Saturday, July 14, 2007

I Was Just Guessing at Numbers and Figures, Pulling the Puzzles Apart

Here's a take on the job market from someone across the quad. In a post called "It's Worse Than You Think," a grad student on theoretical physics writes:
By all accounts, theoretical physics is the one field of science where the academic job market is worse than that in the humanities.

Hm. Let's pause here to reflect on the fact that the humanities serve as a benchmark of sorts for scientists talking about shitty job markets. It's nice to get a little recognition from our colleagues across the quad, isn't it?

Pressing on, our theoretical physicist goes on to talk about one of my hobby-horses: junior grad students' stupendously bad assessment of job market realities:

It is absurd that 75% of entering [physics] grad students want to be theorists. It’s as though 75% of entering philosophy grad students expected to land an academic position at a research university. That does not happen because philosophy grad students are a lot more aware of the state of the philosophy job market.

Well, the first point to make is, yes, it is absurd that 75% of entering grad students in physics want to be theorists if those jobs are so hard to come by.

Of course, the second point is, if you were going to pull a number out of your ass for the percentage of philosophy grad students who think they're destined for research universities, 75% might be a little low. Add in the people thinking about top-tier liberal arts colleges, and you've pretty much got everyone in their first and second years of grad school. Sure, there are exceptions. But not a lot of people make the decision to spend their 20s in poverty, because their big dream in life is to teach at the Lower Donkey's Crotch branch campus of Eastern Arkansas State.


Ponder Stibbons said...

I'm not a grad student in theoretical physics, actually. At the time I wrote that I was an undergrad majoring in physics and philosophy pondering whether to go into theoretical physics or philosophy.

I don't know a huge number of philosophy grad students, but those I did were certainly aware that "the humanities serve as a benchmark of sorts for scientists talking about shitty job markets". Furthermore, undergrads at my university had it drummed into their heads by grad school talks given by faculty that only about 10% of philosophy grad students end up as faculty in research universities. So my impression was that people were pretty aware. On the other hand, science undergrads were invariably much more sanguine about their job prospects, since it was thought that in general science is well-funded and that people actually want to hire scientists. And, unlike the philosophy faculty, the physics faculty at my university made little effort to educate students about the job market. Never mind that the best thing I could get someone to say about the theoretical physics job market was that "at least it's based on merit --- the people who get hired are the best" and the worst was that "there is no job market".

Anonymous said...

I disagree with your mainly anecdotal assessment of the job market for physicists. Yes, there's not room for that many theoretical physicists -- but trained physicists have the math and chemical knowledge to find work in the private sector if they want to.

Pseudonymous Grad Student said...

Ponder --

Damn--sorry to have misread where you were coming from, and thanks for stopping by to set me straight!

Ponder Stibbons said...


I was referring to the academic job market. Yes, many physics PhDs can leave academia for decent jobs (unlike humanities PhDs), but none of them enter grad school with that intention (usually around their fourth or fifth years the penny drops and they start taking supplementary financial engineering courses and such). As for anecdotal assessment: I spoke to several physicists who are themselves involved in placing their students in jobs, hiring new faculty, and so on. These weren't isolated rumours flying around.

Anonymous said...

I mean no offense, Ponder, and I like your blog. Still:

anecdotal: 2. Based on casual observations or indications rather than rigorous or scientific analysis: "There are anecdotal reports of children poisoned by hot dogs roasted over a fire of the [oleander] stems" (C. Claiborne Ray).

The problem is that, despite what some physicists may have told you, the actual truth may be that a high percentage of graduated theoretical physicists who strongly pursue jobs in theoretical physics do, indeed, find jobs in the career.

Your evidence is anecdotal. Think about it.

Even so, my main complaint was based on the false impression that you were saying that people pursuing a job in theoretical physics are in for a shock when they find themselves unemployable. Obviously it's not true for physicists. It is true for philosophers, those poor idealistic innocents. :p

Philosophy grad students who obsess over teaching at some prestigious school are not and likely will never be real philosophers. I have no sympathy for them because that's not what philosophy is about. Disclaimer: I think philosophy graduate school is a waste of time (never been).