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Making it as a Theoretician - can it be done so late in the game ?

  1. Oct 15, 2009 #1
    Making it as a Theoretician - can it be done so late in "the game"?

    Hi everyone, I'm going to ask a somewhat-rhetorical question, in pursuit of some measure of reassurance (but not gaurantee) that I'll make it as a theoretician.

    I'm studying, right now, at the M.S.-only grad program at U-Minnesota, Duluth. I had to "start here" in order to make up for my lack-of-physics B.S. without steeping myself further in loans. I'm assuming that it's not a terribly-reputable or respected program.

    - I'm taking 3 courses right now
    - doing unprecedentedly-stellar work as a TA (ask the guy I work for). A future selling-point: I am extremely and inherently skilled as an instructor, and have great people-skills.
    - not having time for a certain research project I've been assigned, thanks to not-so-great time-management

    My goal is to gain a professorship as a theoretician and make a decent living researching and teaching....or perhaps just teaching at a liberal-arts college. However, it seems to me that theoreticians need to be REALLY GOOD...and have gotten their PhD at a highly-respected institution. (You know the Big Schools I'm talking about...the Ivy-Leaguers).

    Even so I've started physics "so late in the game", do you think I could still make it into one of these great schools? Or, do I even need to make it to these Big Schools if I my "teaching-strength" is a sufficiently-strong selling point?

    Ideally: I would make it into one of these Big Schools...but I'm really afraid it can't be done without getting my M.S. at a sufficiently-respected school. :-p
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 15, 2009 #2
    Re: Making it as a Theoretician - can it be done so late in "the game"?

    The standard advice that I give is do not go into physics with any expectation that you will get a job in academia. Only about 15% or so of Ph.D.'s end up with any tenure track position, and if there is anything non-standard about your CV, your chances of getting a traditional academic position are nil.

    It's not brilliance that's the problem. It's luck and money. If you happen to be researching something that there is funding for, you win. If not, you lose.

    The good news is that there is a lot of demand for physicists in industry (and most companies don't care much about background). If you want to teach, there is a also a huge demand for physics teachers in high school and community colleges. It doesn't pay particularly well, but if you want a position, it's yours.
  4. Oct 15, 2009 #3
    Re: Making it as a Theoretician - can it be done so late in "the game"?

    One other thing. Most physics theory nowaday's involves lots of high performance computing, and you might be well off taking courses in that. I know of a few people that have gotten theoretician jobs through the back door (i.e. they get hired as system administrators for a university, and they manage to negotiate that as part of the job, they can spend 30% of the their time doing theory and the rest installing Excel and managing the network.)
  5. Oct 15, 2009 #4

    Vanadium 50

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    Re: Making it as a Theoretician - can it be done so late in "the game"?

    The first part of your statement is true. There aren't that many jobs out there, and competition is fierce. The second part confuses cause and effect: it's not that going to Harvard makes you successful, it's that successful people get into Harvard.

    I don't think twofish-quant's observations on community colleges are universal. I had a colleague who became the physics department head at one, and he was the only full-time employee in the department. All instruction was done by part-timers: his job was to hire and schedule them. This was cheaper (lower salaries, fewer benefits) and better politically (more people owed at least a fraction of their income to the college). YMMV.
  6. Oct 15, 2009 #5
    Re: Making it as a Theoretician - can it be done so late in "the game"?

  7. Oct 15, 2009 #6
    Re: Making it as a Theoretician - can it be done so late in "the game"?

    I said there was a huge demand for physics teachers at community colleges, I didn't say how they filled that demand. :-) :-)

    Getting a full time faculty position at a community college is difficult. Adjuncting at community colleges and University of Phoenix, you can do at a drop of a hat. However, adjuncting is something that you should do as a hobby, for extra spending money, or as charity work. It's difficult to impossible to make a decent living from it.
  8. Oct 15, 2009 #7
    Re: Making it as a Theoretician - can it be done so late in "the game"?

    The first thing you have to do is to figure what success means to you. You'll be happier if you live your own dream rather than someone else's, and use your own definition of success rather than what everyone else uses.
  9. Oct 15, 2009 #8
    Re: Making it as a Theoretician - can it be done so late in "the game"?

    Only a physicist would come up with such a simple and profound answer.

    I'm going to have to find that out....
  10. Oct 16, 2009 #9


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    Re: Making it as a Theoretician - can it be done so late in "the game"?

    You seem to be assuming your position as a great TA is going to help you get into a good graduate program for a PhD. Believe me, it's not. Research experience and GPA are paramount; I'd be surprised if they even care you can teach. Plenty of grad programs will throw people who can barely speak the language in front of a classroom or lab. I suggest you start devoting a lot more time to your research - you'll be competing for a spot against students with publications to their names, especially at the top schools.
  11. Oct 16, 2009 #10
    Re: Making it as a Theoretician - can it be done so late in "the game"?

