Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Want to be an industrial physicist? Don't rush to do an academic postdoc.

Karen Kaplan has written an article for Nature Jobs that I find fascinating -- it's a look into the lives of Ph.D. physicists and what they do post-graduation. Do they go for postdoc after postdoc? Well, let's see here:
Science postgraduates, especially those in the biological sciences, often see postdocs as a way to continue and refine their research, learn to run a laboratory and develop a broad, deep collaborative network. Flatt is one of many early-career physicists in the United States who dismiss that idea. Although researchers in the biological sciences may have to take multiple postdocs before landing their first permanent post, the landscape is shifting for physicists. Nearly 70% of physicists who earned their degree in 2004 took a postdoc, but the proportion had fallen to 56% in the classes of 2007 and 2008, according to the Statistical Research Center of American Institute of Physics (AIP) in College Park, Maryland. 
One reason for the decline is that fewer people with physics PhDs are pursuing an academic research career. This is in part because there are, and have been, fewer positions to pick from. Academic hiring has been flat since 2003, says Crystal Bailey, the education and careers programme manager for the American Physical Society (APS), also in College Park. Between 2006 and 2007, about 350 faculty members left their job in physics, but in 2008, about 450 people with physics PhDs were seeking positions. Of those with physics PhDs in the United States from the classes of 2007 and 2008 who did not take a postdoc directly after earning their degree, 62% accepted private-sector positions, according to the AIP Statistical Research Center. Another 10% accepted government positions, such as at one of the US Department of Energy's 21 labs and technology centres. About one-quarter accepted academic posts. 
Few private-sector or industry positions require an applicant to have completed a postdoc — even if those posts involve research. Bailey says that she rarely advises physics graduate students to pursue a postdoc, unless they are certain they want a career in academia or they need a job while they consider their options. Physics postgraduates are, she says, far more likely to get full-time permanent employment in the private sector, for which a postdoc is largely irrelevant.
Could you imagine what the chemistry world would be like if some of these statistics were true of chemists? Let's play pretend and replace the word "physics" with "chemistry":
Between 2006 and 2007, about 350 faculty members left their job in physics chemistry, but in 2008, about 450 people with physics chemistry PhDs were seeking positions. Of those with physics chemistry PhDs in the United States from the classes of 2007 and 2008 who did not take a postdoc directly after earning their degree, 62% accepted private-sector positions, according to the AIP Statistical Research Center. 
Hehehe -- if I wasn't laughing, I'd be crying. Here's a little more:
A postdoc could even be a drawback for physicists considering the private sector. Many of Europe's industrial employers prefer to hire applicants who have a PhD and a 'clean slate', says Maria Allegrini, a physicist at University of Pisa in Italy and a member of the APS Committee on International Scientific Affairs. “They want to train you in their own field,” she says. 
Physicists with experience in US industry warn that a CV with three or more academic postdocs can create the impression that the applicant had hoped for a career in academia and does not really want one in industry. “We want to find someone who's charged up with enthusiasm to work for our company,” says Jim Hollenhorst, Agilent's senior director of technology, who regularly hires physics postgraduates. “So don't do three postdocs, not find an academic job, and then apply here.”
I can't help but like Dr. Hollenhurst's forthrightness. The same is likely true for chemistry, i.e. doing multiple academic postdocs (more than 2) is probably detrimental to being hired in industry. However, I'd like to think that hiring managers in industrial chemistry are aware of the terrible macroeconomic circumstances affecting today's chemistry postdoc and would be willing to cut some slack to applicants. (cue laughter?)

All in all, a very interesting article and an interesting contrast to chemistry. Go over there and read the whole thing.

10 comments:

  1. That's a really interesting article, thanks for posting. I can definitely empathize with that last under-appreciated point about losing industrial value through too many postdocs. As someone who was on his second postdoc, I had exactly the same thoughts (and I was not willing to wait around doing half a dozen postdocs until I found an academic job) and swiftly applied to and found an industry job that has been a really great fit (thanks in part due to a certain Chemjobber). But I could clearly see even then that doing additional postdocs might have jeopardized my industry opportunities.

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  2. However, I'd like to think that hiring managers in industrial chemistry are aware of the terrible macroeconomic circumstances affecting today's chemistry postdoc and would be willing to cut some slack to applicants. (cue laughter?)

    Laughter is correct. We recently interviewed some candidates and one concern that came up with some of them was that they worked at several places for 2 year stints. People took this as a sign the person was easily bored and wouldn't stay with us for a long time. I remember shaking my head thinking "Do you not remember what industry we work in? There's layoffs every year, it's a miracle some people last 2 years with a place!"

    On the other hand, I do tend to agree that one shouldn't do too many postdocs. This is more tilted by my personal experience. Most of the postdocs I knew that had done multiple or very long postdocs were in that position because they either didn't know what to do afterwards or were restrained to a particular geographic area for one reason or another (usually spouse/kids).

