# Physics Should only people from elite universities bother with TT (tenure track)?

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1. Feb 28, 2017

### TomServo

I hope my question doesn't sound bitter, it's not meant to be, I'm just a grad student wanting to get some opinions on how things are. I'm especially interested in hearing from people outside academia as well, since I assume people *within* academia might have an unrealistic view of what the career path is like these days vs. what it was like when there were far far more academia jobs.

Given the horrible job market in academia, and the relative over-abundance of physics PhDs out there, is the old-fashioned goal of getting a professorship at a research university something that only people from Caltech, Princeton, etc. should bother with? Or should somebody like me, from a school with no real physics reputation, with an advisor notable in his little niche, set my sights more on industry jobs? What do you think? I'm in my third year, if that helps.

No bitterness intended, hoping for some good answers and discussion. Thanks!

EDIT:

2. Feb 28, 2017

### Choppy

I'm assuming TT refers to tenure track?

3. Feb 28, 2017

### TomServo

Yes

4. Feb 28, 2017

### Dr Transport

Industry, in the time you are slaving away at the possibility of a tenure track position and actually getting tenure, you'll make 1-1.5 million dollars that you'll never ever make up in academia.

5. Mar 1, 2017

### Dr. Courtney

If TT at an R1 university is your goal, apply for post-docs. There are also lots of TT positions whose focus is on teaching rather than research. If you do not have geographical constraints, your odds at those will depend more on your teaching experience than your research record in grad school. If these interest you, these are a viable plan B.

6. Mar 1, 2017

Staff Emeritus

You want to be a scientist, right? How many grad students do you want to have when you're a professor? How many are needed to replace you? Put another way, how many students have graduated since you enrolled in grad school? How many faculty have been hired in the same time frame? The fact of the matter is that it is the normal career path for PhDs to enter industry. Remaining in academia and particularly at an R1 is the exception.

Second, this is the typical steaming pile of crap I have come to expect from Slate, whose only virtue seems to be that it's not Vox. It's true that about half of physics faculty at R1's come from 12 or 15 schools. It's also true that these same 12 or 15 schools generate about half of the PhDs. The most highly ranked schools have large departments.

Now, to answer your question directly. It depends on why you're at your particular institution and not, say, Harvard. If you're there because you could have gotten into Harvard (or anywhere else), but went elsewhere because the program suited you better, that's one thing. If you're there because you couldn't get in anywhere else, that's another thing.

7. Mar 1, 2017

### StatGuy2000

Vanadium 50, I happen to know of one of the co-authors of this article. Aaron Clauset is an accomplished researcher in the field of complex systems, and have long admired both his personal blog as well as his research work. So your characterization of the article (and thus his work) as crap is unjustified.

http://tuvalu.santafe.edu/~aaronc/

Regarding the article itself, this is a summary based on the following published articles that Clauset had co-written in Science magazine. Judge for yourself whether the article is "crap".

Here are also links that Clauset has provided on code and visualizations.

http://tuvalu.santafe.edu/~aaronc/facultyhiring/

http://danlarremore.com/faculty/

8. Mar 1, 2017

### Crass_Oscillator

I think it also largely depends on what you are doing. I'm doing theoretical solid state/computational electronics in a 20-30 EE department. 10 of my adviser's students have become professors, 3 at top American EE schools, 1 at a big European EE school, and the remainder at generally large research institutes.

If you are doing quantum gravity, well, I don't know if going to Princeton is enough to save you.

Also, many of my advisers students who wanted to remain in academia retrained in experiment. This is unusual in certain branches of applied/pure physics but clearly happened for them. Only 4 of the 10 are theorists/computationalists. There are also many cases of people switching fields to something that is more funded and interesting during a post-doc. I was at a #1 computer science grad school doing computational biology and many of the scientists there were pure theorists in chemistry, physics, and computer science who retrained for biology (my adviser there was a student of Michael Fisher's, he of renormalization group and critical phenomena fame).

