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Thinking Career As A Professor

  1. Aug 7, 2012 #1
    Recently, I have been thinking about what I would like to do once I finish my graduate school career. I already know that I like doing research, so I was thinking of either working for a national lab or becoming a professor. Based on some information I've read on the web, becoming a professor seems like the career track I ought to take (traveling, researching what you want, working on cutting edge problems, building reputation/respect, making advancements in the field). However, I have some reservations that I would like to ask the forums:

    1) There is a stigma that a lot of professors seem to lack common sense. Some people simply attribute this to being "book smart"; personally I think this is the result of not exercising another part of the brain. I am worried about going into academia for fear of losing this important skill. From experience, do those in academics inadvertently sacrifice their common sense for expertise in their area of choice?

    2) How are the job prospects for professors compared to PhD's applying to national labs or companies such as GE? In my case my PhD background will be in fluid mechanics, reacting flows and CFD.

    3) Is it true that professors can research "what they want"? It doesn't seem to make sense to me that a university would hire a professor so they could do whatever research they wanted. It would be more rational for them to hire a professor that is doing research that the school is looking for.

    4) How is job security for professors with the background mention above vs PhD's applying to companies or national labs? I understand that once a professor is tenured it is very hard for them to get fired, but before this time period it is very unstable.

    5) I have been told that the academia atmosphere is filled with political BS. Is the mentality, "publish or get fired" true even for a professor that publishes less frequently but with higher quality papers?

    6) I understand that becoming a professor requires additional experiances besides earning a PhD. What are the benefits/(word for opposite of benefits) of doing a Post-Doc vs. going into industry for a few years?

    7)I am fearful of going into industry for a few reasons: the first being that when someone works for a large company, the company essentially owns every idea you come up with. The second reason is that one must to research that the company desires. And finally, a lot of people in industry seem much less full-filled with their work than professors. Are these notions true or false.

    I think this post is long enough for now. Thoughts?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 7, 2012 #2
    It's nice to have dreams, but remember that "I'd like to be a research professor" is something like "I'd like to be an action hero movie star." or "I'd like to be a professional baseball player." In fact there are more job openings for professional baseball players than there are for physics professors.

    Being a research professor is a wonderful job. So is being a professional baseball player or a big name A-list action hero star or being governor of Arizona. However, its very premature to trying to talk about whether or not you want to be those things, since it's not up to you, and talking about the job as if you had some sort of choice is probably not a good idea.

    It's a fun stereotype, but I don't think this is particularly true.

    Suppose I spend an hour trying to unlock a door when all I had to do was to press a button. At that point my wife laughs at me and then talks about how ironic it was that I have a Ph.D. in astrophysics and I can't figure out the door. Ha. Ha.

    However, lets suppose I didn't have a Ph.D. and I still couldn't open the door. At that point there wouldn't be an ironic joke. Let's suppose, I took two minutes to figure out the door. There wouldn't be a joke there either. Getting the Ph.D. doesn't make me stupid. It sets things up so everyone notices the stupid things that I do without the Ph.D.

    And being a professor is worse.

    If you are in theoretical physics, assume that you won't get the job. Also you should familiarize yourself with the academic rumor mill. In astrophysics, all of the job openings are on a single web page. And it's not a long web page.

    Also for deep theoretical physics, the big employers are defense, oil/gas, and Wall Street.

    So the university hires someone that wants to do the research that the university what's them to do. The other thing is that professors are pretty senior people, so that the point of hiring a professor is to have someone who knows what research the school should be doing.

    In industry, you should just expect to be laid off at some point. National labs are government employees so that there are some protections. The big difference between academia and industry is that once you are tenured, in order to lose your job, you have to do something "bad." In industry, you can be totally outstanding, walk on water, be the worlds smartest and best employee, and still lose your job. Universities rarely disappear, but companies go broke all the time.

    One thing is that if you go back to 1950's the job protections that professors have weren't that unusual. They are similar to the ones you get if you work for a unionized industry, but high tech people generally are not unionized. The other thing is that there are advantages in low job security. One is that there are more jobs. If a university hires a tenured professor, then they have to support them for decades. So they are going to be very, very, very picky. On the other hand, companies will "take a chance" knowing that they can fire you if things don't work out.

    The other advantage is that there is no stigma in failure. If you get kicked out of the university that's a black mark against you. If you lose your job in industry, well everyone loses their job at some point.

    Academia is filled with political BS, because the world is filled with political BS.

    One special issue in academia is that there often are not clear standards. What is "quality"? In industry, it's usually clearer. You make money, you're good. You don't make money, you are not.

    Also, because it's hard to fire someone in academia, you end up with long term nasty fights. In most companies, you have nasty political fights, the winners win, and the losers get kicked out of the company, and the fight ends (or the company goes out of business and everyone loses).

    If you are talking about theoretical physics, you have no choice. If you go into industry after you get your Ph.D., you are not going to be considered for any tenure-track position.

    Sure. But there are benefits to that. The first is that they give you $$$$$. The second is that they'll take that idea and turn it into some profitable good or service. Ideas are useless, and you aren't going to be able to turn your idea into something useful without an organization. It's *really* cool to come up with an idea, and then see that idea in the news once your company releases product.

    Yes and no. The nice thing is in most companies that I have worked for is that you can work anything that you want if you can convince someone that there is money to be made. Also, I've found things to be freer in industry. For example, suppose you are a physics professor. You probably aren't going to be allowed to research organizational psychology.

    In business, you need dozens of different skills to survive, and I've always found something interesting.

