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Odds of a Career in Science in Academia

  • #1
Pythagorean
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Main Question or Discussion Point

As not to derail the other thread where this is brought up.

What are the odds of getting on tenure-track in an academic position in the sciences? I'm curious about both community college and state universities.

I hear 1 in 100 a lot. In the recent thread here, the qualifier was "applicants", but is that fair? Isn't it more like 100 PhD graduates per 1 position? And surely not all PhD graduates are planning on being professors (many seem to not see the point).

Also, how does this change if you keep applying every year? And how does it change as a function of papers published (does it matter as much as we've been led to believe?) At our career center, where presentations are given, we've had people who took ten years between PhD and their tenure-track position (but they were publishing still in industry).
 

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  • #2
Choppy
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Roughly 1 out of 10 PhD graduates will end up as professors. This number is largely arrives at by the estimate that the average professor will graduate 10 PhDs over his or her career. Only one will be able to replace him or her when he or she retires. Growth in academia over that time period is likely a higher order correction.

I would guess that maybe another 2 out of ten will end up in community colleges and maybe another 1 will end up in a national lab somewhere. Those are just guesses though.

I'm sure there's a correlation between number of papers and academic success, but there are also factors like quality over quantity. Further there are other factors such as your ability to network, how hot your scope of expertise happens to be when you're looking, how the economy happens to be doing when you're looking, and even how well your personality fits in with others in a department. Some people get in simply by being (a) qualified and (b) married to the right person - at least, so I've heard, no actual experience with that one.
 
  • #3
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In my cohort (top 5 school), several years post-phd and so far no ones is in a tenure track position at a research university, though some are still postdocing. We have a few liberal arts lecturers (most of these did at least one postdoc), no one is in a national lab.

The people who did condensed matter work specifically with silicon related stuff are all working for semi-conductor companies, and most everyone else left science entirely for finance,insurance,programming,etc.
 
  • #4
Pythagorean
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In my cohort (top 5 school), several years post-phd and so far no ones is in a tenure track position at a research university, though some are still postdocing. We have a few liberal arts lecturers (most of these did at least one postdoc), no one is in a national lab.

The people who did condensed matter work specifically with silicon related stuff are all working for semi-conductor companies, and most everyone else left science entirely for finance,insurance,programming,etc.
what branch of science? physics?

I wonder how it compares to modern fields like theoretical neuroscience or other traditional fields like biology, or "softer" science fields like anthropology, sociology and psychology.
 
  • #5
Pythagorean
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I'm sure there's a correlation between number of papers and academic success, but there are also factors like quality over quantity.
Yeah, it would be nice to be able to give weight to each paper. I've of heard of people publishing the same material with a small change or just publishing in their results in parts to plump up their publication count.
 
  • #6
UltrafastPED
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The Applied Physics program at the University of Michigan provides an alumni information page:
http://www-applied.physics.lsa.umich.edu/alumnae.html [Broken]

Though not necessarily up to date, you can work through the years and have an idea of what the graduates last reported. You will find quite a few positions at national labs, and even the recent years have a few academic positions. By the time you work your way back to 2004 you will find quite a few faculty positions for just that year alone.
 
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  • #7
jtbell
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I would guess that maybe another 2 out of ten will end up in community colleges
or small teaching-oriented liberal-arts colleges.
 
  • #8
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Full-time community college jobs are rare. The nearest community college has one full-time faculty member, the chair. He hires locals - mostly HS physics teachers with MS's - to do the bulk of the teaching. This is viewed positively by many stakeholders: costs are kept down, students are taught by people whose focus is instruction, not research, and it supplements the income of a large number of locals.
 
  • #9
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I've had it portrayed to me as about 1 in 6 may get jobs full-time jobs at a research university, and another 1 out of 6 at liberal arts college. However, that differs wildly by field. High Energy Particle Physics has been around 1/10 instead in the last few years, and will likely get worse with this first surge of LHC graduates.

Accelerator physicists have a relatively high chance of getting jobs at National Labs, but near zero of getting a full professorship due to how few schools actually have accelerator programs.
 
  • #10
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By the time you work your way back to 2004 you will find quite a few faculty positions for just that year alone.
Keep in mind that the retirement of physicists happened peaked between 2004 and 2006. Adjusting for postdocs, you should see the best career results between phds who graduated between 2001-2005 or so, with worse results before and after.

