Don't Become a Scientist?!

  • As many already know, studying for the physics GRE and getting accepted into a graduate program is not the final hurdle in your physics career.
  • There are many issues current physics graduate students face such as studying for their qualifier, deciding upon a field of research, choosing an advisor, being an effective teaching assistant, trying to have a social life, navigating department politics, dealing with stress, utilizing financial aid, etc.

andyfrench
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Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby andyfrench » Wed Apr 08, 2009 2:22 pm

Hi, I found this article many years ago and I have since shown it to two physics professors... They both offered some good rebuttal points here and there but mostly dismissed the writer Dr. Katz as a bit of a kook specially based on his other writings(questionable stuff). Anyways I thought it would be interesting to link some of you guys that are currently graduate students to it and if you have the time please offer rebuttals or confirmation to some of the points he makes.

Thanks You




[http://wuphys.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html]
Don't Become a Scientist!

Jonathan I. Katz

Professor of Physics

Washington University, St. Louis, Mo.

[my last name]@wuphys.wustl.edu

Are you thinking of becoming a scientist? Do you want to uncover the mysteries of nature, perform experiments or carry out calculations to learn how the world works? Forget it!

Science is fun and exciting. The thrill of discovery is unique. If you are smart, ambitious and hard working you should major in science as an undergraduate. But that is as far as you should take it. After graduation, you will have to deal with the real world. That means that you should not even consider going to graduate school in science. Do something else instead: medical school, law school, computers or engineering, or something else which appeals to you.

Why am I (a tenured professor of physics) trying to discourage you from following a career path which was successful for me? Because times have changed (I received my Ph.D. in 1973, and tenure in 1976). American science no longer offers a reasonable career path. If you go to graduate school in science it is in the expectation of spending your working life doing scientific research, using your ingenuity and curiosity to solve important and interesting problems. You will almost certainly be disappointed, probably when it is too late to choose another career.

American universities train roughly twice as many Ph.D.s as there are jobs for them. When something, or someone, is a glut on the market, the price drops. In the case of Ph.D. scientists, the reduction in price takes the form of many years spent in ``holding pattern'' postdoctoral jobs. Permanent jobs don't pay much less than they used to, but instead of obtaining a real job two years after the Ph.D. (as was typical 25 years ago) most young scientists spend five, ten, or more years as postdocs. They have no prospect of permanent employment and often must obtain a new postdoctoral position and move every two years. For many more details consult the Young Scientists' Network or read the account in the May, 2001 issue of the Washington Monthly.

As examples, consider two of the leading candidates for a recent Assistant Professorship in my department. One was 37, ten years out of graduate school (he didn't get the job). The leading candidate, whom everyone thinks is brilliant, was 35, seven years out of graduate school. Only then was he offered his first permanent job (that's not tenure, just the possibility of it six years later, and a step off the treadmill of looking for a new job every two years). The latest example is a 39 year old candidate for another Assistant Professorship; he has published 35 papers. In contrast, a doctor typically enters private practice at 29, a lawyer at 25 and makes partner at 31, and a computer scientist with a Ph.D. has a very good job at 27 (computer science and engineering are the few fields in which industrial demand makes it sensible to get a Ph.D.). Anyone with the intelligence, ambition and willingness to work hard to succeed in science can also succeed in any of these other professions.

Typical postdoctoral salaries begin at $27,000 annually in the biological sciences and about $35,000 in the physical sciences (graduate student stipends are less than half these figures). Can you support a family on that income? It suffices for a young couple in a small apartment, though I know of one physicist whose wife left him because she was tired of repeatedly moving with little prospect of settling down. When you are in your thirties you will need more: a house in a good school district and all the other necessities of ordinary middle class life. Science is a profession, not a religious vocation, and does not justify an oath of poverty or celibacy.

Of course, you don't go into science to get rich. So you choose not to go to medical or law school, even though a doctor or lawyer typically earns two to three times as much as a scientist (one lucky enough to have a good senior-level job). I made that choice too. I became a scientist in order to have the freedom to work on problems which interest me. But you probably won't get that freedom. As a postdoc you will work on someone else's ideas, and may be treated as a technician rather than as an independent collaborator. Eventually, you will probably be squeezed out of science entirely. You can get a fine job as a computer programmer, but why not do this at 22, rather than putting up with a decade of misery in the scientific job market first? The longer you spend in science the harder you will find it to leave, and the less attractive you will be to prospective employers in other fields.

Perhaps you are so talented that you can beat the postdoc trap; some university (there are hardly any industrial jobs in the physical sciences) will be so impressed with you that you will be hired into a tenure track position two years out of graduate school. Maybe. But the general cheapening of scientific labor means that even the most talented stay on the postdoctoral treadmill for a very long time; consider the job candidates described above. And many who appear to be very talented, with grades and recommendations to match, later find that the competition of research is more difficult, or at least different, and that they must struggle with the rest.

Suppose you do eventually obtain a permanent job, perhaps a tenured professorship. The struggle for a job is now replaced by a struggle for grant support, and again there is a glut of scientists. Now you spend your time writing proposals rather than doing research. Worse, because your proposals are judged by your competitors you cannot follow your curiosity, but must spend your effort and talents on anticipating and deflecting criticism rather than on solving the important scientific problems. They're not the same thing: you cannot put your past successes in a proposal, because they are finished work, and your new ideas, however original and clever, are still unproven. It is proverbial that original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal; because they have not yet been proved to work (after all, that is what you are proposing to do) they can be, and will be, rated poorly. Having achieved the promised land, you find that it is not what you wanted after all.

