Possible to become a physicist these days?

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  • #1
TysonM8
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After reading this, I'm having second thoughts on studying physics next year;

http://wuphys.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html [Broken]

This is just one example of many discouraging articles I've read.

What's the point in studying something you love, when in the end you'll most likely have to do something completely different after you graduate? I don't want to end up working in finance because I was in the majority of PhD graduates who couldn't get a job in academia for physics. It just seems like a waste of time.

So I guess I'm asking whether or not it's worth spending your life pursuing a career that is almost impossible to obtain. Advice/opinions/comments? Thanks...
 
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  • #3
B4ssHunter
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" The Munich physics professor Philipp von Jolly advised Planck against going into physics, saying, "in this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few holes." Planck replied that he did not wish to discover new things, but only to understand the known fundamentals of the field, and so began his studies in 1874 at the University of Munich. "
i am not saying you are going to be the next max planck , but at least you wont sit down in an office 20 years from now wondering what could have happened if you did physics , who knows , one thing you need to know is that even though working chances are highly rare , there is always a couple of places for those who deserve it , maybe if you do deserve a nice position , you'll get one .
there are billions of stuff to research on in physics right now , quantum computers , atomic transistors , and alot of other stuff , try undergraduate , if you find yourself not on par with top students , go for engineering MsC , or maybe double major in engineering and physics
 
  • #4
TysonM8
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" The Munich physics professor Philipp von Jolly advised Planck against going into physics, saying, "in this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few holes." Planck replied that he did not wish to discover new things, but only to understand the known fundamentals of the field, and so began his studies in 1874 at the University of Munich. "

Wow, that was really helpful. Well I guess I'm going into physics with the right attitude; not necessarily to make new discoveries, but just for the thrill of learning how the universe works. Even if I don't make it as a professor, I'll still be happy.

but at least you wont sit down in an office 20 years from now wondering what could have happened if you did physics

I don't think I could handle the regret of not studying what I love.

Thanks for the advice. I'm just going to go into physics without the expectation of becoming a professor, while I enjoy the wonderful journey :)
 
  • #5
russ_watters
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Have you weighed the difficulty of the path in your decision?
 
  • #6
ParticleGrl
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So I would say that you need to ask yourself what exactly you want. If you try to go the physics path, odds are high that you'll find yourself leaving science after your phd and some postdocs. Most of my cohort (myself included) are working in finance,software,data-mining/statistics,etc.

Will you be happy if you spend 6 years in a phd program after college, another 3-5 in postdocs, and end up with a job in insurance? If not, you should consider that most engineering majors end up working as engineers. If your preferences are job in physics > job in engineering > all other, it might not make sense to pursue physics.
 
  • #7
ModusPwnd
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Honestly, the odds are high he/she wont end up in post docs. There is high attrition along each step, with the first year at undergrad being one of the highest.

OP, I would keep a backup plan in mind. A dual major in physics and engineering seems like a great idea.
 
  • #9
jesse73
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" The Munich physics professor Philipp von Jolly advised Planck against going into physics, saying, "in this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few holes." Planck replied that he did not wish to discover new things, but only to understand the known fundamentals of the field, and so began his studies in 1874 at the University of Munich. "
i am not saying you are going to be the next max planck , but at least you wont sit down in an office 20 years from now wondering what could have happened if you did physics , who knows , one thing you need to know is that even though working chances are highly rare , there is always a couple of places for those who deserve it , maybe if you do deserve a nice position , you'll get one .
there are billions of stuff to research on in physics right now , quantum computers , atomic transistors , and alot of other stuff , try undergraduate , if you find yourself not on par with top students , go for engineering MsC , or maybe double major in engineering and physics

This is "pie in the sky" advice that you hear HS physics teachers give all the time. That assumes that the worst case is not becoming a tenured physics professor and if you do get tenure you can just do research on anything that is physics related.

This would be like telling a good HS basketball player to "follow his dream" into the NBA. It may be unlikely he will make it to be Lebron James but if things dont work out there are tons of other positions like head coach or general manager or other front office jobs as if there wasnt people training for those specific jobs who are more likely to get hired for them.

The reality is you can do research on what you can get a grant to do research on and you have to continuously apply for said grants.

