Why Physicists Leave Physics

Interesting post. Only about one in twenty PhDs go on to be professors in the long run. People leave academia for various reasons, not all of them negative, but I still think we overproduce PhDs in the UK. There has never been a proper study of the merits of funding fewer PhDs and more Masters degrees, for example.

4 gravitons

It’s an open secret that many physicists end up leaving physics. How many depends on how you count things, but for a representative number, this report has 31% of US physics PhDs in the private sector after one year. I’d expect that number to grow with time post-PhD. While some of these people might still be doing physics, in certain sub-fields that isn’t really an option: it’s not like there are companies that do R&D in particle physics, astrophysics, or string theory. Instead, these physicists get hired in data science, or quantitative finance, or machine learning. Others stay in academia, but stop doing physics: either transitioning to another field, or taking teaching-focused jobs that don’t leave time for research.

There’s a standard economic narrative for why this happens. The number of students grad schools accept and graduate is much higher than the number of professor jobs. There simply isn’t room…

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33 Responses to “Why Physicists Leave Physics”

  1. People trained in the ability to solve problems, with advanced mathematical skills, are useful, even critical, in a number of industries. If physicists were not going into the private sector, then the private sector would be much poorer for it. And we do not look down on physicists who work in the private sector, they have careers just as worthy as ours. And this paragraph, in the original blog:

    “First, to get it out of the way: almost no-one starts a physics PhD with the intention of going into industry. I’ve met a grand total of one person who did, and he’s rather unusual. Almost always, leaving physics represents someone’s dreams not working out.”

    Sorry, is total nonsense. I have known lots of people who have a very clear idea of their career path, and for whom an physics degree or PhD is a clear and calculated step on the way.

    For some, staying in physics is just the path of least resistance.

    • So, I should clarify that I was primarily talking about subfields without direct industrial applications here: I’m sure there are plenty of people who get a physics degree planning to do industrial materials research, or nuclear work, or commercial quantum computing.

      But you probably realized that, so I’m genuinely curious: for people who aren’t interested in doing physics research after grad school, why is a physics degree better than the other options available? If someone is interested in finance, what makes them choose a physics degree instead of finance or economics? If you want to do machine learning, why not get a CS degree? Physics is a pretty small field, and there are plenty of other types of PhD programs that teach problem solving and advanced math.

      A friend on Facebook pointed out that some fields, like data science, are young enough that there aren’t many degree programs for them, so it’s easier to get there via physics. Maybe that’s part of it? I’d love to hear what reasons the people you’ve met have for going into physics when they wanted to end up doing something else.

      • Finance companies value people with physics degrees. They have advanced mathematical skills, and the ability to apply them to practical situations. A physics degree I would contend, presents the recipient with a wider variety of career opportunities than a degree in economics or computer science, maybe not maths. It keeps your options open.

      • Maybe. I tend to be a bit leery of claiming that other fields are _that_ much behind ours training-wise: we’re good, but there are a lot of researchers in other fields who use mathematics and statistics.

        I suppose in the end it doesn’t matter, though: if there’s a perception that physics is the best training for these things, that would explain why people would sign up for a physics PhD with that in mind.

        I still think it’s a bit more common that people change their mind partway through the degree than start out aiming for industry, but I may well be mis-estimating here.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Physicists going into finance should be given a free copy of Faust by their Research Supervisors at their PhD ceremonies.

      • That is extremely cynical Anton.

      • telescoper Says:

        I think a huge part of my field (astrophysics and cosmology) is basically data science, so it does provide good training in data-related skills. I think too many physicists are reluctant to acknowledge this, actually. Data analysis needs to have a bigger role in physics education at all levels (undergraduate and postgraduate).

      • We have started at LJMU (“we” in a very loose sense, since I have retired and am not part of it) a Data Science MSc, taught jointly by the Astrophysics Research Institute and the Department of Applied Mathematics.

      • telescoper Says:

        There are several such MSc programmes at Cardiff too, including two I set up: Data Intensive Physics and Data Intensive Astrophysics.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Thank you Dave. That’s a great compliment!

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t agree about your ‘total nonsense’ bit.

      I have on several occasions given talks to the new cohort of STFC astronomy PhD students. I always ask for a show of hands about who intends to stay in academia in the long term afterwards. On every occasion I’ve done this the vast majority (ie all but one or two out of over a hundred) say they do…

    • Someguywhoyouprobablythinkiscomplelywrong Says:

      I am someone just finishing off corrections to a physics thesis right now.
      I am trying to leave physics because attempting to continue on presents even more of an opportunity cost than the phd has done by itself!

      I have been made extremely aware of how few people can carve out an academic career, and am under no delusions about being in the top 5-10% of intelligence, suitable temperament, and luck.

      So it is clear that I shall have to leave physics at some point, and based on my experience during my phd I have no confidence that postdoc positions, or continuing on in physics in any other capacity, would contribute to any increase in skills, knowledge, or any other metric which may assist post-physics employment.

      As a general observation, despite constantly being told( and reading) that the private sector wants to hire physicists, I have not seen this.
      ~500 job applications and the only replies come from people who are former physicists themselves.

      In a particularly insane demonstration of the lack of perceived value in a physics phd, I have found multiple employers to lose interest as soon as they find out that when I was a teenager I obtained poor A levels, without a single A grade – despite a first class undergraduate degree, and as soon as I complete minor corrections a phd.

