# Theoretical Physics PhD worthless nowadays?

• Physics
CyberShot
I have heard from many sources that getting a PhD in theoretical physics (relativity, string theory, cosmology) is a trap. The US trains twice as many PhD's as there are jobs available. Also, there is tough competition and only a 1/4th of PhD's get tenure at a university!

The point is I'm in my 2nd year of college as a physics major and am wondering if I should end at a B.S. in Physics and apply to medical school. I really do love physics and can see myself doing research on theoretical problems (relativity, string theory) that interest me, but not at the expense of constantly being jobless and having to relocate every year or so.

Also, what sort of a factor does race/ethnicity of a physics PhD student play in getting hired? Is there affirmative action in post-doc/research positions? Does it also depend on which institution you received your PhD? i.e. (Caltech PhD > UC Irvine PhD?)

I am mainly quoting this site. http://wuphys.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html" [Broken]

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James M

twofish-quant
I have heard from many sources that getting a PhD in theoretical physics (relativity, string theory, cosmology) is a trap. The US trains twice as many PhD's as there are jobs available. Also, there is tough competition and only a 1/4th of PhD's get tenure at a university!

Hogwash. There aren't enough tenured academic positions to go around, but everyone I know with some sort of theoretical physics Ph.D. has been able to get some sort of decent position somewhere.

I really do love physics and can see myself doing research on theoretical problems (relativity, string theory) that interest me, but not at the expense of constantly being jobless and having to relocate every year or so.

Then get your Ph.D. and go into industry. You'll need to pick up some skills like programming along the way, but that isn't too difficult.

Also, what sort of a factor does race/ethnicity of a physics PhD student play in getting hired? Is there affirmative action in post-doc/research positions?

Universities have a preference in hiring underrepresented minorities, but that doesn't change the picture that much because underrepresented minorities are well.... underrepresented (i.e. there are too few to make much of a different in hiring).

Does it also depend on which institution you received your PhD? i.e. (Caltech PhD > UC Irvine PhD?)

I am mainly quoting this site. http://wuphys.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html" [Broken]

The problem is that he is talking about physicists that stay in academia. If you don't insist on working in academia, then life is quite good. Without too much trouble you can get 80K-90K working as a computer programmer, and if you want to get the big money, you can go into investment banking. Starting salary for Ph.D. level people in investment banking is about 130K, and the typical salary with five years of experience is 250K.

Among all of the Ph.D. physics people I know, people have a variety of jobs, but no one is flipping burgers.

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Staff Emeritus
2021 Award
I am mainly quoting this site.

Which is 10 years old.

Of course not every PhD gets a job cranking out more PhDs. But the number of unemployed PhDs is very small.

I might also add that a PhD isn't job training. It's not like you jump through a few hoops, write a thesis and BANG - here's a nice academic job that you can relax in for the rest of your life. The PhD is your education. It's up to you to figure out how to translate the skills that you've learned in the process into something marketable - and lots of people do this very successfully.

If you're interested in physics problems - just because you can't (get paid to) work on cosmology problems, doesn't mean you have to drop physics altogether. What about fields like geophysics or medical physics? What about getting into condensed matter or material science and taking on a project that's likely to lead to a patenable process or product?

CyberShot

Do you think this would help my chances in putting me in a good position to launch my research career in (relativity, string theory, etc)?

twofish-quant
Do you think this would help my chances in putting me in a good position to launch my research career in (relativity, string theory, etc)?

It would help slightly, but the jobs are few enough in academia. that it's hard to get a job no matter what your ethnic group is. In industry the jobs are plentiful enough so that it doesn't make that much of a huge difference.

medphys
If you like to think, like to know why things work or don't work, like to discover, don't like routine technical work (something a robot can do, but not always, so don't get me wrong) do not even consider going to medical physics as Choppy mentioned. Med phys field will waste your talent. Even you could land the job, you will be very bored.

You might be better-off to get your physics degree in B.Sc. and then go get an MD.

I have heard from many sources that getting a PhD in theoretical physics (relativity, string theory, cosmology) is a trap. The US trains twice as many PhD's as there are jobs available. Also, there is tough competition and only a 1/4th of PhD's get tenure at a university!