    This has to be honestly one of the most brilliant statements on this topic I have ever read. It also goes hand in hand with the comment, that you shouldn't goto a school for the Name, becuase thats not why you are going to get in.

    It is a true statement that they don't care about your ability to teach at a research university. This is why they have so called "Teaching" universities. It is a simple fact that a large number of brilliant researchers are awful teachers becuase they don't know how to communicate their ideas in a language which is percptible to the majority of their audience. It isn't very often you get someone like Feynman who was both sociable, brilliant, and an amazing communicator.

    Lene Hau is another example of someone who is a brilliant researcher and communicator, but again she is a very rare example. Though I bring her up as a counter example as someone who did not goto Harvard/MIT/etc... for grad school but is perhaps one of Harvard's most respected faculty members now.

    Research universities keep their endowments becuase they turn out fundable research. While I would debate that you will still get a better education at a place like harvard, that education won't come in the form of lectures it comes in the form of experience and connections.

    It really is key that you find the answer though. If your passion is in education then there is no reason it has to happen at a top university, and to be honest you will be appreciated much more at a smaller college by your students.

    I will conclude however with an even rarer example than Richard Feynman, and that is the Harvard Professor Dudley Herschbach. Professor Herschbach is not only a nobel laureate (in chemistry, though Harvard chemistry is what most universities consider physics), but he is often considered Harvard's most humble and respected nobel. His passion above all else in life is education, which is why at 77 years old and emeritus status he still teaches the freshman chemistry course at Harvard and Texas AM. Without a doubt, he is a brilliant example that you can put education above all else and still be a successful academic at a research university. That doesn't imply its easy, its simply to state that such a passion isn't always lost as such places.
  12. Oct 16, 2009 #11
    Re: Making it as a Theoretician - can it be done so late in "the game"?

    Not really. It's someone that went through some pain and agony that you can probably avoid. The trouble with physics graduate school is that you are in an environment in which every authority figure is a faculty member, and so you get brainwashed that the standard for success is to become a faculty member. This brainwashing works especially well because none of the people that you meet have really had any major experience outside of academia.

    The trouble with this view of the world is that it leads to totally unrealistic expectations since there just aren't enough faculty positions to go around. So at some point, you have to step back and say "what is it that I really want to do?" For me, the path led to Wall Street. Now if everyone wanted to go to Wall Street the competition would make this a non-viable option. So you really have to find your own path.
  13. Oct 16, 2009 #12
    Re: Making it as a Theoretician - can it be done so late in "the game"?

    About Harvard? I don't think it's true that people that get into Harvard physics grad school are significantly more talented than people that don't. The good/bad news is that undergraduate universities are churning out so many good undergraduates, Harvard can't expand very much, so over time, getting into Harvard becomes less a matter of talent and more a matter of luck. A lot of physics is driving by funding, and you make have the fortune/misfortune of specializing in an area with a lot/a little money.

    Also Harvard physics graduate school people tend to be successful because 1) you end up getting more of what you want if you know other talented people, so there is a very powerful social network that centers on Harvard and 2) Harvard is successful because Harvard has ended up *defining* what success looks like. However it defines it in ways that help Harvard. Harvard and other big name schools are good schools, but in the end they are human institutions, and you shouldn't live your life in too much awe of them.

    Also it helps a lot to be in an environment where people more or less share your passions. If you really want to do teaching and you are in an environment where people's main concern is research, you are going to be miserable and it also works the other way.
  14. Oct 16, 2009 #13
    Re: Making it as a Theoretician - can it be done so late in "the game"?

    I have to disagree with you, the fact that it induced "Pain and agony" for you is a clear sign you were in the wrong field, or more generally in it for the wrong reason. I don't think there is any brainwashing going on at all, it is just a general consensus that most people who go into a graduate program for something like physics are of the mindset that they want to do research. Without a place like Bell Labs around anymore, the easiest place to conduct pure research is at a university.

    No their are not enough faculty positions to go around, but I think you would be hard pressed to say that the majority of people who go into physics but don't make it as academics wern't in it for the passion of doing the science. No research university, and I mean not one (regardless of its tier) is going to turn down someone who is capable of performing fruitful research.

    Paper's are the currency of academia, and anyone who is capable of bring in that currency will find a job. And just like wall street, the more currency you bring in, the better the position you will hold.

    The only unrealistic expectation that exists in academia is the belief that you can't perform great research unless you are tenured at a top university. The truth of the matter is that this is once again a case, as Vanadium points out, of confusion between cause and effect. There are so many examples of cases where fundamental research has come from places other than top universities, and plenty of Nobels can speak to that.
  15. Oct 16, 2009 #14
    Re: Making it as a Theoretician - can it be done so late in "the game"?

    I don't disagree with you completely on your first statement. It is true there is no real metric for measuring the future success of a student. It is certainly true that harvard isn't able to accept everyone who would fit the bill, the point was more to say that the majority of people who complain they can't get a position at a top univeristy becuase they didn't come from one are more often going to be the ones who wouldn't have gotten accepted anyway. More often than not they are in the group of people who didn't even try to apply in the first place.

    This I agree with, it is very difficult to make it as a teacher in an environment where everyone is focused on advancing the science. It isn't impossible, but it will make you a much happier person if you can be around those who share the same passion as you.
  16. Oct 18, 2009 #15
    Re: Making it as a Theoretician - can it be done so late in "the game"?

    The problem with "passion" is that it leads to a lot of exploitation. I'm really passionate about physics, but I see no reason why I should live a life of poverty and serfdom because I'm passionate about something, and I've learned to really resent people that use my passion to try to emotionally manipulate me.

    It took me forever to realize that I wasn't a "bad" person for wanting a decent standard of living.

    Not true at all. The number of faculty positions is determined by funding. If you have X dollars and Y applicants, then you can't hire everyone.

    Money is the currency of academia just like anywhere else. The number of jobs that you can find in academia is determined by funding. If you have funding for 10 jobs, and 50 applicants, then 40 of them are going to not get jobs. If all of them start cranking out papers like crazy, it's still going to be 10 jobs.

    But you are limited as far as facilities go. If you want to be a top experimental particle physicists, it's pretty hard to do unless you have access to an particle accelerator.

    One reason that I ended up in Wall Street is that I have a "passion" for figuring out how things work. However, my curiosity caused me problems in grad school applications because, I was a bit too interested in economics, history, and political science. It's pretty obvious to me that a lot of reason why things are the way they are have to do with money and power. So I ended up somewhere where I could study money and power.
  17. Oct 18, 2009 #16
    Re: Making it as a Theoretician - can it be done so late in "the game"?

    Nope. "Pain and agony" is a sign that the field is really screwed up.

    The problem is this. People in physics Ph.D. programs have been socialized since kindergarten to pass the test and go to the next level. By the time you enter grad school, you are so use to passing tests and getting to the next level, that *failure* is a huge and scary thing to be avoided at all costs.

    The trouble is that the system is a pyramid in which pretty much everyone will *fail* at some point. At some point pretty much everyone will get a piece of paper saying that they have failed and will not get to the next level. The economics of academia creates this dynamic. Professors need teaching assistants and research assistants to bring in money. Since they don't have the money to pay everyone market value, the lie is that you'll go through graduate school and get to the next level, when in fact, there is not the funding to do this.

    As far as getting in a field, personally I think that everyone going into grad school ought to sign a piece of paper saying that "I realize that I will not be a tenured-track professor at any university, and I don't care."

    Also, I think a lot of this "passion" is bullcr*p. Let's cut the salaries of senior professors to that of graduate students and see what they are willing to do for "passion."
  18. Oct 18, 2009 #17
    Re: Making it as a Theoretician - can it be done so late in "the game"?

    One other thing. Ph.D. programs are brutal. I don't know of anyone that has gone through a Ph.D. program without moments of severe pain and agony. It's part of the process, and knowing that you are going to have moments of "pain and agony" and that it's something normal that you need to learn to manage helps you deal with it.

    It's worse to feel severe pain and agony and think to yourself that you are miserable because something is wrong with you. It's not. Pretty much everyone that I know that has gone through a Ph.D. program has had some dark, dark moments, and knowing that this is "normal" helps you deal with them.
  19. Oct 18, 2009 #18
    Re: Making it as a Theoretician - can it be done so late in "the game"?

    I'm so glad for all this discussion. I'm in my first year of physics-grad-school seeking an M.S. at a "teaching" university, and this has given me a clearer picture of what's "down the road".

    : )

    Thanks everybody!
  20. Oct 18, 2009 #19
    Re: Making it as a Theoretician - can it be done so late in "the game"?

    One thing to remember is that I might sound pessimistic but I'm really not. Getting a graduate degree in physics is hard, brutal work, and you will have really bad days, but it's easier to feel miserable if you don't feel guilty and miserable about feeling miserable. Once you start feeling miserable about being miserable, then you end up feeling miserable about feeling miserable about feeling miserable, and the whole thing can spiral down very, very badly.

    The other thing is that I think the community is doing a massive disservice to people interested in physics as portraying an academic career as "normal" when in fact the odds of a physics graduate student getting a tenure track position at a university is about one in ten after two post-docs. If you are lucky enough to get a position great!!!! But it's hardly the norm, and people going into physics graduate school need to know that they probably will not get a job in traditional academia because the jobs are just not there.

    Also, I think that some serious rethinking needs to be done about the power and financing structures within academia. For the system to function as it is, you need massive numbers of teaching and research assistants that do grunt work, and have no hope at all of getting academic positions, and the community as a whole needs to be more honest that this is the situation, and why the situation is what it is.
  21. Oct 18, 2009 #20
    Re: Making it as a Theoretician - can it be done so late in "the game"?

    I'm assuming you went through a pretty tough road...but tell me...will the average theoretical physicist at least be able to afford a decent apartment with high-speed internet?
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