What are my chances of getting a job in actual physics research?

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  • Thread starter MojoMcGunner
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  • #1
MojoMcGunner
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I'm looking at universities to go to next September. I'm still quite torn between theoretical physics and particle physics. In an absolutely ideal world, my plan is to do my masters, then a PhD and my dream job would be a university professor, or at least working in physics research.

I know that that isn't likely. A lot of people have the same dreams as me and end up working in the financial sector somewhere. My grandpa's degree is in chemistry and he works in the stock market. So my question is, realistically, what are my chances of getting work in physics research? How important is where you went in terms of getting these positions? I'm not applying to any top 5 universities, but everywhere I am applying to is in the top 10 in the country and a Russell group member.

So give it to me straight... if I follow my career plan, am I likely to end up working in finance or some other area which isn't related to physics at all?
 

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  • #2
Vanadium 50
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A professor will graduate ~10 students in his career, only one of whom will replace him. There are higher order corrections to this, of course, but that's the fundamental idea you need to keep in mind.
 
  • #3
twofish-quant
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So give it to me straight... if I follow my career plan, am I likely to end up working in finance or some other area which isn't related to physics at all?

What gave you the idea that finance isn't related to physics? It turns out that the reason investment banks hire physicists is that the equations and skill set is pretty much the same.
 
  • #4
MojoMcGunner
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What gave you the idea that finance isn't related to physics? It turns out that the reason investment banks hire physicists is that the equations and skill set is pretty much the same.

I hadn't really considered that, I'm not going to pretend that I know the ins and outs of the thousands of possible jobs I could get because I obviously don't, it's just that my real love is firstly particle physics, and also all kinds of mechanics, which I just can't see fitting into a setting like that. I like maths a lot but the only time I really thoroughly enjoy it is when I can apply it to a "proper" physics setting. I guess there are quite a lot of industry jobs which require an in depth knowledge of classical mechanics.

You're right, there is a chance I might also enjoy a career like that, and it would be worth maybe trying it out in the form of some kind of work experience placement or internship. I just can't envision myself being really happy without doing "proper" physics regularly. But while it will take a hell of a lot to dissuade my from my dream, it's actually quite arrogant of me to assume at this stage that I know enough about all of the other possible jobs to dismiss them. Thankyou.
 
  • #5
twofish-quant
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I hadn't really considered that, I'm not going to pretend that I know the ins and outs of the thousands of possible jobs I could get because I obviously don't

Don't worry, you have time. Also what makes this tricky is that jobs come into being and disappear. The job that I'm doing didn't exist when I was an undergraduate.

Also just to give you a taste of how particle physics can be used in finance. Here is a (somewhat out of date) paper in Physics Review E

http://www.physics.nus.edu.sg/~phybeb/Swap%20Emp%20PRE.pdf

and there is other interesting stuff on his web page

http://www.physics.nus.edu.sg/~phybeb

I just can't envision myself being really happy without doing "proper" physics regularly.

Same here, but I've found it best to have a very "broad" definition of physics.
 
  • #6
ParticleGrl
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I just can't envision myself being really happy without doing "proper" physics regularly.

Then your best bet is some type of engineering degree. Everyone I know with an engineering degree claims to use some physics-based-analysis somewhat regularly, hardly any of the physics phds I know use physics very often (most are in finance,IT,data mining,etc). I did a particle phd and now work for an insurance company.
 
  • #7
phyzguy
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I don't think your choice is between physics professor and finance. There are a large number of engineering jobs, as ParticleGrl pointed out, where you use science and mathematics regularly. It's possible to land one of these jobs with either an engineering degree or a physics degree.
 
  • #8
gbeagle
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I don't think your choice is between physics professor and finance. There are a large number of engineering jobs, as ParticleGrl pointed out, where you use science and mathematics regularly. It's possible to land one of these jobs with either an engineering degree or a physics degree.

In my experience the ease with which a physicist (talking MS/PhD level here) can get a job in engineering depends very strongly on specialization. I know a decent number of condensed matter experimentalists who got jobs in engineering. Some even are still doing things fairly close to the research they were doing in academia. In contrast in my field (high energy experiment), I don't personally know anyone who got their PhD in the last decade that has been able to transition to engineering.

Note that I am not counting software engineering here for the purposes of engineering jobs. Nearly every high energy experimentalist I know that left the field, including me, has ended up in software development of some sort. High energy experiment is basically 95% programming, so that is the transferable skill you get out of your PhD.

I can't say I've really used any of the science that I learned in grad school. I use math but only what I learned in all the CS classes I took in undergrad. To be honest those CS classes were a lot more useful in the completion of my PhD and my future career than a lot of my physics classes...
 