The point is I'm in my 2nd year of college as a physics major and am wondering if I should end at a B.S. in Physics and apply to medical school. I really do love physics and can see myself doing research on theoretical problems (relativity, string theory) that interest me, but not at the expense of constantly being jobless and having to relocate every year or so.

Also, what sort of a factor does race/ethnicity of a physics PhD student play in getting hired? Is there affirmative action in post-doc/research positions? Does it also depend on which institution you received your PhD? i.e. (Caltech PhD > UC Irvine PhD?)

I am mainly quoting this site. http://wuphys.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html" [Broken]

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DR13

Do you think this would help my chances in putting me in a good position to launch my research career in (relativity, string theory, etc)?

Even if it did put you in a slightly better position, I wouldn't rely on it. If it does so happen to help you, then lucky you! But try to focus on things that are actually in your control (grades, getting a jump on research, etc).

BenTheMan
Anyone facing these questions should check out Steve Hsu's blog. Here are a few relevant posts:

http://infoproc.blogspot.com/2005/02/tale-of-two-geeks.html
http://infoproc.blogspot.com/2006/03/success-vs-ability.html

I will say, Steve's opinions are a bit pessimistic when it comes to this question.

If you are fortunate enough to get to study String Theory at a major university, and you complete your PhD, this says something very important about you to employers. Of course, this can be proved other ways, as wel, without the huge opportunity cost.

Opportunity cost is a good way to think about it: your degree may end up costing you on the order of a million dollars, not out of pocket, but in future earnings. The question is, is it worth a million dollars to have a PhD in physics? Steve Hsu would say probably not, I would say I wouldn't sell mine for ten times that :)

As far as affirmative action, I don't know. I mean, it definitely can't hurt for you to be (say) African-American when looking for a post doc, as physicists themselves tend to be more liberal. At the end of the day, though, you still have to do good work. The best people don't always get the best jobs, which is a fact of life, and as much as physicists like to think they live in an egalitarian meritocracy, this is categorically NOT the case.

Race may or may not be an ultimate factor in getting a post-doc, but it probably will be a factor if you apply to grad school. What I've noticed is that most students at the top programs and students at the second tier programs aren't that different intelligence-wise. (There are specific exceptions, of course. I only want to make a broad statement.) What you will see is many more women and minorities in top tier programs---this has to be due to some sort of affirmative action, as the quality of students (in my opinion) is not that drastically different. In other words, if you are a good student, but not a great student, and you're a woman, you are more likely to end up going to a better grad program. This has been my experience, at least. And realize that race or sex is certainly not a free ticket to a PhD---you still have to be better than 99% of all of the other undergrads applying for grad school.

I want to be very clear on this point, so I will restate it again: there are a pool of qualified applicants to physics graduate programs, whose qualifications carry some distribution. Some are more qualified than others, in terms of GPA, GRE scores, and undergraduate research. It has been my experience that the race or sex of the applicant can have some bearing on the admission to a specific program. Note very carefully that I haven't expressed an opinion on this subject, and I've only tried to relate my experiences :) So take it as you will.

Finally, to end the politically controversial section, I'd say you should always get the highest pedigree that you can, in the chance that you leave physics and do something else. For example, I go to a (high) second tier grad school, but my advisor is a world expert in his field---he essentially invented it. I chose to come here specifically to work with him. Irvine is the same type of program---high second tier, low first tier. For example, I think Jon Feng is there. He is a world class guy, and you may meet him and find you have a great rapport with him. And if you stayed in physics, he would get you in the proper circles. But if you want to leave physics, you may be handicapped by the fact that you are coming from a place that isn't a top 5 program.

So if you have the choice between CalTech and UCI, and there's even a CHANCE that you might leave physics, you should strongly consider CalTech.

twofish-quant
Opportunity cost is a good way to think about it: your degree may end up costing you on the order of a million dollars, not out of pocket, but in future earnings. The question is, is it worth a million dollars to have a PhD in physics?

Except that it isn't. Personally, I don't think that you are going to end up making less money with a physics Ph.D. than you would with a law degree or MBA.

We really, really need to end this notion that somehow getting a physics Ph.D. means a life of poverty or even substandard income since it just ain't true.

Finally, to end the politically controversial section, I'd say you should always get the highest pedigree that you can, in the chance that you leave physics and do something else.

