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Physics Physics in the United States

  1. Aug 2, 2011 #1
    With constant talks about cutting spending with respect to scientific research in the United States do any of you feel that looking for work outside of the U.S. is the best option? Especially if lets say a tea party candidate were to win the presidency in 2012 or 2016. I'm still an undergraduate majoring in physics/applied math, so maybe it's that this constant talk of cutting spending on research has always and will always be there independent of the party in power, just curious about the thoughts of those on this board.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 2, 2011 #2
    You kind of got the gist of it at the end there. There's a little more hysteria about it given the current turmoil, but funding for science is always a big issue. Despite popular belief, it is not limited to party. Each party has it's own agendas as to what science/tech research they prefer we spend money on, and it of course changes over the years. It's most definitely not as simple as "party X favors science and party y does not". As a counter-example to the TEA party, don't forget Obama killed Constellation (I had a lot of friends that lost their jobs because of that).

    Anyway, side-stepping a political argument in the careers forum...

    The thing you need to know NOW as an undergrad. Is that there are tons of jobs for physics majors, it's just that most of them are not in physics. Think of a physics degree as a degree in "advanced problem solving" or a degree in "ability to learn almost anything". Sell yourself like that. You will get strong math, science, computing, problem solving, writing, presenting and team working skills in your time as a physics major. This makes you an invaluable asset in any number of professions.

    Now, if you *really* want to do science, just be aware that the large majority of physics PhDs do not continue in physics. This has been true for a loooong time.
  4. Aug 2, 2011 #3
    The big problem is that other countries may not take you.

    For example, China is rolling out the red carpet for Chinese nationals with US physics and engineering Ph.D.'s, but if you aren't a Chinese citizen, you are going to be at the back of the line. It's going to be even worse if you are illiterate in Chinese. If you can't speak Chinese now, you aren't going to learn enough to do a technical interview or even fill out a job application in the next three years.

    One big advantage that the US over China is that you can vote. Yes, you are hosed if a Tea Party candidate wins the presidency in 2012 or 2016, but if that matters to you, then do what you can to make sure that this doesn't happen. Volunteer in a campaign. Write a check to which over candidate you think is best. Organize. Vote.

    (Conversely, if you think like the Tea Party, then go out and campaign for them.)

    There's bad and worse. What has me spooked is that in the past, it's always been possible to find an excuse for more science research.

    Until very recently, fact that the Republicans had lots of "budget cutters" was balanced by the fact that there were lots of defense hawks, so that you could always squeeze in science through the defense budget. On the Democrat side, it turns out that a lot of the spending that they want isn't useful for science, but you could squeeze something in through educational spending and biomedical funding.

    Also, what worries me is less direct funding than indirect funding.

    The budget agreement that has come out is a disaster for US science. The only good thing about it is that it avoided a catastrophe.
  5. Aug 2, 2011 #4
    Politics is messy. Also it's a good idea to be "in play." If everyone knows that you are going to vote Democrat or Republican regardless of what they do, then no one is going to even try to get your vote.

    What's got me spooked is that we seem to have a bipartisan agreement to massively cut the budget in ways that I think would be deadly to US science and the economy in general. It's one of those times in which you hope you are wrong about how the world works.

    Also a lot of US politics is about forming coalitions among people that normally hate each other. I can imagine a situation in which a political genius manages to come up with a platform that is appealing to both physicists and the Tea Party. No idea what that might be, but I'm not a political genius.

    The other thing is to be active at the level of congressmen. Also, it's not just a matter of voting, but also keeping track of the bills and issues that are relevant to you.

    Finally, you have to have some faith in the system. One thing that is great about the US is that people can disagree about some important and fundamental things without anyone ending up shot or in jail. It's only when you start interacting with people with fundamentally different beliefs that you realize how hard democracy is.

    I think that US policies right now are idiotic, but I have to believe that things will self-correct over the next decade.

    Since 1970. The "golden age of physics" was this very brief moment that happened decades ago see (http://web.mit.edu/dikaiser/www/) and lasted from 1945 to the 1970.

