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Mike Anderson | USLHC | USA

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Room for promotion?

Yesterday about a dozen or so people from our university research group were asked to sit down in a room here at CERN and talk with a professor who is the DOE reviewer for our main grant.

This fall our 3-year grant is up for review, and he’ll help decide our fate, basically.

Our group had about 9 graduate students there and he asked questions to figure out what problems we were experiencing either within our group, within particle physics, or living in Europe.

Towards the end he also asked us about what we all wanted to do after we graduate.  He then led us through a somewhat sad “back of the envelope” calculation:

“Lets say the average professor’s tenure at a university is 30
years, roughly.  That typical professor has about 2 graduate students
at any time, and the average time for completion is 6 years.
So, the typical professor produces a total of about 10 PhD’s.
Well, they only need 1 to replicate themselves, and 1 more to
replicate positions available at national labs.  And that’s it, that’s
all there is room for in academia, typically, 2 out of 10.”

It’s an over-simplified example, but I think not too far off the mark.  About 1,000-some physics PhD’s are awarded in the US every year(AIP), but the number of vacant positions at universities each year is only a fraction of that(AIP Chart).

Update June 13:  I began searching for the names of my advisor’s former students and happened upon an on-topic article from the American Physical Society, Sean Mattingly, PhD High-Energy Particle Physics, Dedicated Client Support, Bank of America.  Sean is quoted as saying “I think every student should be thinking about a job outside physics.”  And that “in grad school we all think that we’re on the academic path, but you’re not – there’s a lot of competition for the few jobs available and most of you are going to have to leave the field.”

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8 Responses to “Room for promotion?”

  1. Stephen Brooks says:

    Well then, go and track down where all the physics PhDs from say 10-15 years ago have got to! They can’t just have sunk into the ground.

  2. Salim Fadhley says:

    There’s quite a few investment banks who’d be happy to take the folks who didn’t quite make professor grade. It’s not such a bad life.

  3. >Well then, go and track down where all the physics PhDs from say 10-15 years ago have got to! They can’t just have sunk into the ground.

    I don’t think he was implying that physics PhD’s are unemployed if not in academia, we were just talking about academia specifically there.

    There’s definitely plenty of other employment opportunities.

  4. Joerg says:

    Neglecting hundreds of professors at non-PhD granting institutions.

  5. Paul says:

    I would wager very few physics graduate students ever meet a physicist who’s not employed as a professor or at a national-lab-esque institution. Talk about sample bias! It is worthwhile for every physics graduate student to think about interesting problems outside of academic physics that he or she might pursue upon graduation. Simultaneously, find recent grads from the department who aren’t still in academia, and find out what they’re doing. This kind of career research is much easier to do than science.

  6. Stephen Brooks says:

    Well, I found there was a survey of this done by my research council in the UK (though I guess the US is different as always).

    The below is reproduced from http://www.so.stfc.ac.uk/publications/pdf/FasNews.pdf page 6/7.

    — The world is their oyster for STFC’s PhD students —

    A recent survey into the career paths of STFC funded PhD students has revealed an extremely
    positive outcome in both science and business, in both the public and private sectors.
    The survey shows that 97% of the responders who gained an STFC-funded PhD in astronomy, astrophysics,
    cosmology, particle physics, planetary science, solar research or space physics, were in full or part time employment,
    of which seven out of ten were still engaged in scientific research, either in the UK or internationally.
    Interestingly, for the 27% of responders who decided not to pursue a career in academic research, the survey
    has shown significant alternative job opportunities in the private sector. The majority of these respondents are now
    employed either in the business and financial services sectors, at companies such as Barclays, IBM, BP and Goldman
    Sachs. These are high-value, knowledge-intensive sectors that are critical to the future competitiveness of the UK
    economy and there is strong demand from these sectors for people with the type of high-level computing, modelling,
    quantitative and transferable skills that are developed through a STFC PhD.
    The survey also revealed that approximately 62% of respondents are earning a similar or greater salary than
    the average professional worker in the UK despite being relatively young. The implication is that many former PhD
    students are high-achievers in the careers they have pursued.

  7. > Neglecting hundreds of professors at non-PhD granting institutions.

    Many positions at smaller schools only require a masters degree, so one gets additional competition that way though, no? (For example, my officemate back home got a job next year at UW-Whitewater teaching physics with only his Masters. He’ll continue to work towards his PhD, however.)
    http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/highlite/edphysgrad/figure5.htm

    And the DOE reviewer was only trying to get across the idea that there is a lack of academic jobs available for physics phd graduates. There’s definitely jobs available in general, they don’t go hungry :P

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