For physics Ph.D.'s, pedigree matters a *LOT* less outside of academia than in it. From the point of view of someone on the outside, if you have a physics Ph.D. then you are a brainiac and it matters little of you got the Ph.D. from Harvard or North Podunk.

BenTheMan
Except that it isn't. Personally, I don't think that you are going to end up making less money with a physics Ph.D. than you would with a law degree or MBA.

Hmmm maybe I didn't make myself clear. While you won't make less, what are the chances that you'd make significantly more?

The average Physics PhD takes, what...6 years? The average MBAor, say, Master's degree in quantitative finance or something, takes 2. So right out of the gate you have to make up for 4 years of income that you'll never have a chance to recoup. Now suppose the MBA student who took a job just invested his first four years salary less the $25K that we get as physics grad students over the course of his working life, say 40 years. A million dollars seems like a reasonable estimate to me. Anyway, this is the only point I'm trying to make, which I may not have made clear. You won't live a life of poverty, that's for sure. But you will be costing yourself money in the long run, which is as objective a way as any to think about your decisions. twofish-quant Hmmm maybe I didn't make myself clear. While you won't make less, what are the chances that you'd make significantly more? It's really hard to tell because there are so many variables. One is that there is a huge range in salary between the top MBA schools and the mid-ranked ones, whereas the different in salaries between top ranked Ph.D.'s and mid ranked one's isn't huge. You are likely to make more money with a Harvard MBA than physics Ph.D. from North Podunk University, but you are likely to make a lot more money with a physics Ph.D. from North Podunk than an MBA from North Podunk. But I think the bottom line is that the amount of money that you can get with a physics Ph.D. is comparable to what you'd get if you got an MBA even given the opportunity cost. Also, I've never seen a situation in which someone is deciding between an MBA and a physics Ph.D. and agonizing over salary return. The usual situation is that someone would rather to into physics, but has gotten the (mistaken) information that they are likely to make more with an MBA. So right out of the gate you have to make up for 4 years of income that you'll never have a chance to recoup. Which gets flattened by the fact that you aren't in debt after the Ph.D. and you are qualified for jobs that MBA's aren't qualified for, and some of these jobs pay more. The nice thing about a physics Ph.D. is that you can get a job making$150K after you get out, *but you don't have to* if you don't want to. You aren't in debt, so if you want to be a beach bum, you can be one. People with MBA's end up with golden handcuffs.

Anyway, this is the only point I'm trying to make, which I may not have made clear. You won't live a life of poverty, that's for sure. But you will be costing yourself money in the long run, which is as objective a way as any to think about your decisions.

And my point is that you aren't. If you look at it from a dollars and cents, there is no reason not to get a physics Ph.D. Since the financial aspects are comparable, it boils down to life choice. The thing that has to be made absolutely clear is that you can make a hell of a lot of money with a physics Ph.D.

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twofish-quant
One thing about careers advice is that it is one area in which looking at the averages is often irrelevant. If you hate managing people, then going out for an MBA is likely to be a bad idea, and it's likely that going out for a physics Ph.D. is a seriously, seriously bad idea if you happen to hate math.

Personally, I like *both* the technical and the management aspects of the corporate world, and given that, it makes sense to get the physics Ph.D. first. I think I have enough work experience so that I now have the equivalent of an MBA, and MBA skills are something that you can get "on the job." If you really need a piece of paper with the words MBA on them, it's not hard to get one since there are tons of part-time MBA programs out there.

Physics Ph.D. skills are something that you can't get on the job if you don't already have them so it makes since if you want both Ph.D. skills and MBA skills to get the Ph.D. skills in school.

DrRocket
Except that it isn't. Personally, I don't think that you are going to end up making less money with a physics Ph.D. than you would with a law degree or MBA.

That depends very much on the industry and the specific individual.

An average PhD physicist in industry will probably make as much or more than an average MBA.

But a top MBA is likely to make a lot more than the average Ph.D. And a Ph.D. who succeeds in top management will make what other executives make, many of them MBAs, and a lot more than the average Ph.D.

You may be told that the company has two ladders, a technical ladder and a management ladder. This is probably true. But there are fewer rungs at the top of the technical ladder and the technical ladder is not quite as high as the management ladder. A Ph.D. in a technical area can go up either ladder, and can switch ladders more easily than others.

The politics on the management ladder is considerably more intense than on the technical ladder. It is also worth remembering that is the people on the management ladder who determine who goes up a rung on either ladder.

