1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Should I stay or should I go (from academia)?

  1. Apr 25, 2012 #1
    Hello there,

    I have a bit of a conundrum. I have been a postdoc for 10 years now, mainly because I loved my job so much. But its not a secure job and I wonder how much longer I can realistically do it, and taking the next step to a lectureship looks improbable due to fierce competition (and it was never where I intended to go - I meant to stay 3 or 4 years post PhD, but was just enjoying it so much I carried on), unless I move out of the UK permanently which is not for me due to family commitments.

    Does anyone have experience of being a postdoc as a career? My case is perhaps a bit special because I work in particle physics (one of the major LHC experiments at CERN) and one would think there will always be a demand for people who know a lot more about its software for example, than a fresh grad student. So its not like I need to move institute every 2 or 3 years and start a new project. My conundrum is whether to carry on as a postdoc on the grounds (a) I love the job and (b) there is likely to be a long term demand because the experiments are scheduled to run for almost another 20 years currently in one form or another and (c) I do have an open-ended contract (though they made clear without any research grant, not being a faculty member would mean redundancy)

    On the other hand I don't relish the prospect of getting fired in late 40's/early 50's because I suspect not many people will hire someone that old into a job. So maybe its better to leave and start at the bottom in a career that will have better prospects for jobs until retirement?

    I was thinking mainly of software (I have 10 years of a lot of c++ work), but wonder if companies typically would want someone from academia at my age or they really need industry experience? There seem to be 2 routes - one jobs that need people with c++ and physics, but also just general software jobs. I suspect the former are easier to get for someone with my cv, but tend to be located where I don't want to live. The latter are where I live, but I wonder if they would take someone like me over someone with industry experience?

    I am not sure really of sw is any better for job prospects though, so perhaps the grass is just greener. The third option is retrain from scratch into something where jobs are widespread, but I am not sure about that. Stuff like law or accountancy looks really tough to get a starter job (and again I would wonder if my age would go against me when they can get a fresh faced 22 year old instead).

    Thanks for listening,

  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 25, 2012 #2
    First thing is, I don't think you're special. You must know that there are loads of masters/PhD students and postdocs doing c++ coding for LHC. Then there must have been many many people who left LHC with 10 years of c++ experience. So how about asking your (ex)colleagues?

    In my old HEP lab we had an assistant professor who had been heavily coding. He was also active in the open source circles. At the end of his 6 years of assistant professorship, he jumped to Google. That's one example of someone with 10 years of post-doctoral experience in HEP.

    This company may be of interest to you (it certainly is to me, but I'm not in UK:) )
    Go take a look at its founders!

    p.s. In my old HEP lab, there's a postdoc who went to some company to work on linux kernels; another masters grad and me went into game programming; the rest mostly went to silicon foundries.
  4. Apr 25, 2012 #3
    I just would like to share a couple of thoughts about this issue, I suppose it IS very common not only in your area but in mine especially in my own company (still pretty small somewhat, excluding its founders) as well.
    It is really difficult to make a serious decision to hire someone, especially when to consider how worthy the employee may be for the company's activities. Education in developed countries I think tends to direct their students' academic background towards industrial applicability; to provide their students with knowledge enough to handle works in their own countries' industrial businesses, and my education background can be considered as a proof. Other capabilities are acquired by the students on their own. It depends on the particular company one is applying into, where he may need to show off his industrial experience or academic knowledge. It is likely that you will fail if you didn't join to make any industrial applications before.
    However, I personally think the border line between applications for academics and those as business is not really thick from a knowledge use perspective; that is, both needs one to use the same knowledge acquired whilst the commercial and industrial ones need one's skills to manage other things (e.g timing, budget, other necessary settings etc).
    If you would want to specify C++ in your CV, you may need to also include what in C++ and its counterparts such as frameworks, widely known libraries, useful techniques etc you learn that are related to the current position you are applying for.
    I suppose all companies need their employees (experienced or inexperienced in the field they are working for) must have a solid background for future's better debates or true contribution to the company's production line. I am yet to mention there are those that freely accept people who don't even know what is Information Entropy. I am not to blame any for sure because I sympathize and really understand life is hard, fortune makes us meet and it's our luck to have a good chance to be together. Good luck to you !
  5. Apr 26, 2012 #4
    I'm a particle physicist too. I worked on one of the large LHC experiments for my PhD (I'm finishing up in the next few weeks). While I was living at CERN I met and worked with quite a few post-docs who were on basically indefinite contracts, so they had a 'permanent' job assuming the funding was there. A couple of the ones I new well expressed similar concerns to the ones you have. Living on soft money is never a fun thing.

    I decided to leave the field after my PhD because of these same sort of reasons plus severe burnout and family constraints. I was worried that the longer I stuck around in physics the harder it would be to make the jump.

    Since I had mostly worked on software related things for the experiment, I targeted mostly software jobs. My family constraints limited my search to the San Francisco Bay Area, so there were not really any software jobs needing physics that I qualified for. I did apply for some jobs related to electronics design/semiconductor fabrication, but my experience was totally uncompetitive compared to all the more qualified EE, CE, and even condensed matter physics PhDs in the area.

    I mostly targeted software jobs that fell under the category of “big data” and analytics, since this seemed a better match to my experience. I didn't really have all that much trouble lining up a software job along those lines for after I graduate. In general things seemed to go better at places where I wouldn't be the only PhD (though not necessarily physics) there. I got questions on why I wanted this type of job instead of staying in academia, so having a good non-negative answer for this is helpful. No idea if things are different somehow in the UK.

    One thing that is very nice about the big LHC experiments is that you really are developing software in a professional-like environment. Depending on what service roles you had in the experiment, you are dealing with version control, various nightly builds and testing before changes go in a production release, static code analysis tools, programming PLCs, etc. There is a difference between doing software development for 10 years in that sort of environment than spending the same amount of time writing simulation code on your laptop that will never have to be looked at, maintained, or extended by another human.
  6. Apr 26, 2012 #5
    I don't think that you will have too much trouble finding a job. The key thing is that when you send out your resumes, don't put "academic post-doc", put "experienced software developer."

    You have industry experience. Particle physics is an industry, and write your resumes accordingly.
  7. Apr 26, 2012 #6
    Yup. One thing that should get emphasized on any resume is that you are dealing with X million lines of code and Y terabytes of data. Also a lot of that code interacts with instrumentation which gets you into real time programming.
    Last edited: Apr 26, 2012
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook