Physics employment

Recently, I heard somebody talking on the radio about ways to start a day with positive energy. The person suggested all sorts of things, ranging from the things to eat or not to eat, the kinds of exercises to do and also even meditation. It occurred to me how fortunate I am that I don’t need to waste all that time on getting positive energy. When I wake up and I ask myself “what am I going to do today?” The answers is “physics!!!” and there I get all the positive energy that I need. It is my profession, my purpose and my passion.

Then I read the lamentations of Peter Woit in a blog post on the job situation in theoretical high energy physics. So, while it may be great to have a passion for physics, it is not a given that one can make it your profession. Indeed, I can remember that for as long as I’ve been in this field, the job situation was challenging. 

Students at University of Toronto
Students at University of Toronto

Part of the problem is the way that physics as a profession is being practiced. One typically starts as a student studying physics, but what are the career expectations? Most physics students apparently expect to become physics professors at universities. Well, if you look at the number of students compared to the number of faculty positions in physics, then it is obvious that such expectations are quite unreasonable. Moreover, if every physics professor produces scores of physics PhD’s during his or her career, then obviously there would be a huge oversupply of physics PhD to replace that professor.

So where do these PhD’s go to work? First they become postdocs. The ideal postdoc is a person that basically runs the research program for a professor. They come up with the ideas of what to investigate and they even supervise the professor’s PhD students. But what are the professors doing then? They travel and give talks, raising their profile, building their networks, and increasing their impact. Some of them don’t even touch any research. It’s all about fame and glory. The postdocs basically become cheap labor to produce the content on which these professors are riding their ego trips. More than once, when I’ve asked such “eminent researchers” questions after their talks at conferences, I’ve discovered that they don’t really understand what they are talking about.

So what can be done? Firstly, the poor students studying physics need to understand this situation and be realistic about their expectations. Other career choices include teaching (in schools, not universities) or industry. The latter represents the idea of an “industrial physicist.” However, in this case there is a different form of competition. The industry is better geared for engineers, for obvious reasons.

Another thing. When you decide to do physics, please do it for the right reasons. If physics is you passion and will remain your passion for the rest of your life, by all means proceed. Somehow you’ll find a way to live out your passion. But, if you want to do physics because you want to show off how bright you are, then rather join Mensa and leave physics to those that are passionate about physics. And, if you want to do physics because you want to be famous, like Einstein and those guys, rather consider a career as a rock star or a movie star. Very few physicists ever become really famous, contrary to what they may think.

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