Friday, March 18, 2005
New NASA director signals shift to old STAR WARS program
While NASA was created as a public relations icon of the Cold War by using missile technology for civilian research, it is now clear that its $20 billion dollar yearly budget will be increasingly channeled towards super-rockets for missile defense, or so it appears, judging from Dr. Vader's background and experience. This signals the end of the golden era of NASA Science: the great observatories led by the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope (itself also a test-bed for spy-satellite technology). Many people do not realize it, but in this golden era, NASA technology has been used to date the Age of the Universe very accurately, discover new mysterious matter and energy in the Universe, and in general make great discoveries that have just mind-boggling importance for human knowledge. Many important science projects will be gone in a few years thanks to the new war mongers, unless the projects are somewhat related to weapons, defense, or spying. Reality is echoing fiction once again. To quote the wise Yoda character in the STAR WARS Episode II movie: "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."
Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Academia creates personal-life nightmares for scientists
Are you a scientist? Well, of course you must be some bizarro nerd that never dates, does not have any stable friends, never had or will have any long-lasting relationships, could not possibly marry, and God forbid, could not ever have any kids or family. No, this is not some stereotypical picture out of a Hollywood movie. This appears to be what universities and the federal research agencies are expecting of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, the sorry sweatshop workers of Science. More and more are raising their voices in various scientific journals, including Nature, to complain that one or two-year temporary jobs ("postdocs"), with salaries worthy of a high-school dropout, and the demands to move as often as once a year are breaking apart personal lives and families across the U.S. You think I exaggerate? Read an article entitled "The familial balancing act", published recently in Nature 433, p.552. There, you will find out how freshly minted Ph.D.s have been practically forced to live apart from their families and wives (husbands) for years.You can add me to that list, I lived apart from my girlfriend for more than one year, just to find out that postdocs are a dead-end career path. People have been raising this so-called "two-body problem" for decades now, so good luck, the system is not going to change any time soon. And the journal Nature is not helping. Rather, the journal is patronizing the cruelty of the postdoc system. After describing how difficult it was for academic couples to stay together during their postdoc years, and how awful it was for the couples to be separated for years, Nature goes on to mention two success stories, and ends up stating that postdocs are a "worthwhile sacrifice" and "worth it in the end". Anyone aware of the job market and considerate about people's emotional well-being would know that this is rubbish!! That is the stupidest advice I have ever heard. What Nature will not tell you, is the myriad of horror stories about postdocs not being able to find any academic positions, and the troubling personal life problems of young scientists caused by academia, including divorce and psychological damage. In my office alone, there are several postdocs that are/will be separated from their significant others, and few are finding stable jobs. How are two success stories out of an unspecified number of horror stories supposed to convince a scientific mind?? In one "success" story, the postdoc writes 65 applications for tenure-track positions and interviews in 13 places, before finding a place where both people can get jobs. I am not kidding. This is the best "success" story that Nature could find! How shameful. It is obvious that Nature serves the interest of a greedy academic establishment that is hungry for cheap labor, so young scientists beware of their nasty trap! The best advice I can give you is never to give up living near your significant other for a lousy job in Science, such as graduate school or a postdoc.
A Career in Astrophysics Research: An Exciting Road to Poverty
Thursday, February 17, 2005
War-related research booms, Ph.D.s recruited
In the meantime, many scientists that may have expected at the beginning of their careers to work on building public knowledge for humanity, will find themselves working for dangerous war projects, snooping technology, homeland security, or weapons of mass destruction. These technologies are already making it easier to curtail freedoms at home, under the excuse of security. They have already produced deadly new weapons that madmen can use (i.e. the anthrax cases are now known to have originated form a U.S. government laboratory). The further effect of these policies is to detract many foreign students from enrolling in U.S. graduate schools, therefore reducing the pool of talent in the U.S.
I personally believe that it is mistaken to blindly assume that technology can help resolve a problem that is inherently political, like terrorism. Furthermore, the creation of new, terrible weapons, does not bode well for humanity, as it will create more problems than it solves. Case in point: remember Hiroshima. That was arguably a short-term "solution", but it created much larger, long-term problems. It is very self-serving for scientists and contractors to trumpet their technology as a solution to the nation's security problems. Profit from government contracts is given more importance than common sense. It is a delusion to believe that pouring money into a problem like terrorism will make it go away, thanks to technology.
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
Foreign students beware: no jobs in the U.S. after graduation
Personally, I have been searching for a job in the private sector for about one year now. I have a Ph.D. in Physics from a prestigious university, excellent grades, and good communication skills. So why am I having so much trouble finding a job? The economy has been slow to recover, so that is one reason. The other is clearly due to the quotas, since many jobs that I would have wanted to apply for required U.S. permanent residence or citizenship. I have turned down two research position offers from U.S. universities, mostly because they offered me temporary jobs that require me to move every two years or so, the research topics were of low quality, and they offered to pay only half the market salary. So, if you are a foreign professional educated in the U.S. and cannot find a good job, you are not alone!
