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Will the Sputnik generation retire in time?

  1. May 27, 2013 #1
    I've read that the reason why the academic job market is so swamped for Physics is because of the massive spending around Sputnik's launch which resulted in the hiring of tons of physics faculty, followed by anti-age discrimination legislation which allowed those Sputnik-era professors to stay employed well into their 70's. It makes sense to say that this generation of professors will soon (within the next 10 years) retire.

    Is my information accurate? And, will this really open up new jobs at respectable universities for new PhD's? I ask because I want to pursue this career path, for the sake of performing original research, but am afraid and discouraged by the job situation.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. May 27, 2013 #2

    MathematicalPhysicist

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    They can also die before they will retire, some of them (perhaps most) don't exercise.
     
  4. May 27, 2013 #3

    Vanadium 50

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    I first heard this argument with "post-Sputnik" replaced by "post-World War 2".

    It's arithmetic: each professor produces of order 10 graduate students, and only 1 is needed to replace him.
     
  5. May 27, 2013 #4
    It will be interesting to see what happens to this country if the attitude of maintaining a 1960's level of educational and research infrastructure in the face of competition continues to hold.
     
  6. May 27, 2013 #5

    Vanadium 50

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    As far as I can tell, the number of degree-granting institutions has roughly doubled since 1960. So if you want to say sqrt(2) per 10 instead of 1 in 10, fine. I don't think quibbling is worth the effort.

    However, doubling the number of colleges doesn't mean doubling the number of physics professors. Thirty years ago there were something like three or four schools with degrees in film: NYU, UCLA, Northwestern and maybe USC. Today there are almost 100.
     
  7. May 28, 2013 #6
    Also, I think many of the new positions are for lecturers not researchers. I think there is a higher percentage of college teachers these days that just lecture or mainly lecture rather than do research as their primary role in college.
     
  8. May 28, 2013 #7
    Probably not- it looks like retirement peaked in the mid 2000s and has been dropping since. Most likely, that generation is mostly retired.

    Also, the trend has been to replace full time faculty with less-then-full time replacements. I've seen numbers suggesting that only 1 professor is hired for every 3 that retire (instead universities hire a host of adjuncts for teaching and postdocs for research).

    It seems likely that working conditions in academia will get worse before they get better (and things are already pretty bad).
     
    Last edited: May 28, 2013
  9. May 30, 2013 #8

    StatGuy2000

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    I admit this is somewhat off-topic, but here are some questions that I want to pose to all of you -- do any of you see a scenario where an entire college or university somewhere within the US declare bankruptcy or otherwise shut down within the next few years?

    Do you also see a scenario where physics departments (or other STEM departments) in colleges/universities in the US may be shut down due to budgetary concerns?
     
  10. May 31, 2013 #9
    I don't personally know of anything that extreme, but a lesser version is happening right now. Government cuts started a chain reaction which led to people at the bottom of the pecking order (grad students with no grant money) being forced out of the program or rushed to graduate early.
     
  11. Jun 4, 2013 #10

    StatGuy2000

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    Ah yes, the results of the "sequester" i.e. across-the-board budget cuts due to the inability of the two houses of Congress to agree on a budget that would incorporate sensible spending controls with increases in revenue to address the budget deficit, due primarily to the obstructions of the far-right extremists that unfortunately now dominate the Republican Party.

    Back to the point, with government cuts starting this chain reaction as you described above, it may only be a matter of time until non-tenured faculty members may end up being fired or whole departments being shut down, thus leading to fewer colleges/universities offering STEM programs.
     
  12. Jun 4, 2013 #11
    I heard that the NSF cuts were relatively modest actually. Not that it won't hurt, but I don't think it will be hurting as much as StatGuy suggests.
     
  13. Jun 4, 2013 #12

    StatGuy2000

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    You may be right that the situation may not be as dire as I had suggested in my previous post. Nonetheless, further budget cuts (just the latest in a long series of cuts dating back years) will only further hurt research in the US, especially basic research.
     
  14. Jun 4, 2013 #13
    Sure. Not a bright move, Congress.
     
    Last edited: Jun 4, 2013
  15. Jun 4, 2013 #14

    Vanadium 50

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    Let's discuss politics in the appropriate forum, thanks.
     
  16. Jun 4, 2013 #15
    Back to the topic at hand, the academic job market is swamped with supply across the board. Physics isn't even the hardest departments to get full-time academic work, the humanities and social sciences are harder.

    I know a lot of people with Ph.Ds in various disciplines. I only know a handful of those who successfully became professors.

    Interestingly, we were in a similar situation 30 years ago (I've read some old articles about it). The thinking was that a bunch of professors were about to retire and open up the field. Didn't happen. In fact it's worse today.
     
  17. Jun 5, 2013 #16

    StatGuy2000

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    Among those that you know with Ph.Ds in the various disciplines that did not become academics, where did they ultimately end up? Did any of them end up working in an area related to their field of research? How many ended up unemployed or underemployed (e.g. working at Walmart, Starbucks, bartending)?
     
  18. Jun 5, 2013 #17
    Most of the people around my age in my field (plasma physics) were able to stay in the field after getting their Ph.D. The caveat to that is that if they wanted to continue doing plasma physics, with a few exceptions, they had to be willing to take a job at one of the national labs, particularly LANL, Sandia, or LLNL. Those of us who decided to swim 'against the current' have had a tougher time, since there aren't that many industry opportunities for a fusion scientist.

    I'd say in plasma physics, if you go to the right programs and are willing to end up at one of the above three labs, the likelihood of you practicing your field is high. Then again, the plasma physics pipeline feeds into the weapons program, stockpile stewardship, and things like NIF. Mind you, most of the people I'm talking about researched magnetic confinement fusion in grad school and have switched to inertial confinement/laser fusion, but it's still all plasma physics and fusion research.

    Another fact: I just looked at my program's page. Since 2001, the year I started, not 1 of the 48 graduates is in a prof position anywhere.
     
  19. Jun 5, 2013 #18
    Although you hear anecdotes of people working at Starbucks, that isn't the case for anyone I know personally. The engineers I know are all working in their field of expertise. My peers in grad school are all working in the same niche they studied (Analog IC Design).

    Several social science Ph.Ds I know (three to be exact) all went to non-profit consulting firms after finishing their postdocs. The make decent livings (I know the salary of one of them) but not enough to really justify starting a career at 35. All three of them have expressed at various times that they feel the Ph.D. was a waste of time.

    I have one friend who got a Ph.D. in statistics. She now works in medical research and seems happy.

    I have a couple of friends who are still hanging around academic departments looking for scraps (i.e. lecturing contracts). I only know two people personally that have become professors. My sister is a professor in the Chicago area, and one of my co-graduate students is a professor in Taiwan.

    All in all, my friends with Ph.Ds aren't doing badly. However, they are all behind people with MS degrees if you integrate lifetime earning.
     
  20. Jun 5, 2013 #19
    This is pretty much true for the majority of hard science phds I know as well. We've mostly ended up in non-science jobs and can't help but feel that the phd (and any postdocs) were just a wasted decade.
     
  21. Jun 6, 2013 #20

    StatGuy2000

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    As a follow-up to this, would you actively discourage someone with an interest in the hard sciences, e.g. physics, chemistry, from pursuing a PhD, given your experience and the experiences of your cohort? For example, would you tell that individual that the PhD is worthless and not worth pursuing?
     
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