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Physics No job market in academia?

  1. Jan 28, 2016 #1
    Hi everyone, I'm just starting my first year in undergrad and I've started to think a bit more about job prospects in physics. More specifically, the possibility of going into academia to work on theory, maybe HEP or condensed matter, maybe materials science. The thing is, almost everything I've seen/read is sort of a horror story about the near impossibility of getting a job- example that I saw just now, and prompted this post:

    Is it really that bad? What can I do to improve my chances? Is it just HEP that's especially bad, or all theoretical physics? Thanks in advance!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 28, 2016 #2
    Historically academia didn't exist to get a job. One choose such a vocation because one loved learning. Remember Einstein worked as a patent clerk.

    It was only the rise of for profit laboratories that the concept of "job market" entered the picture. This started with Edison, but really took off with WWII weapons development.

    So if your primary concern is money, perhaps the business college would be a better fit? Or you can decide to do what you love and find a job to support that love, perhaps in academia, perhaps elsewhere? (Teaching school anyone?)

    But yes, there are far more people who want to do theoretical work than there is money to pay for such work. It would be nice if someone did some theoretical work to figure out why that's the case, but until they do...
  4. Jan 28, 2016 #3


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    Jeff, do you actually have any evidence that an undergraduate degree in business on its own (i.e. not specializing in accounting, finance or marketing) is actually all that employable? I see lots of recommendations for a business degree but from what I've seen, I've always thought of it as being the most useless degree ever devised.
  5. Jan 28, 2016 #4


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    I suspect a business degree with a heavy emphasis on Operations, Statistics and managerial science would be employable. Too often business majors avoid the tougher courses that aren't required in their curriculum and suffer in their employment as a result.
  6. Jan 28, 2016 #5
    Business degrees vary widely. Yes, many (most?) of them don't prepare a person for employment.

    If money is your thing, get one in running a small business. Then run a small business.

    It's rare for someone to get rich working for other people. But it's also rare for someone with no business knowledge to avoid bankruptcy.

    If you really want to get rich, you have to pimp the pimps (get others to work for you efficiently).
  7. Jan 28, 2016 #6
    So here's the thing- I don't really care about money that much, not sure why the thread went straight into that topic. My main concern is being able to 1) research in an active environment with peers who are doing similar things, and 2) teach smart/interested people. As far as I can tell, an academic job would be perfect for this.
    The whole money aspect really doesn't matter to me too much; I just wanna make enough to live on, I don't need anything fancy. So my plan A would be to go into academia, my plan B would be to go into some kind of physics-related company. It's only when we get to plan C that I'd consider going into finance (and selling my soul :D).
    So basically my question is: how viable is my plan A? How likely is it to happen? And how can I improve my chances?
  8. Jan 29, 2016 #7
    It`s not likely at all. Working in academia is very unlikely. You need to be smart and hardworking, but you also need a very good deal of luck. Many very smart people drop out of the race for academia for various reasons. It`s definitely ok to go for academia, but you absolutely need to realize it`s a long shot and you need to keep a plan B ready. It seems you`re doing exactly that. Try to get the most of your education. This means preparing for a job later on, not only learning physics. This might include internships or programming classes.
    The good news is that your plan B is a lot more viable. You`ll almost definitely get a good job with physics outside of academia. So don`t worry there. Just make sure you make yourself employable. You could of course spend 5 years of your life investigating the atmosphere of exoplanets. This will not make you employable. I`m not saying not to investigate this, but take some employable classes too.
  9. Jan 29, 2016 #8


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    If you do spend five years investigating e.g. the atmosphere of exoplanets, and then end up doing something else outside of academia for the rest of your life, will you look back on those five years and consider them as wasted, or as an interesting experience on your road through life?
    Last edited: Jan 29, 2016
  10. Jan 29, 2016 #9
    Thanks for the advice! And to answer your question, jtbell, I wouldn't consider that a waste of time at all :).
    micromass, would you consider my chances better in something like condensed matter theory? Or is all academia a long shot?
    PS. I'm not even sure I'll major in physics. In two years I have to decide (because all STEM fields in my college have the first two years in common), but here's a thought: I could major in mathematical engineering, which has lots of programming, some statistics, optimization, etc. courses (i.e. I'd end up with lots of employable skills), and take physics classes for my electives. After that, I'd go for a PhD in physics, and see where it goes from there; if I can get a job in academia, great. If not, I could do things with physics in the industry, or something completely unrelated depending on what I find interesting at the time, but where I could apply some stuff I learned in math. engineering. (The only bad part of this would be that I'd have to take some math classes that I'm not interested in, like markov processes, and I wouldn't be able to take an introduction to GR or QFT, for example).
  11. Feb 8, 2016 #10


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    Academia as a career goal is fine if you like science as long as you have a realistic plan B.

    That Hitler video doesn't at all describe my postdoc-searching process, although I'm in biophysics not HEP.
  12. Jun 17, 2016 #11
    You will have 4 years if undergraduate, probably 5+ years of graduate school, probably 2 postdocs another 4 years so what do you thing the job situation will be in 2030? About 1800 PhD's are awarded each year and probably will increase. An American Institute of Physics survey in 2008 showed an annual retirement rate of 2.5% of 9100 positions in all Universities and colleges in the US or 227 positions see https://www.aip.org/sites/default/files/statistics/faculty/fac-turnover-pa-08.pdf for the full survey. Whether these positions are filled or result in a tenure track position is not known. Additionally there is the issue of funding and during this time of political turmoil of deficit spending in 13 years I would not put all my eggs in one basket.
  13. Jun 17, 2016 #12
    Looks a little bleak :'(
  14. Jun 21, 2016 #13
    The two are not mutually exclusive.
  15. Jun 21, 2016 #14

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    I think they are. Was there value in the experience, or not?
  16. Jun 27, 2016 #15
    I have this same mentality! glad it's not just me.
  17. Jun 28, 2016 #16
    HEP definitely has the worst funding, but in general it's hard to get academic positions. It's unfortunate, but true.

    Here's something I learned this past year. What you do and why you do it, depends on your personality. Some people are capable of not giving a crap about their happiness their job as long as they make a lot of money. There are all sorts of people.

    I'm more like you, it's not all about the money. I spent this year pursuing research in physics that will give me useful skills so I'll get a job out of academia. I am sort of miserable, because I realized that I'm not interested in ALL of physics but a particular subfield. However, I told myself to ignore that and go for something else. It's hard to motivate yourself to work and learn when you are not that interested. Lucky for me, I don't have much to lose right now, except some time.

    So I decided, I am going to pursue the physics subfield that I love and work on getting employable skills along the way. Which is what my advice to you is. If you like HEP theory, then do it. Just spend sometime taking online programming courses and maybe even think if it can be useful in your research
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