    There are a few interesting topics that I'm interested in.....

    1) In 1970, there was a massive collapse in physics demand. One thing that I haven't gotten a clear answer on is what happened to all of those Ph.D.'s in the 1970's that didn't get academic jobs.

    2) One thing that is interesting in looking at David Kaiser's work is that it seems that even in the 1950's, the "standard" career path for a physicist was not academia. I'm reading the articles that he has written and it looks like that the idea in boosting physics enrollments in the 1950's was to produce physicists for industrial companies. Is that the case, and if yes, what culturally changed such that the standard career path became academia.

    3) What is the relationship between the issues of physicists and broader social issues. One thing that I'm sensing that I find alarming is that there is no "middle class" among physics Ph.D.'s, either you "win" or you "lose".

    There has been this assumption since Reagan, that we could allow large social disparities because allowing some people to be hyper-rich would create jobs for everyone else. But among post-docs, that's not what I'm seeing. I'm seeing "winners" and "losers" and I think you can see this if you see the typical question that people are asking. The typical question seems to be "what do I need to do to be a winner?" What degree do I get? What school do I go to? What do I major in?

    There seems to be this perception that if you are just "average" that you are sunk. Suppose you are just average. You get average grades, you go to an average school, you make an average number of mistakes. I seem to get the impression that if you are "average" you are dead, and if that's the case, then asking "what do I do to be above average so I don't get stomped on" is probably the wrong question to be asking.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 26, 2017
  6. Aug 2, 2011 #5
    Its my understanding from a sort of oral history of older engineers that a large part of the change was the slow destruction of the corporate research lab. Of course these oral histories are worth taking with a grain of salt.

    A shift in management policies (hiring outside CEOs instead of promoting within the company), the development of leveraged buyouts (which leaves a company in debt and needing to sell assets, usually the R&D which doesn't IMMEDIATELY harm the company), the break up of large monopolies (AT&T could fund tremendous amounts of fundamental research with their massive profits)... lots of factors all slowly strangled the great R&D labs, and without R&D where you can do physics, the only path to actually doing the physics you trained for is academia.

    Its probably worth adding that in my experience, the areas of physics where there is industrial demand (mostly people that study problems related to silicon) still prefer industrial jobs to academic.
    Last edited: Aug 3, 2011
  7. Aug 2, 2011 #6
    Thanks guys I really appreciate the in the depth answers. :)
  8. Aug 3, 2011 #7
    Can you elaborate on this a bit more? What makes some postdocs winners and losers? Is winning just getting the coveted overrated professor position?

    I've noticed that there certainly is a winning/losing attitude among science/engineering types that if you don't get a degree in something hard and mathy then you'll never amount to anything. For example, people tend to make fun of psychology majors, but all the psychology majors that I know of have built careers that could only be called successful. And it's not uncommon for psych majors to be self-employed in their own field as counselors, therapists, etc.

    Of course what I've also noticed that physicists tend to even talk down about biology majors, even though they typically have much better nonacademic career prospects. Which is a winning/losing attitude but it doesn't really seem to be connected to reality.
  9. Aug 3, 2011 #8
    Really? Like what? Is their anything you know of which a bio grad can work in, that a physics grad cannot (or at least, he'd be required to put in more effort to get into said field/position), where there's a lot of room for ascension?
  10. Aug 3, 2011 #9
    Sure, lots of stuff. Biotech companies, medical research, anything to do with agriculture or botany, supportive roles in the medical field, ecology, bioinformatics, etc. Most of that stuff is all over the place.

    For a physicist to do something with biology it takes probably about 2 years to catch up on terminology and concepts. At least, that's what the grad students who go into biophysics spend on learning biology around here. If you want an industrial position that's biology related, you could maybe get away with doing half that. But good luck finding an employer who's going to want to train you for a year on basic stuff that any biology major would know.

