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What determines faculty hirings in physics departments?

  1. Feb 11, 2010 #1
    For example, does the place of PhD granted matter very much, or is more stress placed on PhD advisors and postdoc advisors, or is more emphasis given to actual papers produced by the physicists?
    What would a committee hiring a new professor really care about?

    The reason I am asking is because I am starting to think about grad school, and trying to weight factors like money/location against the prestige of the school or the prestige of the advisor.

    Thanks to all,
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 12, 2010 #2
    The prestige of the school doesn't matter as much as you might think it does. There's quite a few threads on this already with lots of useful info. Basically, work hard to have a high quality thesis and amalgamate yourself into the field as much as possible during your time in grad school and you'll increase your chances. Beware, however, that it can be very difficult to work your way into a position in academica.

    (and the supervisor you get is very important: mostly for you. Meet with potential supervisors if possible, ask questions. You want to make sure as much as possible you'll get a supervisor that will be conducive to the way you work.)
  4. Feb 12, 2010 #3


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    When the times come to apply for a faculty position I don't think it really matters that much where you did your PhD; most of the focus will be on how well you have done and what you have published as a post-doc.
  5. Feb 12, 2010 #4


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    A lot will actually depend on the particular school and what they are looking for. My experience is that the faculty will favour candidates with strong potential to bring in external funding and that in turn will have a lot to do with your research experience, what you've produced as a post-doc, and your particular interests and ideas.

    A lot will also depend on the focus of the department and the direction the faculty see the department moving in. So it helps to be experienced in a field that is getting "hotter" at that point in time, rather than an area that is stagnating. I'm not really sure to what degree an individual might control this - but it likely isn't that much. This will also vary considerably from school to school.

    Also, candidates with strong teaching skills are favoured these days. There is a lot of interest in faculty searches in what courses a candidate might be able to teach at the graduate level. So something else that can really boost your chances are teaching awards and/or the completion of some formalized teaching programs that some schools are beginning to offer.
  6. Feb 12, 2010 #5
    I think a distinction needs to be made here. I agree that there is a lot of variability in faculty searches. For a research institution what you stated above may be the case, but for smaller teaching universities this is not typical. Let me give an example of a faculty search that is going on right now: A small, mainly liberal arts school that I have some ties to has a current opening for a tenure track, assistant professor of physics. They do not have a PhD program. While they did not put it in their announcement, I know they are looking for a very specific person. Namely, a minority women from a top 10 grad school. They are looking to diversify their faculty. Now, assuming that a minority women from a top 10 school applies, she will get the job as long as she has good oral communication skills. So, there are definitely cases where your PhD granting institution matters.

    I agree with Choppy that what he says is what happens in most faculty searches, but it is not always the case. And I would echo his statement that getting some sort of "teaching certificate" or other formal teaching program experience will give you a definite boost in your job search.
  7. Feb 12, 2010 #6
    Theoretically the place of the Ph.D. doesn't matter but in practice it matters a great deal. Committees mainly care about whether or not you fit into their research/teaching program, but having a well networked advisor/school helps a lot in finding openings and marketing yourself to fit them. It's important to realize that whether you get hired or not is mostly a function of luck (i.e. factors that you cannot either forsee or control) and secondarily a matter of politics. Skill is not an important factor simply because there are so many good Ph.D.'s graduating that it's difficult to distinguish people on the basis of competence.

    It is extremely important that you will go into graduate school with the assumption that you will *NOT* be a tenured professor. In astrophysics, the percentage of people that end up with a tenure-track position in 1 in 5, and that's after two post-docs. The other thing is that 1 in 5 is the result of mostly luck rather than skill, so don't kid yourself into thinking that you'll somehow beat the odds, so it's really important to think about what you will do if you are unlucky.
  8. Feb 12, 2010 #7
    One reason that it does matter is that some institutions/advisors are just better at "working the system." Most of the time you aren't going to be able to figure out what the institution really is looking for, and a lot of the time, it's hard to figure out if a faculty search is a "real search" or if they are posting a job requirement to fill a bureaucratic requirement. The big factor in whether you get hired or not is determined before the job req is posted when the department tries to figure out what they are looking for. Once that's done (at least in astrophysics), the rest is pretty much a formality, because the community is small enough so that once you mention what field of research you are looking at. I can probably without too much difficulty tell you who the top five candidates are.

    The big decisions happens when people decide research priorities both at a national and at a institutional level. Having an advisor or a department that can go to Washington and convince people that there should be more funding on the topic which you are doing your Ph.D. dissertation on is quite useful. Having an advisor and a department that has put students in a twenty departments that are interested in doing a particularly type of research is also useful (Hi Harvard).

