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Should I even attempt becoming a physics prof?

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This is the one occupation that I'm sure I would love, but the more I read on it, the more impossible it seems that I will land a tenured university position.

I'm a 1st year student at Michigan State and have a 3.9 at the moment. I imagine I'll end up in the 3.75+ area after my physics undergrad is complete. What kind of grad school can I expect to get into? A top 10? 25?
 

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  • #2
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This is the one occupation that I'm sure I would love, but the more I read on it, the more impossible it seems that I will land a tenured university position.
It's not a bad thing to try as long as you realize how unlikely it is and that you have a plan B in place. What you need to do (and what I've been more or less trying to do) is to figure out ways of getting what I want, given that I won't get them through being tenured faculty.

I'm a 1st year student at Michigan State and have a 3.9 at the moment. I imagine I'll end up in the 3.75+ area after my physics undergrad is complete. What kind of grad school can I expect to get into? A top 10? 25?
The problem with getting a research professorship isn't getting into grad school or even the ranking of the grad school. The problem is that there are just too many Ph.D.'s chasing too few positions.
 
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If you shoot for the moon and miss, at least you'll land among the stars. While this adage is astronomically dubious, its message is important to keep in mind. Do your best in class and follow your dreams. If you think you'd like getting a Ph.D, then get one. No one here can tell you how it'll turn out, but you'll be a better person for having pushed yourself to the max and gone through the process.
 
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I'm curious twofish-quant, you say "research professorship", but how difficult would it be to just teach at a college level at say a LAC, where research in Physics isn't necessarily stressed? Is that equally difficult or perhaps more reasonable a goal?
 
  • #5
jtbell
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From the American Institute of Physics:

Estimated Number of Physics Faculty Hired, 2004 and 2006

In the USA, the number of positions available at bachelors-degree-only institutions is comparable to the number at PhD-granting institutions, each around 275 per year.
 
  • #6
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In the USA, the number of positions available at bachelors-degree-only institutions is comparable to the number at PhD-granting institutions, each around 275 per year.
Just for comparison the number of new physics Ph.D.'s coming online each year is about 1000-1200 and maybe about 300 or so astronomy Ph.D.'s. One problem with these numbers is that the are cumulative. Which means that in looking for jobs, you are not only competing against the "excess" 500 or so this year, but also the 500 from last year, and the 500 from the year before that.

The other thing is that it's trivially easy to be able to teach math and physics if that is what you want to do. All you have to do is to show up at your local community college and they'll take you as an adjunct, and University of Phoenix is always looking for people.

The hard part is making teaching into a profession.
 
  • #7
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Many people want to work at liberal arts colleges, so don't anticipate it being any easier to get a job there than at a university, and many still expect you to do good research (even if they also expect you to teach more) and to involve students in your research.
 
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Andy Resnick
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From the American Institute of Physics:

Estimated Number of Physics Faculty Hired, 2004 and 2006

In the USA, the number of positions available at bachelors-degree-only institutions is comparable to the number at PhD-granting institutions, each around 275 per year.
That's an interesting chart. At Ph.D granting institutions, if you are hired, it is likely to be tenure-track, while at BS granting institutions, it is unlikely. I'm at a MS granting institution, which has intermediate statistics.

I wonder why...
 
  • #9
jtbell
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Yeah, that is interesting. I don't know how I missed that.

It could be that small schools are more likely to hire part-time adjuncts to handle extra courses. If a department has only three or four full-time faculty, it's hard to justify creating another full-time tenure-track position, but it's easier to ask the administration to fund a part-timer to teach an extra course or two. Or even a full-time non-tenured person for a year or two, to see if the course load holds up over time and thereby justify a tenure-track position. For a small college, adding a tenure-track position (and then granting tenure later) is a major long-term financial commitment.
 
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I wonder why...
I think one reason is that if you get hired for a non-tenure track position at a research university you'll likely not be considered "faculty" (i.e. a researcher) whereas in a teaching university, everyone that gets hired is considered "faculty."
 
  • #11
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It could be that small schools are more likely to hire part-time adjuncts to handle extra courses.
And the direction academia is moving to is one in which you have large numbers of adjuncts with very small number of permanent faculty. That's basically the model that University of Phoenix uses, and I think everyone is getting pushed in that direction. The good news is that if you want to teach physics, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. The bad news is that most of those opportunities do not pay a living wage and can be regarded as semi-volunteer work.

The reason that I find that disturbing is that it resembles the "two track" systems that you see in declining industries like autos. In those situations, older workers get paid on one scale which they keep until they retire, whereas newer workers get paid much less. It's disturbing because at least in the auto industry, it's see pretty clearly as a transitional stage to move toward less payment.

For a small college, adding a tenure-track position (and then granting tenure later) is a major long-term financial commitment.
It's a major long-term financial commitment for a big university.

I'd be rather interested in reading the "history of tenure." One thing that I've noticed is that if you go back to 1965, the concept of "tenure" isn't quite that unusual, since in 1965 most large industries had something similar. You went to work for a big massive company. Once you were there for a few years, as long as you didn't do anything really, really, really bad you basically had a job for life, and there are vestiges of that. I once heard some flight attendants talking in the background once, and one of them mentioned being made to work overtime, and that she was planning to file a protest with the union. I was thinking to myself. A labor union. Overtime. How quaint......

What happened was that in most industries this fell apart in the 1980's, and it wasn't necessarily a bad thing. As long as you have a strong supply/demand, it's often in the interest of the worker to be able to move from job to job easily.
 
  • #12
Andy Resnick
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I think one reason is that if you get hired for a non-tenure track position at a research university you'll likely not be considered "faculty" (i.e. a researcher) whereas in a teaching university, everyone that gets hired is considered "faculty."
That's not true- I was non tenure track at my previous institution, and was very much considered faculty- I served on committees, was invited to meetings, sat on PhD committees, etc.
 
  • #13
Andy Resnick
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Yeah, that is interesting. I don't know how I missed that.

It could be that small schools are more likely to hire part-time adjuncts to handle extra courses. If a department has only three or four full-time faculty, it's hard to justify creating another full-time tenure-track position, but it's easier to ask the administration to fund a part-timer to teach an extra course or two. Or even a full-time non-tenured person for a year or two, to see if the course load holds up over time and thereby justify a tenure-track position. For a small college, adding a tenure-track position (and then granting tenure later) is a major long-term financial commitment.
Possibly... that seems logical.

One trend I alluded to on a different thread is the concept of "salary recovery". At my old institution (a medical school), tenure-track people were expected to bring in at least 80% of their salary from research grants- across the board, from junior assistant profs through full profs. Partly this was done to make the tenure process for PhDs and MDs equitable since MDs see patients, but that trend is spreading since the financial burden is shifted from the School and Department to the individual. Here, research grants are considered money-losers for the institution: not actively discouraged, but not a priority. So financial considerations could be a reason.
 
  • #14
jtbell
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I just thought of another factor at small colleges. In a small teaching-oriented department, when someone goes on sabbatical, they're probably going to hire someone to fill in for a year. In a large department, the number of permanent positions probably takes into account the expectation that x number of people will be on sabbatical in any given year.

My first teaching job was a two-year visiting assistant professor spot at a school that had seven full-time positions. In any given year, someone was always on sabbatical, and I filled in for two consecutive sabbaticals. They could have an extra full-time tenure-track position to account for that, but instead they did it with a continuous series of visiting positions.

Now that I think of it, when I was looking for a job, probably about half the positions were one- or two-year sabbatical replacements.
 

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