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What do physicists do after several post-PhD years in academia?

  1. Dec 17, 2014 #1
    I am curious to hear your stories / opinions on what do physicists do after many post-PhD years in academia?

    A small fraction may get more-or-less ongoing research and/or teaching academic positions, but what about the majority of physicists? It appears that if a physicist tries to pursue a career in industry before or straight after a PhD, there may still be some opportunities, depending on skills and connections. I have however heard multiple times that staying for many years in academia (such as doing several postdocs and failing to get a tenure track, or finishing a tenure track and failing to secure a tenure, or getting let go from on-going academic job in countries with no tenure) basically closes most alternative paths. Since a big fraction (if not majority) of PhD physicists stay in academia for a few (often many) years but fail to build a career there, what do they do?

    I only personally know two such people: one is delivering pizzas, another is a shop assistant. Both are trying to get a degree completely unrelated to physics, but supporting a family with kids, working, studying and trying to make ends meet on a minimal wage is tough. Any alternatives?
     
    Last edited: Dec 17, 2014
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  3. Dec 17, 2014 #2

    Choppy

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  4. Dec 17, 2014 #3

    George Jones

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    I suspect that if a long time is spent doing temporary postdoc or/and teaching thingies, finding non-academic employment might be more difficult.

    Later, I hope to make a longer post about my experiences.
     
  5. Dec 17, 2014 #4

    mfb

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    Find some other job. As physicists go into many different branches it is hard to get reliable numbers, but the DPG (German physical society) usually calculates unemployment rates in the range of 2-3%. Most of them in the age category 25-35. And the 97-98% with a job dominantly do something where a physics degree is useful (e. g. not delivering pizza).
     
  6. Dec 17, 2014 #5
    From what I've seen (anecdotally) of the post-docs that used to work in our research group, those who don't get tenure or some research position end up having to retrain for a completely different career (mainly IT) or work low skilled labouring work like construction or trucking. Thing is, most physicists aren't really qualified to do very many jobs in industry. Why get a physicist to be an engineer after a great deal of training when you can hire someone who studied engineering and can hit the ground running. You can apply the same logic to finance, programming, data analytics, and other fields that were open to hiring physicists in the past but are largely no longer doing so.

    In most companies, it's no secret that HR does the initial screening, and they will use all the applicable software to check whether your resume lists the specific degree they believe is required to do the job. A physics BS or PhD is almost never any of the degrees HR would be looking for. Most don't even likely know what a physics degree actually is and will assume it is related to philosophy.
     
    Last edited: Dec 17, 2014
  7. Dec 17, 2014 #6
    Thanks for the link, I've actually seen it before. However, based on the anecdotal evidence, the career opportunities for young, energetic and highly flexible recent PhD graduates in their twenties may be quite different from career opportunities for failed academics in their thirties and forties, even if said failed academics try their best to be energetic and highly flexible.

    I don't doubt that physicists have 2-3% unemployment rate, since getting a degree in physics requires at least some level of intelligence and determination, even more so for PhDs and postdocs. However a claim that they are not working in pizza-delivery or something similar (especially if you focus on those who spent a long time post PhD in academia) is highly doubtful.

    A related question to everyone: how hard do you think is it to transfer to school teaching after a long time in academia? It appears that very few follow this path. Why?
     
    Last edited: Dec 17, 2014
  8. Dec 17, 2014 #7

    Andy Resnick

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    Good idea- ignore the data and go with 'anecdotal' (bias-confirming) opinion. That is exactly what is needed for a bright future in the sciences.
     
  9. Dec 17, 2014 #8
    What data??? I've been searching for a quite some time for any career-related statistics about those who stayed in academia after a PhD but didn't make it (and that would be nearly one half of all PhD physics graduates). The link you quoted is about jobs for PhD graduates straight after a PhD, and it shows that the majority stay as postdocs. The only other data I've seen also concerns relatively recent PhD graduates (0-5 years after a PhD). Conveniently 5 years after a PhD (exactly when it gets harder to get further postdocs and mostly too late for industry transitions) there is no more publicly available data. If there is any, please provide a link! I'll be very happy to have a look!
     
    Last edited: Dec 17, 2014
  10. Dec 17, 2014 #9

    George Jones

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    I don't know about other countries, but in my country, Canada, it is difficult for anyone (including, but not restricted to, folks who have spent years in academia) to get a permanent job as a high school teacher, as there is an over-supply of potential teachers being produced.

    I live in an isolated city of 80,000 that has five high schools. My wife, who has a bachelor's in physics, a master's in physics, a master's in engineering, and a bachelor's in education, has been told that there are no physics or math teaching jobs expected to open here in the foreseeable future. She does get work as a substitute teacher that works out to be about half of a full-time job.

    Because of intense competition, I think the teaching situation (not just in physics) in larger, less isolated Canadian cities is just as bad.
     
