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Possible to become a physicist these days?

  1. Sep 23, 2013 #1
    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...
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
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  3. Sep 23, 2013 #2


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  4. Sep 23, 2013 #3
    " 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
  5. Sep 23, 2013 #4
    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.

    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 :)
  6. Sep 23, 2013 #5


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    Have you weighed the difficulty of the path in your decision?
  7. Sep 23, 2013 #6
    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.
  8. Sep 23, 2013 #7
    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. Sep 23, 2013 #8


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  10. Sep 23, 2013 #9
    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.
  11. Sep 23, 2013 #10
    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.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  12. Sep 23, 2013 #11


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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.
  13. Sep 23, 2013 #12
    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.
    Last edited: Sep 23, 2013
  14. Sep 24, 2013 #13


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    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.
  15. Sep 24, 2013 #14

    George Jones

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    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.
  16. Sep 24, 2013 #15

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    That would mean you have 25x as many PhD students as faculty. Do you?
  17. Sep 24, 2013 #16
    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?
  18. Sep 24, 2013 #17

    Vanadium 50

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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.
  19. Sep 24, 2013 #18


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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.

    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.

    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.
  20. Sep 24, 2013 #19


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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.
  21. Sep 24, 2013 #20
    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.
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