Look at your university. What are the big, well funded experimental projects? Can you work with them? Look in your field. Where are the big projects? Go there for a post doc. If you think your field is going down the tubes (e.g. high energy physics) funding wise, think about what else you can do. For instance, there is enormous demand for quantitative scientists to work in biology. I know nothing about HEP as an example but maybe it's possible to retrain in nuclear theory/experiment? There's demand for that. There are also industrial science roles. My background gives me many opportunities in device physics, which is pretty interesting.

If you want to be a scientist, your grit, flexibility, and ingenuity will play much more of a role than how mature of a student you were when you completed your undergrad, took the PGRE, and applied for grad school.

9. Mar 1, 2017

Staff Emeritus
I gave a very specific criticism. You can argue my language was too salty, but the whole premise of the Slate article falls apart upon inspection: half of the physics PhDs are produced by the "elite" schools. It's not surprising that about half of the new physics faculty come from 10% of the schools when half of the PhDs come from that same 10%.

10. Mar 1, 2017

### StatGuy2000

First of all, it's worth pointing out that the Slate article wasn't even specifically addressing about physics PhDs -- in fact, the study conducted looked at faculty hiring among those with PhDs in computer science, business, and history programs, and seeking to look at faculty hiring practices in those fields to draw larger inferences about hiring practices across all disciplines.

It may very well be the case, as you argue, that physics may be an outlier because such a large proportion of physics PhDs are produced by a relatively small, select number of "elite" schools, which may not be the case for other fields.

11. Mar 1, 2017

### TomServo

I'm....a little unclear on your point. Would you mind elaborating?

12. Mar 1, 2017

### TomServo

I only applied to one school that would be considered elite (in physics), and did not get it. I attribute this to two things, one is that I was going for theory and got a 50th percentile on the PGRE (I had serious health issues that kept me from studying for it, alas), the other is that I specifically said on my statement of purpose that I wanted to do gravity, perhaps quantum gravity. I'm still working in gravity at the institution I wound up at (which I think is a good place adviser-wise for me to be) but in something with a much more applied/experimental side with some newer technology. I had a high GPA, research experience, and great letters of recommendation, so I wonder what would have happened if I'd been healthy enough to prepare properly for the PGRE and had a statement of purpose that wasn't so specific to a generally less-well-funded area.

Are you implying that if I'm not smart enough/good enough to get into a school like Harvard then that indicates I'm unlikely research university material (for a job that is).

13. Mar 1, 2017

### TomServo

Well my adviser is building a collaboration with a university in China where a former post-doc of his works and where the dean has tons of research grant money (can't be spent in my country, the US, darn). It's using things like atomic interferometry and optical clocks to measure gravitational field gradients, detect gravitational waves, geodesy, etc. I'm just starting to read papers about it and it seems to be fairly new in the sense that what work has been done in the field is kind of rudimentary, so it has potential to be a hot new area of physics I suppose (I hope). The other big, well-funded projects aren't my cup of tea.

That sounds....good? Could you elaborate on that?

14. Mar 2, 2017

### etudiant

Well, if you are hoping to work with China funded researchers, start learning Chinese.
That is what crass_oscillator was driving at imho. You have to break your existing boundaries to emerge.

15. Mar 2, 2017

Staff Emeritus
I think I wasn't implying it. I think I was stating it, although with the more generic "one" than the specific "you". I don't know your background.

A professor graduates say ten students, one of whom is needed to replace him. Twice as many people take the GRE as enroll in grad school. Putting them together, and one concludes that 5% of grad school applicants go on to become professors. The top 5% of applicants can pretty much go anywhere they want. They may pick Harvard, or they may pick Michigan State, or Utah, or UCSB (three schools with areas where they are world-leading).

16. Mar 2, 2017

### Dr Transport

Maybe my estimate was a little high, but here it goes.