What can be done? The first thing for any young person (which means anyone who does not have a permanent job in science) to do is to pursue another career. This will spare you the misery of disappointed expectations. Young Americans have generally woken up to the bad prospects and absence of a reasonable middle class career path in science and are deserting it. If you haven't yet, then join them. Leave graduate school to people from India and China, for whom the prospects at home are even worse. I have known more people whose lives have been ruined by getting a Ph.D. in physics than by drugs.

If you are in a position of leadership in science then you should try to persuade the funding agencies to train fewer Ph.D.s. The glut of scientists is entirely the consequence of funding policies (almost all graduate education is paid for by federal grants). The funding agencies are bemoaning the scarcity of young people interested in science when they themselves caused this scarcity by destroying science as a career. They could reverse this situation by matching the number trained to the demand, but they refuse to do so, or even to discuss the problem seriously (for many years the NSF propagated a dishonest prediction of a coming shortage of scientists, and most funding agencies still act as if this were true). The result is that the best young people, who should go into science, sensibly refuse to do so, and the graduate schools are filled with weak American students and with foreigners lured by the American student visa.


Jonathan Katz
Thu May 13 12:39:11 CDT 1999

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dlenmn
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby dlenmn » Wed Apr 08, 2009 2:38 pm

These types of articles get linked to now and then. You might want to read through this thread for a discussion of the related Greenspun and Goodstein articles.

I think there are more/better industry jobs than Katz and Greenspun claim, but whether it's worth spending 5-6 years in grad school to get them is debatable. Getting an academic job is undeniably a long shot. We're in grad school because we like science. Perhaps this will prove to be a poor decision in hindsight. Who knows.

astroprof
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby astroprof » Wed Apr 08, 2009 5:55 pm

Between this and your previous post on the prospective grad student link, it sounds like you are starting to question whether or not you are making the right choice for your future career. Such questioning is a normal part of life. It is better to think about your options now, when you have made only minor sacrifices (of time and money for school), and can more easily change directions, than, say, 10-20 years from now. Your school should have a career development office, where you may be able to learn about other career choices that fit your talents and personality.

In regards to this specific article, it is certainly true that there are fewer academic jobs available than there are new PhDs in any given year. However, the article misses the point that the unemployment rate for physics PhD's is significantly lower than the average unemployment rate. See http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/hi ... mphigh.htm for detailed statistics on the employment of physics PhDs. Indeed, there are many career paths (not just academic!) for which a PhD is an appropriate stepping stone.

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elzoido238
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby elzoido238 » Wed Apr 08, 2009 6:22 pm

To add to what astroprof just said, this article was also written 10 years ago and doesn't consider the mass retirement of the baby-boomers in the near future (which will greatly improve the available jobs to PhD-holding candidates ratio.)

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zxcv
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby zxcv » Wed Apr 08, 2009 7:13 pm

Here's the lesson: don't do a PhD (in any field) if you're dead-set on staying in the academy. The jobs in the academy that you want may very well be nearly impossible to obtain, even if you're extremely good.

Personally, I'm okay with the reality that I may very well eventually drop out of science. Sure, I'll may lose 5-10 years of career progress, but I'll have a great time doing so.

Imperate
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby Imperate » Wed Apr 08, 2009 8:12 pm

I think it's probably true to say if you could live with or imagine doing anything else but go to Physics gradschool then you probably shouldn't go to Physics gradschool. Financially and career progression wise it simply doesn't make sense, I don't think there is a single job I could get after a theoretical PhD that I couldn't get right now (maybe this is a bit different for the CM type people who will be in demand for their specialised skills in industry). What's more the people who graduated with me who did start work, will all be years up the career ladder/payscale, will probably have their own property and perhaps settled family.

We also have to live with the fact that all that sacrifice might lead us to just being spat back out anyway into more or less the same (in terms of employability) position we were in 6 years ago (or even longer if we go on to postdoc but don't make it all the way to professorhood). This really worries me going to not one the top 10 or 20 schools, I keep asking myself do I really stand a chance making it all the way in such a competitive market, you only have to peruse a few faculty profiles at various institutes to see nearly all of them came from a top 20, if not top 10 school.

Do we get romantised by the popular conception of science? I suspect each of us (at least in HEP theory, haha) secretly thinks he will be the next Feynman or something, that he's special and will do amazing research and make contributions, but in reality almost all of us will be lucky if we make even modest contributions. Maybe others are just happy to be in it for the ride, but if someone showed me a crystal ball of my career and the sum of my research was nothing much, and could have been done by any other guy (or showed me that I just got spat back out to industry broke at 35), then I'm not sure if I would just jump ship now and take the money. Depressing.

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grae313
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby grae313 » Wed Apr 08, 2009 8:28 pm

Imperate wrote:I think it's probably true to say if you could live with or imagine doing anything else but go to Physics gradschool then you probably shouldn't go to Physics gradschool.


I would not agree with this statement at all. I realize that the situation in theory is quite a bit different, but that's still a bad blanket statement to throw out there. I get paid almost $30k a year to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and while I'm here I get to attend a gorgeous and well respected University and learn the subject I love most from some of the world's experts. When I'm done getting paid to take classes and learn (which I love doing), I will then get paid to do really cool and exciting research. I'm constantly surrounded by incredibly nice, smart, and interesting people who I'm delighted to call peers. I'm having a blast. When I'm done, I will be able to choose whether I want to continue on the academic route or get paid very well to do research in industry.

I. Love. My. Life. But there are plenty of other things I considered doing after graduating that would have been fine options.

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grae313
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby grae313 » Wed Apr 08, 2009 8:33 pm

zxcv wrote:Here's the lesson: don't do a PhD (in any field) if you're dead-set on staying in the academy. The jobs in the academy that you want may very well be nearly impossible to obtain, even if you're extremely good.

Personally, I'm okay with the reality that I may very well eventually drop out of science. Sure, I'll may lose 5-10 years of career progress, but I'll have a great time doing so.


