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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...

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