If you take the usual route of 2-3 post-docs and then get hired into academia and the tenure process is approx 5 years, you are looking at anywhere between 10 and 12 years before you have a stable job. I looked at getting back into academia after spending 15 years in industry. In this case I would have had to take a 50% pay cut to take a job teaching and doing research. A post doc pays between 50% and 75% of an industrial position and after 5 years in industry I was making more than my advisor who was a research professor and he had ~30 years experience. So for some nice round numbers, lets say you are getting paid $45K for a post doc and you make$75K in industry for the 6 years before taking a permanent position, you are $180K behind in earning potential and if it takes 5 years to get tenure, lets say you start at$60K and in industry you make $90K , that is another$150K, so by the time you get tenure, you are $330K behind. Academia doesn't give generous raises and bonuses, I got between 4-6% every year in raise and almost a months salary in bonus, in less than 10 years in industry, I made over$1M in salary and bonus, during that time you might have made ~$650K, that is a significant difference and it doesn't get any better, academics make significantly less than their counterparts in industry over an entire career. So over a career, you can make well over$1-2M more.

You might not think that is a lot, but consider this, that money after taxes pays for a nice house.

17. Mar 2, 2017

### Choppy

To add to this there is also the issue of lost investment opportunity. With more income, you can pay down your mortgage faster, contribute to retirement savings, build up your personal savings, etc. Interest rates haven't been very high over the last few years, but you can still invest intelligently if you have money to invest. That's hard to do when you're barely making rent every month.

On the flip side, I would argue that the choice of an academic path is not a financial one. People tend to do it for the love of science.

18. Mar 2, 2017

### Dr. Courtney

Both the love of science and the desire to impart scientific abilities to the next generation.

Let me also mention that an academic career does not preclude outside (often lucrative) work as a scientific consultant. Most academic contracts do not prohibit outside employment or consulting work. Teaching-focused schools often only require 25 hours per week for teaching and preps (especially your 2nd and later times through specific courses) and only have 32 weeks per year of required teaching duties. That leaves lots of time for consulting work.

19. Mar 2, 2017

### Crass_Oscillator

China is aggressively attempting to displace the US as the world's scientific superpower, and the US is aggressively attempting to abandon it's scientific superpower status, while Europe seems all but recovered from WWII. So heading across the seas is an example of grit/flexibility in action, either emigrating or connecting yourself to foreign scientific projects in some way. I'm currently looking into completing a master's in the states and then completing my PhD in Europe since Europe as a whole is funding my field far better than the US is (computational materials/electronics/applied solid state).

Well, the unfortunate thing is what I was saying was not that you can do whatever you want if you try hard enough. No matter how hard you try, there's always some chance, large or small, that you don't get what you want. However, if you do really want something, and you're not on the beaten track, grit will help you to correct it. For instance, some people transfer from one PhD program to another. I can't imagine this always helps, and it's very hard, but that's an example of a difficult path you may need to take to work with people who are plugged into your field of interest.

Flexibility and ingenuity are about the revelation that, well, there are lots of interesting ways to do interesting science in industry or academia. What are you really interested in? What elements of what you are interested in are industrially relevant, or relevant to some more applied, in demand field? What ancillary skills have you developed that can allow you to pursue a career doing science you're interested in? For instance, there are many great crystallographers at my home institution. At some point in their careers, they started working on techniques for studying biomolecules, because the government and industry care about that. It's at least as interesting if not more interesting than what they were planning on studying otherwise.

Ingenuity is the fuzziest one. It refers to the fact that rather than switching from one beaten track to another, you can try to do something fundamentally new. In the age of the internet, there are many interesting things to try. There is a YouTuber by the name of Thunderf00t with some strong political opinions who is also a scientist. He created videos using high speed cameras to study alkali-metal/water reactions for fun. In doing so, he noticed some rather odd things. He then proceeded to create more videos, caught the eye of some foreign researchers, and then began a professional scientific collaboration based upon research that started on YouTube. This resulted in a paper which challenged the orthodox view of these reactions which was published in Nature. He's now self-funded by his YouTube videos. I don't know as much about him, but a physics forums-goer by the name of Garret Lisi also went off the beaten track and seems to have an interesting life/career.

It's very risky, but you can try to do something completely new if that excites you.

20. Mar 2, 2017

### TomServo

Oh, okay. I thought that might be the point you were making, but it also seemed like maybe you were trashing industry, I couldn't tell.