    The other thing is that you have to compare apples to apples. If you compare a professor to a new hire, then yes the professor has more freedom, but that's the wrong comparison. Professors are senior people, and then get hired by universities to come up with research programs. The equivalent people in industry are people at the middle managers, and I've seen middle managers create their own research programs.

    Again, apples to apples. Being a professor is like being a Hollywood movie star. If you want to do a proper comparison, then compare an adjunct. Also academia != professor just like most actors aren't big name movie stars.

    One other difference between academia and industry. People in academia can talk about their jobs more than people in industry.
  4. Aug 8, 2012 #3
    Yes, it is. As the previous poster has said, universities usually try to hire professors who want to research what they want to have researched, but it doesn't always work out. I know of one case where a professor was hired in condensed matter, was given tenure, and then changed direction completely.

    There is a big difference between tenured and untenured professors. Although actually they don't usually fire untenured professors either... they just don't renew their contract.

    And when the previous poster says you have to do something "bad" to be fired as a tenured professor... think borderline criminal. Tenured professors rarely lose their jobs.

    "Publish or perish" applies to untenured professors. Tenured professors need to publish too in order to keep the grants and students coming, but it isn't as critical as it is for untenured faculty.

    That's true of universities too. Take a look at http://rph.stanford.edu/5-1.html for example. The difference is that universities are usually more willing to reassign or license your ideas back to you than a company is.
  5. Aug 8, 2012 #4


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    It's been mentioned, but it bears repeating: don't count on a career as a professor. Definitely look into industry positions, and try not to convince yourself that it's professor or bust, even if your concerns over academia are resolved.

    This might be true in theory, but it's not necessarily true in practice. To get your research done, you still need to convince people with money to fund it. In the case of a professor in the US, it's typically the National Science Foundation or the military or the National Institute of Health. The university typically won't pay you directly to do research. The university will pay you to teach. When you start they'll give you some start-up funds to pay students and get going, but they're going to expect you to bring in your own grant money to pay for your students and research program. This means you'll have to write a lot of grant proposals in order to get someone to fund your research programs. So, you can only really research "what you want" if someone else thinks it's valuable for you to be researching it. That may or may not be the case, so you may find that you'll have to study whatever is closest to your interests that someone will actually pay you to study.
  6. Aug 8, 2012 #5
    One thing that I believe was missed a little was that the OP has a CFD background. The job openings are not nearly as sparse for CFD engineers as they are for theoretical physicists. Turbomachine labs, hydrodynamics, aeronautics, you name it. In light of this, I would say that it is not unrealistic to hope for a career as a professor. However, you must PUBLISH, PUBLISH, PUBLISH!!! When I got the first results from my research I started writting a huge bigass paper but my supervisor walked me through splitting it in many small pieces, so from that piece of work I got 5 papers (instead of one) and counting. Unfortunatelly, it's a cross we all must bear :biggrin:
  7. Aug 9, 2012 #6

    Vanadium 50

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    Not true. The vast majority are contractors - there are probably fewer than 1000 feds out of several tens of thousand employees. Even the "feds" are often IPA's anyway.
  8. Aug 9, 2012 #7


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    I can verify what Vanadium has stated. The overwhelming majority of employees of the Nat'l Labs are considered as government contractors, and are tied to the institution that administer the lab for the DOE.

  9. Aug 9, 2012 #8
    Guess you never worked at a university or a national lab. You only get to research the questions that can be funded. If that happens to overlap with what you *want*, then great! Oftentimes, though, there are many interesting things we have to ignore because we just can't get a grant to fund the investigation.
  10. Aug 9, 2012 #9
    As an employee of a National Lab I can also verify that I am a contractor (not a federal employee) and there have been significant layoffs here over the last ten years.

    Granted, they are not as brutal to their workforce as industry*, but they aren't federal jobs.

    * I got laid off from an industrial job once the day after finishing a project that required me to work 27 straight days, weekends included. Nice.
  11. Aug 9, 2012 #10
    In the U-turn case that I'm familiar with, the prof needed very little equipment that he didn't already have access to, so he didn't have a problem changing directions completely.

    If what you want to research is either really out there or hideously expensive, yes, you have a problem.

    But yes, money rules the world.
  12. Aug 9, 2012 #11

    Since you don't typically get tenure until your late 30s at the earliest, I'm sure this guy still had to research whatever he could until then. Also, he's lucky he was interested in stuff that was cheap. I'd say he's an outlier.

    It's really, really hard to do this in practice. One of your roles as a professor is to teach graduate students, and to do that you need to be able to pay them, and to do that you need grants. Some small schools may let you get away without doing that, but to do the good stuff at a research university, it takes money, and a lot of it.

    You don't learn this in school, but one killer about working for a university or national lab is overhead. Basically, anything you buy, and anything you pay a student/postdoc is marked up a ton and the balance goes to the University for operational expenses. So, in practice, you need a good bit of money to do ANYTHING.
  13. Aug 9, 2012 #12
    None of us are truly free.

    But the fact remains, tenured professors are freer to do what they want than most. :smile:

    (And I'll also agree "tenured" is a very important qualifier that I left out of my first post in this thread.)
  14. Aug 9, 2012 #13
    Still, I think it's doable if you publish like hell and you have some mobility. A friend of mine ended up in Hong Kong (from Europe) in a tenure-track position, but he did get it.
  15. Aug 9, 2012 #14
    Wow, thanks guys for the replies. I will follow up with a few more questions once I gain access to a pc. PF is a great resource :)
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