  • #9
Rika
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So more or less if you want to do physics research forget about theory or high energy and say "hi" to more applied field.
 
  • #10
twofish-quant
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So more or less if you want to do physics research forget about theory or high energy and say "hi" to more applied field.

I don't think that's true at all. One reason I keep posting is that there is this idea that you are doomed if you are a theorist and that you have to do experimental stuff to stay in the field. It didn't work out that way for me.

One other thing is that the problem with "flooding" also happens with subfields of physics. A few years ago, lots of people were going into biophysics because that's were the money and jobs seemed to be. If everyone decides to go into solid state experimental physics at the same time, the same thing will happen, and people will be talking about a shortage of HEP people.

I can't say I've really used any of the science that I learned in grad school.

One reason I ended up working on Wall Street is that I do end up using most of the science that I learned in graduate school. That's probably more important than the money for why I ended up where I am.
 
  • #11
Rika
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I don't think that's true at all. One reason I keep posting is that there is this idea that you are doomed if you are a theorist and that you have to do experimental stuff to stay in the field. It didn't work out that way for me.

You do Finance - which means you are in different field useing same tools as in theoretical physics. But you don't do HEP or Astro, you do Finance or Econophysics.

It's not bad - I mean finance is interesting field. But people should be aware that doing theory won't give them skills that are needed for engineering jobs.

Theory -> IT, Finance, Oil and Gas and other. Skills: programming, computional methods

Experiment (applied field) -> various engineering jobs

Which means your theory only apply to "computional theorists".

That's reality. Pen and paper guys are doomed. They won't get any job useing their skills because doing math on paper is useless wherever you go.

One other thing is that the problem with "flooding" also happens with subfields of physics. A few years ago, lots of people were going into biophysics because that's were the money and jobs seemed to be. If everyone decides to go into solid state experimental physics at the same time, the same thing will happen, and people will be talking about a shortage of HEP people.

But it's all about supply and demand.

There are far more engineers than physicists and yet physicists are those who struggle to get a job.

I don't believe that if 1500 people per year (that's the number of PhDs in US, right?) become engineers, we will hit the wall. Demand is far too great for that. On the other hand in HEP we don't need more than 10-20 fresh PhDs per year.
 
  • #12
reasonableman
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To try to answer the original question: I believe that your probability of becoming a professor is quite high if you are willing to sacrifice a great deal to attain it.

The problem with you current plan is the gap between 'finish PhD' and 'become professor'. This gap is usually filled with numerous post-doc positions which are geographically disparate, un-secure, hard work and relatively poorly paid. If you are willing to subject yourself to this then, eventually, you should be able to progress to something more permanent. The problem is there are no guarantees when this will happen, or even if it will happen.

For most people this is not an acceptable proposition once a partner or family comes on the scene. Of course you are in the best position to assess the likelihood of this, but, statistically, it is likely you will decide that you are unwilling to continue with post doc positions and enter more reliable employment.
 
  • #13
twofish-quant
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You do Finance - which means you are in different field useing same tools as in theoretical physics. But you don't do HEP or Astro, you do Finance or Econophysics.

But I am doing theoretical physics. It's not astrophysics, but it's theoretical physics.

Also I do find it amusing that people tell me what I'm doing without knowing exactly what work I do.

The problem with classification is that they can be misleading. There are lots of different jobs that are under "finance." Most of them have nothing to do with "physics research", but you have jobs like mine that are pretty close to what I was doing in graduate school.

Also there isn't a huge demand for "pen and paper" theorists in industry, but most theorists in astrophysics nowadays aren't "pen and paper" types either.
 
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  • #14
twofish-quant
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To try to answer the original question: I believe that your probability of becoming a professor is quite high if you are willing to sacrifice a great deal to attain it.

I would disagree. It's also disagree with "professor=physics research." One problem is thinking that being a professor is the only way of doing physics research.

If you are willing to subject yourself to this then, eventually, you should be able to progress to something more permanent. The problem is there are no guarantees when this will happen, or even if it will happen.

The trouble is that there is no small number of people that go through the post-doc game, and then end up with nothing.
 
  • #15
chill_factor
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Why specifically physics research?

Also if you want to do theoretical astrophysics or something why not just buy Matlab and play around with models on your PC and get a regular day job or something?

I'm not trying to be mean, these are serious questions.

Also if you want to apply quantum mechanics, as in actually use quantum mechanics every day, there's actually industrial jobs in a factory that require you to know many things in quantum mechanics.
 
  • #16
twofish-quant
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Why specifically physics research?

Because you get brainwashed by Star Trek and Doctor Who.

Also if you want to do theoretical astrophysics or something why not just buy Matlab and play around with models on your PC and get a regular day job or something?

