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Schools From undergrad to professor at a top tier university: how should I do it?

  1. Mar 22, 2010 #1
    My dream is to be successful as a researcher in some area of physics that I haven't decided on yet (I am going to start my Freshman year at the University of Arizona in September, so I don't have the experience to know which area I will find most enjoyable or find the most meaning in).

    I am learning about how to get into a good grad school already. However, I don't know what a path to a successful career as a physicist and professor takes, other than a momentous effort.

    There are many reasons that I want to be a professor: I want to inspire others, I would likely live in a nice area (like Palo Alto around Stanford), and I would get pretty good "compensation" for doing what I love.

    The reason I could use a lot of advice at the bare minimum is because I will be competing to get the same job that Nobel Prize winners land. Even in the best circumstances, it is a landing spot that requires a great deal of luck and passion.

    I need to make a great resume and have great experience during my undergraduate career and a great reputation during my graduate career and shortly thereafter.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 22, 2010 #2


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    At the moment, getting a job as a professor is a stretch, much less one at a top school. There are many more PhDs graduating each year than there are jobs available for them, so each job ad gets hundreds of applications. I know people with PhDs in physics making 20k a year without benefits teaching 5 classes a semester. If you want money and a nice place to live, go into industry instead. Academia doesn't pay nearly as much, the competition is much higher, and you'll take what you can get - and that might mean a job in the middle of nowhere at a college no one has heard of, and you'll be glad to get it.

    Sorry to sound discouraging, but that's the situation right now. It's great to have dreams, but eventually you'll have to be realistic. You can do absolutely everything right and still not get that job you wanted.
  4. Mar 22, 2010 #3
    That's a tough reply, but someone is going to get the job. The way I see it, from where I am standing with such an early start in that direction, why can't it be me? I understand how difficult it is. I was asking for help.
  5. Mar 22, 2010 #4
    The jobs that you're talking about require much, much more than these things. Jobs like this at a top tier university are as good as impossible to obtain, and should never be aimed for, otherwise almost everyone would end up disappointed. If twofish-quant happens upon this thread he'll likely give you the same sobering piece of advice that everyone imaging a future such as this will get: the first order approximation for the numbers achieving such a professorship is zero. It's extremely difficult to become a professor at all, never mind at a top tier university. Though, you're correct with the thinking that a Nobel prize would help.

    This all said, like you suggest, the most important thing you can do at university is to set yourself up with a good CV. University is about learning skills that will give you many options, and about showing off your own capabilities. There are many posts on this forum about how to do this: focus on coursework, get good grades, choose varied courses until you narrow down some interests. When the time comes, look for opportunities assisting professors or working on summer research projects etc. Having extra curricular activities and developing your social side is important as well (success in academica demands exceptional people-skills).

    Finally, when considering professorship, I think the best thing to do is focus on opportunities that are actually available: when the time comes this will be: jobs and possibly graduate school. If, eventually, you manage to obtain a job as a professor then fantastic. Think of it as a bonus.
    Last edited: Mar 22, 2010
  6. Mar 22, 2010 #5
    Well, it seems like I took too long to finish my reply and I've been partially beaten to the punch.

    Yes, these replies might seem harsh - but this is the reality. Figuring that "someone is going to get the job" isn't the right way to think about it. It's important to understand that for every bit of preparation you do to try and make yourself stand out, there are hundreds of other people doing the same thing. Of course you can improve your odds, but at the end of the day there will be hundreds of equally extremely well qualified candidates for each job.

    As far as help for improving your odds goes, the things I said previously are the way I would recommend doing. Nothing you didn't already know about, I'm sure. Hard work and good grades are obvious - as is looking for any extra research. Though, you should also consider that undergraduate level isn't (well, above a minimum) where ones career is made. Doing the best you can at undergraduate will ensure that, if you so wish, you'll have a better chance than you'd have otherwise of getting in to a good graduate school. This is where things get heavy.

    Also: all of the things that have been said are not to say that it isn't worth putting the effort in. The best thing you can do as an undergraduate is to set yourself up for as many future options as you possibly can.
    Last edited: Mar 22, 2010
  7. Mar 22, 2010 #6
    It's not about the tough replies. I already knew that I was going to get a few of those, despite my attempts at preventing them.

    I already know how impressive your work has to be to be part of the faculty at major universities. You have to be wildly accomplished before you even get there.