But basically in industry your salary will depend more on you and what you contribute than any diploma that you may have. A Ph.D. is not a particularly good career decision on the basis of anticipated salary. Get one if you are compelled to do so by interest in a field, but not because you think it is the road to riches.

twofish-quant
A Ph.D. is not a particularly good career decision on the basis of anticipated salary.

I'd very strongly disagree. A physics Ph.D. is a very, very good career decision on the basis of anticipated salary. On the other hand, you really shouldn't make decisions solely on the basis of anticipated salary. If you hate doing physics, then you will find getting the Ph.D. a living hell, and then whats worse, you'll find yourself doing work afterwards that involves doing things that you hate.

Get one if you are compelled to do so by interest in a field, but not because you think it is the road to riches.

On the other hand, don't *avoid* getting a Ph.D. out of the mistaken idea that it's going to hurt your earning potential in comparison with say, getting a law degree or getting an MBA. It won't.

The other thing is that just because you have a Ph.D. doesn't prevent you from learning things that are not related to technical issues. If you get a Ph.D. and have no interest in learning about organizational politics and dealing with people, then you are going to end up with a decent well paying career, but it's not going to be spectacular. On the other hand, it's alright to just want a nice job that pays well, and then go home and put your energy into something else. One of the important things that you will have to decide is what "success" means for you.

If you really do want to climb the corporate ladder or create your own corporate ladder, then you *will* have to learn a whole set of skills involving people and politics. These aren't part of the standard physics Ph.D. curriculum, but having a physics Ph.D. doesn't disqualify you from learning those skills.

Wminus
some_dude
twofish-quant, I really appreciate the advice you give out here. Would the points you're making regarding what you can do with a theoretical physics PhD more or less apply to a pure mathematics PhD as well? I've done a lot of programming already (I was into programming well before I came to like math), and that's sort of my fall back that keeps me from stressing too much about the future.

DrRocket
twofish-quant, I really appreciate the advice you give out here. Would the points you're making regarding what you can do with a theoretical physics PhD more or less apply to a pure mathematics PhD as well? I've done a lot of programming already (I was into programming well before I came to like math), and that's sort of my fall back that keeps me from stressing too much about the future.

There are few companies that have any idea what a PhD mathematician is, and hence any appreciation for the degree will have to come from what you demonstrate to them that you can contribute. Mathematics is not widely understood, except by mathematicians themselves.

So, if you use an education as PhD mathematician to develop deep insights and put those insights to use so that you can make substantial contributions, it will be of benefit to you. If not, then it will not. But except in the minority of organizations a PhD in mathematics will not open many doors. That same comment applies to a PhD in physics, but perhaps less so, as people usually have the impression that they understand what a PhD physicist does (even if that impressin is wrong). Management in the larger companies is dominated by engineers, accountants and lawyers.

On the other hand if you put your advanced education to use, it may well enable you to see things that others miss and thereby enhance your objective value to the organization. And it is that value that is the basis for how the organization perceives you and what happens during your career.

I tell you this as a retired aerospace executive, with a PhD in pure mathematics, and an MS in engineering. Been there, done that.

some_dude
There are few companies that have any idea what a PhD mathematician is, and hence any appreciation for the degree will have to come from what you demonstrate to them that you can contribute. Mathematics is not widely understood, except by mathematicians themselves.

So, if you use an education as PhD mathematician to develop deep insights and put those insights to use so that you can make substantial contributions, it will be of benefit to you. If not, then it will not. But except in the minority of organizations a PhD in mathematics will not open many doors. That same comment applies to a PhD in physics, but perhaps less so, as people usually have the impression that they understand what a PhD physicist does (even if that impressin is wrong). Management in the larger companies is dominated by engineers, accountants and lawyers.

On the other hand if you put your advanced education to use, it may well enable you to see things that others miss and thereby enhance your objective value to the organization. And it is that value that is the basis for how the organization perceives you and what happens during your career.

I tell you this as a retired aerospace executive, with a PhD in pure mathematics, and an MS in engineering. Been there, done that.

For me it's very difficult to learn stuff from an "applied" point of view. So if my goal were applied math or engineering I'd probably still be on the same path. I just can't stand when a class or subject is taught from a high-level perspective where you need to just take on faith a huge foundation of material.

