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Getting a career in academia when you didn't graduate from a Top 20 school

  1. Nov 27, 2007 #1
    Hey everyone,

    I've been wondering about where Physics Ph.D. graduates work a few years after they've graduated and are looking for permanent positions.

    I looked at most universities' faculty lists and it seems like they all went to top 20 (actually mostly top 10) schools! This includes schools that aren't ranked top 20, and even schools that don't have physics Ph.D. programs like Cal State's or are liberal-arts colleges. The exceptions seem to be professors who graduated from the same school they work at, but they are few and far between.

    So my question is, where do physics Ph.D. graduates end up 10 years down the road if they didn't graduate from a top 20 school? Are they all working in industry? Teaching high school? Working in finance? Working for the government? Where are the permanent research positions for non-top 20 Ph.D. graduates and M.Sc. graduates located?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 27, 2007 #2


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    "most universities' faculty list"
    - can you name these 10 or 20? I'm sure that there are more from other places...

    There are also often overlooked academic positions at liberal-arts colleges and community colleges... and I think there are more of these institutions than universities.
  4. Nov 27, 2007 #3
    Look at the faculty list from any school that has a physics department

    The top 50 schools are stacked with people from Harvard, Caltech, Princeton, MIT, Berkeley, and Stanford.

    All other schools are still filled with people from Yale, Maryland, Columbia, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and UC Santa Barbara.

    If you look at the Cal States (most of which don't offer Ph.D.'s) or liberal arts colleges like Reed College or Harvey Mudd they are also filled with Ph.D.'s from the top 20, with a couple of exceptions.

    It seems like you can never become a professor let alone get tenure if you didn't graduate from a top 20 place. So where does everyone else go?
  5. Nov 27, 2007 #4
    I think observer bias accounts for some of that, and there is probably also an effect caused by the age and size of those programs. I wouldn't worry about it too much with regard to future prospects.
  6. Nov 27, 2007 #5


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    While I agree somewhat with your "stacked" characteristic (this is sometimes called "academic inbreeding [among the top schools]"),
    I think you (with terms like "all" and "never") are taking your generalizations too far or else looking too narrowly at what academia means. I don't have the numbers readily available to show you this... but if I find something, I'll post it here.

    For now...
    If I count correctly, you have named 12 PhD granting institutions. (Maybe one should add Chicago, Cornell, U. Penn, Urbana, Michigan, Stony Brook, etc... maybe more from a list like http://www.pha.jhu.edu/~zbt/Physicsrankings.htm [Broken] ...which is certainly more than 20. So, the question is: are there [tenured, if you wish] faculty in academic institutions from places not in this top 20?)
    Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
  7. Nov 27, 2007 #6
    On a similiar but a little different note, how difficult is it to obtain a tenure position - for instance about how many people apply for any given professorship (obviously this number will vary depending on the institution but on average)?
  8. Nov 27, 2007 #7


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  9. Nov 27, 2007 #8
    This is very interesting post that I decided to spend my 10 minutes to participate. If QM hw wasn't due tomorrow, I would have spent more time. ^^

    UCSD Physics Department....(Not including ph.d from outside of States)

    Princeton University 7
    UCSD 6
    Harvard 5
    Stanford 5
    Berkeley 5
    University of Chicago 4
    MIT 3
    Cal Tech 3
    Columbia 3
    UPenn 2
    Cornell 2
    Minnesota 2
    Notre Dame

    As far as this UCSD goes, I must agree with the author of original poster. Among them, only Iowa, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Brown rank lower than 20 (more or less). However, still those schools have good academic reputation in general. I see no state schools like Louisiana, Cal state, and SUNY and so on. Zero!
  10. Nov 27, 2007 #9


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    The OP said (highlight mine)
    You already admitted that there are some below the top 20 at UCSD.
    I said to the OP that
    Here is UT Austin (which had a convenient list with universities listed) for the US universities.
    There are 31 universities listed here [ranked by frequency]. They obviously aren't all top 20.

    5 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
    4 Harvard University
    4 Stanford University
    4 Princeton University
    3 University of Rochester
    2 University of Maryland
    2 University of Michigan
    2 University of Washington
    2 University of California, San Diego
    2 University of California at Berkeley
    2 University of California, Los Angeles
    2 University of California, Santa Barbara
    1 Duke University
    1 Rice University
    1 Brown University
    1 Lehigh University
    1 Purdue University
    1 Indiana University
    1 Cornell University
    1 University of Denver
    1 University of Georgia
    1 University of Illinois
    1 University of Maryland
    1 University of Wisconsin
    1 Arizona State University
    1 Florida State University
    1 Johns Hopkins University
    1 The University of Chicago
    1 University of Pennsylvania
    1 University of California, Davis
    1 The University of Texas at Austin

    Here's Davidson College (in NC).
    1 Dartmouth
    1 North Carolina State University
    1 University of Connecticut
    1 University of Georgia
    1 University of Virginia
    1 Vanderbilt University
  11. Nov 27, 2007 #10
    at UT-Austin, we got a few from small schools.
  12. Nov 27, 2007 #11


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    So, contrary to the suggestion of the OP,
    one can get "a career in academia when you didn't graduate from a Top 20 school".
  13. Nov 27, 2007 #12
    UT Austin was one of the exceptions I saw. They are one of the schools that don't practice "academic inbreeding" as someone mentioned, despite being a very good school themselves.