Don't try to become a professor if you are dead set on becoming a professor?

I think people here underestimate the number of jobs available to people with physics training. In all of academia, private and government-funded research labs, engineering, medicine, general industry, etc, there is plenty of science to do. If you are dead set on particle theory, well then not so much.

excel
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby excel » Wed Apr 08, 2009 8:44 pm

PhD gives us the opportunity to establish ourselves in research and making scientific discoveries. This opportunity is admittedly small, but it is a real opportunity. Speaking for myself, even if I do not make it in academia, I would still be happy to have spent several years pursuing a real opportunity to establish myself as a PI -- a role that would be so meaningful and exciting for me.

Besides, I do not see these PhD years as wasted or lost in any sense, even in the financial sense. I get paid more than $30K per year + the value of a graduate school experience at a top school (worth, say, another $25K) ,certainly totals to a reasonable starting salary after a 4 year degree!

Imperate
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby Imperate » Wed Apr 08, 2009 9:04 pm

grae313 wrote:
Imperate wrote:I think it's probably true to say if you could live with or imagine doing anything else but go to Physics gradschool then you probably shouldn't go to Physics gradschool.


I would not agree with this statement at all. I realize that the situation in theory is quite a bit different, but that's still a bad blanket statement to throw out there. I get paid almost $30k a year to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and while I'm here I get to attend a gorgeous and well respected University and learn the subject I love most from some of the world's experts. When I'm done getting paid to take classes and learn (which I love doing), I will then get paid to do really cool and exciting research. I'm constantly surrounded by incredibly nice, smart, and interesting people who I'm delighted to call peers. I'm having a blast. When I'm done, I will be able to choose whether I want to continue on the academic route or get paid very well to do research in industry.

I. Love. My. Life. But there are plenty of other things I considered doing after graduating that would have been fine options.


Well...I pretty much agree with what you just said, there is certainly an element of sacrificing things like money/family/stability for a great experience. Although, your experience is a very good one since you have great location, great school, great profs, high stipend, I think anyone would be happy, and with that brand behind you I suspect you will have a good shot at making it all the way so the gamble will pay off. I'm excited about my location(LA is quite exotic for someone from the UK, although I'm sure most Americans wouldn't think so, hehe), but I'm not feeling so hot about everything else :(, feel I should have done better, and worried if I feel like that now, how bitter am I gonna be when gradschool becomes really tough...I probably sound ungrateful, maybe arrogant, I don't know, but I can't help it. Maybe in the end gradschool rep really wont matter, and if I'm good enough to make the cut I will make the cut no matter where I start out Physics life, or then again maybe this is an idealised rationialization to make myself feel better?

The way I see it is as a gamble, you put a lot of the line for a chance at making it, if you're at a top school with top well respected profs, then the odds become a lot shorter for your success, and it's a lot easier to put that stake of well paid career/family etc on the line. However if you start as the underdog, you really have to do some deep thinking. On the other hand you could look at it that you will be happiest studying Physics regardless of any conventional measures of success, you are just happy to take that experience, which is also a good way to view things.

Also I am deadset of HEP-th, so yeah that makes things even tougher, nearly every prof I've spoke to, has basically said "are you really sure you want to study string theory? are you really really sure??" heh

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dlenmn
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby dlenmn » Wed Apr 08, 2009 9:44 pm

grae313 wrote:I think people here underestimate the number of jobs available to people with physics training. In all of academia, private and government-funded research labs, engineering, medicine, general industry, etc, there is plenty of science to do.


I'd say that physics (or other science) training would be useful or required for lot of jobs, but many of them don't require a PhD.

For example, my office mate was considering a job at a defense contractor to work on stealth technology. It did require science training. It did not require a PhD (which he doesn't have yet).

Many of those type of jobs are filled with PhDs. This is not always because they are really required, but because there are a lot of PhDs who didn't get an academic job and this is the next best option.

The question then is, if you're going to end up in one of these jobs anyway, and if many do not require PhDs, then why not skip the PhD step? (Or wait until the company decides you need more training, at which point they pay for you to get a Masters or PhD -- the aforementioned defense contractor has such a program, as do many other companies I imagine). For me, the reason is because I like what I'm going in grad school. But as I've said before, I may have a different perspective in hindsight (priorities change over time) and wonder why I didn't use these 5-6 years in other ways.

excel
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby excel » Wed Apr 08, 2009 11:28 pm

@Imperate: From the difficulty of getting and keeping PI positions, you would expect that most PIs are smart and do very good research, irrespective of whether they are in a top-rated school or not a top 10 or top 20 school. And, based on my experience of having done research in both a top-10 program and a ~50-ranked school, this is indeed so. Plus, I see useful/ highly cited research papers from not just the top-10 or top-20 programs.

I think the main distinguishing features of top schools are: they have an overall stronger student body and they have more money. If you agree with me on this and believe that these two factors would not hamper your chances of success, then I think you should believe that you would be fine.

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fermiboy
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby fermiboy » Thu Apr 09, 2009 12:28 am

I swear someone posts this essay every year

viewtopic.php?f=3&t=940&p=5519&hilit=katz#p5519

I've seen it on other blogs/forums too.

just have one question. How can anyone who says they have seen more people's lives ruined by getting a PhD in physics than by doing drugs be taken seriously by anyone? This guy is a kook.

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby astrofan » Thu Apr 09, 2009 12:58 am

Imperate is right in many ways; life is much harder when you are not going to a top school (just to point out, the two people who have openly disagreed with Imperate are going to top schools).

If you are going to graduate school at a top 20 school, you don't have to worry. You are on your way to living the physics dream.

