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Courses Life course of physicists

  1. Mar 24, 2009 #1
    I would like to get a general sense of the life course of a physicists.

    I'm finishing up my ugrad. studies and moving on to graduate school so I know of the physicist's life course up to this point.

    I was wondering what happens at graduate school and further on? Specifically:

    Graduate school:
    - How long does it take to get a PhD?
    - How many years is dedicated to research? How many years is dedicated to courses?
    - Do most people apply for post doc positions after PhD?
    - Is applying for post doc positions similar to applying to graduate schools?
    - How long do post doc positions last?
    - How many post doc positions would someone go though until they are offered professorship?
    - How much research/years of experience is needed to be a good candidate to apply for a tenure track professor position?
    - Is applying for a professorship the same as applying for graduate schools?
    - What are the criteria in which the school judges the applicants?

    thanks for the future advice
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 24, 2009 #2


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    The length of a PhD program depends on a lot of things - your motivation, your project, and your adviser, to name a few. I've seen friends finish in 4 years, others in 10. The average length of a physics masters+PhD program was 6.5 years a few years ago according to the APS. Hopefully that's still true, because I'm aiming for 'average' right now. Typically your first two years will be coursework, but you can (and usually do) keep taking courses after you finish the masters. Most of my friends and I started research as soon as we go there and did a masters thesis, and then really started doing a lot of research after we were done with coursework/masters. Of course, there was a qualifying exam in there. Not all schools require them, and some have them at the beginning instead of the middle of the program, so it's hard to tell how long any random program will take.

    It seems like those of us who are hoping for an eventual job at a college/university or national lab are doing postdocs; those going into industry aren't. Typically a postdoc lasts about 2 years, but contracts are from 1 to 5 years. Some people leave early to take another position.

    There aren't nearly as many professor jobs out there as there are postdocs, so it's not guaranteed you'll ever get a professorship. The rules of thumb I've heard is more than 2 postdocs and you're probably screwed. But that might not be true in all fields.

    No, applying for a professorship isn't like grad school. Interviews, teaching sample lectures, more applicants, fewer acceptances, and often no clear idea what the school you're applying to is looking for. It can often seem very random who gets an offer and how doesn't (what I've heard from friends looking for jobs).
  4. Mar 24, 2009 #3
    what do you mean "you're probably screwed" if you have more than 2 postdoc positions? Why would you say this? And what would one do if they did have more than 2 postdoc positions? Become a research scientist their entire life? Or stay as a postdoc?
  5. Mar 24, 2009 #4
    They work, and they work, and the get pushed around a lot, and they get mean, and then they get old and die. It is just about like anything else.
  6. Mar 24, 2009 #5
    By "they" do you mean the postdocs? Or do you mean physicists in general?

    Does prestige of the school play into account when getting a professorship?
  7. Mar 24, 2009 #6


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    People would rather take a permanent position than a postdoc - pays more and has better job security. If you're on you're third postdoc, it's not looking good for you getting a permanent position somewhere. A friend of mine did a fantastic postdoc a few years ago at a top national lab, and is now on his third postdoc at a university and teaching high school part time. Mostly because his wife insisted that they move to a specific city instead of being flexible with where he could find a job (no, she wasn't working), but it hurt his professional career. He's still doing good work, but has less time to do it in. We have a few 'permanent postdocs' at my university who finished the postdoc but couldn't find a real job somewhere, so they're being kept on semester-by-semester to teach intro courses. These guys are in their 40s. I'm not looking forward to the job search a few years from now.
  8. Mar 24, 2009 #7
    Is this a university in the US? Those that do get hired for professorship, does having good connections help in getting a job? For example, a good friend of yours is in university X with tenure track, would it be easier for you to get a position at university X?
  9. Mar 25, 2009 #8
    So, is this the life you look forward to? Why?

    The whole system has gone crazy. When I was in graduate school 40 years ago, there was never any doubt in my mind that I would find an academic position (which I did), but there were far fewer students in the pipeline at that time. Today it seems that there is a vast oversupply of students for the number of positions available.

