Friday, February 10, 2012

A question of Supply and Demand

There is a tremendous amount of discussion about the "leaky pipeline" of science, and physics in particular. Why so many children seem interested in science, and yet the number dwindles precipitously as education progresses until a mere thousand or so physics PhDs are granted in the US every year* (out of a population of 300 million, that's 0.0004%). Physics outreach programs abound.
But there is a separate argument. Why do we put so much effort into trying to increase the teaching of physics to people, it goes, when there are no jobs for those people once they finish?
This is a problem. In a traditional sense (ie, academia, government labs and highly skilled industry R&D), there simply aren't enough jobs for even those relatively few physics PhDs that we produce. But this isn't the whole story.
Physics bachelors tend to have a much better time of finding a job than physics PhDs. They're generally less specialized and therefore wind up in any number of various scientific and technical fields, whereas a physics PhD graduate has really chosen to do something quite specific as a career.
But even this isn't the whole story.
Here's really where the "supply and demand" argument breaks down. Physics outreach isn't about producing more career physicists. It's about producing a scientifically literate populace (who can then go on to train in whatever else they choose). I want you to know physics, not because I want there to be more physicists, but because knowing physics is important in its own right.
Sure, I myself am searching for a permanent job, and I wish there wasn't so much competition. A colleague of mine just recently applied to a tenure-track faculty job only to be told that there were over 200 applicants. And I've argued before that it sometimes seems that certain people graduating with PhDs didn't deserve them (this is a whole separate problem!), implicitly indicating that the system which creates these PhD researchers is broken. But does that mean I would argue against teaching as much physics to as many people as possible whenever possible? Never.
Physics is more important than the physicists it employs (or doesn't employ, as the case may be).

*Of this ~1300, approximately 3 to 4% are in Applied Physics such as mine is, and roughly 12% are women. This makes me roughly "one in 65 million." I just found that interesting.


  1. This is exactly what I mean... we need to teach people physics so that 27% of the general public doesn't continue to think the Sun moves around the Earth!

  2. PhD jobs in Physics were never easy. Getting a tenure track job at a research university has always been hard - you need an excellent publication record plus a lot of push from your major professor/mentors. Right now, the best chance would be at FRIB as a detector scientist.

  3. "Best" being a relative term, of course... for someone who doesn't like Michigan or working on detectors or accelerator systems, it's not ideal. A hypothetical person, that is.

  4. Although I very much appreciate the input!

  5. Proposed 2013 budget looks bad for Nuclear Physics

    RHIC has its operating hours cut to 1300, ATLAS at Argonne cut to 4000 hours. CEBAF got good funding for its upgrade, but it will be down all year for installation and FRIB only got $20M for consturction, which delays the project by a year. Looks like the place to go is CEBAF - its warmer than Michigan anyway.

  6. $770 million went to further development of modular reactors, and NNSA got plenty as well... looks like the real place to go is nuclear security.

  7. It's not nuclear physics, but it is a job. Might as well go back to school and become a medical doctor.

  8. I don’t know if one person’s story can add value to the conversation, but I regard my choice to switch my undergraduate major from an engineering discipline to physics to be the single worst mistake of my life. I do accept full responsibility. If I had better foresight and better deductive reasoning regarding modern hiring practices, perhaps I wouldn’t have been suckered.

    It was only a few days into my freshman year when I attended a physics department promotional seminar. A special program was presented that allowed one to earn a BS in engineering physics and a non-thesis MS in an engineering discipline. My goal in life had always been to work as an engineer to bring better products to market. I was given the impression that this program might make me a more-attractive candidate to potential employers.

    I will not directly claim the physics department guilty of any malice. Rather, I have noticed that my career path has certain Newtonian qualities, which I simply did not anticipate. I think that changing my major set my career in motion in a certain direction, and my career remained in motion at constant velocity until acted upon by opportunity and effort. Furthermore, all the opportunities I could find and effort I made further accelerated my career in a direction I didn’t want it to go: toward academia.