The transition if you dont become a physics professor will be hard because it will be a transition out of physics into jobs where you will compete with people who have trained for those specific jobs and in companies who have bureaucratic requirements that may say they need a degree with certain keywords.

Odds are heavily against you that even if you try to work in physics you will not. Just like the road to the NBA there are people dropping off in every step.

My advice would be that if you are going to work in any field remotely covered by engineering (like say condensed matter which has a whole lot of overlap with materials science engineering programs) do the engineering program and get the degree with the keywords. Almost everything in physics is done in some capacity in some segment of engineering except for HEP and astro. Unless you are working in HEP and astro do the engineering program.

You will likely work on the exact same research field as you would in the physics program but you will come out with an engineering degree which employers will value. If you are working in the exact same thing why in the world would you choose a "physics" degree? to "signal" to employers that you are smart?

Employers dont care how smart you are. They care how practical you are. An "engineering" degree signals "practical".

And if you decide to want work in HEP and astro then I would give you the same advice I would give a HS basketball player with dreams of making the NBA, good luck and I hope you work on a back up plan.
 
  • #10
Corpuscule
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After reading this, I'm having second thoughts on studying physics next year;

http://wuphys.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html [Broken]

This is just one example of many discouraging articles I've read.

I would say this article is fairly optimistic, probably because it was written a while ago. In addition to what is described in that blogpost, nowadays it is much harder to transition from physics to any other career. A good deal of my friends who are bright, determined, innovative individuals with Physics PhD degrees from leading universities are unemployed or are working as shop assistants / baristas / admin assistants. I believe eventually some of them may find better jobs, but that is not easy.
 
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  • #11
Choppy
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It is still possible to become a physicist these days. But it's important to understand two things:

(a) The odds are that most people simply do not make it into the ivory tower of tenured professorships. The numbers that get floated around are that on average every professor graduates ten PhD students in his or her life. The professor will retire eventually, but what happens to the other nine?

(b) For those who do become professors, it's not simply a case of working hard and being smart. Just about everyone who finishes a PhD can work hard and is pretty smart. You're in an extremely competitive pool of academic over-achievers.

By studying physics, you're earning an education in an academic field. You're developing the skills one needs to go further in academia. Along the way, you're probably satisfying your curiosity about how the world works, you're likely going to contribute in some minor way to the expansion of human knowledge, develop an intimate understanding of the principles behind modern technology, and even develop some minor tools/skills for advancing the state of that technology.

What you are NOT doing, in most cases, is credentialing yourself within the network of an established profession.

My advice is, if you're really sure about it... follow your dreams. But don't be blind about it. Have an exit strategy.
 
  • #12
Corpuscule
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The numbers that get floated around are that on average every professor graduates ten PhD students in his or her life.
By the way, is there any source that could confirm this number? In our department it seems to be more like 4-5 PhD students per Professor per year, which would result in about 150-300 PhD students graduated by a Professor.

To be fair we also have a couple of (currently untenured) Assistant Professors and Associate Professors who co-supervise these PhD students, so the overall number may be about 30-60 PhD graduates per professor if you also count assistant and associate professorships. Nevertheless it's much more than 10.
 
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  • #13
Choppy
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By the way, is there any source that could confirm this number? In our department it seems to be more like 4-5 PhD students per Professor per year, which would result in about 150-300 PhD students graduated by a Professor.

To be fair we also have a couple of (currently untenured) Assistant Professors and Associate Professors who co-supervise these PhD students, so the overall number may be about 30-60 PhD graduates per professor if you also count assistant and associate professorships. Nevertheless it's much more than 10.

It's an order of magnitude estimate. I'm sure you could dig up some data on the number of tenured physics faculty and the number of PhDs awarded annually if you we're so inclined. I know I've scene a recent (within the last year) Physics Today article that had some solid numbers in it any they were consistent with this.

The thing is, whether the actual value is 1 in 10 or 1 in 40, is largely irrelevant to these kinds of discussions. The precise value doesn't really change the fact that getting "in" is unlikely for those graduating with a PhD and that developing a solid backup plan is prudent.
 