    That's why I am starting now.
  8. Mar 22, 2010 #7
    Well, I guess the point is that it isn't about how early you start. You could do nothing else but prepare for your entire life and it would still be extremely unlikely. There isn't some magic combination that will lead to your being hired as a professor - there is only so much one person can add to their CV. Just to re-iterate one more time: for every thing that you add to your own CV, there will be several thousand other people doing the same thing.

    More in terms of what you're hopefully looking for: to add to the things that I have suggested previously, I would also say that you should try to get involved in your university and department. Once you're in future years, offer to help out at open days. Try to find out if you can participate in any peer tutorial programmes that are running. Find out if there are any community programmes run through your university (things like visiting primary or high schools or participating in shows advertising popular science). Once you're in later years in your degree and start to get to know your lecturers, if nothing like this is run already through the department you could try to be involved in setting such an arrangement up.

    Then, since you're looking for long-term advice, if you make it to graduate school, be involved as much as you can both academically and socially. Making connections is extremely important for research, knowing the right people to speak to will both save you time and help get people to know who you are. Staying involved in any community programmes is a good idea, as well as the fact that you would be potentially be able to advertise yourself as available for tutoring. Participating in things like this illustrate an inherent passion for the subject, and publications (or at undergraduate level, grades) illustrate your ability in the subject.
  9. Mar 22, 2010 #8
    Also, sometimes the advice you don't want to hear is that which is most important. Just because it isn't conducive to your way of thinking doesn't mean it isn't sound.
  10. Mar 22, 2010 #9
    If I'd rather try and fail than attempt something else, the only useful advice I could get would be help on the way. Besides, it's not bad to land in a decent research position (especially at a university) while failing to be a professor.

    Besides that, the advice you gave about being involved with a particular university seems pretty sound. If the people responsible for hiring know you, that cuts off a good percentage of the competition.

    Knowing tips like that is exactly why I am asking now.
  11. Mar 22, 2010 #10


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    It's great to think ahead, but there's such a thing as jumping the gun. (You haven't even started college...) Your first two years of undergrad are about mastering fundamentals, and also getting a general education. I say: Do a super job at those, and reevaluate during junior year.
  12. Mar 22, 2010 #11
    I hope that I, one day, might learn to be as concise!
  13. Mar 22, 2010 #12


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    I'm not quite as skeptical as others on this kind of issue. I don't see anything wrong with aiming for a career in academia, provided, you aim with your eyes open, and make the effort to develop marketable skills for a viable backup plan if it doesn't work out.

    Being that you're still in high school, as you get into university the key is to really explore and find some specific passions that you will be able to pursue through graduate school and beyond. Then rather than trying to make yourself so competative for a given position, you might want to focus on developing a research program that's so good, wherever you end up becomes the "top tier" school where other people want to get in.
  14. Mar 22, 2010 #13
    My advice to you is that there are some universities which are very good for physics and the physical sciences, and some that are not. More than anything else, hard work and large amounts of luck are required to become what you desire. Hard work is essential but serendipity and chance may also have a role to play in becoming a professor.

    Find a university and a program where people are graduating (i.e. there are graduates from your degree program), and make sure that the graduates are learning something! Smaller class sizes do indeed help.

    Also, you might have to change your career path slightly to adapt to opportunities. Do you love optics, but there are opportunities for graduate work in acoustics? Take whatever path will lead you closer to your goal - even if that path is easier or harder, or even if you have to take a detour into another field so that you can eventually study physics and the beauty of the universe. (I did this myself.) There are no martyrs in academia. All that remains are those who survive. The important thing to remember is to keep your goal and stick with it.

    There will be many times when you ask yourself the question, "Am I going to make it?" There is a good chance that you will. But remember that you should never study anything so that you can become extremely well-paid. Those who embark on the particular path to such lands often become extremely jealous, bitter, or vain.
  15. Mar 22, 2010 #14
    Yeah, I'd be happy making a low wage working at an observatory, working on finding a way to increase the energy density of batteries or answering problems that would lead to more effective energy sources, just to name a few of my research ideas.

    It's just that being a professor would be beyond amazing for me and I would love to have the advantages that come with it, not just for me but for my future family.
  16. Mar 22, 2010 #15
    There may be such a thing as jumping the gun, but that is no reason to not plan ahead. Example: there are so many things I wish I had known as a high school freshman, and a little bit of clear thought would have helped me tremendously in college applications.

    Separate "planning ahead" from "dreaming". I don't think WhoAmI is dreaming (and neither am I!). He is seeking information. The last thing he needs to hear is "it's impossible": this will only make his goal more desirable and encourage dreaming. Talk like this only muddles his ability to understand what he is up against.

