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?  

11 comments

  1. It’s never your “fault” that your students go into industry and that you might “dissuade” them from academia as the only rightful choice! We have to bust the paradigm that following one’s advisor into academia is the only legitimate career path!

  2. So it sounds like if you have your heart set on academics, while it may not be impossible to land a job there if you go to a less prestigious school, it is much harder. You will still likely be employable at something interesting, however, maybe even something higher paying and/or with better hours.

    I recall many years ago when I was dating the boat anchor, how he had gone to a lower quality state university, but had gotten into #bestPhDinthegalaxy in his field because he had received multiple glowing references from his faculty mentors in undergrad. Yes, it was unfunded initially (it was a PhD in the humanities, so this is not uncommon), but eventually he got money to be there and all was fine. HOWEVER I am told that his mediocre undergrad alma mater has continued to plague him as he has gone up for tenure at [other really good institution]. This seems stupid to me, but not farfetched from what I know about academia. Of course this is all anecdotal, and maybe he slept with the wrong person’s wife and that is the real problem, but still.

  3. I am always so curious about what others think about pedigree and how pervasive it is. I remember when I was applying to grad school, my advisor at the time recommended specific people to work with – don’t worry about the school as long as you choose one of these five ‘big name’ advisors. If one happened to be at an Ivy, that gave them a bonus, but wasn’t a dealbreaker. Then later, I remember in grad school hearing my (big name) advisor say that he was amazed about how everyone else on a search committee was fawning over a candidate from Stanford and he’d never heard of such a thing. Of the two disciplines that I can pretend to be part of, I think that one cares a lot about pedigree and maybe the other is too interdisciplinary to have a solid opinion? I was raised academically outside of both of those disciplines, so I don’t have a good feel for what people might be thinking.
    I do sometimes wonder if I am doing my own students (especially the outstanding ones) a disservice by recruiting them to my not-top-ranked-in-anything R1. I have to be selfish (I want good students) and also hope that their good work will be enough. Maybe one day my name will help them too…aspirations.

  4. In my (interdisciplinary physics) field, theorists leaving academia tend to end up in data science or occasionally finance. The ML people end up at google, and otherwise destinations are a bit more diverse.

    I have a question about your harping on coastal vs non-coastal destinations, though! This might be my bias as someone from the east coast, but: how much of this is geography, vs you using coastal to stand in for fancy ivy-type places? To be honest, I think I more noncoastal state schools are seen as ~top tier in my field than east coast ones. Some examples: UWisconsin-Madison, UIUC, UMinnesota, UT-Austin are all great schools. UGA/Georgia Tech are technically east coast but nowhere near the northeast, and they’re both fantastic. Do you find the geographic separation is itself important? Do you think your students would do better if your school was located in, say, Philly? Or is this a shorthand for “less highfalutin?” On the other hand, with a few field specific exceptions, NE state schools are (imo) pretty mediocre in physics. I won’t give examples here, as I’m more likely to make someone angry.

    I agree with your point that pedigree matters an unbelievable amount. I just wonder how much of it really is this noncoastal/coastal divide vs purely a factor of each individual school’s prestige.

  5. Hi Megan, yes, coastal as a shorthand for highfalutin, rather than a geographical designation. In the physical sciences, most people’s minds go to the famous NE schools (most Ivies + MIT) on the East Coast or to the big CA schools on the West Coast. I know that there are Ivies whose departments in my field are lower ranked than my big state school’s corresponding department, but many students still consider the former more desirable for the PhD because of brand-name recognition.

    Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (the show) has some nice (nice=lolsob) commentary on this issue. At some point she’s looking at applicants for a job, and says something like “First you throw out all the applicants who went to University of… or … State University.”

  6. Hi pyrope, that’s a good question. I think people across many related subdisciplines respond to the same ten or so big-name schools. A big-name advisor at a good but not-top-10 place matters (that was my PhD advisor) but the importance of that falls off drastically outside of said advisor’s field of influence. I’d say that the school’s brand name-recognition has a broader appeal that is likely to impress those uninitiated in the specific subfield’s culture. In other words, when you apply for an NSF grant and people who are tangential to your field review your stuff, brand name trumps advisor fame. People give a lot of credence to those from top schools even if they’ve never heard of them or their work before; it’s astonishing to behold.

    I know how you feel, thinking you’re doing students a disservice. I felt like that very strongly when I first started out, like I was unworthy of great students, that they deserved someone better, someone flashier. I don’t think about that (as much) anymore. I try to remember all the great, original work we’ve done. I also remember that I do give my students all I’ve got. I sometimes joke that I employ the K-selection strategy (versus r selection) for my scientific offspring.