  • #14
George Jones
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By the way, is there any source that could confirm this number? In our department it seems to be more like 4-5 PhD students per Professor per year, which would result in about 150-300 PhD students graduated by a Professor.

To be fair we also have a couple of (currently untenured) Assistant Professors and Associate Professors who co-supervise these PhD students, so the overall number may be about 30-60 PhD graduates per professor if you also count assistant and associate professorships. Nevertheless it's much more than 10.

On average, each professor graduates 4 or 5 Ph.D.s a year??? This number seems enormous to me; way, way above average for Ph.D.-granting institutions in North America.
 
  • #15
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By the way, is there any source that could confirm this number? In our department it seems to be more like 4-5 PhD students per Professor per year, which would result in about 150-300 PhD students graduated by a Professor.

That would mean you have 25x as many PhD students as faculty. Do you?
 
  • #16
cmcraes
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Would the chances for a professorship (Tenured or not) go up if you Had a Phd in Physics and also A Branch of mathematics? Also how can publishing and writing papers help you get to graduate schools and teaching positions?
 
  • #17
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Two PhDs would probably hurt your chances, since while you are getting a PhD in your second field you are not gaining expertise in your first.

If you don't publish papers, you will not get or keep a job at a research university.
 
  • #18
Choppy
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Here's a little more on that "1 in 10" estimate.

According to the AIP, there are roughly 1600 PhDs awarded in the US in physics every year.
http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/physgrad2008.pdf

Further there are roughly 9400 physics full time equivalent faculty positions. Note that this includes positions where the highest degree the department confers is either a BSc or an MSc (about 3800 positions) and may be seen as "teaching" positions.
http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/highlite/awf10/table1.htm

If we assume a 30 year career for a professor (starting at 35 and fnishing at 65), we might expect roughly 30*1600 = 48000 new PhDs over that time.

48000/9600 = 5.

I realize I've made some gross oversimplifications here. The number of physics graduates may not be stable over a 30 year period for example. But there you have it. Maybe it's a little better than I thought... but not enough to alter the advocacy for having a strong backup plan.
 
  • #19
StatGuy2000
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So I think it's a consensus among those responding to the thread that a PhD in physics is a waste of time and will make you essentially unemployable, at least without some type of backup skill that employers will find useful. The same could be said of a PhD in mathematics as well (with the exception of statistics and certain branches of applied mathematics).

Indeed, I sometimes wonder if all of those who are currently pursuing a physics PhD in the US (and elsewhere in the world, including Canada and Europe) should withdraw from the program immediately.
 
  • #20
ModusPwnd
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No, because that is assuming that being employable is the only reason a person does a PhD. For many, its not. They do it because they like doing it and the experience itself is worth the consequences. This also applies to people who do even "worse" PhDs like art history, etc.
 
  • #21
StatGuy2000
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No, because that is assuming that being employable is the only reason a person does a PhD. For many, its not. They do it because they like doing it and the experience itself is worth the consequences. This also applies to people who do even "worse" PhDs like art history, etc.

I disagree.

Being employable may not be the only reason to pursue a PhD, but it is an important factor in whether an individual chooses to pursue the field or not.

No matter how much someone enjoys working in scientific research (in our discussion, let's restrict it to physics research), if he/she finds that after earning his/her PhD that he/she ends up being unemployed or underemployed (e.g. working as a waiter, bartender, barista, retail) then it is worth wondering if that PhD study was truly worthwhile for that individual, or whether he/she could have spent those years doing studying or doing something else instead.
 
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  • #22
ModusPwnd
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You can always look back and wonder what you could have done different, always. I don't think Phds are different than the rest of us in that regard.
 
  • #23
StatGuy2000
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ModusPwnd, with all due respect, we are not talking about a few individuals here and there with regrets about choices taken or not taken. We are talking about entire groups of people who find that their ambitions of becoming working physicists, making a livable, middle-class income, are being thwarted.

We have seen thread after thread replying how a PhD in physics how even after several postdocs, the tenure-track route is closed to the majority of physics PhDs and doors to non-academic jobs are closed. We have testimonials of people testifying to how many employers don't know what to do with physics PhDs; how many individuals are forced to either retool in a different career direction, work as waiters/baristas/retailers, or remain unemployed.