    The thing that you have to realize is that the supply/demand imbalance is so large, that everything has to go right for you to get a faculty position. If you are "imperfect" in some way, you just aren't going to get the position, even if that imperfection is the fact that you are just unlucky.
  9. Feb 12, 2010 #8
    It's important to understand *why* and *how* certain factors matter. It is usually not the case that someone will see that you went to Harvard or MIT, and just say "we must hire this person." In astrophysics, the reputation of the advisor matters a lot more than school, and an big name advisor in a no-name school is going to help you a lot, lot more than a no-name advisor in a big-name school. On consequence of this is that it's possible for a school to buy some big names if it has money (and my alma mater UT Austin did just that, and NYU has done this recently).
  10. Feb 12, 2010 #9
    Thanks, twofish. Your replies were pretty helpful.

    I agree, though personally I believe I can beat the 1 in 5 at least for some poor quality institution or abroad in an impoverished country...my standard modus operandi is to act in such a way as to maximize future potential action. So, if my choice of grad school made a big difference on professorship, I would consider it more closely even if I don't really want to become a professor (and I'm not sure I do) solely to keep the window open, so to speak.
  11. Feb 12, 2010 #10
    As a matter of fact, it's easy for a Ph.D. to teach astronomy. There is a huge demand for adjunct instructors in community colleges and online universities like University of Phoenix. If you have a masters degree and want to teach, all you have to do is to show up an ask. The one big catch is that it doesn't pay a living wage ($1200/month), and a lot of places will instead that you have primary employment. University of Phoenix, for example, will not hire you as an adjunct unless you are employed doing something else.

    There is really a huge demand for teachers of lower division courses. The trouble is that this isn't considered a glamour job, and it's quite challenging.
  12. Feb 12, 2010 #11
    Do you know what weight foreign universities give to American degrees? For example, if I showed up in Egypt or Brazil with a top 50 school granted Physics PhD, how difficult would it be to secure an academic position?

    I wouldn't mind moving to another country, so long as I have an opportunity to secure money for research (which I'm assuming adjuncts would have a hard time doing).

    btw, the glamor factor as far as teaching does not matter to me. My best professor by far was my first year Mechanics and E&M teacher, and considering lower division teaching to be "unworthy" of me would be a slight to my old teacher. I'm not willing to do that.
  13. Feb 12, 2010 #12


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    It depends. If it is a permanent position chances are that you would be competing with quite a few people from the top 20 schools....
    Note that most positions in most countries at "teaching universities" (meaning universities that are mainly focused on teaching, and not research) would require you to be able to speak the local language (well). Hence, it might be difficult to compete with e.g. someone from Egypt who has done a PhD/postdoc in the US and has then decided to go back home.
    I know a few people from the US who are now working around the world and not all of them speak the local language, but as far as I know none of them actually teach (meaning they are good enough to get grants that are so big that they don't have to teach at all), maybe with the exception of some occasional graduate course (which would be taught in English anyway).

    Also, Brazil was a very bad example. There are some really good research institutes and universities in Brazil, it is definitly not a "third world" country in terms of research in physics.
  14. Feb 12, 2010 #13
    Actually I just dropped Brazil in there because Feynman went there :tongue:

    Replace it with Chile then haha.
    Hmmm, I've thought about taking a PhD on the road before, and what sorts of job opportunities would be available (especially if I wasn't looking for a permanent position). But I'm assuming that kind of wandering would be judged negatively come time to actually "settle"?
  15. Feb 12, 2010 #14
    Hiring a professor or offering a professorship to a member of the faculty as oppose to a hiring a lecturer is a serious consideration. Professors must be experts in their field and to qualify as said expert the candidate needs to demonstrate such knowledge by submitting a portfolio of published papers authored by the candidate. That is the process of becoming a professor.

    But say a professor wishes to move to a new institution. He has already held a professorship so clearly demonstrates expert knowledge. Though how often his papers are referenced in other papers around the world can show how experted the professor really is. That is where the prestige is, how many other physicists have referenced his work.
  16. Feb 13, 2010 #15
    I think it would depend on the country. In the case of either Mainland China or Taiwan it would be hard because you would be competing against a large pool of Ph.D.'s with good credentials and also who speak the local language and have local connections (i.e. alumni connections and prestige from having a degree from National Taiwan, Peking U, or Qinghua).

    Curiously it's not terribly difficult to do astrophysics research. I know of a few people that got hired by a university or a national laboratory in a non-tenured staff position, who are doing research. In some situations, the staff position is something like research scientist. In others, they end up working as lab technicians and system administrators, but also manage to collaborate in research.

    One thing that I've found is that the problem is not money but time. It really doesn't take that much money to do theoretical astrophysics since all you need is enough money to eat. The big problem is time.

