Farewell physics

Starting next week I'm making a departure from physics, and academia as a whole. There are several reasons for my decision to depart, which I want to share, as I think the problems I have with the academic system don't just pertain to me, but are very generic problems that affect many people in the academic community.

The academic system has some serious problems. Most notably in my opinion, there is very limited scope for promotion. For every permanent position there are countless postdocs competing for that position. It simply isn't possible for all of us post-docs to progress right up through the ladder. Many of us will be stuck as postdocs for the indefinite future. Realistically, I could expect to spend the next 5 or even 10 years as a post-doc before a permanent position would come along, and even then I would have very little control over where I would end up. I've seen many outstanding colleagues in exactly this position. This is unlike the private sector, where in virtually any industry there is a well-defined roadmap for promotion, which can be achieved if you're good enough.

There is a huge salary discrepancy between academia and the private sector. With the same qualifications one can earn twice as much in the private sector than as a post-doc.

So from a financial and career progression point of view, academia is not especially competitive. Of course, academia has lots of fantastic advantages, which is why so many people choose it, despite its shortcomings. Most notably, in the private sector you will almost never have the degree of intellectual independence that academia offers.

In recognition of these problems, I realize that academia probably doesn't represent a sustainable long-term career path for me. So the question is when rather than if I will change career. If I am going to change career then it's far better to attempt to do this while I'm young, rather than wait another 5 or 10 years, after which it would be much more difficult to switch into a new career.

What are people's thoughts? How can the academic system be improved? How can these problems be remedied? Can academia be made more attractive to people in the early stages of their careers?

22 thoughts on “Farewell physics”

  1. Wow, I have so many thoughts on this, but I cannot discuss all of them here and now, both because I am in the depths of preparing for a defense that takes place in two weeks, and because pondering my dismal future in the narrowly-focused domain of academia is too depressing. I will say that I have made the same decision as you and will NOT be going on to acquire a postdoc position. I feel that if I move on to that next step of finality, I will not be learning or contributing, but will instead be enslaved and selling myself short. I cannot be a lab monkey for another 5 or 10 years, and even then still not be confident about my job prospects. I need to cut my losses now before the losses are too great to recover. So, I will also leave academia in the next couple of weeks, but will do my best to synthesize my background in science with my new endeavors. Good luck to you.

  2. Good luck mate. I hope this decision hasn’t got you down. There’s a big wide world out there that has very little to do with academia but is totally full of interesting things to ponder.

  3. Well, if you change your mind and could stand the east coast, we’re desperate for two (count ’em *two*) tenure-track mathematicians. Of course you’d have to teach, but we’re trying to start a small QIS group on campus. And the pay certainly isn’t what you’d get in industry, but you’d have a good amount of free time to do research which is one of the main benefits.

  4. Peter, all the best. The adventure of life is always full of challenges. But that is what makes life interesting. I am sure you will find your way, whether inside or outside academia.

  5. Dr. Rhode…. I hope your change of profession won’t have an effect on this blog. There will be many intellectually starved people out there because of you!!!!

    Best of luck with the future!

    -Alex-

  6. I understand your reasoning against an academic career. My own is more or less the same. And frankly, I don’t think there is anything wrong with the academic system. Basically thereis a builtin ‘applicant filter’ that you and I failed to pass through.

    What surprised me was your declaration “I’m making a departure from physics”. What is motivating that decision? I mean, there is *alot* of physics done outside of academic physics departments, i.e., in the industrial and private sectors. And these people get paid well to do physics. So I’m not seeing the connection between these decisions, but maybe that was intentional? (You did mention there are several reasons in play here).

  7. I wish you well, and can sympathize because it used to be about 10 times worse than it is right now (in the United States, at least) for relatively new PhD grads. That is, this is not a new problem, as you will learn if you follow the link below. And if you think it is bad in physics, take a look at bio-med positions or the humanities.

    You are correct about it being easier to switch now, but it can be done later. However, the first decision does have to be whether you want an academic research position or want to teach or want to do physics for a living or do something else completely.

    To address your questions at the end of your post, the only way to change the odds (which are quite countable, about 30% in the US) is to limit admission to grad school to those who will qualify for a faculty job. But then there would be no PhD physicists available for work in industry: no one to build that quantum computer.

    I’ve did a bit of analysis last year based on the US data, one part of which is relevant to your questions:
    http://doctorpion.blogspot.com/2007/07/physics-jobs-part-2.html
    The greatest demand for academic jobs is not at places like the one where you earned your PhD, for the reasons you state. (Just count the number of degrees granted by your major prof, and realize the only one is needed as a replacement after 40 years.)

  8. Good luck Peter! i know from experience it’s not an easy decision, but I have no doubt you’ll excel in whatever it is you move on to next

  9. Hello Peter. I wish you’ll find a good job. I think people should be encouraged to switch during their career between academics, commercial business and research industry. The jobs and goals in those worlds are so different that it must profit to all, diversifying our lives and insights. I’m presently considering the opposite path of yours. When I graduated, I didn’t want to go for another three years of doctoral work and I took a job in the IT-business. But after years of developing, maintaining software and managing projects, I miss the real stuff, the photons, the electrons, the atoms and all those real matter particles. So I’m currently taking a MSc course in Quantum Optics and hope to head for a PhD and put to the test the insights I developed during my years off.

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