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What is the odds of being a professor at a top tier university?

  1. Jan 22, 2012 #1
    I have wet dreams( not necessary wet) that I will be a math( or anything) professor at Harvard(or any of the top tier schools). I did some research, and look at the faculty of those top universities. Most of them are rather old. I look at when they got their PHDs, I discovery that in these top universities, they hire a small number( 2-3 in philosophy, or math) of professors every 10 years. I count the number of hires say in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s..etc. I compare the number of phds popped out in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s...etc. I figure that there is a small chance that those people with phd from a top university will also be hired at a top university.

    Look at say NYU faculty list: http://philosophy.as.nyu.edu/page/Faculty
    How many hires happen in the 2000s? Not that many compare to the number of graduated phds from the same university in the 2000s: http://philosophy.as.nyu.edu/page/students

    In a 10 year period, I would assume there are approx 60 ph.d being generated, and 2 becomes a professor. So any random top graduate student picked will have 1/30( approx) chance of being a professor.

    There seem to be more graduate ph.d generated than jobs. This means a lot of these phds would have to settle for a non- 1 tier university, or work at the private industry. Both of which generally do not need advance theoretical knowledge. So, you end up with a lot of smart people with a lot of advanced knowledge, but no outlet. Am I right?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 22, 2012 #2
    Stop winging! Many of the greats had a day job - Einstein was a patent clerk. Go to Harvard when you actually do something. Otherwise, well, Einstein enjoyed being a patent clerk!
  4. Jan 22, 2012 #3
    ^ Nothing personal. I am curious since I know a phd in physics sell houses, and work at a startup. I think it is pretty sad you have a lot of people with many years of experience from getting their phd, and do a job that any HS drop out can do.
  5. Jan 22, 2012 #4

    Vanadium 50

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    First, if you have decided that the only thing that will make you happy is a professorship at Harvard, yes, then you will probably be unhappy.

    Second, this is not unique to physics - not even close. The number of clarinet performance majors graduated by just one school - Indiana University - exceeds the number of full-time jobs for clarinet players.

    Thirds, two days ago you wanted to be a professor off international relations. Today it's math. I can assure you that if your goals change every two days, you will have great difficulty meeting them.

    Finally, about this:

    That's one of the most ill-informed (not to mention insulting) things I have ever read here.
  6. Jan 22, 2012 #5
    Quite a good idea, if you want to stay doing physics. Selling houses is not mentally demanding, so you'll be ready to sit down and do some physics in your spare time. I moved into CS research - that left me with no time/stamina to continue my physics!
  7. Jan 22, 2012 #6


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    Your numbers and reasoning are okay, but I think your perception on what contributes to the advancement of knowledge needs a little adjustment.

    Something that most PhDs learn at some point is how competative it is to get into academia. Most don't end up with prestious professorships (however that may be defined), but that doesn't mean they end up with nothing, nor does it mean that they don't contribute anything to their fields.

    There are no university tiers that I'm aware of. But working at a "second" or "third tier" school has nothing do to with how productive your research is. Some schools are very strong in one or two areas only. They don't make the lists of "best schools" because they only score high in particular areas on some random set of assessment criteria. That doesn't mean their professors are any less respected or the work goes unnoticed.

    Going to work outside of academia also doesn't mean that you're giving up science. Obviously some fields are more transferrable than others. However, if you take my field for example, medical physics, lots of graduates go on to work for some of the major (and minor) companies in the field doing research and development. They publish papers. They create new products. Some of them have even started their own companies and made significant improvements to radiation therapy or diagnostic imaging.
  8. Jan 22, 2012 #7
    Why is it ill-informed? Most good jobs require very specialized skills( degree, and experience). Most Phds have non-marketable degrees, and experiences. Thus, there must be a lot of phds with jobs they don 't like, or pay very little, or temporary. I hope you can clarify that, thanks.

    That International relation dream. I am still thinking. It depends on what schools I can get into, and do I want to do it. What would I do after I am out of school etc...
  9. Jan 22, 2012 #8

    Well, in your field, do you need a phd? Are you working at a national labs? Do you job depend on fed money?
  10. Jan 22, 2012 #9

    Vanadium 50

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    Because you didn't bother to inform yourself before opening your mouth.

    Oh, and why is it insulting? It's arrogant and insulting to look down on people who have accomplished what you have not. Especially when your are making up your "facts" out of whole cloth.

    Not in physics they don't. And this is Physics Forums.

    According to the NSF, the overall unemployment rate for PhDs in Science, Engineering and Health was 1.7%. My own experience suggests that this rate is even lower for experimental physicists. Does it mean they all have their dream job? Of course not. We can't all be astronauts or senators. But to call a PhD in physics "unmarketable" simply piles ignorance upon ignorance.
  11. Jan 22, 2012 #10
    But what is the under-employment rate? I don't know that many phds who have a job all that appropriate to their training. Admittedly, my cohort has largely been job hunting in a pretty steep recession, and no one is unemployed. However, almost everyone is underemployed. My big fear is that after things ease a bit, time away from technical work will kill job prospects.