    It's hard for it not to be a factor. One thing that I noticed after talking to people in the fashion or movie industry is how similar those industries are to science research, since science works a lot with the "star" system. It's a little annoying to see an ex-classmate get a nice "glamour" photo-shoot, while you are grading algebra I papers. There is a *lot* of subtle and not so subtle brainwashing that happens in science, and there is part of me that gets affected by it.
  17. Feb 13, 2010 #16
    In the end, it's basically about money. In the end, universities hire professors the way that football teams hire quarterbacks, or movie studios hire movie stars. If you have a big name professor, they can pull in grant money, and increase the prestige of your university. Also, money matters when it comes to writing papers, since it's hard to write a paper on astronomy if you don't have the money to pay for telescopes and computers, and a professor with their name on lots of papers is evidence that they can pull in grant money.

    Having a professor co-author a paper can say surprisingly little about the expertise of the professor, since most senior professors as a matter of course, get their names onto the papers of the people in the research group that they manage. This has led to some extremely embarrassing situations in which a senior professor ends up sign a paper with flawed data, and they end up not knowing what was in the paper.

    I should point out that I don't think this is a particularly *bad* system. but you have to understand the game so that you can make it work for you. One problem with star systems is that you end up with "feast" or "famine" situations. If you are a big name professor, you can fund a research group, which gets your name on more papers, which makes your name even bigger. However, it can work the other way.

    The other problem with the star system is that you get recognition for "creative" things, but you don't get recognition for things like teaching freshman calculus. This creates a big funding problem for universities, because to address senior professors, they have to promise to lower their teaching loads, which causes a lot of intra-department resentment especially since undergraduate courses are this big cash cow that universities use to pay for "stars."

    Personally, I think the whole system is going to fall apart in the next few years. Universities are having to make budget cuts, and people are starting to seriously question whether "stars" are worth it, since their salaries are pretty much immune from budget cuts.
  18. Feb 13, 2010 #17
    Cynically, money does play a factor, but it is not the principle factor for hiring a professor. I reiterate it is the specific knowledge and research interest the professor holds at whether it is the same interests shared by the institution, which determines if the institution hire him.

    This is very rare for co-authoring professors. This is more likely when young postdocs accredit senior professors which they work with on a paper that turns out to be flawed. The professor doesn't necessarily share the same views.
  19. Feb 13, 2010 #18
    So how does the institution determine their research interests? In the case of NYU, the way it worked was that they wanted some people and then changed the departmental research agenda specifically to attract those people. In other situations, it's a reaction to funding priorities. If you know that the government is about so spend massive amounts of money on energy research or if biotech is going to be a big thing, then you have a lot of incentive to orient your department research toward energy or biotech.

    The big decision is when a department figures out what it's research priorities are. Once a department figures that out, I can tell you who is going to get hired. In astrophysics, if you give me a topic, then there are at most five people in the world that are eligible for the position.

    Again, I don't think this is a bad thing. NYU is an amazing case study on how to create a prestige university quickly if you have $2 billion to spend, and it's interesting to see the shift at MIT from physics to biotech.

    I was specifically thinking about the Element 116/118 scandal and the Korean cloning scandal. One thing that I found curious and somewhat amusing was the fact that it became obvious that the senior scientists involved basically just rubber stamped the papers, and had no real idea what the junior scientist was doing, so once it became obvious that the junior scientist had faked their data, you had the senior co-authors in some seriously, seriously embarassing situations. Now it is rare for someone to totally make up data, but it is amusing what happens when someone does.

    This goes to the way that research works in universities. It's an open secret that in most university research, it's the grad students, post-docs, and junior people that do most of the grunt work, and the role of the senior people is to a) get funding and b) offer some insight and review. It's not a bad system, but when you have a senior professor that manages to co-author 50 papers a year, it's much less a function of individual genius than management competence.

    One other thing is that interesting is that all of this involves open secrets. There are situations in which a senior scientist does work on an original idea, and there are also situations in which they put their name on the paper in because they rubber stamped the findings. It's pretty simple to figure out which is which.
  20. Feb 13, 2010 #19
    Also just as a note for undergraduate and graduate students. Learning and thinking about the business and political parts of science research are going to be as important for your career as the technical parts.

    One thing that is different about academia and industry is that in industry recommendations are useless, whereas they are the lifeblood in academia. The other difference is that if I go out and advertise for a computer programmer, then the odds are that I will have never met any of the people that are applying. If a search committee goes out and looks for a cosmology professor, you send them your CV, and they've never heard of you before, then it's rather unlikely that you will get the job.

    One good thing about the internet is that it's made the game a lot more transparent than it was before, and "rumor mills" are part of new science landscape.

    http://cdm.berkeley.edu/doku.php?id=astrophysicsjobs [Broken]

    One thing that should give you pause is how few jobs there are. I think they number of new astronomy Ph.D.'s produced each year is about 300.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  21. Feb 13, 2010 #20
    The institutions don't pick the professors, the professors pick the institution that shares his/hers research interest.
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