    Along the way, I tried to get my foot through the engineering door. The summer after my freshman year, I tried to find an engineering internship, failed, and took an hourly job. The summer after my sophomore year was summer field session, so I did not seek an internship. In physics summer field session, I learned things like LaTeX and vacuum technology, while my engineering peers learned things like 3D computer-aided design and finite element analysis. I spent my entire junior year applying for engineering summer internships and, as a backup, applying for research experience for undergraduate (REU) positions. I got zero call backs for an engineering position and got a REU job offer in physics. It is interesting how easily a square peg fits in a square hole. At the same time, I got an unsolicited offer I felt I couldn’t refuse (see loss aversion): instead of doing a non-thesis MS, do a thesis PhD with free tuition and a stipend.

    I am luckier than others in some regards. My doctoral work resulted in many publications, including one in a very high-impact journal and my citation count is growing steadily. I am doing good things in my first postdoctoral position. My general area of expertise is getting a funding increase. My highly specialized area of expertise also received a special funding initiative and I have close ties to the scientist holding the purse strings. While that funding initiative is designed to eventually blossom into lucrative private sector engineering activity, I don’t enjoy my career now right. I don’t enjoy fundamental research or writing papers. I would give anything to have a work-a-day job that involves computer-aided design and manufacturing but, square peg, round hole.

    1. You and I went to the same university, didn't we?

      How you feel is, I imagine, not uncommon. Similarly, as a graduate student, you're told to take postdoc positions in all sorts of places because it is a boon for your career - you get to try all sorts of things. But honestly, those "sorts" are all of the same sort as your thesis project, aren't they? The further you get, the more difficult it is to branch out (until, I believe, one passes another point and goes from being a professor of physics to a professor of crotchety-old-whatever-the-hell-you-like...). I recently applied to a couple nuclear engineering R&D jobs, only to be turned down because I am not specifically a "nuclear engineer." A friend of mine just completed a PhD in physics, but won't be admitted into any medical physics jobs. We're seen as being too specialized - a further distillation of the issue you had, it seems.

      You're right, it isn't the fault of all those Physics Departments out there. Part of the fault falls with the companies hiring, whose HR departments don't have the technical background to understand that a "condensed matter physicist" is equivalent to a "solid state physicist" (equivalent enough to do a job, anyway). Part of it is the fault of time's passage - professors of physics who have been professors of physics for decades can't know what the job market is like first-hand. But mainly it's our own fault for allowing science to become so specialized. Feynman had a degree in theoretical physics, and yet the government ran to him when they were building the enrichment plants in Oak Ridge. (Back then, only about 50 people were awarded PhDs in physics each year... now, it's 1500).

      So a second change is needed along with increasing the scientific literacy of the general public. Those outside of physics need to learn physics for the benefit of humanity, but those inside physics need to make a concerted effort not to let ourselves be formed into a round peg... if the world is full of differently shaped holes, physicists should be clay.

    2. We do. I just didn’t wish to be specific as to our shared undergraduate background or my identity.

      I too am a block of clay and lament modern hiring practices. I think being the block of clay is a very lucrative asset, if you are an internal candidate or can make yourself seem like an internal candidate. However, I think, all blocks clay never make it past the first round of filtering in an applicant tracking system. After many years of learning how to (i) honestly get a good score in an applicant tracking system, (ii) interview better, and (iii) fake an extroverted personality and overcome social anxiety, the global financial bubble burst. A small businessperson was pretty much ready to hire me as a jack-of-all-trades chunk of clay when his/her contracts dried up. So the other aspect here is market timing.

      I wonder if we will have a lost generation? I have a friend who only has a BS in engineering physics. He is more introverted, has greater social anxiety and has been searching for his first professional job for more than 5 years. Only recently did he accept an offer doing the intellectual equivalent of pushing a broom at a big engineering firm, and I hope he can move up as an internal candidate.

  9. I got a PhD in physics a while ago and went into accelerator physics (by choice). This led to positions in rf and electrical engineering and medical physics (isotope production). At accelerators, they hire new BS in physics as operators, making 2/3 of what new engineers make. A BS in physics is not as valued as an engineering degree. However, a PhD in phyics still opens a lot of doors. The first job is always the hardest, but it should be something you would like to do.