  7. Lol – whenever I think K vs. r selection, the animals in my head are elephants vs. rats. I would much prefer to be a badass elephant 😉

  8. A few observations. I am still pretty naive to the whole process, but here is my experience from being on hiring committees for a very specific physical sciences subfield. I will note that I am NOT a part of this subfield, but some of the committee members were. Our university is a not so prestigious midwestern R2.

    (1) Recommendation letters. In this particular field, everybody knows everybody, so advisor name recognition is big. However, I will say that the advisor letter writers from the “big schools” really knew how to play the game and say all the right things in their letters. The advisors from the not-so-big places wrote much less strong letters, which I don’t think always reflected the quality of the candidate, but rather the quality of the letters. So I think having advisors who know how to write letters like the Ivy advisors do could make a difference? Is this a thing in general?

    (2) Pedigree was definitely a “wow factor,” but in some cases actually counted against the candidate. One of our primary concerns was finding somebody who would “fit in” here and “be happy” here. That meant somebody good but not too good. We did not interview candidates from the fancy schools unless they originally came from a lower-tier school (preferably midwest, or perhaps international).

    (3) Some of the things we were looking for in our candidates were very hard to find. This included teaching experience (doesn’t have to be real experience, but something between TAing and doing a substitute lecture once and being an actual teacher – some candidates did month-long workshops for example, or taught a class as a grad student or post doc). This also included grant-writing experience and knowledge. The candidate didn’t necessarily need actual funding, although this was a huge bonus, but having experience writing grants and some sense of the funding game and a solid plan (not just research plans, but for actually submitting grants to specific agencies where they can actually get funding… i.e., not just NSF CAREER) was a big deal. Sometimes having several established collaborations was a good sign (vs lone scientist – much harder to get funding). This means they would be ready to rock. Mentoring experience (of more junior students) was also a plus.

    Ultimately, “being the best scientist ever” and “coming from the best school ever” were low on our ranking. Having “real” professor skills like teaching, mentoring, and grant writing were a big deal. Also, having reasonable expectations for the job (having a 2/2 or 2/1 teaching load, having “mediocre” students, etc.). Also, being good. Being able to give a good talk. Being personable. Actually liking students. Actually wanting to teach. Generally “getting it” and being politically savvy. These were all things that we ascertained during phone and in-person interviews.

    During the phone interview, the answer to: “why do you think you are a good fit” is NOT “my research fits in perfectly with your department and I am so smart,” but rather “I like teaching, and want to teach these *useful to your department not very specific sub-specialty* courses, I like undergrads, I want to live in your city, I have some great ideas about how to bring x/y/z outreach or resource to your department, and yeah – my research is pretty cool too and I can collaborate with x faculty here.” And the answer to “how are you going to get funding” is not “here is all the cool research I will do” but rather “I am going to submit x/y/z proposals to x/y/z agencies in years 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and work with x/y/z collaborations to establish x/y/z projects.”

    So I think it’s not easy – you still have to be good – but certainly entirely possible to get a decent TT job at an R2 institution, and I would advise non-pedigreed people thinking about this to focus on developing some of their softer skills. It’s a delicate balance, since you still need a “solid” publication record, but if you can sacrifice a few pubs for teaching, grant writing, mentoring experience, or a little bit of outreach (real outreach, not “public talks”) then I think you would be way ahead. Also, if you are female or minority, you have a HUGE advantage getting a job in the physical sciences and stand an even better chance (sorry boys).

    This is my experience. I’m not sure how generalizable this is. I’m sure other hiring committees would take a totally difference stance, but I’d like to think that other places have a similar approach.

    (1) Recommendation letters. In this particular field, everybody knows everybody, so advisor name recognition is big. However, I will say that the advisor letter writers from the “big schools” really knew how to play the game and say all the right things in their letters. The advisors from the not-so-big places wrote much less strong letters, which I don’t think always reflected the quality of the candidate, but rather the quality of the letters. So I think having advisors who know how to write letters like the Ivy advisors do could make a difference? Is this a thing in general?

    (2) Pedigree was definitely a “wow factor,” but in some cases actually counted against the candidate. One of our primary concerns was finding somebody who would “fit in” here and “be happy” here. That meant somebody good but not too good. We did not interview candidates from the fancy schools unless they originally came from a lower-tier school (preferably midwest, or perhaps international).