Edit: And looking through it, its not clear to me how often they update. The bulk of the phds awarded in 2008 are listed as still in postdocs for instance.
 
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  • #11
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It definitely comes in cycles, but is has overall been pretty dismal for my entire lifetime. Even if you have no interest in Finance, the first half
https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0471394203/?tag=pfamazon01-20
Derman's "My Life as a Quant: Reflections on Physics and Finance" should is an essential read for anybody thinking about aiming for academia. That part of the story takes place in the 60s and 70s, but it could easily take place 40 years later.
 
  • #12
Pythagorean
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My adviser (Canada) recently told me that nowadays getting in finance as a physicist/mathematician isn't as common since they now have programs specific to quant studies that address all the skills that come from those disciplines. So you're competing against those people now, who have the relevant parts of your skill set as well as specific knowledge on financial markets.
 
  • #13
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My adviser (Canada) recently told me that nowadays getting in finance as a physicist/mathematician isn't as common since they now have programs specific to quant studies that address all the skills that come from those disciplines. So you're competing against those people now, who have the relevant parts of your skill set as well as specific knowledge on financial markets.
It isn't the freebie that it was 20-30 years ago, but people with Ph.D.s end up in different positions than than those that come from Masters of Financial Engineering programs. Different skill set and focus. Taking a few classes doesn't give quite the same relevant parts of the skill set that years of programming, numerical modeling, and research bring. By my understanding, there is a significant flood of MFEs with wildly inconsistent quality.

I don't know if "not as common" is the correct way to put it. It is "not as easy", but weighed against far more consideration, so it may be an equal number in the end.
 
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  • #14
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I do experimental HEP, and it's hard to get useful modern numbers because the LHC accident in 2008 caused a bottleneck in student graduations (one that is only now starting to clear), and now that the Higgs has been found, US LHC budgets are being cut to the tune of 20%. Before this, the numbers looked more or less like this: 150 grads in experimental HEP per year, with about half taking postdocs, and with about 15 positions per year opening up.

Given the funding cuts, there will surely be fewer positions in the future, but there will also be fewer graduates.

I think predicting the second order effects - including what might be a hot field years later - is an exercise in futility. The replacement rate is of order 10%
 
  • #15
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I do experimental HEP, and it's hard to get useful modern numbers because the LHC accident in 2008 caused a bottleneck in student graduations (one that is only now starting to clear), and now that the Higgs has been found, US LHC budgets are being cut to the tune of 20%.
I think this underscores the point that a lot of what determines whether or not you can make a career of it is totally outside your control (funding climate, etc).
 
  • #16
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Of course it does. External factors are large components of everyone's careers. Why should science be different?

Had SN1987A exploded aq few hours earlier or later, Ian Shelton might not be a professor of astronomy at Toronto today. Had the building it was housed in been just a little larger, ADONE at Frascati would have discovered the J/Psi before BNL or SLAC. I have a colleague who lost a year because the night he got observing time, it rained.

That said, the people who tend to populate the upper ranks of HEP are those who can seize on opportunities created by these external factors.
 
  • #17
Andy Resnick
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As not to derail the other thread where this is brought up.

What are the odds of getting on tenure-track in an academic position in the sciences? I'm curious about both community college and state universities.<snip>.
There is high variability. For example, our recent search for a 'visiting professor', a 1-year teaching-only position received over 100 applications, of which 50 met the 'minimum requirements' (PhD in physics or closely related field, demonstrated teaching experience). By contrast, our recent search for a tenure-track medical physicist received only 30 applications, of which 15 (at best) met the minimum requirements. (spoiler alert- we are shortly opening 2 more searches, one tenure-track, the other non-tenure track)

Similarly, our Chemistry department had 2 recent tenure-track searches and one failed due to a lack of qualified applicants. Recent tenure-track searches in biomedical engineering have each received approximately 100 applications, nearly all meeting the minimum requirements.

For what it's worth, based on all of the completed searches I have been a part of, there is no correlation between the number of qualified applicants and the quality of the short-listed applicants.

Perhaps, rather than phrasing the question in terms of 'odds', which implies random chance, the question is more meaningful when phrased as 'how did the successful applicant stand apart from the other applicants?'

The first step simply sorts the piles into 'does/does not meet minimum requirements'. Next, we assign a score based on how well the applicant meets 'preferred requirements': area of specialization, publication record, teaching experience, etc. After that, to generate a 'short list' of candidates for phone and in-person interviews, the search committee meets and ranks all the candidates who met the minimum requirements, with the top 8 or so applications selected for more detailed discussion. In order to get 'short listed', you need at least one person to stand up and argue on your behalf. It really is as simple as that.