    One huge problem I noticed is that people seem to think that after your postdoc a job will fall in your lap. Lots of them are convinced they need to do X, Y, and Z before they can even entertain the idea of looking, but that's not true. So they just keep working and working and working, trying to get a publication, but spending no time job hunting, polishing their CV, or going out to meet people who can potentially help them (part of this is due to pressure from their PI as well, I recognize that). When the time comes, they're totally in the dark about how they should go about finding a job, and often default to another postdoc because their PI is the only person they know with "connections", and they're all academic.

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  3. I recall that shortly after I started my postdoc at 25k, I met some people from physics department and was amazed to find out that they were all paid in 40-45k range. When I asked them about it they provided a simple and satisfying answer: "Because we stand almost no chance of ever finding a decent job and will have to stay here for 10 years."

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  4. Unstable IsotopeApril 3, 2012 at 3:15 PM

    I hired directly into industry without a postdoc but I think a postdoc would be a positive in hiring. I agree 2 postdocs might start to be neutral and I think more than 2 would be a negative.

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  5. I'm finishing my first postdoc, but I know intuitively that multiple postdocs is a negative. Still, I never knew two was neutral, I thought it was negative starting from >1. I once worked with a person who did five postdocs. In my lab he was on his fourth postdoc. Eventually he got an academic job because he had a ton of papers.

    I think after this postdoc finishes I'm going to take some time off and enjoy life a bit. Technically, it finishes in 2012 and nobody has to know that it finishes in December or January 2012. Since I'm going to have a few good pubs from this postdoc sting, I'm re-evaluating applying for academic things. Maybe as soon as the latest two papers are accepted I'll finish writing that research proposal and start sending it out. Not too excited about industry since the salaries where I live are crap for chemists just starting out. I probably would make close to it in the postdoc and so far I love it. Probably I'll keep coming in to the lab 10 hours a week in my off time.

    Speaking of which, do you think someone will figure out that I took some time off from the working world just because and I wasn't laid off, and will think I'm a lazy bastard not deserving of a job? We can't have breaks in the resume, right?

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    1. I dunno, I was hoping to take some time off between postdoc and real job, but all the companies seem to want people RIGHT NOW if they make an offer, like it's a carton of that's going to go bad real fast.

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  6. Physics graduates can get a Wall Street quant job right after the graduation...

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  7. I was told by a retired hiring manager at a global consumer goods manufacturer that a post-doc appointment on the resume was neutral. Another Ph.D chemist at this company told me that a post-doc may or may not help. If, for example, someone that did a very theory-heavy thesis wanted to transition into something more applied, then a post-doc would be a good way to round out the resume and demonstrate proficiency in a different context.

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  8. "do you think someone will figure out that I took some time off from the working world just because and I wasn't laid off, and will think I'm a lazy bastard not deserving of a job?"

    Probably. Anyway, why would you want time off? The whole point of the system is to work a bit to get an undergrad degree (UG really was kinda fun), then work really hard to get a graduate degree so you can get a post-doc (where you also have to work really hard to get a job) and, if you're lucky, you can go a few decades without being 'right-sized' by some whiz-kid eight sigma (it makes 6 sigma seem crappy) black belt who doesn't know the difference between a molecule and an atom (it's just detail stuff, they'll hire some poindexters to figure it out, can't be that important). You can take some time to enjoy life when you're too old to enjoy it.

    The workers ready to replace you in China and India certainly don't take time off, and they likely work 80 hours + a week for less than you'll make in a day. Luckily we can all get a dozen tube socks for $3.99, so it's all worth it.....

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    1. Well, then I'll just have to try really hard to make it 'look like' I didn't take any time off. Finish post doc in 2012 (or maybe my boss will let me get away with saying finished in 2013), then I don't have to find a job until the start of 2013. I want some time off now while I'm still in good shape do do some hiking and maybe travel around Europe a bit. And during the useless hot summer months, while my brain is still young, I can learn Arabic instead of coming back every day from this postdoc stint incredibly tired and usually already at 11 pm at least and playing video games for a couple of hours until I fall asleep. Being able to speak other languages shows you have 'communication' skills to those who can only speak one language, so it might counterbalance the whole 'being a lazy bastard' thing.

      I don't think I can get away with doing what another postdoc did. Which is, get a medical condition (which is unfortunate and is not their fault) just before the first year is up, then go back to their country to get an essential operation which kept getting 'delayed' due to second opinions, etc... The boss is asking us if we've heard anything from the person and it's already been a year so the boss is thinking that they are on their death bed while we all just shrug and say we don't know. Meanwhile the person keeps posting pics of themselves on trips to Disneyworld, California, and standing under a waterfall somewhere in South America on their Facebook page. Classy, but I don't think I can get away with that.

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