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Physics PhDs ending up in academia in non-physics fields

  1. Dec 5, 2016 #1


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    Hi everyone! I may have brought this up in an earlier thread, but thought I'd revisit this.

    I have browsed the forums for a while, and one common topic that gets brought up is high competitive tenure-track positions are within physics (certainly within the US, and likely to be the case worldwide), and many PhD graduates in physics often struggle with multi-year postdocs with the hope of staying in academia, only to ultimately transition to non-academic work.

    One thing I hear less on these forums are those physics graduates who transition into academia in areas outside of physics. One such example that I know of is Cosma Shalizi, who completed his doctorate in statistical physics and is now a professor in the Statistics department at Carnegie Mellon.


    I'm curious how many of you here are either (1) physics PhD graduates who made a similar transition and is in academia in a non-physics field, or (2) are aware of such people within their circles. I also would like to bring up some of the challenges that such people may face, and what physics training may bring to non-physics fields.
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  3. Dec 6, 2016 #2


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    I don't think this is that unusual. I've listed 3 prominent physicists who are faculty members in electrical engineering departments.


    In subject areas such as mathematics, engineering, chemistry, and even biology, the appropriate physics degree and specialization can be something of an asset in another area. I've seen physicists who specialize in x-ray techniques using synchrotron radiation that are employed in chemistry and biology departments.

  4. Dec 6, 2016 #3


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    My PhD advisor has a PhD in physics, is faculty in a chemistry department and does research in biology. There are plenty of physics PhDs in biology departments, especially in research areas that are quantitative.
  5. Dec 6, 2016 #4


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    ZapperZ and Ygggdrasil,

    Thanks for bringing up these examples. Part of the reason I wanted to bring up this thread is because of what I hear often about the lack of opportunities in academia within physics, which makes me think that, depending on the particular area of specialization, I could imagine more physics graduates pursuing academic research in other areas, such as quantitative aspects of biology (as an example), or perhaps in areas such as electrical engineering (for those specializing in, say, optics or experimental condensed matter).

    I am curious as to what are some (potential) difficulties these researchers have had in transitioning into their new departments? I can imagine that understanding the background literature in their new fields may have taken some work, just as an example.
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