Locrian
I just can't stand when a class or subject is taught from a high-level perspective where you need to just take on faith a huge foundation of material.

You never need to take it on faith. Just go and research the background yourself.

some_dude
You never need to take it on faith. Just go and research the background yourself.

That's rarely feasible. E.g., some undergrad (non-pure math) course invokes Fourier transforms: if you want to go and research the background you're going to need to go study Harmonic analysis, but first you'll need measure theory, and before that undergraduate analysis. In other words, you'd be probably still be researching the background long after said course ended.

DrRocket
For me it's very difficult to learn stuff from an "applied" point of view. So if my goal were applied math or engineering I'd probably still be on the same path. I just can't stand when a class or subject is taught from a high-level perspective where you need to just take on faith a huge foundation of material.

I agree.

When you are asked to take a lot on faith, I take that as an indication that the person who asks that of you does not understand the material himself.

I don't call that a high-level perspective, I just call it hand waving. Sometimes that which is being described during the hand waving is correct, and sometimes it is not.

DrRocket
That's rarely feasible. E.g., some undergrad (non-pure math) course invokes Fourier transforms: if you want to go and research the background you're going to need to go study Harmonic analysis, but first you'll need measure theory, and before that undergraduate analysis. In other words, you'd be probably still be researching the background long after said course ended.

You picked an interesting example, a pet peeve. Some of the hand waving with regard to Fourier transforms and Fourier series is necessary, because what they are telling you is false, particularly with regard to convergence of Fourier series. They do not, in general, converge as nicely as many engineers and scientists have been led to believe. I have seen text book statements that are just plain false.

It is even more difficult to prove a false statement rigorously than it is to wave your hands and convince the naive but skeptical.

The only reliable way that I know of to handle the situation that you describe, is to do what I did. But leaving engineering to go get a PhD in pure mathematics is rather extreme, and more of a commitment of time than one might reasonably expect from the average student. It is, however, effective.

some_dude
You picked an interesting example, a pet peeve. Some of the hand waving with regard to Fourier transforms and Fourier series is necessary, because what they are telling you is false, particularly with regard to convergence of Fourier series. They do not, in general, converge as nicely as many engineers and scientists have been led to believe. I have seen text book statements that are just plain false.

It is even more difficult to prove a false statement rigorously than it is to wave your hands and convince the naive but skeptical.

The only reliable way that I know of to handle the situation that you describe, is to do what I did. But leaving engineering to go get a PhD in pure mathematics is rather extreme, and more of a commitment of time than one might reasonably expect from the average student. It is, however, effective.

Well, I'm glad to hear it's effective, because it's not far off from my motivation either.

Fourier analysis is interesting in that respect, because I've never found anything as tedious as having to do that stuff in a rote way without any clue what was going on. Trying to "play around" with those integrals in any sort of non-thought out way just seems to lead to a nightmare explosion of symbols. My friend is doing some research on that this summer, and I'm going to some seminars to hopefully cut through some of the fog that remains.

DrRocket
Well, I'm glad to hear it's effective, because it's not far off from my motivation either.

Fourier analysis is interesting in that respect, because I've never found anything as tedious as having to do that stuff in a rote way without any clue what was going on. Trying to "play around" with those integrals in any sort of non-thought out way just seems to lead to a nightmare explosion of symbols. My friend is doing some research on that this summer, and I'm going to some seminars to hopefully cut through some of the fog that remains.

There are of course lots of books, good ones, on harmonic analysis, but I am particularly fond of the following two:

Fourier Analysis on Groups -- Rudin

An Introduction to Harmonic Analysis -- Katznelson

Both are graduate level books, and there is minimal overlap between the two.

If you can find an old Dover Edition of Katznelson's book it is MUCH cheaper than the very slightly updated new hardback edition.

arunma
Twofish-quant, I know it's been a couple months since you posted this. But perhaps you (or someone else) can help clear up some misconceptions on my part.

Hogwash. There aren't enough tenured academic positions to go around, but everyone I know with some sort of theoretical physics Ph.D. has been able to get some sort of decent position somewhere.