    Last edited: Dec 17, 2014
  11. Dec 17, 2014 #10
    Thanks for your reply! It appears to also be the case in Australia and New Zealand, although I guess it gets better if you are flexible to move across the country. Still one half of a full-time teaching job (if a person likes teaching) may be better than pizza delivery.

    I am eagerly awaiting for your longer post about transitions after significant post-PhD time in academia.
     
    Last edited: Dec 17, 2014
  12. Dec 17, 2014 #11
    Interesting link, Choppy. This particular passage stood out at me:

    That comes up to 34.2 % of PhDs that responded for themselves. Then, out of that cohort, 14% work in the engineering sector, 11% in computer science, and 7% in business or finance. Thus, the AIP has only demonstrated that at the very least, 4.82% of all physics PhDs responding worked in engineering, 3.76% in computer science, and 2.39% in finance. This, of course, fails to account for any further training or even past training any of these PhDs had in these fields, given how increasingly specialized these sectors have become and demanding of relevant credentials. Personally, I ascribe no statistical worth to what an adviser has to say about his former student, and that portion of the data is likely to be significantly skewed by bias. The fact that a whopping 43% did not respond after 4 times of being requested to only speak about their 'expected' success in the working world speaks volumes as well. I think it's quite safe to say at least a significant number of them are not too happy with what they have encountered in the world outside academia.

    Until a third-party objective study is done on this issue (by a more general government agency or something of the sort), I don't think it will ever be resolved on this forum. Frankly, the AIP and physics professors benefit tremendously from more and more graduate students enrolling in graduate programs. IMO, they should be the last people we should be citing studies from or taking their 'word for it' as in the study.
     
  13. Dec 17, 2014 #12
    Anecdotes are still data points, even if they are one data point per anecdote. They may be less anecdotal than you think. They can involve sample sizes large enough to be respectable For example, with my math PhD, I have applied to a wide variety of jobs, and I can still count the number of interviews I got on my hands (I only got one actual interview--the rest were more like screening calls and stuff). I've had quite a few people look at my resume, now, and incorporated their suggestions. It might not be great, but it's not terrible (given my lack of interviews, the resume is the main criteria by which I am judged). I think this does actually provide quite strong evidence that a quantitative PhD isn't going to make employers drool over you, given the large number of unsuccessful attempts. There's nothing particularly bad about my resume. As socially challenged as I am, most employers don't even get to the point where they can find out that I'm socially challenged. If I just made up some fake resume with slightly tweaked background, I know I would get the same result.

    I'm sure if you are well-prepared and are a job search champion, you'll be fine. But if you're socially handicapped like me, it probably will be an uphill battle, unless you have a hefty helping of good luck. Contrary to what would have happened if I did my PhD in CS or EE or even "computational" math or physics, which would have not been any harder for me to do.

    There may be plenty of more positive stories, but those people were probably job search champions, and probably they don't realize that not everyone is a job search genius, so they don't realize that it's actually hard for those of us who are not.

    If I don't get a job before the next semester starts, I'm going to take some classes as graduate special, and then if I still can't get anything, I may need to get a masters in something people actually want. That's probably the easier way out, as much as I hate doing more school after spending my whole life up to that point doing that.

    If you are deciding whether to get a PhD, it's probably not a bad idea to at least reconsider it or consider one that's in more demand. Chances are, not doing it is a good idea. If you are past that point and are one the road to a PhD, the best thing is to make preparing for a job a higher priority than what you are currently studying, if possible. It's probably better from a job point of view to do the internship and not finish the PhD than finish the PhD and not do the internship, even if it hurts your pride more to not finish the PhD.
     
  14. Dec 17, 2014 #13
    Guys, please stay on topic. I know that getting an industry job straight after a PhD is not often straightforward, but I've also heard that after 10 post-PhD years in academia it becomes an entirely different matter. Let's focus on the later in this thread.
     
  15. Dec 17, 2014 #14
    It would surprise me if it were that different from getting a job after a PhD. I'm not even sure employers will know the difference. I mean, I don't know, but I wouldn't expect employers to have such bizarre prejudices that a postdoc is going to be that different from a PhD. People do have pretty bizarre prejudices, though, so I could be wrong. For example, the thing about having gaps in your resume, despite there not being any evidence to suggest that such people are any worse employees (actually the evidence points to there being no correlation).
     
  16. Dec 17, 2014 #15
    I may be wrong, but it appears to be an age-related thing. The career opportunities for recent PhD graduates in their twenties may be quite different from career opportunities for failed academics in their thirties and forties. There may be other reasons, but in non-academic job advertisements requiring a PhD, there is often a formal requirement to apply only within X (2<X<5) years after a PhD.
     
