014 #1
    Hello forum! I'm a first-year physics student and after a recent Google session I have some concerns regarding that area of concentration.

    I love science, especially the study of our natural world (though I am by large ignorant of contemporary theories), and math, as my username suggests. That being said I didn't apply myself during high school and as a result I'm now crawling out of a hole dug with squandered opportunity. I attend a community college where I've discovered a passion for numbers and written communication, and I plan on pursuing a PhD in physics so I can participate in the academic setting ad infinitum.

    That is, until I read some of the threads here.
    Last edited: Sep 5, 2014
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 5, 2014 #2
    How slim are the odds of attaining a faculty position at any school, community or university? Can anyone offer insight? Any response is appreciated, and thank you in advance.
  4. Sep 5, 2014 #3
    Treat the problem as a Fermi problem.

  5. Sep 5, 2014 #4


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    What exactly do you mean by "school, community, or university". There are relatively few positions in a major university and those are typically filled by people with Ph.D.s from major research Universities. It is somewhat easier to get a faculty position in a small college (which tend to be called "universities" nowadays) where you do a lot more teaching and less research with a Ph.D. from a smaller university or even with only a master's degree (though you will be expected to complete a Ph.D. program if you want to stay there more than a couple of years). If by "community" you mean "community college" or "junior college" that's somewhat easier. A master's degree will be sufficient, there will be little to no pressure to get a Ph.D., and there will be little to no research expected.
  6. Sep 5, 2014 #5

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    There are 9000 or so full-time equivalent physics faculty. Something like 750 physicists graduate a year, and if you assume a 40 year career, you have 9000 / (750 * 40) or about 30%.

    This 30% will include cases where someone is a half-time adjunct at two different colleges, so overestimates the number of career positions.
  7. Sep 5, 2014 #6
    To first order. The full time equivalent numbers do not change much as position growth (# of tenure track positions) do not seem to increase much year to year.
    40 years is a bit generous, as some percentage will not make tenure and have to move on, and some die young or move into industry or government.
    This is somewhat offset by the percentage of the graduating class that even want to go into academia. However, 30% seems a bit high from what I have observed over the last decade. But it is order of magnitude! ;)

    Faster way to fermi this one is to use logarithmic averages pertaining to "few, a few, and many" where "a few" is 1/3 then scaling that order of magnitude 3% is too small, 300% to large... so it must be 30% !
  8. Sep 5, 2014 #7
    That is not my experience at all. At the community colleges I worked as a tutor and attended most teachers had PhDs except for some real old timers. Openings were fiercely competitive and many PhDs applied. After graduating with a master's degree and applying to many community colleges for part time (and just a couple full time) I got zero responses.

    A master's degree is not sufficient. They want people who can "do" rather than just "teach". They want PhDs or perhaps people with teacher experience in high school.

    (Im sure location has a lot to do with it too. My experience has been in attractive locations. If you apply to the community college of southern north dakota then it may be different.)

    OP, if you want to do physics you should at least be planning on completing a PhD. If that doesn't work out there are plan Bs, but they are not ideal.
  9. Sep 5, 2014 #8


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    Although folks here have quoted some numbers, I'd like to point out two pieces of completely anecdotal observations on my part.

    1. During faculty searches at the school where I am getting my PhD (a large school in the top tier of many areas of physics research, say in the top ~10-20 overall US programs), all of the candidates who have made it to the "give a talk in front of the department" part of the interview process have done PhDs and postdocs at the very best schools in the world. This seems to suggest that you have a much better chance of ending up in a faculty slot if you also get your PhD or do postdocs at top places. I suspect this is due almost entirely to the higher chance of doing high impact work at these places.

    2. Many of my comrades who did very nice PhD research and could have gotten postdocs with top of the line groups chose not to, because they did not like research any more. I would put this number around 1 of 2 or more. This indicates to me that many people select themselves out of the rat race, thinning the competition. I suspect the individual at a graduate school like mine who chooses their specialty and adviser well and who is extremely dedicated and disciplined in their study of physics has a fair shot of "willing" their way into a permanent position somewhere. I suspect that such an individual still needs a bit of luck on their side regardless.

    My impression (as someone who has not yet applied for postdocs) is that it's competitive at every stage, but it seems that well-informed postdocs usually know whether or not they "have what it takes," so to speak. From seeing several postdocs select themselves out and into industry, it seems that the alternative is getting a nice job making six figures. Not a bad exit plan.

    I honestly think (a pure guess!) that a large fraction of students who get a PhD and do not continue in physics do so because they'd prefer a job where they make more money and have more free time than they would in a postdoc.
    Last edited: Sep 5, 2014
  10. Sep 5, 2014 #9
    It may depend on your subject as well. Most of my professors at the Community College of Baltimore County have masters, but I believe all of my science professors have had PhDs. Curse these general education requirements.
  11. Sep 5, 2014 #10
    Alright, I thank you for the responses though they are tough pills to swallow :P

    I really enjoy the theory, not application, so I'll not suffer an engineering career gladly. But, is it possible to find such work with a degree in physics should a tenure track not manifest? I'm not adverse to working in industry, though I would like the choice in research topics.

