Day: December 5, 2020

Reader Question: Where Do Physicists Get Jobs?

omdg asks:Can you discuss at some point what people do with a PhD in Physics, and how much it matters to your job prospects whether you go to Big Name Coast school versus one in flyover country. In my field, for instance, if you trained “in Boston” you get what seems to be unlimited benefit of the doubt and people even treat you differently than if you went someplace “less illustrious.”

The short answer is that, yes, for a faculty position, especially at an R1, good pedigree remains paramount. I see it every year on search-and-screen committees. It affects the subsequent career, as well, in that pedigreed people are more likely to be recognized on 30-under-30 and 40-under-40 lists and receive all sorts of early-career accolades. One can say that’s because they are inherently better than the non-pedigreed, and it is probably often true, but not always. They are certainly more confident, on average, than the non-pedigreed, and feel entitled to good things coming their way, but, based on the experience from their training, why wouldn’t they be? I come non-pedigreed but I have done as well as anyone in my theoretical subfield and better than some pedigreed experimentalists who, owing to doing experiment, could be amassing grants and citations at a much higher rate than me. But I constantly worry; there’s always a cloud of doubt over everything I do (I know, there’s a gendered component here, too), and my expectations of rejections of grant proposals and papers submitted to highfalutin places no doubt transmit to the members of my group. It’s a kind of  pervasive doubt that those with the confidence instilled by their hyper-successful advisors didn’t have to absorb, so they don’t suffer from it as faculty and don’t subconsciously transmit it to their own group members.

Pedigree really matters if someone is dead-set on becoming a professor at R1 and R2, and also matters at many PUIs (the more elite the institution, e.g., a private SLAC, the more important the pedigree). Non-pedigration in grad school can be overcome with a higher pedigree during postdoc. Again, you can get a faculty position, even a very good one without a pedigree, but this isn’t easy and is much more likely to happen in applied fields.

My excellent former postdoc, with a PhD from a non-coastal public R1 and a postdoc with me at my non-coastal public R1, had a splendid publication record. Got some interviews in year three of postdoc, got more interviews and offers and a job in year four. He’s now tenured. Had he come with more of a pedigree he’d have been snapped up sooner on the job market, and perhaps by a higher-ranked place, I have no doubt about that. In fact, had he had a weaker publication record but a better pedigree, he’d have been snapped up sooner, too. Had he had a stronger pedigree, he’d have had an easier time getting early-career grants once he was in his faculty position — I see it all the time, the fawning over pedigree in grant review panels and the outright dismissal of people lower on the pedigree list. I really wish funding agencies would stop asking where a person got their degrees some number of years after the PhD. One should be able to not have the PhD institution be the first thing everyone sees in the biosketch 20 years post PhD.

So yes, the importance of pedigree is pervasive, disheartening, sometimes downright nauseating…

But it’s not everything.

Sometimes we in academia forget we are not the whole world, or even a significant part of the world.

I work in an applied physics area where a lot of physicists, chemists, materials scientists, and all sorts of engineers work. It’s a really fun field with a lot of technological potential. Experimentalists in the same field are readily employed in industry.

I am a theorist, the kind that develops own mathematical models and then writes own computer codes, and  my graduates do really well out in the fabled “real world.” I had several who did postdocs in national labs and then either stayed on as permanent staff or went onto great things afterwards (e.g., permanent staff at an Ivy and household-name companies). Many went right into industry, either R&D or software development for  tech giants. Several got to jobs in data science or scientific computing in adjacent fields. So I do not worry about the job prospects for my people, because they’re all in excellent positions that utilize their talents and expertise. And I feel that the work that we do really helps my group members hone a whole palette of skills, both hard (technical) and soft (writing, presenting), and that, because we don’t specialize in certain tools/techniques as many do, but rather develop our own tools for the problems we are interested in, and because we work on such a smorgasbord of problems (mostly because I get bored fast and take new research directions all the time), my folks have a really solid base and can confidently tackle a wide variety of new problems.

But mine is an applied field. I am not sure what people in more pure physics fields do if they don’t land in academia or national labs. I assume there is always a place for experimentalists in various industry or defense labs, and for theorists in data science, software engineering, and finance.

I know that some of my best students started out thinking they wanted faculty jobs, but, by the end of their PhD, decided that the funding rat race wasn’t for them and they didn’t care about teaching enough to pursue a PUI position. They wanted an intellectually stimulating job that they could leave at the end of the day and they wanted to have a personal life, so they went into industry. Maybe it’s my fault, because I dissuaded them from academia with my own lack of confidence and cynicism about the grant game.

Physics and physics-adjacent academic blogosphere, what do your peeps do after graduation? Thoughts about education pedigree WRT jobs for graduates?