Because there is a difference between tossing paper airplanes and flying Boeing 747's. If you want to do "serious" theoretical research (i.e. stuff that is publishable in Astrophysical Journal), this is going to be very difficult to do with a day job. I haven't been able to do it. I can't say that it can't be done, but I can tell you why it's hard.
 
  • #17
chill_factor
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Because you get brainwashed by Star Trek and Doctor Who.



Because there is a difference between tossing paper airplanes and flying Boeing 747's. If you want to do "serious" theoretical research (i.e. stuff that is publishable in Astrophysical Journal), this is going to be very difficult to do with a day job. I haven't been able to do it. I can't say that it can't be done, but I can tell you why it's hard.

Yes but to be a 747 pilot is a lot harder than tossing a paper airplane, and just like going to pilot school if you don't become a pilot... then what?
 
  • #18
Vanadium 50
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I think it's more like joining the Air Force and not becoming a pilot. There's plenty of other stuff that needs to be done, but it may not be your first choice.
 
  • #19
twofish-quant
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Yes but to be a 747 pilot is a lot harder than tossing a paper airplane, and just like going to pilot school if you don't become a pilot... then what?

We seem to be going down the analogy road, but...

One thing about graduate school is that it's more than "school." When you are in graduate school, you are not merely training to be a pilot, you are a pilot. They put you at the console of a 747 and then won't let you out unless they know that you can do it.

This makes physics graduate school, different from say law school or medical school. When you are in law school, you aren't a lawyer. When you are in medical school, you aren't a doctor. When you are in physics graduate school, you are a physicist, a scientist, and a "real" researcher, since there is no way that you can learn to do scientific research other than by doing it for real.

That's the "good news" about doing physics. It's not hard to be a physics researcher. You just apply to graduate school and as a student, you are a "real" researcher. The tough part is if you go in, figure out what you love the stuff, and want to figure out how you can do it for the rest of your life.
 
  • #20
chill_factor
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thats true. a grad student is indeed a real researcher. and it is a job. I put in the hours in lab every day just like at a factory job.

but i think what the OP was asking was probably along the lines of a nonstudent job.
 
  • #21
reasonableman
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I would disagree. It's also disagree with "professor=physics research." One problem is thinking that being a professor is the only way of doing physics research.

I chose 'professor = physics research' because those were the criteria of the OP. As you say, that is highly debatable.

The trouble is that there is no small number of people that go through the post-doc game, and then end up with nothing.

Are you sure about this? I interact with a few academics and the most usual cause of post-docs leaving their field is the poor value proposition. Of course, there are poor post-docs that can't find positions but, a more common problem is something like, their professor is moving and taking the team with him, and the post-doc doesn't want to move *again*.

I contend that, if, at the end of a post-doc you are willing to go anywhere, to work in any field and have decent professional skills, you will be able to find a post-doc position. If you continue this for a few decades you probably (~75%) can land a permanent position somewhere.
 
  • #22
ParticleGrl
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I contend that, if, at the end of a post-doc you are willing to go anywhere, to work in any field and have decent professional skills, you will be able to find a post-doc position. If you continue this for a few decades you probably (~75%) can land a permanent position somewhere.

After about two postdocs, the chances of getting another are minimal (at least in the fields I am familiar with). I've worked with several postdocs who hit that wall.
 
  • #23
reasonableman
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But don't some post-doc positions only last about a year? It would seem crazy to write-off someone if they've only done two years, not saying it doesn't happen though...

Also I did add the caveat changing field may be necessary, if you are an experienced person in a newly, fashionable field then you'll have an easier time. Changing fields makes this more probable.

As I said, my only experience is externally interacting with UK academia, so I maybe wrong, or my experience may not be applicable.
 
  • #24
twofish-quant
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I'm interested in knowing your background.

If you are junior faculty and have actually gotten a professorship, then we need to have a talk because I'd be *very* interested in knowing what I should be doing differently, and who I should be sending my resume to.

If you are an undergraduate or have just started graduate school, then we need to have a talk. First of all you've been extremely misinformed, and I'd be very interested in knowing who has misinformed you. One thing that's a consistent theme in a lot of the papers that on careers is that undergraduates have extremely skewed expectations.

Even in fields where most people end up in research positions, it turns out that few of those positions are tenured faculty.

But don't some post-doc positions only last about a year? It would seem crazy to write-off someone if they've only done two years, not saying it doesn't happen though...

Most post-docs are three years.

Also I did add the caveat changing field may be necessary, if you are an experienced person in a newly, fashionable field then you'll have an easier time. Changing fields makes this more probable.

