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This is a pretty common career path I think once people realize that finding a well paying physics gig is much much tougher than just becoming a developer. Every physicist has at least some programming experience and are generally adept at problem solving. Coding was always way more fun than doing 4th year/grad school level physics for me too. Also, it is especially tough to get a job if you're a mediocre physicist (like me) whereas there are very many jobs available for fair to middling programmers (like me).

Don't want to guess at numbers but my gut instinct & experience tells me that very few physicists end up doing physics and most end up in finance, software, and hardware.




The American Physical Society maintains numbers on career paths for their student members, and less than 5 percent end up with a Physicist job title. Most end up in the career paths you list.


For anyone curious, here's a one year phd employment survey for physics: https://www.aip.org/sites/default/files/statistics/employmen...

803 responses, 297 in potentially full-time positions.

62% (of all physics phds employed at potentially full-time positions) in non-physics field, break down by industry:

Engineering - 20%

Computer software - 14%

Business or Finance - 11%

Other sciences - 8%

Education - 2%

Medical services - 2%

Other - 5%


The use of the phrase "potentially permanent positions" in the AIP report for industry positions, especially in the computer industry, is highly misleading. Academia, including some government labs and institutes, has tenured positions and other positions with guarantees of job security until retirement. The vast majority of industry employees are "at will" and can be laid off at any time for any reason or no reason. Senior executives often have employment contracts that take them out of the "at will" category but these rarely provide long term "permanent" status. Indeed, they can usually be fired by the Board of Directors.

The computer industry is notoriously unstable with jobs often quite short term in practice, with layoffs common.

Just to be clear, the referenced AIP report starts with the phrase:

Positions accepted by PhD degree recipients following receipt of their degrees fall into three categories: postdoctoral fellowships, potentially permanent positions and other temporary positions.

The figure on page two of the AIP report specifically lists a "private sector" block under "potentially permanent".

Tabel 1 on page 3 lists 70 percent of potentially permanent positions as "private sector." Again this is very misleading as private sector positions are potentially permanent only is the sense that there is a small chance that you might continue at the same employer until retirement; there is nothing like a guarantee.


I don't understand your strong objection to the phrase "potentially permanent position". Do you believe that the AIP is trying to mislead students into believing programming jobs in the private sector have tenure!?

To me "potentially permanent" seems like a serviceable phrase to encompass positions in academia and in industry that do not have an end data built in to them. It contrasts them to "temporary" positions like postdocs in academia or contractors in industry where you know going into the job that your employment ends on a certain date.


The phrase "potentially permanent position" is misleading. Is it intentional? I don't know.

The primary audience for a report on outcomes for Ph.D.'s in Physics one year after graduation, getting their Ph.D. degree, is students (and parents of students) evaluating whether to pursue a Ph.D.. Obviously, they should investigate longer term outcomes, but young people often don't, focusing the next step in their life/career.

Potentially permanent position sounds like a general version of "tenure track research job" as another commenter correctly noted below.

Students with little or no work experience often do not have an accurate impression of salaries, working conditions, and other aspects of the work world (or academia), specifically in the private sector computer industry where most Ph.D's in Physics currently end up.

News coverage of computer companies like Google emphasizes many far out research-like projects such as the Google self-driving car, the AlphaGo deep learning project, and so forth. These sounds like academic research, so why wouldn't these companies have comparable positions to tenure track research jobs? Indeed, in very rare cases, they may have such positions.

However, the vast majority of industry jobs are at will full time jobs without a specified end date. Especially in the computer industry, they are quite insecure and often short-lived, very different from what potentially permanent position implies. They are not analogous to tenure track jobs.


I don't think "potentially permanent position" is misleading. I can remove a permanent marker with rubbing alcohol, yet I don't say that "permanent marker" is misleading.

My job is described as permanent full time, because my contract is ongoing, and I work 40 hours a week; when I was a student, I had a permanent part time job.

This is in contrast to a casual job, which in New Zealand is similar to at-will (but with strong restrictions on what roles can be casual); or a fixed term contract.


I think "potentially permanent" is just a historical oddity. They used the same term 25 years ago when I was in school, and there was still an expectation of people going into tenure track position.


The phrase was misleading twenty-five years ago when applied to private sector positions, most of which were software development back then as well. There were few private sector positions analogous to a "tenure track" position even then, possibly a few at corporate research laboratories like HP Labs and Xerox PARC.

In any case, with the closure or heavy cutbacks at corporate research labs, AIP should update its language to reflect current realities.


FWIW, I basically interpreted it as full-time employment, but they are definitely playing with the wording a little bit and the data isn't clear on the level of employment at all.


The report is probably aimed at young people, college students in particular, investigating pursuing a Ph.D., who often are unfamiliar with the work world. "Potentially permanent positions" in the computer industry is not going to fool someone who has been working in the computer industry more than a few years. College or high school students are a different matter and won't automatically equate "potential permanent position" and "at will full time position."


"Potentially permanent positions" is a euphemism for "tenure track research job."


Yes, that is my point. There are almost no jobs in the private sector, especially the computer industry, analogous to a "tenure track research job." Possibly some corporate research labs like HP Labs, which have nearly all been downsized heavily or completely eliminated since the 1990s, have positions like this. The vast majority of Ph.D. physicists who move on to industry are getting some type of software development job which are "at will full time" jobs with no future prospect of something like tenure.