I too have always been told that there are far fewer academic positions available than trained PhDs. Here's a graph from the American Institute of Physics which says that in the past few years, we've been training between 1000 and 1400 PhDs per year in America:

Now this data says that in 2005, there were about 1100 new physics PhDs trained in America. However, this table says that in 2005, there were 324 faculty positions available:

http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/highlite/awf06/table8.htm

Obviously we're averaging over all majors here, such as condensed matter, high energy, space physics, astrophysics, etc. Nonetheless, in the class of 2005 this leaves 1100 people competing for 324 jobs. Now obviously I know that in the best physics tradition, I'm making some simplifying assumptions here. People applying to 4 year colleges will be able to compete seriously without doing postdocs, but people applying to state universities will have to do postdocs. Nonetheless, you can see why I'm worried.

My own informal polls (i.e. talking to my friends at the bar) suggests that most physics grad students want to pursue faculty positions rather than go into industry. Indeed, for virtually all grad students outside condensed matter, it's very difficult to find an industry job that involves doing the same research one did for his PhD. And every time my department has done a faculty search, it consideres quite a few candidates, for just one position.

These statistics make me worry about my prospects as a physicist. I really don't want to end up being a computer programmer or financial analyst, but since I'm an astrophysicist, I'm not really sure where I could get a permanent industry job that involves doing actual physics (I know, it was my mistake for not doing condensed matter when I had the chance). After glancing at these stats, I had all but given up hope on getting a tenure-track academic position. But now you're telling me that the general interpretation of this data is wrong. Could you elaborate? If I have a good chance of getting a faculty job, I'd really like to know.

twofish-quant
twofish-quant, I really appreciate the advice you give out here. Would the points you're making regarding what you can do with a theoretical physics PhD more or less apply to a pure mathematics PhD as well? I've done a lot of programming already (I was into programming well before I came to like math), and that's sort of my fall back that keeps me from stressing too much about the future.

One mistake that people make is to think of a degree as some sort of meal ticket, in which you get the degree and that degree somehow turns into a meal ticket in which you get money from. It really doesn't work that way. The degree is a characteristic of yourself that can be sold if you can do some sales and marketing.

The thing about physics and math Ph.D.'s is that I don't know of anyone that doesn't have a middle class job, and I know of a many people with physics and math Ph.D.'s that make pretty large salaries.

some_dude
There are of course lots of books, good ones, on harmonic analysis, but I am particularly fond of the following two:

Fourier Analysis on Groups -- Rudin

An Introduction to Harmonic Analysis -- Katznelson

Both are graduate level books, and there is minimal overlap between the two.

If you can find an old Dover Edition of Katznelson's book it is MUCH cheaper than the very slightly updated new hardback edition.

Well I might have a look, though someone's also recommended Elias Stein's advanced book to me, looks intimidating so we'll see. I'm strongly inclined to be a geometer and have found Mikhail Gromov has an enormous amount of geometry flavored analogues to the more analytical standard analysis material I have difficulty grasping. I've seen first hand many natural analysts have abilities with manipulating integrals I don't have (and lacking that makes studying Fourier analysis tough).

One mistake that people make is to think of a degree as some sort of meal ticket, in which you get the degree and that degree somehow turns into a meal ticket in which you get money from. It really doesn't work that way. The degree is a characteristic of yourself that can be sold if you can do some sales and marketing.

The thing about physics and math Ph.D.'s is that I don't know of anyone that doesn't have a middle class job, and I know of a many people with physics and math Ph.D.'s that make pretty large salaries.

Oh, I know - been there, done that. From the ages of 18 to 22, I was just always looking for the right "credential" or line-on-the-resume to get the "big job". To some extent, I do think there are degrees that are "meal tickets": e.g., Harvard MBAs, medical degrees, dental degrees, CPAs, etc. But I've also come to believe those types of mass-produced jobs provide no intrinsic value - it's only the "prestigue" and money I could see as motivating me to go that direction, certainly not something I'd be doing if I weren't chasing a carrot. Math is the complete opposite: chicks are, at best, ambivalent it and you aren't really guaranteed to make a dime, but it's still worthwhile in and of itself.

arunma
Oh, I know - been there, done that. From the ages of 18 to 22, I was just always looking for the right "credential" or line-on-the-resume to get the "big job". To some extent, I do think there are degrees that are "meal tickets": e.g., Harvard MBAs, medical degrees, dental degrees, CPAs, etc. But I've also come to believe those types of mass-produced jobs provide no intrinsic value - it's only the "prestigue" and money I could see as motivating me to go that direction, certainly not something I'd be doing if I weren't chasing a carrot. Math is the complete opposite: chicks are, at best, ambivalent it and you aren't really guaranteed to make a dime, but it's still worthwhile in and of itself.