  10. Times have changed, of course. Going back to my example, when Feynman graduated there were so few physics PhDs that the demand for each of them individually was higher. Even if the total demand now is higher, the demand per PhD is lower. This is why we have examples of what we wish to do - get a PhD in physics and then work in medical physics, engineering, etc - and yet can't seem to do it ourselves. Society tends to forget that it was not people 'trained' in nuclear physics who discovered nuclear physics (for example).

    Anonymous #1 (I hope you don't mind me calling you that!), I too hope your friend moves up. I knew someone who got a civil engineering degree and ended up working at Starbucks. Though he professed to be content, it's heartbreaking to see someone put so much effort into something and not be rewarded for it. And with modern hiring practices what they are, I too know the dirty feeling one gets writing "key words" on a cover letter or resume; things that do not really give any kind of true assessment of my skill, but that will at least get my application past the HR machine.

    Anonymous #2, it's true that physics degrees specifically are not as valued as engineering degrees in engineering careers - though getting an "engineering physics" degree (which requires accreditation) does help in that respect ("plain" physics majors may not know how to program, use CAD, or wire a circuit board). But it's interesting that your experience is so different from mine. I have knowledge of nuclear physics, of nuclear physics facilities, of computer modelling and of designing, running and analyzing an experiment - and yet someone doing just these things won't hire me because my degree isn't in "nuclear engineering." You have obviously had better luck!

    Perhaps the whole system (science or no science) is broken. Why should a librarian be required to have a library science degree, if he or she has worked in a library for years? Why can only people trained in the useless math of business administration actually administer businesses? The list goes on.

  11. #2. Things have not changed so much - when I graduated there were about the same number of PhDs as now. When I graduated, university jobs were as scarce as they were now (although I didn't want one - I didn't want to be an experimental nuclear physicist). Going into an accelerator physics job at a large laboratory opened up a lot of opportunities. I could have even could go back to nuclear physics. If you want to go into nuclear enginnering, you need to start in an area that you have expertise in, such as nucleonics (activation, shielding, etc.) at an institution that does nuclear engineering.

    1. Good advice, actually... getting a foot in the door is always easier if you know someone already on the other side.

  12. I rarely often comment on friends' blogs but I thought this deserved an exception. Kelly, it's not just in Science that your supply and demand theory applies, it's everywhere. I see it all the time in the field of Education. However, most problems with employment deal with money which Im sure is a huge factor in your field as well.
    More jobs need to be created, more revenue needs to be invested in Education. I know as far as teachers are concerned, many school systems wont hire "classroom" teachers with Masters degrees or Specialist degrees because it then requires the system to pay them more. Therefore, people with a BS degree are more likey to get chosen. (although most school systems increase pay based on number of years taught, anually.) So, for me, its not always due to a lack of teaching jobs. Also, determing what subject fields are taught within a school system and private schools as well are also determined by funding. This applies to schools on all levels, including universities.
    At heart, for both fields, the powers at be, or governemt, companies, ect... need to get motivated and learn to create new opportunities for employment. Easier said than done, I know!
    I know I could rant for years on the shortcomings of my field, but I will save that for my blog! I guess in short, I feel your frustration, and the solution to that frustration is not a easy one to solve. I hope for my students, that they will have jobs that may not have even been invented yet, or new fields of study for them to discover. It is amazing to think of the possibilites!

    1. Sara, you're right - people feel the pinch everywhere. The library district where a family member of mine works is shifting their policy such that all of the library employees are required to have Library Science degrees. Even the employees who have worked at their jobs in that library system for decades. What good is a Library Science degree to a 50-year-old librarian? And yet I'm sure on the other side of it colleges around the country say "we need more people with Library Science degrees!"

      "At heart, for both fields, the powers at be, or governemt, companies, ect... need to get motivated and learn to create new opportunities for employment." - I couldn't agree more.


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