Is all of what I stated above is not proof positive that pursuing a physics PhD (or at the very least most PhD programs in physics outside of select subfields such as experimental condensed matter or certain areas of computational physics) is an absolute waste, then I don't know what is!
 
  • #24
ParticleGrl
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So I think it's a consensus among those responding to the thread that a PhD in physics is a waste of time and will make you essentially unemployable, at least without some type of backup skill that employers will find useful.

While true, I'd point out that having the phd can be useful once you land a job. It took me a long time to break into a field, but now that I have I'm finding that I'm moving up the ranks substantially faster because I have a phd. My second "real" job was at a firm that did statistical/analytic consulting made no bones about it- they hired me because the phd was good advertising. I was sometimes handed off to clients with descriptions like "here is on of our rocket scientists to help you with your statistical problem."

Its not the use for my education I was hoping for, but at least its something.
 
  • #25
jesse73
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So I think it's a consensus among those responding to the thread that a PhD in physics is a waste of time and will make you essentially unemployable, at least without some type of backup skill that employers will find useful. The same could be said of a PhD in mathematics as well (with the exception of statistics and certain branches of applied mathematics).
Not quite.

Waste of time only if you are judging based on employability and your ability of getting your foot in the door.

You learn many skills that may be the same of as an engineering graduate but the key being that the skill set being signaled by the words in your degree will put you at a disadvantage. In some sense you are wasting your time.

The skill set you have and can apply to your job is different than the skillset your employer thinks you have and can apply to your job.

Your job is to convince the employer that your skill set is what he needs but the time wasting element is that for the skills you picked them up as part of your research and did not learn them in a formal class there is a disadvantage at convincing an employer . An example would signals processing which a physics experimentalist would pick up as part of his research and have hands on research but an engineering grad would have a taken a formal class for and therefore would have an advantage at convincing his employer he is better for the signals processing role.


But I agree with the general idea that the downsides tend to be swept under the rug
 
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  • #26
Corpuscule
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That would mean you have 25x as many PhD students as faculty. Do you?
Compared to fully tenured faculty yes, however I am sure most assistant and associate professors who actually supervise these PhD students (full professors are usually co-supervisors or advisors) will be given tenure at some point, so the overal ratio may be closer to 10 to 1 or even 5 to 1. Also there are a lot of postdocs who are heavily involved in co-supervision or are even working as primary supervisors (in fact, if not on paper). Many PhD projects and postdoctoral contracts are timed to start and finish together, and it usually applies to postdocs hired on longer contracts. If you also count postdocs, then the ratio becomes less than 2 students per 1 supervising staff member.
 
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  • #27
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Where I went to school we had 34 faculty and 70-80 students. A 25:1 ratio would be 850 students. I can assure you that there is no department in the US with 850 students.
 
  • #28
Corpuscule
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Where I went to school we had 34 faculty and 70-80 students. A 25:1 ratio would be 850 students. I can assure you that there is no department in the US with 850 students.
I think that's just the question of who you define as faculty. For example our research group at the moment has 1 full professor, 2 associate professors, 4 assistant professors, 7 postdocs (5 of whom are heavily involved in PhD supervision) and about 20 PhD students. Of them only a full professor is tenured, however 2 associated professors are getting a tenure soon, and assistant professors have a fair chance of getting a tenure in the future. The other groups in our department seem to have a similar structure, however I am not certain of that.
 
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  • #29
StatGuy2000
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While true, I'd point out that having the phd can be useful once you land a job. It took me a long time to break into a field, but now that I have I'm finding that I'm moving up the ranks substantially faster because I have a phd. My second "real" job was at a firm that did statistical/analytic consulting made no bones about it- they hired me because the phd was good advertising. I was sometimes handed off to clients with descriptions like "here is on of our rocket scientists to help you with your statistical problem."

Its not the use for my education I was hoping for, but at least its something.

That is hardly of any use to those who just finished his/her PhD and is looking for a full-time or even a long-term contract job to begin with.
 
  • #30
StatGuy2000
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Not quite.

Waste of time only if you are judging based on employability and your ability of getting your foot in the door.

