Wednesday, February 02, 2005
Why a Ph.D. in Physics is a perilous career path.
Let me explain. You will learn a lot. You will work extremely hard. You will get paid less than a janitor for many years. You may even think you are enjoying it. You may think you are a genius (i.e. that you will follow Einstein's footsteps, literally). However, you should be very careful with regards to the career path that a Ph.D. will lead you to. Why? Because even assuming that you will finish (and many wisely decide to stop), you will be faced with the largest glut of Ph.D.s in modern history: there are simply not enough jobs in academia to fulfill your dreams. After finishing, you are likely to get a postdoctoral position doing interesting research, but you will find out that your compensation is still as much as an administrative assistant's. Do you think that is fair after investing ten years of more in your college education and foregoing a regular salary? The typical American does not find this attractive, so there, more than 50% of the Ph. D. students in the Natural Sciences must be imported from developing countries. The jobs in the government labs may not be suitable for what you want to do, so you will be left with many hard choices. You may either leave your plans to pursue your own research, and find a research job that leads to a reasonable career, or you may decide not to ever give up, and end up spending countless years in poorly paid jobs until you finally get that coveted semi-permanent scientist position. Furthermore, you will have to move continuously from one postdoctoral position to another, as often as once a year or two, and you may not have much say as to where you will have to work next. Finding a professorship job is much less likely than getting stuck in a postdoctoral holding pattern, since, circa 2005, every single open (Physics) assistant professorship position in the U.S. receives between 120 and 180 applications. Yes, you read that correctly, and this is by no means an exaggeration, it is completely accurate. Please indulge me and ask a tenured professor how many applications they got last time they had an opening. Every university with a professorship position in Physics in the U.S., even the small, out-of-the-way liberal arts college receives these many applications. The top schools are in the upper range. The reason is simply supply and demand, coupled with a huge demographic shift and stagnant federal funding for civilian research. Given reasonable demographic and budget projections, this situation is not likely to change much in the next ten or twenty years. So, my advice to you, the prospective Physics Ph.D. student, is to think about this very carefully. You will need a lot of luck, not just talent, to make it through this process in academia. You may need to switch careers mid-way. I would advice you to get a job outside academia as soon as possible after your degree. And wait, there is more...
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The result is a glut of PhD graduates with no job opportunities outside academia. The ones that stay in academia to go on the post-doc treadmill make less than the janitors at my university! They are old, have saved little to no money or have massive student loan debt, have to move every 2 years, have extremely limited choice of where they can work, and have competition biting at their heels. The lucky few that are considered for tenure-track must spend the next 5 years working non-stop, 7 days a week, to try to prove their worthy of full-time employment at the university.
The vast majority of people that run on the treadmill end up falling off at some point and into the misery of realizing that employers don't value their degree as much as they thought employers would. The worst thing is, if you do make it as a professor, you end up having to spend most of your time (like my professor and many professors at my institute) in writing funding proposals, attending committees, doing administrative work, attending conferences, organizing conferences, etc. just to keep your research group (science sweatshop) running. You won't be doing much research at all! So what's the point?!
I used to be arrogant in thinking that those without a graduate degree are beneath those without, and that they will never go far in life. Boy was I wrong. I see people I knew from high school that just went to college or picked up a trade, and they make more at age 25 than the salaries of assistant/associate professors at age 35+. Not only that, they've saved more money, some have bought property, and best of all, it's much easier for them to find work.
Now I envy the people that didn't go to grad school.
One of the biggest draws of leaving would be the disappointment it brings to my advisor. I actually rather like my advisor. She is extremely reasonable and a very pleasant person to work with. She has been at my school only as long as I have so I am one of here first 4 students. Being an optimistic assistant professor with hopes of tenure (and success for her students), I don't know how she would take it if one of her students left this early on. I would hate to cause any damage to her reputation or self esteem, but at the same time this alone can't justify be staying and being miserable. I only hope that I could exit gracefully so that she would be willing to write positive recommendations for me in the future.
Again, I enjoyed reading your blog. I would be interested in hearing what you are doing now.
You're a physicist now, you've studied nature and have learned a thing or two. The first thing you learned... nature's a bitch, she's more interesting than our best mathematical approximations (which we euphemistically like to call laws). In simple situations, the laws work; in complex situations, they become "highly dependent on initial conditions", and not easily predictable, because to predict would require perfect knowledge of the system (which we don't have).
You couldn't find a dream job in academia? Good for you, the place is a cluster-f*** anyways. There's lots of cool technology out there that Da Vinci never even got a chance to play with... but you can! Now it's time for you to go out and create the future.
The funny thing is... you can do everything above without a PhD in physics too. People respect wisdom and knowledge over titles.
I will say that granted, a Ph.D going into Academia may be perilous, but you don't HAVE to go into Academia at all. You can work in industry. Sadly, the only thing people ever think about with industry is always computers and business.
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