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Three questions about my future (4th-year looking for advice)

  1. Feb 18, 2012 #1
    In a few months I should be graduating from the University of Toronto, having specialized in physics. Academically I have done well - my graduating GPA looks like it will be around 3.96 out of 4.00 (everything above 85%, except 84% in Linear Algebra II and 78% in Modern Optics). I have done particularly well in the three QM courses I've taken, with 90%'s in all three I've completed thus far. This makes sense, seeing as QM is the subject I've dearly loved from the very beginning. I've involved myself in research at the undergrad level, concerned mainly with optics (femtosecond optics in third year, and now I'm working on a small single-photon quantum optics experiment).

    I hope to stay in academia. A decent professorship is my aim, but I'm not deluded into thinking this will be at Stanford or Berkeley - I'd be happy enough just having a job where I can do what I love. I don't totally rule out the prospect of working at a national lab or in the private sector, though I don't want to end up in finance or designing weapons. Money is not a major aim, I just want enough to raise a family and be comfortable.

    Given this background, I am seeking advice from folks with experience. I'm also going to talk to faculty at my university, but I'd like to see what others have to say.

    1. How important is it to study at different universities for undergrad and PhD, in order to get a professorship down the road? I have heard this repeatedly, but not from reliable sources. I have applied only to U. Toronto for grad school for a couple of reasons: it is the pretty much the best university in Canada for research in physics; studying at the M.Sc. level in Europe would be too expensive; I did not have time to write the GREs last term, so I couldn't apply to schools in the USA. However, I still could bolt after a Master's and go to Europe or the USA. My question is, if I do stay at my undergrad institution for the full PhD program, how much does this really damage my prospects?

    2. My girlfriend of several years also studies physics, and shall likely be starting a Master's soon. We intend on getting married. If she continues through into academia, how much of a problem will it be getting appointments in the same city? I have heard universities find positions for spouses who are also researchers when they hire someone- how true is this?

    3. Perhaps the most important: should I do go into theory or experiment? This has been bothering me for a while, and it's becoming a pressing question now. Every time I think about it, I can come up with hosts of pros and cons for each. Deep down, I think I most want to go into theory. However, two things hold me back:
    1. It's hard enough for me to sit down for a few hours to do a problem set - it's hard to imagine spending the rest of my life at a desk, where there is never any practical stuff I can do with my hands to kill time.
    2. I am simply not sure that I am good enough to make a serious contribution in theory. My field would likely be quantum optics - perhaps quantum information, perhaps light-matter interaction leaning toward theoretical condensed matter, maybe QFT. The problem is, I'm not sure I'm mathematically prepared. I have taken the full complement of required math courses, plus a couple for extra interest, and have always done well, all A, or A+ except for one A-). The problem is, I got all my math done in the first two years, and haven't taken a math course since, so I'm rusty. Also, I haven't taken the advanced courses intended for math specialists - I've stuck to those intended for the physical sciences. For example, I've done multivariable calculus, but not analysis. The PDEs course I did was very applied. I have never taken courses in probability or statistics. Is it wise to embark on a career in theoretical quantum physics in this situation?

    Sorry for the length post. I really appreciate any advice.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 19, 2012 #2
    One of the things that would help is if you kept something of an open mind about finance (or stuff in general). The problem with excluding options early is that you have fewer options. If you start with the view "no way in hell will I do finance!!!" it's going to be painful if you find that you have to, whereas if you start with the view "well, it doesn't sound that great" then it will be less painful if it looks like the most viable option.

    The most important determination of whether academic jobs will be available is funding. More money means more professors, but right now, it doesn't look good. The other thing is that I think it is likely that technology will force huge changes in the structure of academia over the next decade, although I really have no clue (nor does anyone else really) what those changes will be.

    Economics and technology are the most important factors in the job market in the next few years, and both of these are largely outside of your control. The things that are in your control, frankly, don't matter very much.

    Finance got a lot more interesting for me once I figured out that everything in academia revolved around money. Once I figured that out, then the next steps were "study money" and "get money." The other thing about finance that makes it attractive is that it turned out for me to be the most viable path to an academic position. I know of several co-workers that have gotten adjunct professorships.

    I don't think it matters much as far as getting a professorship. It's a very bad idea for other reasons, namely that you end up learning a lot more if you go to wildly different schools and see that science can be done in wildly different ways. Being in different environments also helps you adapt to the process of changing environments.

    If someone kicks you off a plane, you very quickly learn to operate a parachute. Once you've been kicked out of an airplane, that makes it a lot less scary to jump if you have to do it again.

    It happens a lot with tenured positions, but I've never heard it happen at the post-doc level.

    Which ever one is more likely to get you a Ph.D. A lot of this may depend on the professors you meet. One of the more important qualities is personal relationship with your adviser, so if you find that you just like to work with an person in one field, that's the one that you should go for.
    Last edited: Feb 19, 2012
  4. Feb 19, 2012 #3
    Tell that Diogenes! Not everything in the academy revolves around money. Everything in the *real* academy revolves around eudaimonia...
  5. Feb 19, 2012 #4
    Thanks for the reply, twofish-quant.