Their data is partly why I didn't pursue a PhD.


Finance use to be a big draw. Not sure if it still is. I am tempted to move to finance...


On average, a tenured physics professor will graduate a bit more than 10 PhD students over the course of their career. Physics as a field is not growing, so at most 10% of PhD students become professors. If you don't become a tenured professor there are very few jobs that aren't postdocs, and even if you wanted to you can't keep doing postdocs forever.


My first boss's boss told the story of how he got into finance from being an assistant physics professor.

For a few years, he started checking the median age of physics professors, and noticed it went up every year instead of down. Tenured profs decided to stay in their seats instead of retiring, and there were no new positions being created for young professors. That was his indication to get out (this was during the mid 90s).

The real crux of the problem is that modern PhD programs were originally designed post WW2, in the era of the GI bill and fast expansion of college education where there was high demand for new professors. That's no longer the case, but we still train PhDs as if they would get a job even though most won't.


Do you have a source for the rough number 10? I'd have guessed the average is more, even if the median is 10ish.


It is just a rough guess based on my experience as a grad student. The average professor at my university had 1-2 grad students at a time, and with 6 years to finish a PhD and about 35 years where a professor takes on grad students it works out to roughly 10. I wouldn't be surprised if the number was actually as high as 20 though, 10 is probably a low estimate. Another way to look at is that roughly half of people go on to do a 1st postdoc, half of those go on to do a 2nd and 3rd or 4th postdoc, half of those get a tenure track position and around 3/4 of people with a tenure track position actually get tenure. The problem with a career in physics these days is that a postdoc position is a terrible deal. As a graduate student you at least have job security and can stay in the same place for a good amount of time, not so as a postdoc.


It really depends on the field -- fields with labwork tend to have more PhDs per professor because there's an incentive to get cheap labor.


https://www.its.caltech.edu/~dg/crunch_art.html claims it's about 15. Though that article was written in 1993, it seems (good read in general, btw).

Still, it seems low IMHO. Unless you start counting at the point where the person gains full tenure rather than from the point where they become some kind of "group leader", "assistant professor", or such "tenure track" type position?


I think the relevant number is the fraction of PhDs that go one to a position that mints new PhDs. (That's where the multiplier comes from.) So that almost never includes non-tenure-track positions, but does include assistant professors who don't go on to make tenure.


> even if you wanted to you can't keep doing postdocs forever.

Why? I know an academic who has done exactly that. Nearing retirement now.


Many institutions have a hard rule that says you can't start a postdoc if you're more than 5 years out of your PhD program (discounting any time for parental leave, medical leaves of absence, etc.).


The usual approach in CS is that if someone wants to continue in a post-doc-esque role but has gained too much seniority, they get promoted to research scientist, or a similar title. That has higher pay but otherwise is structured fairly similarly (e.g. you can hire a research scientist on a grant as a "soft-money" position with a fixed-length contract). Some places even have additional pay grades above that, called e.g. Senior Research Scientist or Staff Scientist or Research Fellow (titles vary widely, as well as which titles are restricted to PhDs, versus open to people without PhDs). There are plenty of people who spend long periods as perma-research-scientists because they enjoy and/or are good at the position, and PIs are happy to keep hiring people who've developed a good reputation. In some of the larger departments, research scientists with a good reputation are de facto assured of ongoing employment despite the term-limited contracts, because someone who knows the ropes of this kind of job is enough in demand that if their current PI doesn't manage to snag a new grant to keep them on, someone else in the department will be happy to hire them away when their current contract expires. Besides it being useful to keep such a person around if you can afford it, some big grants, like those from DARPA, essentially require research scientists to be hired, because DARPA wants a contact who's a full-time professional researcher to interface with, not a professor / postdoc / gradstudent.

Does physics academia really not have another position you can promote someone to, if you want to keep paying them to do research for you, but they've "timed out" of the postdoc role? I had assumed this kind of research-scientist role wasn't CS-specific, since it's existed for a while, and at big universities, CS hasn't traditionally had the clout to invent completely new job titles, so hiring is usually mapped onto stuff that exists in some form or another at the institutional level.


Almost everywhere does this, and it is such an insane rule.


Not in the UK.


Postdocs at most universities pay little - often less than many engineers with a BS degree will make.

Eventually you need the money for retirement...


once people realize that finding a well paying physics gig is much much tougher than just becoming a developer.

Unfortunately, becoming a developer is a short-term optimal choice that you pay for in the long term.

The 40-year-old physicist has tenure and can work on whatever he wants. As far as his peers are concerned, he's mid-career. The 40-year-old programmer is considering plastic surgery so he can still get hired in the Valley.

The people who become developers find out that they don't have permission to get a day older than 35 unless they can make it into management. And if you were going to be a manager anyway, you might as well have gotten an MBA in your mid-20s, and then you'd be making far more than the developer would even dream of.

Coding was always way more fun than doing 4th year/grad school level physics for me too.

Programming is a lot of fun, but most software jobs aren't programming intensive. The coding is trivial and a high school student could do most of the work. The hard part is dealing with tickets, PMs, and unnecessary meetings.


Definitely agree with the coding being more fun. I found refactoring my teams messy analysis code much more satisfying than the laborious data analysis + paper writing.

For me it was also that nothing truly new was being discovered in my area of physics, so it all felt a bit boring.

Plus the politics that comes when post docs have to fight and plot over rare tenured positions when they appear.




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