You learn many skills that may be the same of as an engineering graduate but the key being that the skill set being signaled by the words in your degree will put you at a disadvantage. In some sense you are wasting your time.

That is precisely my point, since for any graduate, employability and the ability of getting one's foot in the door is the key for any degree to ultimately to be worthwhile. After all, what good is investing in a degree program if at the end of it you are still unemployed?


The skill set you have and can apply to your job is different than the skillset your employer thinks you have and can apply to your job.

Your job is to convince the employer that your skill set is what he needs but the time wasting element is that for the skills you picked them up as part of your research and did not learn them in a formal class there is a disadvantage at convincing an employer . An example would signals processing which a physics experimentalist would pick up as part of his research and have hands on research but an engineering grad would have a taken a formal class for and therefore would have an advantage at convincing his employer he is better for the signals processing role.


But I agree with the general idea that the downsides tend to be swept under the rug

The point is that many employers do not have physics PhDs as part of their hiring committees and therefore do not understand what is involved in pursuing research. Most employers are essentially laypeople and have only a superficial understanding at best of what people in physics do, and it is very difficult to convince them of the value of a physics PhD.
 
  • #31
jesse73
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Where I went to school we had 34 faculty and 70-80 students. A 25:1 ratio would be 850 students. I can assure you that there is no department in the US with 850 students.
Its a question of rates not proportions of students in any given year. Every 5-6 years about 80 students graduate but maybe possibly 1-2 faculty retire.
 
  • #32
Arsenic&Lace
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Here's a little more on that "1 in 10" estimate.

According to the AIP, there are roughly 1600 PhDs awarded in the US in physics every year.
http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/physgrad2008.pdf

Further there are roughly 9400 physics full time equivalent faculty positions. Note that this includes positions where the highest degree the department confers is either a BSc or an MSc (about 3800 positions) and may be seen as "teaching" positions.
http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/highlite/awf10/table1.htm

If we assume a 30 year career for a professor (starting at 35 and fnishing at 65), we might expect roughly 30*1600 = 48000 new PhDs over that time.

48000/9600 = 5.

I realize I've made some gross oversimplifications here. The number of physics graduates may not be stable over a 30 year period for example. But there you have it. Maybe it's a little better than I thought... but not enough to alter the advocacy for having a strong backup plan.
Right, so there are 5 phd students for each full time position. So you've got a chance of making it around 20%, since that number depends upon your specialty and your quality (it is not hard to be better than many of the graduates coming out of top 50 schools from what I can see).

I think that's a decent bet, particularly considering that I've yet to meet a physics phd student at my local university who didn't have a good job lined up right after grad school working for a hedge fund, a robotics company, Raytheon, Intel, Lockheed Martin, or elsewhere... and I'm going to a top 50 school, not top 10!
 
  • #33
ParticleGrl
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I think that's a decent bet, particularly considering that I've yet to meet a physics phd student at my local university who didn't have a good job lined up right after grad school...

How many phd students do you know? This is wildly at odds with people in my phd cohort, and I went to a top 10 school.
 
  • #34
Arsenic&Lace
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Just 6 personally, but a larger sample comes from talking to the PI's about past graduates.

All of the phd students in the nuclear physics lab I worked in for a bit wound up with a tech related job, aside from one who works at a bank; those who didn't get an industrial job got a job as a staff scientist at the national lab we collaborated with. The tech related jobs all came through connections; the PI, for instance, has a family member working at Raytheon.

However, the graduates who seem to be funnelled without a hitch into industry are those who are getting condensed matter/materials physics phd's, especially in experiment, since there is quite a bit of cross disciplinary collaboration here.

One grad student got a job at a private school; I'm not really sure how you would evaluate that.

I should clarify that I am making no claims about cosmology/particle theory types of people, and that a lot of these careers are coming from networking done in grad school.
 
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  • #35
ParticleGrl
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All of the phd students in the nuclear physics lab I worked in for a bit wound up with a tech related job...

Sure, but how long did it take to get there? I'm in a "tech related job" doing data mining/stats, but it took quite a while post-phd to get where I am.

It sounds like your sample is mostly one group at one school (a group where the PI has personal connections he can use to help students get jobs).
 

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