    Also, a biologist will probably be more competitive for any sort of chemistry position than any physicist other than an experimental condensed matter physicist because of their laboratory experience. Theoretical condensed matter physicists might be okay too, but only if the position is more focused on computation than laboratory skills, but it's a smaller percentage of positions.
  11. Aug 4, 2011 #10
    If you look at the class structure of your typical university you have the tenured faculty that make all of the decisions and then you have adjuncts, post-docs, and graduate students that do all of the grunt work. There is no middle class.

    I don't think this is healthy, since this "few rich people and every one else" seems to be spreading through out society.
  12. Aug 4, 2011 #11

    Vanadium 50

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    Unlike the socialist paradise of the Fortune 500?
  13. Aug 4, 2011 #12
    But there's at least a middle class. You can have someone who works for years as a grunt engineer or in middle management, making a comfortable salary and building a nice retirement. Adjuncts, postdocs and grad students, on the other hand...
  14. Aug 4, 2011 #13
    Yes. Compared to academia, working in a massive corporation *is* a socialist paradise.

    The thing about big corporations is that

    1) even though there are wild disparities of income and power between the people at the top and the people at the bottom, the people at the bottom (i.e. me) make pretty massive amounts of money. I write software that makes the senior managers millions and millions of dollars, and they take most of that money. I don't mind because the table scraps that they end up giving me gives me more money that I want, and one reason they hired me is that I'm willing to work relatively cheap if the work is geeky enough.

    I've worked in great companies, I've worked in bad companies. But even in the worst companies that I've ever worked in, I had a living wage, and that makes a big difference.

    2) I've found that I've had a lot more influence and power in big corporation than I've ever had in academia. There is a reason for this. The people at the top in a big corporation care about basically one thing which is making money. If you come up with an idea that will help people make massive amounts of money, or keep people from losing large amounts of money, they will take what you say very seriously.

    Also, there is one thing that you can to in the corporate world which is basically impossible in academia, which is to resign and find another job elsewhere. The people here treat me good, but the reason they do that is that if they don't, I can and will quit and work for the guys across the street. For people at junior levels in academia, quitting and going to work for someone else is not an option. Once you can't quit, then you are screwed.

    I don't mind if the top 0.1% make insane amounts of money as long as they are lifting up the bottom 99.9%, and in order for this to work you need to make the pie bigger.

    But the pie isn't getting bigger, and somewhere along the line the deal changed from "give us money and power so that we can make your life better later on" to "give us money and power, screw you."

    Also, this matters for Ph.D.'s because one thing that keeps Ph.D's from going off into industry is this idea that academia is paradise and industry is hell.

    This just isn't true.
  15. Aug 4, 2011 #14
    That's what is worrying me. I'm seeing these "grunt engineer" jobs disappear. What's happening is that either you end up making insane amounts of money as senior management or in finance, otherwise your job gets shipped off the India or China. I had a grunt worker job that got shipped overseas.

    The deal was that you could have low level grunt work jobs go off to India and China, and then the US would restructure itself so that everyone in the US would get high paying, high value jobs.

    This hasn't worked because.....

    1) The grunt low-level jobs is what provides training for the high-level jobs. If you don't provide low-level jobs, then there is nowhere for entry level people to learn those skills.

    2) What I find extremely alarming is that once you've moved the "grunt worker" jobs to China and India, then the "grunt workers" start learning skills and very quickly, they aren't going to be interested in being "grunt workers" any more.

    People have this misconception that China is a poor country. It's not. A better way of thinking about it is to imagine a rich country of population of 200 million with more or less with the same standard of living as the United States that's bolted on to a much poorer country of 1.1 billion. I've been told that India is something similar.

    This is alarming because a lot of the scientific and engineering infrastructure of the United States has been based on importing Chinese and Indian students, and we are starting to get to the point that "rich China" can provide a better deal for those students than the United States.

    One difference is that the Chinese government cares about the fate of Ph.D.'s, and they have been twisting arms to get Ph.D.'s hired.

    Also the typical respond to these sorts of comments is "if you like X so much, why don't you go to X?" Someone makes this sort of comment usually has this smug idea that not-X is so obviously superior, but they may be in for a rude shock.
  16. Aug 5, 2011 #15

    Vanadium 50

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    You are not at "the bottom". Think Walmart or McDoanlds. THey have staff at the bottom. You might not even be at the bottom in an investment bank - I'd bet your salary is above the median. Maybe not among quants, but most likely among employees.