      Assuming that there is any semblance of competition in the private sector, this makes it abundantly clear that an A level graduate with straight A’s is more valuable than a physics phd without, from the perspective of many employers.

      I did not study physics, or begin a phd, for the employment prospects, but I find it shocking that so many cannot see that it is a selection effect, along with the intrinsic qualities likely to be held by physics grads (perseverance, intelligence etc), along with the historically held “tribal” like group signalling markers (likely to have certain economic and social demographic markers if a physics grad, or at least have acquired the correlated habits etc) that are the real cause of physics grads “success” in the private sector.
      Not the physics education, skills, and knowledge – nor the general problem solving ability or mathematical ability.

  2. I agree with Peter that we need a proper analysis of the relative benefits of funding PhD and Masters degrees. It depends a bit on what we are funding them for. Is it to provide rewarding career paths for the recipients? Or to benefit the economy? Or to provide cheap labour for ourselves? The priority should be in that order in my view.

  3. The vast majority of grad students in total – let alone physics students – are not intending to leave Academia, though many are resigned to the likelihood of having to quite early.

  4. Sorry, I meant to say – of those I’ve met. Perhaps you’ve met a different sample, Dave.

  5. As a physicist working in industry, but with continuing academic connections…
    A few years ago I went to a college dinner… invitees were all the physicists known to still be alive and about 50 turned up. I think I was the only one still doing things related to my undergraduate and DPhil work! (2 or 3 who had stayed in academia were retired or redundant). The conclusion we came to is that “physicists are capable of doing more or less anything” – i.e. the training in critical thinking and finding solutions to new problems fits a physicist to anything from running booksellers to management consultancy (with systems engineering always in the background). Many people had lurched into apparently different careers (law, medicine, economics, diplomacy,…) but all felt that the physics training gave a solid start. Rutherford was right ” there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting”.

    • As also someone working in industry but with academic connections, I think it might be fairer to say that of all the subjects you could choose to handicap yourself with before going into industry, physics at least doesn’t cripple you.

      There are better educations you can get if you want to go into a particular area of industry. If you don’t know what you want to do, physics at least doesn’t close too many doors.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      The biological sciences have their own ontology, without question, and it does not overlap greatly with physics.

  6. It seems a curiously old fashioned notion to me that we expect people to stay in the same career for 40 years in universities. In most other careers, people move from field to field, role to role and employer to employer much more often, and the idea of essentially wanting to just keep doing what you did as a student for the whole of your life would seem bizarre.

    It seems a weakness in particular of the UK (and maybe Europe in general, I don’t know) that this is the only acceptable model for a career involving academia. Its very clear that in general “once you’ve left, there is no way back” – I would love to have had the opportunity to work move between working in industry and academia a number of times in my career, and I get the impression such things are more common in the US.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think it’s very difficult to get back into physics research if you leave it even for a short time. The field moves so quickly and if you have a gap in your publication list it’s going to be hard to get back onto the treadmill.

      • I am not sure why we believe physics research is uniquely difficult to move in and out of. Many people have to retrain when they move between jobs and fields, and many skills and knowledge are transferable. It might even bring some fresh approaches to have people who have not been doing the same thing for 20 years but can bring advanced knowledge of computation or statistics or something else from other fields.

        Also of course your argument about gaps is the classic one that loses people from the field due to them somehow not fitting in to the traditional stereotype of being a white, middle class, man who does nothing but physics and has no significant external responsibilities.

      • telescoper Says:

        Who mentioned race class or gender?

        My point was simply that some areas of physics move particularly quickly, more do than other fields.

      • External factors, such as the REF, make it very difficult for a department to employ people who may have spent several years doing something other than producing scientific papers, or other REFable outputs. Thats true of any academic field in the UK. So you cannot just go off and work in industry or the voluntary sector for several years and then come back. And, yes you will have missed a few years of recent research, whether thats a bad thing or a good thing is often arguable.

      • telescoper Says:

        There’s also the problem that there are so many people chasing each faculty position, which brings us back to the fact that there so many people chasing each postdoc, etc.

      • Shantanu Says:

        I know one exception. Rick Jenet. I don’t see that as a problem. A lot of particle physicists have shifted to astrophysics or quantum computing after becoming professors. They had no problems adjusting. Also half of LIGO folks come from experimental high energy physics.

      • telescoper Says:

        Yes but they stayed in academia…

  7. Shantanu Says:

    R. Jenet worked in industry, before switching back to academia. (there maybe more examples) I don’t see it as a problem if someone wants to come back to academia from industry. I don’t know if there is data for people who tried to come back, but couldn’t

  8. For the same amount of money (whether one wants to spend more money on research is a separate question), the solution is to have more permanent and fewer fixed-term positions. There are probably two reasons that this doesn’t happen. One is that those doing the funding don’t like long-term commitments. The other is that many people with permanent jobs profit from those without them, at least in part because of unrealistic hopes which keep people working under precarious conditions when, objectively, they probably shouldn’t. On average, each permanent-job academic with students will have one student who becomes a permanent-job academic with students. I think that most realize this. However, some hold on longer than they should since they think that they are the one who will succeed, in some cases at least partly due to unrealistic promises (“take over this job which no-one else wants and it will look good on your c.v. later on”).

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