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Prestige and the job market

  1. Jul 10, 2011 #1
    As we all know, the job market for physicists is abysmal. but just how bad is it? and what role does the prestige of the university you attended play? Will someone who earned their Ph. D from MIT or Harvard have a much easier time getting a post-doc, than say, someone who went to Virginia Tech or Purdue? Perhaps i have been brainwashed by CollegeConfidential, but the way prestige is played up over there, and the way the job market is played down over here, its enough to make me assume that a Ph. D from a so-called second tier institution is worthless.

    I am only a senior in high school and I am considering a career in physics, which would be my number 1 job pick. however, i cannot get into any tier 1 institutions for physics for undergrad. i simply lack the necessary outstanding extra-curriculars. I can probably get into UVA (3.93 UW GPA, 1460/2190 SAT, 11 AP classes, in-state), which, according to their website, sends graduates off to places like Princeton and Stanford every year, so thatd be okay. But, if i dont get into UVA, i'll most likely have to go to Virginia Tech. Last year, i believe one physics grad made it into University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, while all the others stayed at VT or entered the job market. Thus, referring back to the first paragraph, would there be any point in majoring in physics if i went to VT, if i eventually wanted a Ph. D?

    And dont tell me 'If physics is what you love than you should do it no matter what, even if you cant get a job blah blah blah blah." I also have an interest in mathematics, which would give me a fallback career (and a well paying one at that!) as an actuary, and computer science seems interesting too. I have been considering those two majors/careers anyway, and since they have a much better employment outlook, they are very tempting options.

    But, assuming i do get into UVA for physics, and then assuming i get into somewhere like MIT/Berkeley after that, whats the job market like then? still abysmal? or do elite grads have great chances at post-doctoral employment?

    Thanks for reading my long post, and any information you have on this topic is appreciated!
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  3. Jul 10, 2011 #2


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  4. Jul 10, 2011 #3


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    There are plenty of postdocs out there; enough for most people who want one. Jobs after that in academia are hard to get, but not postdocs. I got a postdoc at NASA after graduating from a university ranked over 100 for physics. I know many people who went from another university ranked over 100 into jobs at Harvard. Ranking really doesn't matter. It's the quality of the education and the quality of your own work that matters most when looking for a job. Rankings in physics are directly correlated to the size of the program, so smaller groups are ranked lower even if they have a particular specialty no one else offers.
  5. Jul 10, 2011 #4

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    It is true that the number of positions for university faculty churning out other PhDs is small. It is not true that the job market for physicists is small. What you wrote is a little like saying "There are only 500 positions for Fortune 500 CEO's; therefore the job market in business is abysmal."

    The thing about asking for advice is that you don't get to simultaneously ask for advice and also to decide what that advice shall be,
  6. Jul 10, 2011 #5

    The job market for research professors is abysmal. The job market for industrial physicists and people with physics degrees is pretty decent.

    At the Ph.D. level the reputation of your adviser matters a lot more than the reputation of the university. There are no-name advisers at MIT, and there are big names at say Florida Atlantic University.

    Also reputation of the school is not obvious to outsiders. For example, if you are doing radio astronomy, you are going to be a lot better off getting a degree from University of Virginia than MIT. Optical astronomy: University of Hawaii-Manoa and University of Arizona. Loop quantum gravity: Louisiana State University. Nuclear physics: Michigan State and SUNY Stony Brook.

    When you get a Ph.D., you get a Ph.D. If you are smart enough to figure out quantum field theory, you should be smart enough to figure out the job market.

    Career in physics != research professorship.

    Undergraduate physics programs are pretty standard. If you are interested in physics, the main thing you need to worry about it ending up somewhere that you get the bachelors in physics.

    This is something you have to talk to people at Virginia Tech about.

    I don't know of anyone that has gotten a physics undergraduate that is unemployed. However, the thing about physics degrees is that they don't come with "prepackaged jobs." Everyone that I know with a physics degree ends up with a job, but everyone has had to be creative in figuring out how to get one.

    Personally, I think that's a good thing. Your mileage may vary.

    I'm not sure that they do have a better employment outlook.

    If you go to a decent school (say UT Austin), your odds of getting a post-doc are 50-50. Also many of the people that don't get post-docs, don't really try very hard.

    Don't count on getting a research professorship.

    Also, the job market for people with physics Ph.D.'s is great, but you have to get out of the "prepackaged job" mentality. Also, you will have to learn some extra stuff on your own, but if you can figure out quantum field theory, learning basic C++ and how to write a resume isn't going to kill you.

    If your main concern is maximum money for minimum effort (and let me point out that there is nothing wrong with that), then don't go into physics. In fact, don't go into science or engineering at all.

    If your main goal in life is to explore the secrets of the universe, and you are just worried about starving to death, that's something different. Everyone that I know of with a physics Ph.D. has ended up being at least upper middle class.

    Also if you want someone to tell you to do X, Y, and Z to get a job (and again there is nothing wrong with that), then also physics is a bad choice of majors. You can get decent jobs with physics degrees, but there isn't a cookbook recipe to do that, and you'll have to figure out a lot of stuff on your own. But since "figuring out new stuff" is what attracted me to the degree, that's cool for me.
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2011
  7. Jul 12, 2011 #6
    College is what you make it of it no matter where you go.

    You want to be successful?

    "Discipline is a necessary ingredient. But, in aiming for something remarkable, perhaps success owes less to the brunt force of effort, and more to guiding that effort in an uncommon direction." don't know who said that, but I think it is relevant.
  8. Jul 12, 2011 #7
    Something that bothers me a lot is that I see too many people wanted to be "successful" and not spending enough time thinking about what success is.
  9. Jul 12, 2011 #8
    Most people think of success purely in monetary terms...
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