    Sure it is. Right off the top of my head, I can think of two then-untenured faculty who did exactly that. As I was writing this, I came up with two others. Grad students transfer all the time. Postdocs quit and go somewhere else all the time.
  17. Aug 5, 2011 #16
    I'm losing track of the point that you are trying to make.

    On the org chart, I'm at the bottom. I have no one reporting to me, and I'm not in any supervisory role. I can stay this way for the rest of my life, and there is no financial pressure to go for a promotion if I don't want it.

    That's not the way that it works in academia. In academia, it's "up or out."

    Then your experience is quite different from mine. Grad students in my field never transfer unless their dissertation adviser moves. Post-docs rarely quit and go somewhere else without being forced to. The untenured faculty that I know of rarely move because to transfer usually means to move one level down.

    The problem is that the field is so competitive and the jobs are so scarce that quitting marks you as "damaged goods." It's up or out and for most people it means out. There aren't nearly enough jobs for all of the Ph.D.'s out there which means that if you make a mistake in your career, there are no second chances.

    People have to find out for themselves, and if you have post-docs or junior faculty that find their work fulfilling and happy, then great for them. But I don't know of too many people in that category (in fact I don't know anyone in that category).
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2011
  18. Aug 5, 2011 #17
    Walmart and McDonalds both have jobs in the middle, and I know McDonald's at least promotes from within. A guy I went to highschool with was promoted to manager of McDonald's during highschool, rather than going to college he continued on at the McDonald's. As of the ten year reunion he was a regional manager making about 70k and was planning to open two franchises of his own.

    The problem with academia Twofish seems to be pointing out that you have pretty much nothing between the adjunct/postdoc level and the tenure track position. You can't steadily move up, you hold at the bottom until you get lucky and land at the top, or give up and leave the field.

    Edit: At ZapperZ's suggestion replaced physics with academia, as I didn't mean to imply other academic fields were any different.
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2011
  19. Aug 5, 2011 #18


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    But this is NOT a "problem with physics". This is a uniform, generalized scenario for ACADEMIA!

  20. Aug 5, 2011 #19
    Yea, you you you. But he wasn't talking about you, he was talking about corporations, of which yours is one of many and we have little reason to think they're all like yours. This is typical of your posts in these threads.

    He mentioned corporation, you talked about yours. Someone says finance, and you talk about QA work (despite the fact that quant work is a spectacularly small percentage of finance jobs) but without making the distinction clear. If someone wants to work in physics, you give them advice that relates to what you do without actually disclosing that's all it's good for. Someone's chances of getting a university position must be the same as they were for those who went to your school, no matter where they went to school or what field of physics they're in; It's always one in ten. There's no mean, no variance, no statistics in your world, there's just a sample of n=1 (you) and it somehow reaches Bayesian credibility.

    Often your responses are so refracted its hard to figure out who or what you're replying to. Worse yet they've started to all sound disconcertingly similar, which would be fine if they seemed remotely related to the posts they were responding to. Several veterans in this forum pop up on the same few subjects, but you're the only one who consistently gives the same spiel about all subjects. If people reading these forums are as critical of advice as they should be then all of this is harmless, and I certanily don't want to discourage you from posting.

    But it's still weird.
  21. Aug 5, 2011 #20
    One thing to mention here is that investment banks hire physics Ph.D.'s because they work cheap. Quants don't make particularly large amounts of money by investment bank standards, it's just that a "low salary" in finance is high when compared to other industries, and *unfreaking believable* when you compare it to what post-docs make.

    The fact that even the lowest people in finance make money that would be high or insane anywhere else is something that many people think is a bad thing. They might be right.

    In any case, I'm not sure what was the point you were trying to make. I think it was something along the lines that I shouldn't be complaining that tenured faculty make all the decisions in a university because large corporations are also that way, but my response here is that things just don't work that way.
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