See NYT: U.S. Jobs Becoming Scarcer for Students from Abroad
Becoming a Science Ph.D. is no escape from a difficult job market
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
Jobs for Physics Ph.D.s outside Academia
The notes by Peter Fiske were quite helpful, if mostly for defining your career direction and generally cheering you up: it is not the end of the world for PhDs to leave academia. Jennifer Hodgdon has a website, entitled "How to leave Physics" that also has many great resources. Ok, my generic list of popular career options are:
- The National Laboratories: working on defense, spying, weapons, and other applied technologies. Nearly every chemist, biologist, physicist, and engineer can find a job there. Pros: decent salary, interesting projects, 9-5 job. Cons: morally dubious, security is a pain.
- Industry Jobs: depending on your field, this could be information technology, nanotechnology, biotechnology, oil companies, pharmaceuticals, electronics, etc. Pros: good salary, market impact, hours vary. Cons: very focused, skills may not be transferable to other sectors.
- Government sponsored laboratories or institutions: like NASA, JPL, NSF, NIH, etc. Pros: job may be interesting, decent salary, 9-5 jobs. Cons: bureaucracy, politics, jobs are limited to U.S. citizens, which eliminates about 50% of the doctorates in the U.S.
- Defense Industry: euphemism for the War Industry. The military-industrial complex needs you! Pros: high salary, cozy jobs. Cons: guilt (if you have any), security, only U.S. citizens.
- Consulting: management consulting, IT consulting, and others. They require that you are a clear thinker and a team builder, but other than that, it is pretty open. Pros: high salary, high-power positions, talk to CEOs, get business training. Cons: incredibly long hours, stressful, you may not use your knowledge as much, cookie-cutter corporate culture.
- Finance: you could be an analyst for an industry related to your Ph.D., but you may need some business training. Physicists go to quantitative analyst jobs, but the competition for these jobs appears to be more fierce than academia! Pros: very high salary, technically interesting. Cons: jobs very hard to get, C++, stressful, cookie-cutter corporate culture.
- Startups. Pros: you can make it big on your own. Cons: if you knew how to do it, you would not be reading this.
Personally, I have tried looking for quantitative analyst Finance jobs, but it has been very difficult. This came as a surprise for me, since I figured a Ph.D. in Physics would be enough to get hired. It turns out it is best if you are a programming guru and/or a true genious (defined as the person with the highest score in the qualifying exams in graduate school). Usually, you are required to know programming in a very specific language, i.e. C++ and/or Perl. You better have taken several relevant courses in Options and Investments. Then, you are probably better off working over the summer in an internship job at Wall Street before you graduate. You will have to have a solid knowledge on probability, since you will be grilled to exhaustion on their first and second round interviews. They also prefer people to be just out of graduate school, don't ask me why, but if you have several years postdoctoral experience, it will actually work against you.
Industry jobs also recruit for knowledge, not necessarily ability. If you can find an industry job where you can apply what you have learned during graduate school or postdoc work, all for the better. However, if you are a foreigner, it is difficult to find an employer to grant you an H-1 visa, since the government has imposed tough quotas and it may literally take one year to get your paperwork through! Many companies do not hire foreigners at all, such as GE, Boeing, Raytheon, etc. In 2005, the "hottest" field for physicists is the war (defense) and security industry, and they only hire American PhDs, with very few exceptions. This is great if you are an American, since your jobs are protected! It sucks if you are not. By the way, European companies are not much different, and probably are even more self-centered than American ones, in that they are only interested in hiring EU citizens (and maybe US citizens for their US offices).
Monday, February 07, 2005
Science Graduate School: a Trap for Smart Idealists
Why do I say graduate school is a trap? Because it is like a siren song for idealists that are seeking knowledge and want to dedicate their lives to learning. I found out, very late, that postdoctoral positions are really a glass ceiling for most people in pursuit of knowledge: only a very lucky few will get through to a rewarding research and teaching career. So only the elite-of-the-elite-of-the-elite can make it through: believe me, even being a postdoctoral researcher in a top school makes little difference! I just need to warn everybody about this because I made this mistake, and I do not want other people to fall into the same trap! Postdoctoral positions did not exist until recent years, and they are simply a mechanism to get fresh inexperienced researchers to do work that professors themselves do not want to do, and need someone to do it for very little money. Case in point, let me tell you that a postdoctoral researcher makes: $30,000 to $48,000, the median being in the high 30's. You are probably thinking I am a materialist, but nothing could be further from the truth! I am an idealist, otherwise I would not be a researcher. My point is that you will get paid very little money for several years after your Ph.D. is completed, and then you will get nothing! I was just talking to a researcher/recruiter from a prestigious institute, and he point blank told me that to get a tenure-track position I needed to a) Have won a fellowship or prize(s), b) Have about six years of postdoctoral experience! So here is the official career track: 4 years of college + 7 years of Ph.D. + 6 years of postdoctoral work + 6 years of tenure-track work. That means roughly 23 years of university work is the median time needed to get a tenured professorship. If you think that is attractive, go ahead!
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...