If you are not going to a top program, you may still end up with your dream job, its just a much harder road. If you consider it a waste of time to get a PhD in physics just to change fields, than maybe you should go to consider industry. In any case, you do have to worry about the very real possibility that you will not find a permanent job in your field.

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xudis149
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby xudis149 » Thu Apr 09, 2009 1:20 am

andyfrench wrote:
[http://wuphys.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html]
Don't Become a Scientist!

Jonathan I. Katz

Professor of Physics

Washington University, St. Louis, Mo.

Jonathan Katz



In hindsight, I am happy I did not make it to this university.

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grae313
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby grae313 » Thu Apr 09, 2009 2:26 am

dlenmn wrote:The question then is, if you're going to end up in one of these jobs anyway, and if many do not require PhDs, then why not skip the PhD step?


a) because the PhD is FUN and I want to take my education that far

b) because it gives you more options, and even if you do wind up in a job you didn't need a degree for, you still have it for any opportunities in the future.

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twistor
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby twistor » Thu Apr 09, 2009 6:58 pm

*** that homophobic, moronic sack of horseshit.

excel
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby excel » Fri Apr 10, 2009 1:05 am

twistor, how come you keep voting on your own posts?! :lol: I was so surprised to see that this post of yours has received a weight that I looked at who voted for it, and found that you were the one to vote for almost all your posts with weights!

andyfrench
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby andyfrench » Fri Apr 10, 2009 1:32 am

argh im so sorry this was posted before... I was sure it was obscure enough that only i knew it.

thanks for the input guys, i really appreciate it.

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twistor
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby twistor » Fri Apr 10, 2009 11:36 am

Same reason I do everything: to clog the system with bullshit.

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elzoido238
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby elzoido238 » Fri Apr 10, 2009 12:21 pm

twistor wrote:Same reason I do everything: to clog the system with bullshit.


And you're going to be a scientist...frightening!

excel
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby excel » Sat Apr 11, 2009 11:39 pm

elzoido238 wrote:
twistor wrote:Same reason I do everything: to clog the system with bullshit.


And you're going to be a scientist...frightening!


twistor probably just wanted to highlight a flaw in the current system, and then removed his dummy weights.

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twistor
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby twistor » Sat Apr 11, 2009 11:48 pm

Actually I removed the votes because I thought I might be able to concentrate my voting power on my "save the Terminator" thread. Fight the future.

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fermiboy
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby fermiboy » Mon Mar 29, 2010 5:45 pm

Bumped for truth.

After spending two years in graduate physics at a Big State R1 (not Oregon I fibbed about going there two years ago, look at my profile if you want figure out where I'm really at) I want to retract my comment on this. Regardless of Katz's other kooky essays, he hit the nail right on the head with this one. This essay is 100% correct.

I would advise everyone who is thinking about a career in academia to to seriously consider the risk versus reward ratio. Even if you are going to Harvard your chances of a faculty job are about 1 in 4, at best. If you go to a 2nd tier state school like me, then your chances are probably more like 1 in 20. Do you want to invest 5 to 10 years of your life on a 20 to 1 shot? Don't listen to what your professors tell you either. Of course they think the job market works, they got a job! Of course they think it's a meritocracy, who would want to admit that they got their job from random luck rather then their skills? Professors are the worst people to get advice on this. You need to talk to people who went through the grad school grinder and DIDN'T make it, because most of you won't make it either. It's just simple probability.

Of course, if you plan on going to industry this doesn't apply to you, but if that's your goal, you would probably be better served with an advanced degree in engineering IMO.

More food for thought (some of these have been posted on here before):

http://www.its.caltech.edu/~dg/crunch_art.html
http://www.its.caltech.edu/~dg/science_art.html
http://infoproc.blogspot.com/2005/02/ta ... geeks.html
http://infoproc.blogspot.com/2008/09/su ... ysics.html

So prospective grad students, weigh all your options very, very carefully before you make this plunge. Before you actually experience grad school, it's easy to be naive and say "Well I love physics, so I'll just study it and if I don't get a job so be it." I certainly took this attitude before I went, and I'm sorry I wasn't more realistic. Grad school is not easy, and you might not love physics as much as you think you do after you get through the course work and take the comps. In my mind, training for almost ten years to get an academic job, and then having almost zero chance to get that job, is the definition of an exercise in futility. You've been warned.

/rant

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby mobytish » Mon Mar 29, 2010 9:00 pm

fermiboy wrote:Don't listen to what your professors tell you either. Of course they think the job market works, they got a job! Of course they think it's a meritocracy, who would want to admit that they got their job from random luck rather then their skills? Professors are the worst people to get advice on this. You need to talk to people who went through the grad school grinder and DIDN'T make it, because most of you won't make it either. It's just simple probability.


Based on your logic that we should not talk to professors about this because they are going to be overly idealistic, don't you think that the people who didn't make it will be overly negative? I think it may be better advised to try to talk to people on both sides of the fence and, barring that possibility, spend some time really looking at the job statistics for graduates.

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fermiboy
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby fermiboy » Mon Mar 29, 2010 10:56 pm

Obviously the people who didn't make it will have a different bias than the people who did. My point was you should talk to the people who didn't make it because you are much more likely to be one of them. Job statistics are pretty much irrelevant. Someone with a physics PhD will probably get a job somewhere, but I don't know very many people who are going to physics graduate school for job training. People go because they want to do physics for a career, and the chances of getting such a career are slim. But departments need graduate students to teach undergrads and do the dirty work in labs, so they will continue to sell the dream. A select few will make it (if you are at a top tier school your chances are better), but most of will be cast aside when our usefulness has ran out, left to enter a job market with no specific training and a severe lack of real world experience. Assuming a traditional college track, you will be near 30 by the time you graduate and ready to start a career, probably in a job you could have got with a BS at the age of 22. If you want to gamble that you hit the lottery and get a faculty job, go right ahead. I'm just trying to warn people to not make this decision lightly, since I believe I did, and want others to learn from my mistake. Once you invest the time you cannot get it back.