    Of course, anything is possible. People can get into Harvard graduate school with a 3.2 average undergraduate GPA and get rejected from some middle-tier state school -- but how often does that happen?

    Okay, I take back my wording of "all", which I never meant literally.

    Some more data points:

    At Oberlin College:

    All top 20.

    Montana State:
    New Hampshire
    Institute for Problems of Material Sciences (Ukraine)
    Utrecht University (Netherlands)
    Nanjing University (China)
    Tartu University (Estonia)
    Iowa State

    Out of the 19 that went to North American schools, only 4 of them are non-top 20 schools.
    Last edited: Nov 27, 2007
  14. Nov 28, 2007 #13
    One thing (certainly not the only thing) that may account for this is that people who go to these top schools might be more likely to have the desire to go into academia, which is one reason why they might choose these top schools to begin with (they love the rigorous academic environment brought by these schools).

    I don't really have any hard information to back this up..just a thought.
  15. Nov 28, 2007 #14
    let's be honest

    I question what Helical says. I think that many people, if not all, say in the top 30 or 40 schools in the field (math, physics, etc), in a Phd program wants to work in academia after graduation, and if they don't, one thing could be that the've realized how difficult is, if you don't graduate from a top 20 or 15 school, to get a position.

    The thing is, when you realize your CV is marked forever with the institution you graduate from, which is not in the Top, that mark is the very first thing appearing at committes looking for applicants, and unless you have an incredible research record, almost invariably, physchologically, they are going to be attracted for applicants getting Phd's at the top.

    Think about it, when you first hear this person's institution, say Harvard, you're going to expect sth good (even when it's not the case), versus sth State University, when you expect sth not-so-good (because of the place, it's just natural), and therefore, it's automatically placed a invisible constraint between two hypothetically equally competent applicants.

    We are involved in the system, cataloging top versus no-top, that prevent us from examining things objectively, in its entirety.

    EVERY place wants to admit people from above, everyone tends toward the top. It's almost ridiculous how non research and non good schools, will prefer top-place applicants and question the others, even when the program itself is just not good.
  16. Nov 28, 2007 #15


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    I would agree with much of what you say if you allow me to add some words to your post.

    at a research-university (...like their advisor [as a professor in a PhD-granting institution])
    ....or at a liberal-arts college (because they have neglected or refused to develop their teaching skills... which is valued as much or above research).

    ...although the liberal-arts colleges will quickly focus on the first question on their mind... Can this person teach? ...and are they committed to staying here [and not merely use it as a stepping stone]? (Don't get me wrong... many places want research... but they want teaching first.)

    The point of my comments here [and in other related threads] is this....
    if one only considers "academia" as PhD-granting research-universities...
    then much of what others have said in this thread are probably true.
    if you allow "academia" to include the possibly less glamorous but definitely more numerous undergraduate institutions (including liberal-arts colleges and community colleges) then there are plenty of places for the aspiring academic physicist to go (even if you're not in a school on someone's top-20 or even top-50 list) ... if you prepare your skill set (with significant teaching experience) to compete for those positions as well as the research-intensive positions.
  17. Nov 29, 2007 #16
    yeah.. that's very true. it's a possibility that most universitites feel that professors from the top-notch school would attract not only funds/grants but also more students of high-research-calibre. obviously, they put their responsibility to educate as their top priority rather than being an employer. a phd grad from a top school would for sure not be bad with the rigorous training that he/she knowingly or unknowingly aquires. so it seems like it's always a win win situation with employing a top school graduate as a prof.
    also it's very likely that a top-school grad would have a greater motivation to teach and pursue reseach which he/she might think could best be done in the academia.
    i'm not stereotyping but this is what is mostly seen in academia..
  18. Nov 30, 2007 #17


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    Some interesting discussion.. in that blog entry and the comments...

    "Does PhD pedigree matter?"
    http://incoherently-scattered.blogspot.com/2007/06/does-phd-pedigree-matter.html [Broken]

    see also:
    "Physics Jobs - Part 2 (Demand)" [of 4 parts]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
  19. Dec 27, 2007 #18
    It really seems like it matters, as the first blog entry reveals.

    I also googled the names of physics Ph.D. graduates from USC (ranked 50th in the US News & World Report, 50-something according to NRC) who graduated after 1985, and only a small fraction have an up-to-date internet presence, which would be had if the graduate was employed at any type of university or community college or high-ranking position at a laboratory or company:


    So you'd better get accepted into a top 30 school, otherwise say hello to a career in computer programming or (if you're lucky) finance.
  20. Dec 28, 2007 #19
    Thanks for those links Robphy, very informative.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
  21. Dec 28, 2007 #20


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    So, you draw a rather strict conclusion [which doesn't logically follow] from a sampling of one school? It would be fairer to include in your conclusion that "it seems more likely that..." rather than suggest that it's hopeless... because it's not hopeless (although it does require some effort)... as I have suggested earlier.
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