Don't know anything about dental derees and CPAs, and know that the MBA isn't all it's cracked up to be. But from my career-related research, I do know that in America the medical degree is most certainly a safety net for the rest of your life. Don't get me wrong, you've still got to work long hours and stuff. But if you've got MD (or DO) after your name, you've basically got a guarantee that regardless of the state of the economy, you will get a job and not be laid off. In addition to the fact that there's always a steady supply of sick people, the AMA has taken steps to protect the medical profession, such as restricting the number of medical students it educates yearly, and not starting new medical schools. I wonder what the job outlook would be for physicists if departments accepted fewer grad students.

Anyway, if I knew in undergrad what I know now, I definitely would have stuck with my pre-med program instead of switching to physics. But hey, maybe I'm wrong. Twofish says that there's a shortage of candidates for tenure-track positions. Now if only someone will find a way to explain the AIP data to me...

Gold Member
Now this data says that in 2005, there were about 1100 new physics PhDs trained in America. However, this table says that in 2005, there were 324 faculty positions available:

http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/highlite/awf06/table8.htm

Obviously we're averaging over all majors here, such as condensed matter, high energy, space physics, astrophysics, etc. Nonetheless, in the class of 2005 this leaves 1100 people competing for 324 jobs. Now obviously I know that in the best physics tradition, I'm making some simplifying assumptions here. People applying to 4 year colleges will be able to compete seriously without doing postdocs, but people applying to state universities will have to do postdocs. Nonetheless, you can see why I'm worried.

My own informal polls (i.e. talking to my friends at the bar) suggests that most physics grad students want to pursue faculty positions rather than go into industry. Indeed, for virtually all grad students outside condensed matter, it's very difficult to find an industry job that involves doing the same research one did for his PhD. And every time my department has done a faculty search, it consideres quite a few candidates, for just one position.

You are forgetting all the hundreds of Post-Docs who are looking for faculty positions, the ratio is more like 10:1, and departments are getting hundreds of applications for every position. The academic community needs to start training their graduate students to work in industry, not just as an academic someplace after working as a slave post-doc for 4-5 years. You are correct, condensed matter is most likely one of the few disciplines where you have many of the skills out of a PhD program to slide into industry, optical physics is another. Experimentalists have an easier path in because of the amount of lab work in many industrial disciplines, theoreticians have it harder but can hack it, if they learn how to work with the other areas.

Having worked in industry for the past 10 years with a PhD in Solid State, I can talk with some authority on this matter.

I agree 100% with Dr. Transport. I got a PhD in Optical Physics, worked in industry for 6 years and went back to academia, where I am now.

arunma
You are forgetting all the hundreds of Post-Docs who are looking for faculty positions, the ratio is more like 10:1, and departments are getting hundreds of applications for every position. The academic community needs to start training their graduate students to work in industry, not just as an academic someplace after working as a slave post-doc for 4-5 years. You are correct, condensed matter is most likely one of the few disciplines where you have many of the skills out of a PhD program to slide into industry, optical physics is another. Experimentalists have an easier path in because of the amount of lab work in many industrial disciplines, theoreticians have it harder but can hack it, if they learn how to work with the other areas.

Having worked in industry for the past 10 years with a PhD in Solid State, I can talk with some authority on this matter.

Good point Dr. Transport. I was making simplifying assumptions to show that getting an academic position with a PhD in physics is really hard. But I guess it's even harder than these assumptions would suggest.

In this economy I'll take any job I can get. But if I have any ability to choose, I'm really looking for the following criteria (in order of importance):

1. Minimal risk of being laid off.
2. Work that involves doing actual physics. Since I was trained to take data and make scientific conclusions, I would like to do this. And since I'm a physicist, I'd like to be doing physics and not computational biology (or whatever it is high energy PhDs do these days).
3. I don't want to be a programmer. These days it sounds like the transferrable skills of a physics PhD lands most people in programming jobs. Don't get me wrong, I can program so long as there's a non-computer end goal in mind. In my current research most of my time is spent programming, but that programming is done with some astrophysics objective. I don't want to end up working for Microsoft developing software.

