Sunday, September 16, 2007

Why does physics treat physicists so badly?

In other words, why do physics departments demand one or more post-doc stints (lasting as much as 5 or six years) for their faculty applicants, when many engineering departments recruit fresh PhDs? Ponderer ponders this and related questions:

The whole situation is not fair. Assuming an average college grad is 21 or 22 years old, going into experimental physics means you are likely to graduate by the time you are 28 (give or take). A 3-year postdoc means you are 31. Two postdocs (that are not uncommon in physics nowadays) stretches starting age to 34 or so.

In comparison, engineering PhD may start her or his faculty career at a tender age of 26 or 27, barely out of the diapers as far as I am concerned. It obviously depends on the field, but there are personal blog accounts in the blogosphere of getting faculty offers from ivy league schools during their 5th year of grad school, before defending PhD thesis.

This is a serious problem for a number of reasons ...


  1. Anonymous said...

    I had participated in something called "The Summer Institute for Preparing Future Faculty" at Berkeley. According to an informal survey done by some of the participants, the average time taken to go from PhD to full professor is more or less the same. So, this postdoc thing might not be that bad after all.

  2. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    I viewed the postdoc thing as an opportunity to see the world (and, indeed, I got to live for two years each in two of the world's greatest cities). It's different if you have a family, but I was single and it was fun. And useful, too -- especially the second postdoc which gave me a leg up into a completely new field, a leap I probably couldn't have made on my own.

    The other thing to note is that an assistant professor job in the US is not permanent, and in the top universities, it is very hard to get tenure. It is in many ways just a glorified postdoc position. Meanwhile, in many European countries it is possible to get a faculty position in physics directly after a PhD. It is even possible, though rare, in India -- I know at least one recent example, who joined as faculty at one of India's best physics places immediately after his PhD (which was from another top Indian institution).

  3. Abi said...

    Vishnu: I would like to see some hard data for that assertion. Because physics (and within it, particle physics or string theory), is notorious for its culture of extended post-doc stints.

    But even if that assertion is true,
    the post-doc stint usually pays far less than a faculty position! Moreover, one would rather spend that time on the tenure track than on the post-doc track (with its attendant transient-ness and insecurity).

    Rahul: I'm glad you pointed out some of the benefits -- both professional and personal -- of post-doccing. My post doc also allowed me to learn something new (and, also, it gave me a chance to live in a great city).

    When I was in the market for a post-doc, one of my mentors -- a senior professor -- told me that one should get into a totally different field for one's post doc. He said this was the last chance for me to make lots of mistakes with someone else's money!

    Having said that, Ponderer's looking at the culture in physics where extended post-doc stints are becoming the norm, and asking some questions about what it implies for the field's future. His points about the oversupply of physics PhDs, and the brutal competition it creates are certainly valid.

  4. Anonymous said...

    Post-docs also allow you to get out of the shadow of your PhD advisor before *you* become an advisor. That is it allows you to develop your own style before you get on to tenure track (aka publish/perish) business . I believe this is the single-most important reason to require Phd's to do a post-doc.

    Especially in a field like physics where creativity and style matters much more compared to applied sciences. hey, bite me! ;)