    [ANALOGY] Let's put it this way: I see people in a nice room on the other side of the glass, all happy and laughing. I ask the people around me, "How does one get over to the other side of the glass?" If people tell me, "It's impossible", I'm just going to think "Well, that's clearly not true, because the people on the other side of the glass have done it", and I might start wandering around, banging on walls, and getting myself into all sorts of mischief. If I fail, all the nay-sayers will just say "Told you so!".

    Suppose, on the other hand, people were to tell me, "Oh, to get on the other side of the glass, you have to have written three novels, each of which has sold over 100,000 copies. Then a dice is rolled, and if you get a 5, you're in. If not, you're not." That would be a million times more helpful in dissuading me, because there would be no possibility of delusion. I would be able to know instantly where my current course of action was leading me.[/ANALOGY]

    Is it clear how this analogy applies to the current situation? WhoAmI is trying to find out, "How did those professors get to the other side of the glass? What exactly separates someone who gets one of these positions from one who doesn't? What courses have these people typically taken as an undergraduate? What were their GPAs (in their major vs. overall)? How much time did they spend on non-academic things? What undergraduate institutions did they go to? Did they get recommendations from the big names at their universities, or from small names? What graduate schools did they go to? Who did they work under? How many articles did they publish in graduate school? What did people with similar qualifications to them end up doing? Did they kiss up to their advisors in grad school?..." etc.

    Yeah... these are questions I don't know the answer to! I tried doing a bit of research, but it seems most people don't publish their entire transcripts and life stories on the internet. Oh well!

    However, here are some of my own plans to scope things out (I am in my freshman year of college at NYU for math):

    • Talk with graduate students here about what they did as undergraduates (they are young, so their information is relevant).
    • Talk with professors about how the department works and (importantly) how it decides admission for graduate school, and hiring for faculty positions.

    Now, one final thing to address the "jumping the gun" argument. Right now, I am planning out my courses for the next three years. I can see that it's important to have prerequisites done relatively early. I still have a question that needs to be resolved: are 12 courses in the subject enough for a graduate school to seriously consider me, or should I be aiming for 16, or 18, or 20? The answer to this question will affect whether I should start loading my schedule with a few extra credits or not, or whether I should drop my second major or not. It's a serious question, and will undoubtedly affect my academic future. So, don't wait 'till later to start planning!
  17. Mar 22, 2010 #16
    Thank you for listening. I do know that in order to be a professor you need to be successful only to have a chance. However, I think I can do it. It's funny, because people here are talking like I don't know what it takes. jgm, your post is greatly appreciated: it's exactly what I was looking for here.

    Your post is also going to help me find information.
  18. Mar 22, 2010 #17
    Your analogy with the dice is pretty accurate except it's closer to a 1 in 60 chance than 1 in 6.
  19. Mar 22, 2010 #18
    Your chance depends on how famous you are. Some colleges are still looking for their bragging rights, while others wouldn't mind adding to theirs. If you're "successful," then your chances are more like 1/1000 when you're going up against someone who is recently well known.
  20. Mar 22, 2010 #19
    Of course - I'm not talking about changing your dream to become a professor. What I mean is that you have to be flexible with your academic choices, and that chance will also play a role in becoming what you desire. Like I said, the most important thing is to keep your goal and stick with it.

    For example, if there are more graduate opportunities in acoustics than optics, it would make sense to pursue acoustics. This will lead you closer to your goal. What I mean is that you shouldn't have a one-track mind for one subject area or interest. You need to look for opportunities, and you also need a little bit of luck. The most important thing, however, is that you need to love what you do.

    I also like the analogy given by jgm340. I think the reason why some of the posts given here in this thread are so vague is due to the unknown aspects of the journey that many of us took down the path that you desire.

    Here's my attempt to answer some of your questions. I am certain that these are not the best answers, but here goes.

    Often, to become a professor you need to first complete an undergraduate degree, usually a BSc. This bachelor's degree is the base requirement, and fulfills society's expectation that you should have some knowledge in your field. Most good graduate schools (if not all) require a BSc (Honors) degree before you enroll. To obtain an Honors degree, you need to have an average that is generally higher than average, and you may also need to complete some additional classes. There is usually (but not always) a project requirement in your last year of studies (typically your 4th year). Sometimes, you can work for a professor or other researcher during the summer of your 2nd and 3rd years, and this work experience (highly recommended!) may help you select a final project.