If I can get these criteria met in industry, great. But it sounds like academia is the only way to go. How do you compete for an academic position when there are so many candidates? Again, Twofish said that there is a shortage of candidates for academic jobs. If so, I'd like to hear more about this. Or if anyone knows how I can get into an industry job (as a physicist, not a programmer), I'd really like to know how to do this too.

Twofish says that there's a shortage of candidates for tenure-track positions. Now if only someone will find a way to explain the AIP data to me...

Where did he say that? From what I've seen in this forum, he's a strong proponent of the "don't go into graduate study with the expectation of getting an academic job" school of thought.

I think he's saying that just because you can't find work as a professor, doesn't mean you're condemned to a career at McDonalds. There are other options for people who've completed graduate degrees and there are many cases of people who end up doing quite well financially because they've figured out how to parlay the scienctific skills they've acquired into marketable assets.

The trick, I suppose, is really figuring out how to do that. How does someone who's spent the last four years running stellar evolution simulations convince a financial company that she's worth $200k per year? And if she does managed to do that, how does she find enough personal fulfillment to remain committed to whatever they need her to do? Science Advisor Gold Member In this economy I'll take any job I can get. But if I have any ability to choose, I'm really looking for the following criteria (in order of importance): 1. Minimal risk of being laid off. 2. Work that involves doing actual physics. Since I was trained to take data and make scientific conclusions, I would like to do this. And since I'm a physicist, I'd like to be doing physics and not computational biology (or whatever it is high energy PhDs do these days). 3. I don't want to be a programmer. These days it sounds like the transferrable skills of a physics PhD lands most people in programming jobs. Don't get me wrong, I can program so long as there's a non-computer end goal in mind. In my current research most of my time is spent programming, but that programming is done with some astrophysics objective. I don't want to end up working for Microsoft developing software. In this day and age, lay-offs are always an issue, minimal risk means that you are indispensable, that takes time and energy on your part to get there. All engineering work involves some physics and engineers know this, the lead in my group is a mechanical engineer and says all the time "Physics works, you just need to know how to apply it". All jobs have programming as part of the duties, remember, you're analyzing data on a daily basis and you have to model the experiments. twofish-quant Where did he say that? From what I've seen in this forum, he's a strong proponent of the "don't go into graduate study with the expectation of getting an academic job" school of thought. I'm curious what I said that gave people the idea that I think there a shortage of Ph.D.'s for academic jobs. There is a *VAST* oversupply of Ph.D.'s for tenure track academic positions. What I do believe is that the job prospects for Ph.D. physicists is extremely good, you just have to broaden your perspective a bit. The trick, I suppose, is really figuring out how to do that. How does someone who's spent the last four years running stellar evolution simulations convince a financial company that she's worth$200k per year?

It's pretty easy to do that, since the hiring manager is someone that has done numerical relativity or something similar.

And if she does managed to do that, how does she find enough personal fulfillment to remain committed to whatever they need her to do?

Depends on the environment, but it helps that the work environment is very much like graduate school.

twofish-quant
1. Minimal risk of being laid off.

The problem with minimal risk of being laid off is that usually means "boring job" with no prospects. I've been laid off twice so far. I expect to be laid off several times in the future. It's not the worst thing in the world. As far as the goal of programming, keeping the world financial system from collapsing, seems to me a worthy goal. It's certainly an interesting one.

If I can get these criteria met in industry, great. But it sounds like academia is the only way to go.

I lot of it depends on what you can get. If someone offered me a tenured faculty position at Princeton doing supernova models, of course I'd take it, but no one is knocking down my door for that. People are knocking down my door to run monte carlo financial models, and life isn't that bad.

Again, Twofish said that there is a shortage of candidates for academic jobs.

I said no such thing. There is something of a shortage of qualified teachers at community college and high school teachers, but the pay isn't good. The jobs prospects for academia truly stinks, and you should not go into a Ph.D. program with any hope of getting a job in traditional academia.

I said that that job prospects for physics Ph.D.'s is good. That's a different statement.

Or if anyone knows how I can get into an industry job (as a physicist, not a programmer), I'd really like to know how to do this too.

It depends what you define as physicist. I spend most of my time writing and debugging numerical code, but I spend most of graduate school writing and debugging numerical code, so it's not that much different.