Everyone is different, I look for (tenure-track) candidates who both compliment existing faculty- not just in the Department but more broadly to the college and related colleges- but also have the ability to be independent and create a free-standing research program. The ability of the applicant to communicate those characteristics to me as I read their application is how I decide who to 'fight for'.
 
  • #18
Pythagorean
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Thanks for the very specific insight into the selection process. I guess I was assuming only qualified applicants (at least qualified "on paper") when I asked about odds. I also think complementing the rest of the department is important (I attend career seminars and generally tenure-track professors give presentations on what they expect and how they got in). It's always good to know the academic atmosphere where you're applying and the context you fit into.

In your experience, does it cause any harm that they worked in industry between now and their last postdoc? Say I apply for tenure track positions, but work in industry in the meantime for a year or two, assuming the industry is partially relevant to the academic position they'd be fulfilling.
 
  • #19
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This is a very interesting thread. Thank you.

My understanding however is that due to advancement of MOOCs and further government spending cuts in most developed countries more and more universities will be sacking staff instead of hiring. It becomes a distinct possibility that even if you manage to get a tenured position, you will not hold it for long.

In our university for example 50% of tenured faculty at one of the schools were sacked this year. Some other schools are basically prohibited from hiring faculty for the next few years and will contract though voluntary redundancy. That is however only the beginning, and I am convinced that this contraction will only accelerate in the future.

Our uni is world top 20 according to some ratings (top 40 according to the others) and is located in a country that currently has strong economy. I expect that less prominent universities or universities in the countries with weaker economies will eventually be in even worse conditions.

I also don't think that better economy would improve things. With the help of MOOCs teaching can now be done by fewer lecturers/professors, hybrid learning means further savings and further faculty layoffs, research can be carried out by cheap PhD students supervised by postdocs etc. Sure, a few professors will still be needed, by I think it will be an ever-decreasing number.

What do you think about longer-term future of academia? Am I too pessimistic?
 
  • #20
Pythagorean
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what's MOOC?
 
  • #21
analogdesign
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research can be carried out by cheap PhD students supervised by postdocs etc. Sure, a few professors will still be needed, by I think it will be an ever-decreasing number.

What do you think about longer-term future of academia? Am I too pessimistic?
This is the core business model of academic research. Its very bedrock. I can't imagine that changing (or getting much better in the near- to medium-term).

There's a cold wind blowing in academia right now for sure. My sister is in a tenure-track position and she's gotten layoff notices two out of the last four years (although she hasn't actually been laid off). And she makes peanuts, since she's competing against all these adjuncts who work for very little money.

There really is something wrong with our priorities. I don't see we're headed in the right direction, but things can change.
 
  • #22
Pythagorean
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I'm not sure there's something wrong with priorities. Higher education is a luxury.
 
  • #23
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what's MOOC?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massive_open_online_course

There is a lot of speculation in the media that MOOCs will soon bring the death of most universities (i.e. who would want to pay for a uni if you can take courses from world-best professors online for free bla-bla-bla). I personally don't think it will be that drastic, because a university is far more than just lectures, projects, discussions and exams. On the other hand I am quite convinced that universities will find a way to utilize MOOCs for massive savings (layoffs) by enabling increased productivity of remaining teaching staff.
 
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  • #24
analogdesign
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I'm not sure there's something wrong with priorities. Higher education is a luxury.
I disagree with you there. Maybe higher education in general is a luxury, but national technical capabilities are central to our modern economy. We've set up an unsustainable system where people who move paper around are rewarded and respected to an extent far greater than those who extend our technical capabilities. I think that's a sign of misplaced priorities.
 
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  • #25
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There is some discussion of papers. What the universities are looking for is a sustained track record of research that the rest of the field finds useful. For a theorist (easier to deal with than experimenters on large collaborations), after two 3-year postdocs, they expect to see around 20 papers. Counting the last year of grad school, this is a paper every 4 months. That's not crazy. To ensure these papers are not just fluff, they want to see that they are cited, and are looking for about 1000 cites -- 50 per paper on average.

While there is some gaming of the system (I'll cite you if you'll cite me) the basic idea is sound: the publications have to be regular and they have to be read.
 

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