    It is true that it doesn't exactly market itself, however. In my experience, physics phds have a harder time landing that first job after gradschool than engineering phds (and a substantially harder time than undergrad engineers). Its all anecdotal, so if anyone knows a reference for length-of-job search for various majors/phd disciplines, it would be interesting to see.
  12. Jan 22, 2012 #11

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    No idea what the "underemployment" rate is, probably because it's hard to define objectively. To the OP, anything other than "Harvard Professor" is underemployment.

    Had a friend in college. Got a EE degree, and ended up getting a franchise for one of those kiosks in shopping malls that sells hunk: earrings, or maybe hot dogs. Underemployed? Perhaps. Ten years later, he was the CEO for one of the largest companies that does this sort of thing. Is he still underemployed?

    Yes, a physics degree doesn't market itself. Do you think it should?
  13. Jan 22, 2012 #12
    I agree, its hard to objectively define- but its a real phenomena. When someone says "the unemployment rate for physics phds is..." most people reading that fact assume those physics phds are employed doing physics- which anyone with a physics phd probably knows isn't actually the case. If the unemployment rate for physicists was 0%, but they were all operating mall kiosks, surely we can both agree that this would indicate a problem.

    A start at a definition would be workers in part-time work who are actively looking for full-time work, workers in contract work looking for permanent positions, and marginally attached workers. I think this is what the EPI uses for its underemployment? I know the AIP uses the portion of new phds accepting postdocs as its labor market indicator (rather than unemployment). Are there better indicators?

    Yes. For job applicants, especially recent graduates, the more information your degree can impart to an employer the better. A lot of places are making decisions on who to interview based on 1 page resumes- these companies know what electrical engineer means, but unfortunately don't necessarily know what the physics degree means. This can put your resume in the dust bin before you get a chance to interview.
  14. Jan 22, 2012 #13


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    Generally speaking, a master's degree is the minimum requirement to get into the clinical side of things. A PhD makes you a lot more competative though.

    The main employers of medical physicists are hospitals or healthcare agencies. But some work in national labs. Some work purely in academia. Some work for companies that produce the clinical equipment.

    As per what I've stated above, only the national lab jobs would directly rely on federal funding.
  15. Jan 23, 2012 #14
    A lot of people don't get to do what they want.

    I think it is still possible for someone who works a flexible job to carry on doing research in his spare time, after a PhD. Ask around about this though.

    As for non-tier 1 universities - I think you'll find that in a field as competitive as physics, there are so many bright people who either do or don't get positions at universities of their choice for so many different reasons that it's often not even relevant to judge someone based on where he is a professor, etc.

    I agree that at the very top tier schools, some of the people are truly geniuses at the field. But I think genius aside, career success is QUITE separate (though, obviously, not fully) from who has great ideas.

    Might I make another little suggestion: when you say advance theoretical knowledge it sounds almost mistakenly glamorous. Even brilliant individuals do a lot of work to flesh out their ideas, and it's not like they have a million brilliant ideas that everyone will benefit from. I think you should view it more as the person at the tier 1 university and all other professors contribute tiny bits to a big unknown puzzle than that a few people routinely make brilliant advances!
  16. Jan 23, 2012 #15
    My impression is that there is politics, and if you are well-connected to someone who is hiring at a university and you've published something pretty darn impressive and also perhaps that that exact person has a soft spot for, your chances of landing a tenure-track position increase greatly.

    I think tiers are not very well-defined. The criteria used by ranking systems can indeed be random.
  17. Jan 23, 2012 #16
    I am not arrogant, but you are obvious insulted( I wonder why?). Normally, success comes about by achieve what you set out to achieve. Students study for an exam with the expectation of getting a good grade, and if they succeed, then that is a little success. Similarly, if some people want to be professors, and failed to achieve that goal, that is a failure. There is no hard feelings, Van.

    You can work as a bus driver, and you would still be employed. The low unemployment rate is not an express of success. The important thing is to see what those with phd do, and do they feel satisfied. You can be a very competent person, but if there is no need for your type of labor, tough luck. I also think the low unemployment have something to do with being hardworking, and committed( both qualities essential for a phd).
  18. Jan 23, 2012 #17

    Well, I have a math degree( and from a pretty damn good UNI) I can 't do **** with it. You tell me. The problem with your friend is that for someone like your friend, there are probably a lot more people doing garbagety jobs with one of those liberal art-like degrees.
  19. Jan 23, 2012 #18

    Well, I studied pure math in college. If i look for jobs, most goods( decent pay) jobs require some programming skills.
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2012
  20. Jan 23, 2012 #19
    So, how much do you make as a medical physicist?
  21. Jan 23, 2012 #20
    So, there are power politics going on in university hire?
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