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What it means, and doesn’t mean, to get a job in physics

March 25, 2019
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I have some reasonably momentous personal news: I got a job.

And I don’t just mean that I got a job, in the same sense that I’ve been employed doing research ever since getting my PhD. I got the job: the ostensibly permanent faculty position that so many of us have aspired to (and agonized over) since undergrad.

I have accepted a faculty position in Physics at Ohio State University. I’ll begin in January.

It isn’t my intention to brag here. But I should probably make the point that this job is a big deal for me. OSU Physics is an extremely good department, with great students and something like ten faculty members whose work I admire and whom I am eager to learn from. When you’re angling for a faculty position, you can really only hope to end up with a couple of colleagues like this, so for me this job is an embarrassment of good fortune. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is exactly the kind of job I’ve dreamed of having ever since I decided that I wanted to be a scientist. I am very excited.

But I should also make the point that getting this far was difficult, long, and not particularly likely. My goal in writing this post is mostly to give a postmortem dissection of my career trajectory, for the benefit of current students who are thinking of following a similar path. I want to try and point out, as honestly as I can, which things I did right, which things I did wrong, and the ways in which I got lucky that enabled me to finally have a secure career in academic science.

A caveat: there is a risk when writing this kind of reflection of building up the tenure-track faculty position as some kind of ideal. That is, there is a danger of making it sound like getting a faculty job is “making it” while other options are “failing to make it”. I don’t mean to do that. There are lots of exciting things to do with a physics degree besides going on to be a physics professor. And there are plenty of people who were smarter than me and/or better at physics than me who went a different direction. To name a few, some friends and colleagues of mine went on to be: research scientists and engineers, data scientists, software engineers, financial analysts, technical writers, science journalists, teachers, and intelligence analysts. Many (perhaps even most) of these careers might be more rewarding or more challenging than the standard tenure-track professor job. But I can only comment on the path I followed myself.

Beware: this is probably the longest post I have ever written.

 

What are the odds?

I remember, as an undergrad, deciding more or less immediately that I wanted to try and be a physics professor. It was an exciting thought, but the one that immediately followed it was: “what are the odds?” I remember looking through the faculty roster at my university and seeing everyone’s listed undergraduate and graduate alma mater. It was pretty much a parade of Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Berkeley, MIT, etc. “Well,” I thought, “I’m at Virginia Tech. So what does that mean about my chances?”

From that moment on I pretty much operated under the assumption that I wouldn’t achieve my goal. But I decided that it was worth trying anyway, because I would at least get to have a physics-themed adventure along the way. And once you get a PhD in physics people seem to generally believe that you’re a smart person, and are willing to hire you for a range of different technical jobs (which is true; see the list of alternate jobs above). So my plan was to go to grad school in physics and then reassess from there, with the expectation that I would probably end up in some kind of non-academic, technology-oriented job.

The basic timeline of my academic path is like this:

  • I started college at Virginia Tech in the fall of 2002, and graduated in the spring of 2007 with degrees in physics and mechanical engineering. (In high school I had thought I wanted to do robotics, and in college I was too stubborn to drop the mechanical engineering degree that I initially declared.)
  • I started grad school at the University of Minnesota in the summer of 2007, and completed my PhD in the summer of 2011. (This is an unusually short duration; see comments below.)
  • I stayed in Minnesota for two years as a postdoc, then went to Argonne National Laboratory in 2013 for a second postdoc. I spent two years there, which included applying for a number of faculty jobs that I didn’t get.
  • I started a third postdoc at MIT in 2015. I applied extensively for faculty jobs during my time at MIT, but I wasn’t able to find a position before my appointment ran out in 2018. I was fortunate enough to find someone else willing to pay for me for an additional year, and in March of 2019 I landed the job at Ohio State.

So the chronological recap is:

  • 5 years of undergrad
  • 4 years of grad school
  • 8 years of postdoc (at three different locations)

It’s a long road, friends.

I would say that, in my field, 8 years as a postdoc is longer than average. And, in fact, I was more or less considering that this year was my last chance. In an email, my PhD advisor had warned me that “your career will not survive another postdoc”, and he was probably right.

But 8 years is also not some extreme outlier. The average time spent as a postdoc (again, in my field) might be something like two postdocs and 5 or 6 years. Three postdocs is usually considered an upper limit, and people who don’t have a permanent job by the end of their third postdoc are often passed over or viewed with suspicion.