It's *extremely* difficult to change fields within academia. It's not totally impossible (there are people here who have done it), but it's extremely difficult. The trouble is that if you spend ten years studying X, and suddenly there are new jobs in Y, you are competing against people that have spent ten years studying Y, and you are likely to lose. Also if you spend a year "retraining" then you have lost ground against people who haven't.

As I said, my only experience is externally interacting with UK academia, so I maybe wrong, or my experience may not be applicable.

If UK is hiring, then just let me know where I should send my resume.
 
  • #26
Zarqon
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This is a pretty relevant paper

http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2011AAS...21714502D

I find it particularly interesting since I'm in the sample.

hmm, how to interpret "50% of graduates are in postdoc position after 6 years, but 75% are still doing astronomy after 7-14 years"? To me those numbers seem to contradict each other. Also, 75% still doing astronomy after 75% seems to indicate that many are able to stay in academia? Note, I'm also in academia and now that tenure is difficult, so I just find the numbers in that abstract a bit odd.
 
  • #27
Locrian
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hmm, how to interpret "50% of graduates are in postdoc position after 6 years, but 75% are still doing astronomy after 7-14 years"? To me those numbers seem to contradict each other.

Why?

Maybe it has to do with defining "doing astronomy". . .
 
  • #28
twofish-quant
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hmm, how to interpret "50% of graduates are in postdoc position after 6 years, but 75% are still doing astronomy after 7-14 years"? To me those numbers seem to contradict each other. Also, 75% still doing astronomy after 75% seems to indicate that many are able to stay in academia?

Since I happen to know the people in the study...

It's actually quite a complicated picture. It turns out that relatively few people (I think the number was about 10%) end up with tenure-track positions in research universities. The jobs associated with "doing astronomy" turn out to be quite varied with some people doing K-12 teaching, community college teaching, science journalism, research position, and lots of people getting professorships in small liberal arts colleges.

There's quite a bit of ambiguity involved with the term "doing astronomy." For example, I know someone that happens to be the head an academic supercomputing center. You could probably classify him as doing astronomy. Some for someone on a technical staff of an observatory. They aren't publishing papers in Ap.J., but they could be classified as doing astronomy.

And then there is me. For the purpose of the paper, I was classified as having "voluntarily left" astronomy (although "voluntary" is another word that's disputable). On the other hand I have taught introductory astronomy courses at the University of Phoenix as an adjunct, so whether you want to classify me as in the field is debatable.

However, the fact that most people end up in career situations that are hard to classify is in itself interesting. There are a lot of "backdoor researchers." For example, astronomy department needs someone to babysit computers. They hire an astronomy Ph.D. to do system administration work with the understanding that they can do research on the side.
 
  • #29
reasonableman
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I wrote quite a long response but lost it as I was automatically logged out. My main points:

- I am not an academic I work for a government contractor, we often work with academia. In seven years I have seen one post-doc attain Reader. Many are still at the same level as when I started.

- I looked on findapostdoc and findaphd, the ratio of science post-docs to phds was 1:10. Clearly it is a difficult market. (Also a few of them were for just one year).

- I am not saying it is easy to get a permanent position at a university but I want to balance the dominant message on this forum that it is not impossible, but incurs severe costs.

- I didn't mean change field from biophysics to HEP, but you can go from using a technique to developing it for example.

- The field you want to research clearly plays a part. Astrophysics is probably one of the more difficult.
 
  • #30
twofish-quant
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- I am not saying it is easy to get a permanent position at a university but I want to balance the dominant message on this forum that it is not impossible, but incurs severe costs.

This is one problem with thinking about "lottery ticket" situations. It's not mathematically impossible to win the lottery since mathematically, one person has to be able to get it, but I think it *is* unreasonable to think that you can win the lottery by working hard.

You have 10*X applicants. If by going insane and giving up everything, you get yourself down to X applicants, then you win. The trouble is that my observation is that by giving up everything, you still have 2*X applicants, which means that you are still likely to lose. One reason that I use the lottery ticket analogy is that my view is that even if you put in maximum effort, you still end up with more applicants than places, which means that what determines if you get a spot is random or essentially so.

There's also necessary/sufficient. To win the lottery it's necessary to buy a ticket, but it's not sufficient.

- I didn't mean change field from biophysics to HEP, but you can go from using a technique to developing it for example.

I don't think you can. One big problem with Ph.D. physics research is how as a practical matter one gets typecast.

- The field you want to research clearly plays a part. Astrophysics is probably one of the more difficult.

Maybe. One thing that is curious from Dinerstein's study is that astronomy is probably one of the easier areas to find work since there are (surprisingly) large numbers of non-academic technical support positions and teaching positions.
 
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