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fermiboy
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby fermiboy » Mon Mar 29, 2010 11:06 pm

I know this for HEP theory, a notoriously competitive job market, but look at this list of people who did excellent research and did not get the coveted faculty job:

http://particle.physics.ucdavis.edu/rum ... e_are_they

I just don't think many people getting into physics graduate school realize how shitty the job prospects are in academia.

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dlenmn
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby dlenmn » Mon Mar 29, 2010 11:18 pm

fermiboy, what are your plans at this point? It's a shame things haven't worked out well.

My thoughts:

Do be careful talking to professors -- they have the aforementioned selection bias. While that skews their opinion, it needn't blind them. They can give useful information -- especially if ask about their former graduate students (you're sure to get a dose of reality).

I stand by my previous comments. In short -- even as a second year graduate student -- it's still too early to tell if grad school was a good idea or not.

Has my experience been fun? Sort of. The first year wasn't great -- classes and TAing meant too much work. That's a common experience. The summer was better because I started research. But the initial excitement wore off by summer's end -- my project proved to be slow and tedious. I talked with my advisor and moved to a better project. Repeat excitement cycle. However, within the last few weeks, I've started to actually understand the underlying physics of the new project, and that has given me renewed energy. Who knows if/how long it will last. I'm basically done with classes, which should help (I've been in classes since kindergarden -- it's time for a change of pace).

In short, the experience has been slightly positive on average, but things are looking up. At the very least, it's been a job, which is something.

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby Theoretischer » Tue Mar 30, 2010 2:38 pm

Physics graduate school has so far been the most enjoyable experience of my life.

I am a first year student currently.

No longer are most of your classmates just drifting, in graduate school they all really want to be there and are incredibly good at physics. This is stimulating and refreshing. Professors more openly interact with you, which can be good or bad depending on the professors, however my professors have been very knowledgeable and very cool people.

I see many opportunities for things to do and learn and it greatly excites me. Taking only two classes with problem sets a semester has meant time to do research, attend seminars, and sleep. Something I was not able to do taking four physics classes a semester as an undergraduate. Teaching is incredibly enjoyable and rewarding. I still have fall semester students bringing me food (cupcakes, various home baked experiments) and discussing science with me.

The best part? We ARE paid. Maybe we do not make as much as if we landed a good engineering job, but we make enough to pay rent, buy food, and not miss undergraduate loan payments.

Job outlook does not need to be bleak. There are many things in the world to do other than be a professor. Worst case scenario be a full time private tutor for $40-$60 (this is what graduate students I know get, a full PhD could get more I suppose) an hour. Even if you only have 20 hours worth of clients a week, you will make enough to live until you find something better.

My advice to those scared by this? If you love physics go for. You can always duck out at a master's degree if you change your mind and do other things. Though chances are you will love it and infinitely improve your self along the way.
Last edited by Theoretischer on Tue Apr 06, 2010 10:43 am, edited 1 time in total.

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dlenmn
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby dlenmn » Tue Mar 30, 2010 3:36 pm

Yeah, tutoring is an awesome scam -- I do a few hours a week for some extra pocket money. I couldn't bring myself to ask for $40-60/hr (although I know some students (well, parents) will pay it). Still, I'm making more $/hr than I've ever made before, and it's kind of fun.

That said, tutoring is definitely not for everyone, so it's not a guaranteed fallback job. Simply knowing the physics doesn't cut it; you need the ability to explain it (usually to someone who has a lot of trouble with it). I know a number of grad students who don't have that.

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby HappyQuark » Tue Mar 30, 2010 5:22 pm

I've got to admit, this topic has really made me think about graduate school more seriously than I probably have in a long time. I think one of the biggest difficulties here involves balancing what you want to be doing now with what you will want to be doing in 5 or 10 years. I'd imagine that most people who go to grad school in physics, myself included, do it because working in the field is what they want to do, despite being forced to live on relatively meager wages (at least meager relative to the education and difficulty level). However, will this still be true in 5 years, as you are getting towards the completion of your PhD? Will this still be true in 10 years, as you are working multiple post docs? Personally, I have no idea how I will likely feel in 2-3 years, let alone more, and experiences from some of the forum members indicate that I very well could regret my decision only a year or two into it. A number of people have pointed out that you can get a job in industry without getting your PhD and this is true, or at least for me it is. I managed to get a pretty good engineering job with just my undergrad degree in physics. Now I have to make a decision as to whether I want to give that up and go to grad school where I will have to live off of 1/3 of the income I make now for up to a decade and fight in a highly competitive job market just to stand a chance to make only a small percent more than I was making as an undergrad. As of right now I am still leaning towards going to grad school simply because I am convinced that it is where I need to be in order to be really happy with how I'm spending my time and energy. However, that isn't to say that it isn't a difficult decision and, more importantly, it is a huge gamble in the most literal sense of the word (i.e. the opportunity for a big pay off but with a high likelihood of failure).

I suppose my ultimate point is that anyone who says, "But I'm having the time of my life right now and I'm alright with living off ramen and hot dogs so I can do research" aren't looking at the bigger picture, or at least haven't indicated that they are based on what has been said so far.

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby grae313 » Tue Mar 30, 2010 5:37 pm

I guess I'm a bit unusual. I plan to work in industry but want to get my PhD because it's important to me on a personal level to be a highly-educated person, and because the research leaders in industry that I see have PhDs so I think the career opportunities for PhD holders in industry are more open. I love graduate school, I feel that I get paid to study what I love and be surrounded by intelligent and interesting people. I'm excited about my research and find my day-to-day efforts to be involving and fun.