  17. Dec 17, 2014 #16
    I'm wondering if one of the reason why it's hard to transition after multiple years of postdoc is maybe because the industry one might think you will bolt as soon as you get a faculty offer. If I got an app from someone who has dedicated lots of time to academia and then is suddenly moving into the industry, I too would wonder why. If you get past the initial cut and make it to an interview: Give a good argument and convince them that you want the job. Also sell the skills but downplay the academia.

    There's a thread somewhere that deals with the transition, but I can't find it. It was very good though. I'll post once I find it.

    Just for the record, I just graduated with a BS and i am in the process of applying to grad school. However, I have had interviews for jobs and made it to the final round for a couple.

    Also Homeomorphic, I would be happy to look at your resume. Not that I am an expert or anything, but I could try and give some tips. PM me with your resume.
     
  18. Dec 17, 2014 #17

    George Jones

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    At age 43, I found myself newly married, and without a job. I had spent years teaching everything from (post)graduate Advanced Quantum Mechanics to Physics and Society for non-science majors at four universities in Canada and the U.S., but this work had dried up.

    I worked as a private tutor, while my wife did a Master’s in engineering at the University of Toronto. My wife pulled in enough money to support us, as she was paid for her research, for being a TA, for working at the General Motors research center during summers, and she had a scholarship.

    I applied for many non-academic jobs, but got nowhere, i.e., no interviews. I am only one data point, but I wonder if the combination of my age and years of only academic experience worked against me.

    After two years, when my wife was nearly done her Master’s, I managed to land a 12-month gig back teaching at yet another university. This happened in a very strange way. I applied for a physics instructor position at University X. After some time, I received the following email

    It took me some time to figure out that even though the first paragraph was standard form letter stuff, the second paragraph was possibly directed specifically to me. I had seen the ad for the position at University Y, but I didn't apply, as I didn't think I met the qualifications. As the application deadline for the position at University Y had already passed, I though it strange that the email the from University X would point out Y's position. I found out later that there were close connections between the physics departments at X and Y.

    I immediately applied to Y, and, two days later, I received a call from the Dean, who was an astronomer. With no prior notification, he conducted a phone interview, asking about various aspects of astronomy. The next day he called again to tell me that, if I wanted it, the job was mine.
     
  19. Dec 17, 2014 #18

    I don't recall ever seeing that, except maybe for a couple internships.

    Anyway, the relevance of my post was partly that I didn't think there was that big of a distinction, but also to point out that statistics are not likely to be detailed enough to be good enough for making decisions, anyway. I actually partly based my decision to do a math PhD on the employment stats, but those didn't really get to the bottom of it in my case. So going off of the data was a really bad decision, although you could rightly accuse me of not being very critical of the data. If I had heeded more anecdotes, I would have been more informed, not so much about the frequency of things going wrong, but about the possible ways things could go wrong. If you are going to make a decision, the anecdotes have more details to them to clue you in to the way things work than a bunch of numbers do. If 9 out of 10 physics PhDs are doing great, you can't stop there. You have to go further and ask what is it about that one that went wrong and am I in danger of being in that situation. That's where the data can fail you by not telling the full story.
     
  20. Dec 17, 2014 #19

    Choppy

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    Teaching (at the primary or secondary level) often requires a particular certification. A teaching certificate usually is not that difficult to get for someone who has already completed a PhD and who is willing to do it, but the training usually involves a year or more of added school work (depending on your location). Couple this with (i) stigma of "stepping down" (I don't personally see this as the case, but I suspect many people feel this way), (ii) the long hours and low pay of teaching positions, and (iii) the fact that for the same amount of added effort other more lucrative options are available, (iv) the number of people who are disenfranchised with academia after leaving, I don't think it's too surprising that teaching isn't the most popular route.
     
  21. Dec 17, 2014 #20

    Choppy

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    I'm not sure that there really is that much of a difference.

    The challenges that a post-post-doc faces include:
    - little to no experience outside of academia forces the PPD to apply for entry-level positions
    - life circumstances in the late-thirties to early forties can severely restrict options geographically or otherwise
    - some skills that may have been helpful at one time are now obsolete
    - limited social network outside of academia
    - a general frustration with having worked oneself to the bone for years and being left without permanent employment
    - accumulated debt.

    But I think a lot of these apply equally to someone fresh out of a PhD.

    One that I can think *might* apply more specifically to PPDs is a selection effect in favour of the academically-oriented. Those who have the skills to jump out of academia successfully are more likely to do it early on, or at least, as soon as they realize their ship's not going anywhere. Those who go on to the second post-doc or who get the tenure-track positions may be more likely to be the ones who did nothing other than academia with their lives - no hobbies, limited socializing etc. So when they are finally forced to leave they may have more challenges.

    But none of these challenges doom one to a life of delivering pizzas. They're challenges that have to be overcome.
     
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