    Thus you have be be convinced that you are going to be at the very top, or you really ought to set your goals on something more realistic and have a life. This third postdoc stuff is for the birds. That is life in suspended animation. Why would anybody in their right mind do such a thing?

    There are other, useful, fulfilling ways to spend your life, far better than waiting for the call that never comes in academia. There is much about academia that is undesirable, as I found, and I chose to leave it after having become a full prof, to go out into industry to work on things of a more real nature. There is a decided phoniness to academia, and I surely would not waste my life waiting for a chance to get into it.
  10. Mar 25, 2009 #9
    Whats the point of PhD?
  11. Mar 25, 2009 #10
    I just want to comment that the phoniness has increased directly with the increase in incapable students in grad school. The idea that all children should be told "everyone is special" and "you can do anything if you put your mind to it" has ruined the selection system that used to be in place. In order to support physics departments that are bloated with incompetents, we need to 'sell out' and attract even more students to get part of the universities 'service funds.' In general the signal-to-noise ratio of graduate students has fallen to zero, so established professors have given up and now train lower and lower quality doctoral candidates. The system is an upside-down mess and all comes from the lazy students with inflated grades and 'me-too' attitudes towards graduate school.
  12. Mar 25, 2009 #11
    Hey Mr sick scientist!!!

    How dare you equate an innocent human being with noise just because they are less smarter then you are.
    Don't you realize that you too, are a result of lot of noisy activity in the brain.
  13. Mar 25, 2009 #12


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    A Ph.D is about developing expertise in research in your particular field. Earning one is about attainin the peak education possible in a field, rather than developing only the competance in a field to do a job..

    I would be curious to know the response to this statement from the multitudes of graduate students who fail qualifying exams, candidacy exams, not to mention defences as well as those who have even been required to take remedial course work, and those who have reached the conclusion on their own that graduate work is too difficult for them. Or the undergraduates who work day and night for years only to be rejected from even their "safe" choices from graduate work. I suspect that they would argue that "the system" does not support incompetent students.

    I wouldn't argue that the system is a perfect meritocracy, and certainly there are cases where less deserving individuals are promoted over more deserving ones. But if you look back through history, I'm sure it wouldn't be too hard to find cases of qualified students being rejected because of race, religion, orientation or gender.
  14. Mar 25, 2009 #13
    I think confinement has it pegged.
  15. Mar 29, 2009 #14
    The non-thesis physics graduate program at my school consists of 36 hours. That's like two years. Does that seem reasonable for a physics MS?
  16. Mar 29, 2009 #15


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    This may be a bit too late amid all the off-topic noise that has been posted in here, but you may want to look at my "So You Want To Be A Physicist" essay that is linked in the thread by the same name. The link to the complete article can be found in Post #4.

  17. Mar 30, 2009 #16
    This is what I've seen in physics, though "screwed" might just mean you have to take a position somewhere that isn't what you really want. The idea of a postdoc is to demonstrate to the community that you really can carry out independent research and come to meaningful conclusions while writing papers, giving talks, etc. (there's always some doubt about how much of your Ph.D. work was yours vs. your advisors). The organization that you work for wants you to succeed, and unless there are major funding issues then the reason you'd leave to take a second postdoc is because you haven't worked out.

    If this happens twice, people will strongly wonder if you're worth hiring, and many organizations have limits on how many post-Ph.D. years you can have before you can no longer be hired for another post-doc position. One of my co-workers very nearly got caught by this situation - she took two post-doc positions in France because she really wanted to live there, but neither turned into a permanent position so she had to return to the U.S. for a third post-doc. That ran out at a time when funds were tight, and she was nearly forced to leave and essentially change industries entirely before money was found to support her in a semi-permanent non-postdoc position, since it was impossible to rehire her for a fourth postdoc.
  18. Apr 1, 2009 #17
    Yes. It was 30+thesis or 32+research project at my school.
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