My stipend is about $30k per year, which compared to my cost of living has allowed me to live rather lavishly. My boyfriend and I bought all new furniture, a 50" plasma TV, and a house. We eat out with friends weekly and enjoy great food, barbecues, and alcoholic beverages often.

All in all, I think graduate school is a pretty sweet life. I work hard but I feel that my efforts are worthwhile and I do have some time to relax. If I was dead-set on a faculty position, I might be nervous, but I'm comfortable that I will have plenty of good opportunities available to me when the time comes and I'll choose which I feel is right for me, whether that be a slightly higher paying post-doc or a position in industry.

Life is different if you're an aspiring theorist, but for me, life is grand.

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby twistor » Tue Mar 30, 2010 6:28 pm

Someone with a physics PhD will probably get a job somewhere, but I don't know very many people who are going to physics graduate school for job training.


This is one reason I chose medical physics over pure physics. I knew the job outlook in pure physics coming out of undergrad and decided to change course. Grad school is a bitch; in fact, I hate every second of class time. What keeps me going is that it is essentially paid job training no matter what field you are in. I'll almost certainly be getting a better salary than I would have straight out of undergrad, even if it's not my ideal job.

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby fermiboy » Wed Mar 31, 2010 12:39 am

I'm not trying to discourage people, I just want them to not make this decision lightly. I think I did and I regret it. I thought my love of physics would carry me through, job opportunities be damned. But that hasn't been the case, and in fact after I studied and passed my comps (only 5 of 14 passed this year, brutal) I had such a hatred for doing physics problems that I haven't been the same since. It really made me question if this is what I wanted to do and I started to think of things in a different way.

The system is setup to exploit us. We are recruited by these physics departments with an implicit promise that if we work hard we will someday get to join the physics community, when they know damn well that there isn't enough room for most of us. But without us the department will not function. So we bust our ass for years for low pay and no appreciation, all for what? If you want to go to industry many professors will look down on you as "fallen priest" and even if they don't explicitly disapprove, they sure aren't going to have very many contacts into industry (with the occasional exception, especially experimenters). If you want to stay in academia then you have to go through post doc hell, which means more shitty wages, and even less job security than when you were a grad student, and moving back in forth across the country every other year, with no choice where you live. Then if you're lucking enough to find a tenure track job, it's more shitty wages, more 80 hour work weeks and again no choice where you live. And that's for the lucky ones who "made it." Sweet life. It's such a huge scam.

Anyways, as far as jobs go since I studied theory stuff I can really only get a job as a teacher or a computer programmer. But I don't really feel like doing either of those jobs so I got something else set up. I don't really want to mention it in a public forum, so PM me if you really want to know. Let's just say that I'll be my own boss, I can work from anywhere I want (via the internet), and I will get to use a lot of my math skills.

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby fermiboy » Wed Mar 31, 2010 1:01 am

BTW Twistor and Grae you are doing it right. You both have "escape hatches" into industry and aren't exclusively focused on being in academia. My posts are more aimed at people like me: those who are/were dead set on doing theory and dead set on becoming a professor. That's a path that has very few good outcomes (maybe only one), and many, many bad ones. So don't be naive like me, don't think you will defy the odds and be one of the few. Always have a backup plan, and always be ready to jump ship as soon as you think grad school is not worth it any more.

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby geshi » Wed Mar 31, 2010 1:28 am

fermiboy wrote:BTW Twistor and Grae you are doing it right. You both have "escape hatches" into industry and aren't exclusively focused on being in academia. My posts are more aimed at people like me: those who are/were dead set on doing theory and dead set on becoming a professor. That's a path that has very few good outcomes (maybe only one), and many, many bad ones. So don't be naive like me, don't think you will defy the odds and be one of the few. Always have a backup plan, and always be ready to jump ship as soon as you think grad school is not worth it any more.


To be honest, I would love to go into academia. I came to realization a long time ago (while still an undergrad) that it is a very difficult road. I will try to go down that road, but if I have to settle for something other than academia, so be it.

I have a bit of confusion when people talk about academia though. There are really 2 routes in academia: research institution or liberal arts college. Whenever I read articles like this one (I read this article a couple years ago), I always assume they are talking about research institutions and top tier private institutions (e.g. Harvard). I assume that "lower end" liberal arts colleges are often discounted. From talking to professors, it sounds like the "lower end" liberal arts colleges market is a much less competitive job market.

I talked to a relatively new professor at one school I visited. He had only graduated a handful (maybe 5ish or less) of PhD students. He had at least 2 find academic jobs (tenure track) straight out of grad school at lesser known liberal arts colleges. The professor didn't really have any connections that he finagled to help them. This graduate school wasn't even a top tier grad program (according to USN it isn't even ranked). I'm not trying to imply academic jobs are easy. I'm just commenting it really seems the focus is on top level programs, not "lower end" programs.

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby razor » Wed Mar 31, 2010 2:09 am

I didn't research on this but I guess we can also look for the job market outside the US?

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby fermiboy » Wed Mar 31, 2010 2:52 am

geshi wrote:I have a bit of confusion when people talk about academia though. There are really 2 routes in academia: research institution or liberal arts college. Whenever I read articles like this one (I read this article a couple years ago), I always assume they are talking about research institutions and top tier private institutions (e.g. Harvard). I assume that "lower end" liberal arts colleges are often discounted. From talking to professors, it sounds like the "lower end" liberal arts colleges market is a much less competitive job market.


These positions are also becoming more and more competitive. There's a glut of PhDs out there so even these lower tier small schools can still be selective, though obviously not as much as the big dogs like Harvard. Just go to any liberal arts college web page and see where the professors got their PhDs. You will still see a lot of the big names.