    Your most important years in the program are: the first year, and the last two years. How well you do in your first year may influence if you can enter a certain degree program. Your last two years of your degree program will influence if you can receive an Honors degree. If you don't receive an Honors degree, then you may be forced to upgrade (and take additional classes) before entering graduate school.

    If you are interested in doing graduate work in optics, then I would strongly suggest taking undergraduate work in optics. The same applies to any other field. If you don't take undergraduate courses in the area which you would like to do graduate work, I can almost guarantee that you will be forced to take these undergraduate classes in graduate school. Your GPA should be high in these undergraduate classes, although it is possible that some professors have indeed upgraded by taking additional in graduate school. Remember that most professors are just ordinary average people - some were good students, and some were not.

    I would also recommend that you keep extra-curricular activities to a minimum when working on your degree. Yes, it is good to network with other people, but make sure that you effectively schedule your time. Scheduling is everything, and I would go as far to say that many people became professors because they knew how to use time wisely.

    Once you are through the BSc, then you should enroll in graduate school. Most job offers for a professor will insist that you have a graduate degree. The next step up from a BSc is usually a MSc, which is a Master of Science. The MSc could be project-based, or it could be research-based. It is my opinion that you should take the research-based degree, since it demonstrates that you can do a research project.

    You may find that not all professors are willing to give you recommendations. To obtain the required recommendations, you should approach only those professors whom you know. Approach the professors that you have worked with or have taken classes from. It can help to have a professor who is well-known in the field write a recommendation for you, but don't discount the opinion of less well-known professors. Sometimes it can be the less well-known professors who will write better recommendations for you.

    After completing your MSc, you should then enroll in a PhD. Although some universities will hire professors with only an MSc degree, you will find that there may be limited opportunities. I would strongly suggest that the next step to becoming a professor is to enroll in a PhD program. The PhD is generally required for being hired by top-tier schools.

    To get this far, I would strongly suggest that you have become an independent learner. Don't just study the textbook, study outside of it.

    The PhD is going to be more theoretically-based, but your thesis will be the document which will establish you as a researcher in a field. Try to find a niche that you can comfortably occupy - this will increase your changes of getting hired by a top-name school. Also try to find a topic that is unique. This will help you to attract attention in the field. Also ensure that you are publishing papers and attending conferences. You should present your research findings at these conferences, and make sure that you talk with other researchers in the field.

    Although working under a "big name" professor at a "big name" school can help you obtain a job, it is often not as cut-and-dried as you may imagine. Luck and serendipity can play a large role in obtaining a position. Most professors who have obtained a position at a top-name school did so only after occupying a number of positions at smaller universities. Some (but not all) had degrees at top name fields. If you look at the CVs of many well-known professors, you will find that most of them had to have some experience before applying to the "big name" school. Why? It's because the "big name" school asked for applicants with "x years of teaching" or "x years of industry experience." In the above, "x" can be any number. There's a chance that you might get hired at a "big name" school straight out of graduate school, but then again, this is totally dependent on serendipity and luck. I can't advise you on this aspect.

    Once you get hired at a university, you usually don't start out as a "Full professor." There is usually a ranking hierarchy, with promotion and tenure being awarded only after successful publication of a few papers, and usually a monograph or book chapters. In addition, you may have to show that you can train graduate students and attract research grants. There is no set number of books or papers that you have to publish. Usually what will happen is that a committee (composed of other professors) will evaluate your work. If the committee is happy with your work, you will receive tenure. Tenure at a smaller university is often the first step on the path to obtaining tenure at a larger "big name" university.

    In short, there are many unknowns in this process, and that is why I say that chance has a large role to play in becoming hired at a "top name" school. In addition, you need to look for opportunities while you are an undergraduate and graduate student, since there are no hard-and-fast rules to becoming a professor.

    I believe that perhaps the best thing to do is to try and be a good student, and try to be a good professor who teaches well and loves the world. Obtain a job at a university, and be happy with what you have. Chance and future opportunities may help you achieve a job at a "top-name" school, but you need to first focus on being happy with your research and with your life. This is the key to all other things.

    Remember that even the venerable Einstein was once a lowly patent clerk. Everyone starts somewhere.
  21. Mar 22, 2010 #20
    Excellent post. Thank you. Very good info.

    I do know the hierarchy to an extent: however, you showed me some of the various paths, which is really quite helpful. You certainly have a lot of information.

    What do you do right now?
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