Wednesday, February 02, 2005


Why a Ph.D. in Physics is a perilous career path.

You may think you have it figured out. Your life, I mean. You have been studying hard, gotten excellent grades, and are about to graduate with a Science major (like Physics) from a good school. In fact, your ambitions go further: you want to become a scientist. And for that, you need a Ph.D., of course, there is essentially no other way, you must become a doctor. Sure, it will take plenty of time, anywhere between five and six years, you think, but it is worth it. And besides, these days, universities will generously pay for your education the entire* time. It's not a lot of money, but it is good enough for the bare necessities. This was exactly what I thought some years ago. Boy, was that stupid.

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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