    (3) Some of the things we were looking for in our candidates were very hard to find. This included teaching experience (doesn’t have to be real experience, but something between TAing and doing a substitute lecture once and being an actual teacher – some candidates did month-long workshops for example, or taught a class as a grad student or post doc). This also included grant-writing experience and knowledge. The candidate didn’t necessarily need actual funding, although this was a huge bonus, but having experience writing grants and some sense of the funding game and a solid plan (not just research plans, but for actually submitting grants to specific agencies where they can actually get funding… i.e., not just NSF CAREER) was a big deal. Sometimes having several established collaborations was a good sign (vs lone scientist – much harder to get funding). This means they would be ready to rock. Mentoring experience (of more junior students) was also a plus.

    Ultimately, “being the best scientist ever” and “coming from the best school ever” were low on our ranking. Having “real” professor skills like teaching, mentoring, and grant writing were a big deal. Also, having reasonable expectations for the job (having a 2/2 or 2/1 teaching load, having “mediocre” students, etc.). Also, being good. Being able to give a good talk. Being personable. Actually liking students. Actually wanting to teach. Generally “getting it” and being politically savvy. These were all things that we ascertained during phone and in-person interviews.

    During the phone interview, the answer to: “why do you think you are a good fit” is NOT “my research fits in perfectly with your department and I am so smart,” but rather “I like teaching, and want to teach these *useful to your department not very specific sub-specialty* courses, I like undergrads, I want to live in your city, I have some great ideas about how to bring x/y/z outreach or resource to your department, and yeah – my research is pretty cool too and I can collaborate with x faculty here.” And the answer to “how are you going to get funding” is not “here is all the cool research I will do” but rather “I am going to submit x/y/z proposals to x/y/z agencies in years 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and work with x/y/z collaborations to establish x/y/z projects.”

    So I think it’s not easy – you still have to be good – but certainly entirely possible to get a decent TT job at an R2 institution, and I would advise non-pedigreed people thinking about this to focus on developing some of their softer skills. It’s a delicate balance, since you still need a “solid” publication record, but if you can sacrifice a few pubs for teaching, grant writing, mentoring experience, or a little bit of outreach (real outreach, not “public talks”) then I think you would be way ahead. Also, if you are female or minority, you have a HUGE advantage getting a job in the physical sciences and stand an even better chance (sorry boys).

    This is my experience. I’m not sure how generalizable this is. I’m sure other hiring committees would take a totally difference stance, but I’d like to think that other places have a similar approach.

  9. As a recent Physics PhD graduate (spring of this year), I can say that there lots of oportunities for Physics PhDs in defense laboratories. There are many challenging problems to work on from both basic and applied points of view. Indeed, the technology needs of the defense sector often involve meeting very extreme performance parameters, which often means that innovation is needed in both science and engineering. In many cases, the criteria for evaluating applicants mirrors that for an academic position. Chiefly, people want to see a record of initiating projects, securing funding for those projects, and delivering results in the form of either publications, conference proceedings, or physical deliverables. I have observed that for new hires, initiative and originality are qualities that are prioritized over disciplinary training. There is some preference given for candidates with elite pedigrees, but only because those candidates most often demonstrate these other characteristics. We have interviewed weak candidates from prestigious schools and have rejected them as it because clear that their only qualification was being from a famous place.

  10. Pedigree matters to people. It matters even to people who say it doesn’t matter. That said, I think one only needs either postdoc or grad school to be at a fancy place in order to be considered “pedigreed”. Not necessarily both.

    In my experience in basic research positions in industry, pedigree mattered at least as much as in academia. This is for the reason xyk mentioned–the further one is from the subfield the more they rely on general cues. But there are other factors at play and the more applied a position the more likely hiring managers are to look for specific experience and skills.

    In terms of faculty positions, at my non-elite public R1, we try to fight the pedigree bias and look for ppl who succeeded outside of the elite places. And I though the commenter from the R2 gave a nice insight into hiring at their place and that lack of pedigree can be a good thing. But if you want a tenure-track job at Harvard or Stanford you probably need high levels of pedigree.

    My impression is that US National Labs and military labs are also enamored with pedigree. But they have to take what they can get and so they often hire un-pedigreed folks.

    All in all, the US job market for Physics PhDs is excellent if one is willing to move to where the jobs are and is flexible on the type of job. This is true even if one lacks pedigree. Pretty much every single grad at our non-elite place gets a nice postdoc or a $100k/yr+ job in industry or national lab. But the narrower your expectations for post-PhD employment the trickier it gets and the better it is to have pedigree.

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