    I guess the out-right question I'm trying to ask is: how marketable is a PhD in physics? I know that this depends largely on the specialization (I'm not even close to choosing one), but I just want a general idea. I'd like for someone to help relieve me of the fear that pursing my dream will leave me impoverished (even if it's a valid concern).
  12. Sep 5, 2014 #11
    Also; I'm not entirely sure what a Fermi problem is, even after a bit of impromptu research. I'm a first year student guys. Tackling integration poses a challenge at this point xD
  13. Sep 5, 2014 #12


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    A Fermi problem is a problem done using only order of magnitude estimates (and, more strictly, only mental calculations and without looking anything up!). A canonical example would be to estimate the number of piano tuners in Chicago or leaves on trees on trees in a park.
  14. Sep 5, 2014 #13


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  15. Sep 5, 2014 #14
    Oh wow. What a useful tool! I can't believe I've never heard of this before. I'm still woefully ignorant as my original post states.
  16. Sep 6, 2014 #15
    Good point. I worked in math and science areas and those are the subjects I am thinking about. Particularly math since there are more of those teachers than in physics or science.
  17. Sep 6, 2014 #16
    Seems a little over-optimistic, there. But what's more dangerous is to expect it to fall into your lap. I think you have to be preparing for the exit plan, not just expect it to happen when you graduate. I think you have to be exceptional at job-searching and interviewing and so on or just be lucky enough to have great connections to wind up making 6 figures right off the bat--some people have talent for that sort of thing, but preparation also helps. Finding a job is a really big deal. Don't expect anything to just fall into your lap. Also, engineering is really hard to break into if you don't have an engineering degree, so don't count on that, unless maybe you can develop a skill set that can be applied very directly to some specific sort of engineering job.

    Also, you have to really be ready for the kind of job-postings you are going to be seeing. Chances are, if you studied something very theoretical, you are going to be seriously underwhelmed by your options, at least in terms of using any of the specific knowledge that you gained from a PhD. And you have to take it as a very serious possibility that you will end up having to go to industry. If you are a top undergrad, it's easy to see yourself as someone who might make it to be the exception, but you can't really judge that at such an early stage, unless you are completely off the charts by a large margin in your achievements already.
  18. Sep 6, 2014 #17


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    Again, I only speak from anecdotes, not statistics. But...
    I never said that it was easy or that they used their skills from their PhD. I also never said anything about going into engineering. But, I don't think I've seen anyone go from their PhD at my school to somewhere making less than 80k and I've tried to keep tabs on this (for my own sanity). I've seen string theorists (two of them!) go into high paying data analysis jobs and someone who did lattice QCD get a high paying software engineering job. I've seen someone who did astroparticle theory go into science policy making a ton of money and I've seen a plethora of experimental condensed matter students get picked up by Intel.

    I agree that to make many of these transitions takes conscious thought and substantial effort. It's best to be prepared than to be taken by surprise.
  19. Sep 6, 2014 #18
    Well, statistics can never really tell the whole story for something like this. I think my experience searching indeed is very close to statistical, at least in terms of sample size. Of course, there is some sample bias there because a lot of jobs aren't posted, maybe even more so for the kind of jobs in question. It's not just a question of the data, but also your reaction to the data, which is subjective. The thing you haven't been through that I have is this feeling of just being lost because there's nowhere or very few, ultra-competitive places where you really fit in. That's what a career change can be like. Whether you get a job or not, it's more than likely going to be a case of having to be a square peg, trying to fit into a round hole. It's a difficult thing to put yourself through, and it's hard to quantify that sort of thing, statistically. I think this square peg problem can also be partially addressed by preparation.

    I doubt I'll be making 80k with my math PhD to start off with. I may finally get a good job--things are starting to pick up more in my search, but it's been almost a year of floundering around, making peanuts tutoring, and getting help from my family, and not knowing what to do because I wasn't well-prepared for it. And I also have to sell myself to employers into a job I'm not 100% sure about in terms of whether I'll be good at it or like it because it's such a big change. That's hard. It's better to feel like you are a standard sort of applicant to the position, rather than an unconventional career-changer who just has to try something else, now, in order to be able to make a living.

    And I never said that you said it. I was just afraid he would get the impression that it was easy from the omission of the fact that it's not easy. The OP also mentioned engineering, elsewhere in the thread, so that was in response to him thinking that was going to be his alternative.

    Good. Then we agree.
  20. Sep 6, 2014 #19
    I did say that I thought engineering might provide a neat contingency, but I understood that it would require a few additional years of schooling. After I've obtained a PhD (cart before the horse, I know) would it then be easier to get into an engineering grad program?

    I not entirely sure I want to do theoretical work, I've always liked the idea of designing experiments and analyzing the data rendered. Of course as I've stated multiple times I really have no idea what path I want to take on my academic journey, I just know I want it to lead to science!
  21. Sep 6, 2014 #20
    Well, if you are like me and have minors in electrical engineering and computer science or substantial coursework, that should be trivial, assuming you aren't too picky about which grad program you want to get into. If you only have a physics background, I'm not sure. You also might need to factor in the question of whether you want to take on more school, after having done so much already. At some point, it's nice to be able to settle down and move on with your life. Grad school is always intense.
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