However, I would agree that it's easier to get these types of jobs (as compared to an R1 or Ivy, but still not easy!), but they are very teaching oriented and they require heavy course loads. You will never have the time or energy to do much research, plus you won't have access to grad students, postdocs, equipment, funding, etc. You're basically off the map as far the research end of physics goes. There's nothing wrong with that and I think that teaching is a very noble profession, but I don't think most physics grads are going through 5 to 10 years of intense training as a researcher just to become a teacher, nor is it even necessary.

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby mobytish » Wed Mar 31, 2010 7:38 am

fermiboy wrote:However, I would agree that it's easier to get these types of jobs (as compared to an R1 or Ivy, but still not easy!), but they are very teaching oriented and they require heavy course loads. You will never have the time or energy to do much research, plus you won't have access to grad students, postdocs, equipment, funding, etc. You're basically off the map as far the research end of physics goes. There's nothing wrong with that and I think that teaching is a very noble profession, but I don't think most physics grads are going through 5 to 10 years of intense training as a researcher just to become a teacher, nor is it even necessary.


Actually, there are enough people out there who want to be a professor for the teaching aspect of it, myself included (though I'm also open to just about anything that rolls my way, so I'm not particularly worried about my job prospects). There's a distinct difference between teaching at the high school level and teaching at the college level and that is the very reason why I shifted my focus from becoming a high school teacher to being a college professor. Of course, I could also just get my masters and teach at a community college, but that's not what I'm in to, so I'd have to say that, yes, the 5+ years I'm about to spend on my continued education are very much necessary for my "teaching" career aspirations.

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby fermiboy » Wed Mar 31, 2010 4:38 pm

You're misunderstanding what I'm saying. I'm not saying a PhD isn't necessary for a college teaching career. Because of the tough job market, even a lot of CCs want PhDs nowadays. So you have to have one if you want to be a college teacher, or else you are at a big disadvantage.

What I'm saying is that your training as a researcher for those 5+ years that you write your thesis is not necessary training to be a good college teacher. Once you have a masters level knowledge you can pretty much teach any undergrad course. Your research will be irrelevant to your teaching career, unless you do research in physics education.

The fact that a PhD is required for most college teaching jobs is just a consequence of an over saturated job market, not because years of research are necessary to be a good college teacher. The system is broken.

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby kroner » Wed Mar 31, 2010 5:14 pm

That sounds like the market is operating exactly as it should be. If a lot of people are competing for scarce jobs they're going to have to jump through some hoops. That doesn't mean you should give up if you really want one of those jobs, it means you should jump through the hoops.

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby HappyQuark » Wed Mar 31, 2010 7:16 pm

kroner wrote:That sounds like the market is operating exactly as it should be. If a lot of people are competing for scarce jobs they're going to have to jump through some hoops. That doesn't mean you should give up if you really want one of those jobs, it means you should jump through the hoops.


Just for my own clarification, is your only point that we would expect a large amount of competition when the market is over saturated and positions are scarce? I'd like to point out that the concern being expressed by most of the commenters in this forum isn't that the system doesn't work that way, but about making sure people are aware of how it works and in some instances are commenting on how it should work. The concern is that too many people are going into grad school without fully understanding how competitive the environment is and some others are pointing out how the current system doesn't optimize potential in research.

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noojens
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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby noojens » Wed Mar 31, 2010 7:22 pm

kroner wrote:That sounds like the market is operating exactly as it should be. If a lot of people are competing for scarce jobs they're going to have to jump through some hoops. That doesn't mean you should give up if you really want one of those jobs, it means you should jump through the hoops.

Yep, the market is acting in pretty much the normal way markets act under the impacts of globalization. This is a story the computer scientists have been telling for fifteen years, with only minor differences. In CS, the jobs went to India. In physics, Indians (and Chinese, Latin Americans, Africans, Europeans, etc.) are coming to the jobs. To physics, globalization means a nearly inexhaustible pool of extremely intelligent and motivated labor that is dying to work long hours for $25k/year and a US visa. And they do some bloody good science in the process.

So from a global perspective, the market is working exactly as expected. Whether it's working well is an entirely different debate. There are all the usual globalization pros and cons: increased economic efficiency, cultural homogenization, brain drain from developing countries, blah blah. From the perspective of a bright American student, though, it's clear that the incentives for working in the sciences are swiftly paling in comparison to the ever-increasing competition.

I don't think it's as bad as fermiboy's links make it out to be, though. For string theorists, sure, it's pretty bleak. But as grae et al. have mentioned, doing applied work improves your options. Native English speakers also have an advantage, considering that at least half of a working scientist's job is reading, writing and presenting in English. US citizens also have a lot of funding options that are closed to international scholars (for better or for worse). Employers, academic and otherwise, are sensitive to this.

As others have pointed out, the stats fermiboy quoted only apply to R1 universities in the US -- no mention of liberal arts colleges, 2- and 4-year colleges without graduate departments, industry, national labs, and so on. These 10-year-old stats also miss a huge section of the economy that has started employing PhDs in the last decade: consulting firms. While the quantitative finance world has dried up somewhat in the last couple years (thankfully! I don't think many of us wanted to work for Goldman/Freddie/Fannie/etc. anyway), McKinsey, BCG, Accenture, etc. continue to pay absurdly high wages to bright people with quantitative research training. Consulting is a high-stress environment with long hours, but no more so than your average physics theory group. In your first year you can quite easily make double what a full professor pulls in, while doing interesting (though non-physics) research, developing marketable skills, making valuable contacts in a variety of industries, etc. It's not string theory, but it's an easy and common route for PhDs to follow into well paid, highly respected positions.

