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Physics Will it always be this hard to get an academic physics job?

  1. Apr 2, 2016 #1
    I've heard the same advice from this forum year after year: if you study physics have a backup plan because you most likely will not become a tenured physics professor.

    With the growing number of physics degrees being given and the dwindling faculty slots, this makes a lot of sense. In fact, I'm witnessing its validity first-hand by my PhD application being rejected by every university I applied to for the second year in a row (and no, I did not apply only to schools out of my reach).

    I've accepted that it's too late for me, but will it be the same for my children?

    In future generations will it still be a complete and utter crapshoot to be employed as an academic?
    Will it become easier or more difficult?

    This is all speculation, but in physics, predicting the future given the present is the whole game.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 2, 2016 #2
    It sounds a bit like you contradicted yourself there... if a "number of physics degrees [are] being given", then you can't really cite this as a reason for you not getting into a PhD program. Now, if you were applying for a faculty position, this would make sense...
  4. Apr 2, 2016 #3
    physics undergraduate degrees
  5. Apr 2, 2016 #4

    Vanadium 50

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    The evidence suggests you did.

    It's not. It's competitive, but that doesn't make it a crapshoot. Do you think becoming the starting pitcher for the Yankees is a crapshoot?

    The basic issue is that a professor might have ten students in his career, and only one is needed to replace him. So long as a) this is true, and b) a lot of people want to become professors, this will be competitive.
  6. Apr 2, 2016 #5


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    We can't tell the future of course.

    I think what happened was that in the middle of the 20th century there were a series of massive technological advancements which meant that there were a lot of very technical problems that needed to solved in the physical sciences and big rewards for the people who solved them. And until the latter part of the century, there wasn't a lot of computational assistance out there.

    Now, I think a lot of that that has changed. A lot of "low hanging" fruit has been plucked. A lot of the problems that are left are very complex ones that require substantial resources to solve, and the gains for doing so may not be sufficient to justify the costs. On top of that the academic growth that was seen in the 50s and 60s for example, wasn't really sustainable in the long term.

    There are also changing models of education. It seems like more people are getting university degrees than ever before, which might indicate that academia should be growing, but I think instead you see (and are going to continue to see for the foreseeable future) larger class sizes because technology has enabled a lecture to be more than just one person talking to a group of 30 students in an amphitheatre.

    So I don't think in the foreseeable future it's likely that we're going to see a sudden large demand for academic physicists. There likely will be continuing demand for people who have a strong understanding of physics - perhaps even more so - but those will be in professional fields like engineering.
  7. Apr 2, 2016 #6
    Unfortunately a lot of things are crapshoots to some degree. I've done two summer internships, and both organizers said that they had a lot of applicants who were equally qualified so they randomly selected some. That's the definition of a crapshoot. And internships -> research experience -> grad school admissions.

    Plus, the fact is that grad admissions do take into account things that people can't help: domestic vs. international, male vs. female, minority vs. non-minority, etc.

    That being said, I'm going to agree with V50... if you applied for graduate school two admissions seasons in a row and didn't have any positive results, you did, in fact, apply only to schools outside of your reach.
  8. Apr 2, 2016 #7
    Here is my application info so you can further judge my decisions.

    GPA: 3.56
    GRE: 156 V, 151 Q, 5.0 A, 640 P
    Senior thesis, summer research internship, two semester research project.
    Great LOR's: small school, lots of 1-on-1 time with professors.

    Rejected from: Penn State, UCSB, UC Davis, U Mass Amherst, U Maryland, Louisiana State, Florida Atlantic, U Albany SUNY, U Mississippi

    I really thought Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi were within my reach.
  9. Apr 2, 2016 #8


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    According to the GRE web site, a 640 on the Physics GRE is only at the 37th percentile, so 2/3 of the other applicants scored better than you. I'm guessing, but I suspect this was probably a significant factor in your rejections.
  10. Apr 2, 2016 #9
    What's a "great" LOR to you? A LOR which says "this is a great and interested student who did really well on research and classes" is an average LOR. A great LOR would be that you are the best student in X years.
  11. Apr 2, 2016 #10
    It was certainly better than a LOR written for student who had done no research at a large school and never talked to the professors outside of class.
  12. Apr 2, 2016 #11
    Doesn't mean it's a great LOR.
  13. Apr 2, 2016 #12
    I knew my professors. They knew me. Personally.
    But I'll just say the LOR's could have been worse.
  14. Apr 2, 2016 #13
    I don't know why you keep arguing this. Your LOR's were not great. There is no indication you gave that they were great. They were likely just average. They could have been worse sure.

    I'm just trying to make you understand why you didn't get in.
  15. Apr 2, 2016 #14
    Thank you.
  16. Apr 2, 2016 #15


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    Maybe I'm missing something, but why is everyone jumping on Sigma057 about the quality of his or her graduate school application? The question as I read it was about the general future outlook of academic position in physics.

    Is the point that perhaps this person should try to apply again if he or she wants to get into graduate school, despite the comment that "I've accepted that it's too late for me?"
  17. Apr 2, 2016 #16
    He put up his application for us to criticize, so I thought that's what he wanted.
  18. Apr 2, 2016 #17

    Vanadium 50

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    I don't have your whole application in front of me, but the schools that you listed did. And they turned you down. That's practically the definition of out of your reach.

    That said, we don't know how many people want to go to grad school and don't get in, but roughly twice as many students take the GRE than are admitted. So it's probably about half. If you can't get in the top half of the GRE, that's a problem. Looking down the road a bit, since 1 in ~10 PhDs get the coveted university faculty position, and maybe half of the people who enter grad school finish, and half of physics undergrads don't get into grad school, that means 2 or 3% of your cohort will get that kind of position. You're at the 37th percentile, and you need something like the 97th or 98th. How do you plan to get from where you are to where you need to be?

    Onto letters: Students, who remember, don't get to see their letters, often overestimate them: "He was the best student this year" is an average letter. A good letter says "She was the best student in the past 5 years" and then goes on to mention specific strengths and weaknesses. A great letter - and I actually got one like this (at a later stage in her career) from her PhD advisor, internationally recognized as a top researcher, "the best student I have had, and am ever likely to have".
    Last edited: Apr 3, 2016
  19. Apr 2, 2016 #18
    I wanted to support my claim that some of the schools I applied for were within my reach, since its validity was questioned.
    Or more precisely, I did not apply exclusively to the IV Leagues. My professors and I thought I had a reasonable chance of getting in to at least one of these schools. Obviously we were mistaken.

    Edit: However, my academic failures weren't intended to hijack this thread. I think Choppy did a great job of answering my original question.
    Last edited: Apr 2, 2016
  20. Apr 3, 2016 #19

    Vanadium 50

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    But even if it is growing, it's not growing fast enough. If a professor graduates a student every 3-4 years, the doubling time for professors is 3-4 years. That's 20% per year. That's impossible, and even if it were possible, it's unsustainable.
  21. Apr 5, 2016 #20


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    Vanadium 50, you state that a LOR that states something along the lines of "He was the best student this year" is an average letter. This raises an interesting question: there are some professors (either due to their personality or to their cultural background) that are reticent to overly praising their students, regardless of the quality of their work (e.g. British professors, Asian professors) and would tend to resort to understatement. In that regard, students who have studied under or who have done undergraduate research may be at a disadvantage working under said professors.

    Do graduate committees take the personality or background of the professor writing the LOR into account when assessing the chances of the said student in applying for graduate school?
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