    I hear you with regard to finance. I will keep more of an open mind. To be honest, before I started in physics I toyed with the idea of being a trader, after doing a little temp work for a friend in that business. Some of what I saw was exciting, and I still find some tidbits intriguing. I would simply prefer avoiding the corporate environment altogether (I know academia has corporate elements, but from what I've seen, it's quite different).

    With regard to what you said about studying at different universities: I have heard this as well. I have already spent a year abroad on exchange in Germany, which was incredibly valuable, and gave me exactly the parachute-learning kick you describe. All things considered, I would like to go abroad again for my grad studies, but having committed myself to at least a Master's here in Toronto, I need to weigh this against the prospect of interrupting my studies to reboot after a year at another institution.

    About theory vs. experiment: right, I agree with your pragmatic approach. I have met supervisors in both fields I would like to work with. The question becomes, am I mathematically prepared for theory in QO - even forgetting preparation, am I good enough altogether? On the surface my marks might say that I am, but then again, the math courses I took weren't the math-stream ones, so it's possible they are inflated.
  6. Feb 19, 2012 #5


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    There are advantages and disadvantages. Neither are highly likely to have a strong influence on the probability of you getting into academia down the road. I haven't personally sat in on a purely academic hiring committee, but I have been a member of hiring committees for adjunct positions and at no point have I even heard anyone say 'well, she's a good candidate, but you know, she did undergraduate and graduate studies at the same institution.'

    I think one of the biggest advantages comes in academic networking - particularly once you start looking for post-docs. In a larger school like U of T this is likely less of a problem than at some of the smaller schools.

    I would also encourage you to lose the "U of T is the best school in Canada for physics" attitude. I have nothing against the University of Toronto. It is a great school. But that kind of attitude will close more doors that it opens. When deciding on where you want to go to for graduate studies, you need to focus on picking out the best program "for you." You could go to the number one ranked university in the world by dozens of sources, but if the mentoring style of your supervisor doesn't jive with your learning style, it's not going to work out very well.

    This is a tough problem faced by couples in academia. Occasionally universities will offer spousal support deals, but you shouldn't count on these. And they usually come when recruiting someone at the faculty level - which means you're not likely to see them at the post-doctoral level (which is commonly the age at which couples start thinking about families). People do this successfully, but not all of them. Often the academic life involves long-distance relationships, or one partner sacrificing for the other.

    You may want to talk with some of your current professors and some graduate students who've gone down either track. Investigate what they do, what their projecs involve and whether or not you see yourself doing those things. Take time to read about the potential projects that are being proposed as well. "Theory" or "experiment" are broad generalizations. Look at the specifics of what you would be doing and try as much as possible to chose a specific project rather than a general field.
  7. Feb 19, 2012 #6
    Alright - thanks for clearing that up. I have always thought that, given the opportunity to study somewhere new, but with the cost of sacrificing the opportunity of working with someone better aligned to your interests, the latter should win out.
    I should have elaborated a bit more - from what I saw, UofT had the most exciting supervisor prospects for my choice of quantum optics.
    Yep. I'm going to arrange some meetings next week to get some hard advice. I suppose my biggest question is whether I am mathematically competent and prepared for theory.
    My specific interests in QO are light-matter interaction dynamics, such as nonlinear optics. I am also very interested in foundational questions of QM, such as interpretations and the quantum measurement problem. I have to wait until I study QFT to decide how much that sparks my interest.
  8. Feb 19, 2012 #7
    Remember that comfort is relative, and money isn't the only consideration when thinking about raising a family. Academics are very migratory, especially early in the career. After getting a phd, you can expect to do a postdoc or two, which will mean not much stability. Moving across the world can be tricky. Moving across the world with a family in tow is much harder. Most of the academic couples I know delayed starting a family by several years due to this type of situation.

    It will be extremely difficult, especially if you are both ambitious. None of the academic couples I know were able to avoid spending at least a few years apart, and eventually one of the spouses had to make some career concessions.

    After my phd, I had to leave academia in order to create the stability I needed to start a family.

    I noticed your pros and cons list is lacking a few very important considerations. After your phd, unless you are tremendously lucky, it is unlikely you'll get a professorship or national lab position. Thats just the nature of the job market. Unless you are incredibly lucky, you'll be searching for some other position.

    Theory and experiment give you vastly different transferrable skills. As a theorist, you'll know some programming, and some math. The research jobs this tends to lead to are mostly in insurance and finance (and maybe a bit of oil/gas). No industry is going to hire you to do field theory.

    As an experimentalist, you'll learn very specific experimental techniques. Some of these have little industry use, but many do. Lots of industries need people with hands-on experience with optics (look at the physics today job listings), and those jobs are closed off to theorists.
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