All that to say: don't give up hope. Katz and the other vocal dissidents fermiboy linked make a lot of good points, but ultimately descend into hyperbole. Getting a PhD won't ruin your life. It's good to be realistic about your chances of becoming a professor at Stanford, and to hedge your bets along the way, but there are a lot of great reasons to do a PhD. Do it out of passion, out of curiosity, to follow a long-held dream, or to impress hot girls with your superior knowledge of hadrons. Don't do it for the money (duh).

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby mobytish » Wed Mar 31, 2010 7:30 pm

I know I'm doing it to impress hot girls...

As for not needing a phd to teach at a small undergraduate college, I'd still have to disagree. I went to a small undergraduate that had a great research program in all of its sciences. My advisor was a pretty strong contributor in his field; in fact, the college really wanted all of its professors to have significant research publications. There are plenty of places like this as well.

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby kroner » Wed Mar 31, 2010 7:37 pm

HappyQuark wrote:
kroner wrote:That sounds like the market is operating exactly as it should be. If a lot of people are competing for scarce jobs they're going to have to jump through some hoops. That doesn't mean you should give up if you really want one of those jobs, it means you should jump through the hoops.


Just for my own clarification, is your only point that we would expect a large amount of competition when the market is over saturated and positions are scarce? I'd like to point out that the concern being expressed by most of the commenters in this forum isn't that the system doesn't work that way, but about making sure people are aware of how it works and in some instances are commenting on how it should work. The concern is that too many people are going into grad school without fully understanding how competitive the environment is and some others are pointing out how the current system doesn't optimize potential in research.


Yeah sorry, that was unclear. I was mostly just responding to what fermiboy said in the previous post:
fermiboy wrote:The fact that a PhD is required for most college teaching jobs is just a consequence of an over saturated job market, not because years of research are necessary to be a good college teacher. The system is broken.

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby fermiboy » Wed Mar 31, 2010 7:51 pm

Happy Quark summed up my point more eloquently than I ever could. The debate is not if the market is efficient. It's brutally efficient. The debate is whether going to grad school is for a job in academia is worth the investment in the first place. Go talk to someone who doesn't know anything about the physics community. Tell them that you're going to school for 10+ years of intense training (undergrad and grad), and when you're done, you'll be happy to find a temporary position where you have no choice where you live and pays 30K to 50K a year. They will think you are batshit insane.

And I don't know how many times I have to say this, but I'm not talking about people who are planning on studying something applied and moving to industry. I'm talking about people who go to grad school and want to be a professor. Also, I don't see how I descended into hyperbole. If someone would like to point out where I did I would appreciate it. I haven't exaggerated about anything.

Finally, anyone who is interested in being a quant should read these two books

http://www.amazon.com/My-Life-Quant-Ref ... 144&sr=8-1

http://www.amazon.com/Starting-Your-Car ... 177&sr=1-3

I myself thought about becoming a quant until I read these. Then I realized it wasn't for me, but that doesn't mean it's not a good career for others with the right temperament. Check these out if you're interested in that path.

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby fermiboy » Wed Mar 31, 2010 7:58 pm

mobytish wrote:I know I'm doing it to impress hot girls...

As for not needing a phd to teach at a small undergraduate college, I'd still have to disagree. I went to a small undergraduate that had a great research program in all of its sciences. My advisor was a pretty strong contributor in his field; in fact, the college really wanted all of its professors to have significant research publications. There are plenty of places like this as well.


So basically you're saying that this professor needed research training to do research. What does that have to do with his teaching again? I'm saying that research training is not necessary to be a good college teacher, knowledge of the basic subject matter is. I don't get what's so hard to understand about this.

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby mobytish » Wed Mar 31, 2010 8:11 pm

Then I don't think you understand the original conversation. Your original implication, at least as it came across to me (especially since it appeared relevant to the conversation at hand) was that obtaining a position at a small undergraduate college required only teaching and not research (and therefore, why spend the time gaining research experience?). I was trying to point out that even teaching focused places such as my undergraduate do require professors to have had extensive research training. I am certainly open to you adjusting your original comment, but I would definitely appreciate you not trying to imply that I'm an idiot.

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby kroner » Wed Mar 31, 2010 8:13 pm

fermiboy wrote:Happy Quark summed up my point more eloquently than I ever could. The debate is not if the market is efficient. It's brutally efficient. The debate is whether going to grad school is for a job in academia is worth the investment in the first place. Go talk to someone who doesn't know anything about the physics community. Tell them that you're going to school for 10+ years of intense training (undergrad and grad), and when you're done, you'll be happy to find a temporary position where you have no choice where you live and pays 30K to 50K a year. They will think you are batshit insane.

Of course it would sound insane because you omitted everything driving your decision except the money. If your goal is to make the most money then obviously that's a very stupid course to take. If your highest priority is something else, then you've done a very poor job explaining your situation.

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Re: Don't Become a Scientist?!

Postby fermiboy » Wed Mar 31, 2010 8:32 pm

Of all the boards I read and post on, this one definitely has the people with the thinnest skin. How did I imply that you're an idiot? Bunch of hypersensitive physics nerds on this board :)

My original implication was that research training is not necessary to be a college physics teacher. It wasn't that institutions don't require this research experience or a PhD, they have the luxury of doing that right now because of the saturated job market. My point is that many professors at small colleges are there primarily to teach. Doing research is nice but teaching is top priority. So most of their research training was worthless.

Here's another interesting series of posts on this subject

http://doctorpion.blogspot.com/2007/07/ ... art-1.html
http://doctorpion.blogspot.com/2007/07/ ... art-2.html
http://doctorpion.blogspot.com/2007/08/ ... art-3.html
http://doctorpion.blogspot.com/2007/08/ ... art-4.html

These articles are excellent discussion of what's expected of professor at the different types of institutions.




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