Along the way I had to make many, many job applications. Here’s the total count, along with the year of applying (in parentheses):

  • 10 grad school applications (2007)
  • 1 (2011) + 12 (2013) + 8 (2015) = 21 postdoc applications
  • 1 (2012) + 16 (2015) + 7 (2017) + 33 (2018) + 42 (2019) = 99 faculty applications
  • 1 (2012) + 3 (2015) + 6 (2018) + 5 (2019) = 15 faculty interviews

I probably don’t need to say that applications are exhausting and dispiriting. Faculty applications, in particular, are very time-consuming, and an actual faculty interview is brutal. My general rule of thumb is that during any year in which you are applying for a new (academic) job, you will lose about a third of your total productivity to the process of applying and the stress of worrying about how the application will turn out. Add together the years above and the implication is that I lost something like two solid years of my life to applications.

With each year of failure on the faculty job market, I got a little more anxious and a little more desperate. During the last two years, I often had to specifically justify why so much time had passed since my PhD. For example, during a Skype interview this year I was asked directly by the committee “It’s been a long time since your PhD; why don’t you have a job yet?” (they did not invite me for an in-person interview). More than once someone called my PhD advisor to ask for a justification as to why so much time had passed since my PhD.

In the end, I got a great job at a great institution. But I had to endure nearly 100 rejections and ten failed interviews first. There were many moments along the way when I thought I was looking at the end of the line.

I once heard it said (by a tenured professor) that there’s no point in stressing about jobs, because in the end all the “good people” get faculty positions and everyone else winds up with a lucrative tech-related career. This kind of dismissive and self-serving narrative seems completely inconsistent with my own observation. Luck seems to play as big a role as anything else.

In the remainder of this post I want to spell out the many ways in which I was the beneficiary of luck and kindness from others. But let me first try to be at least a bit positive and constructive, and outline the things I think I did correctly.

 

What I did right

I prioritized conceptual understanding over technical skill

When you’re a young student or postdoc, your first years are usually marked by a long struggle to gain some technical skill or competency. As soon as you attain this skill at the level required to produce publishable research, it’s very tempting to just rush to apply the skill to all the problems you can find. This kind of approach maximizes your instantaneous productivity at a time when you feel desperate to be as productive as possible.

But ultimately this is a dangerous approach. Because in order to get a job, you need to impress people in person, and not just on paper. And what impresses people in person is the ability to understand what they are working on, to ask intelligent questions, and to teach them some idea that they didn’t previous understand. If you can’t do this, and you instead come across as a “narrow professional” in an interview or a discussion, then people can be dismissive of you as a scientist.

In this sense I did the right thing by prioritizing a broad, conceptual understanding of physics over a narrow and virtuosic expertise. In my case this was sort of an accident; I did the former because I had a short attention span and easily got bored by doing the same thing repeatedly. It turned out, in the end, to be a good career move.

I learned how to talk about physics, in addition to learning how to do physics

The great theorist Anatoly Larkin used to say that there are two kinds of physics: written physics and oral physics. What I think he meant is that there are two distinct skills you need to acquire as a scientist: (1) the ability to do calculations or experiments, and (2) the ability to talk conceptually about science with your peers. As a student you often feel like the second skill will come naturally once you acquire the first. That is, you think that once you can produce science you will naturally be able to talk about it clearly with others.

But this isn’t true. Getting good at talking about science requires a concerted effort. You have to work and practice to be able to describe things to others in their simplest terms, or be able to make analogies and construct clear examples, or be able to approach an idea from multiple perspectives in case the first perspective doesn’t take. Without these skills your scientific career will almost certainly fall apart sooner or later, because “oral science” is the only way to impress people and forge collaborations.

Luckily for me, this skill was something I prioritized, mostly because I thought talking about physics was so much more fun than doing calculations. In fact, I created this blog (almost exactly ten years ago, during my second year of grad school) mostly as an outlet for my desire to “talk about physics” as distinct from “doing physics”. I’m very glad that I did.

I worked hard to make good talks

A common piece of advice given to grad students and postdocs is “until you get a permanent job, treat every talk like a job talk.” I’m not sure that this is a helpful thing to say, since it’s inclined to make you feel nervous and pressured at a moment when you need to feel relaxed. But it is true that anytime you give a talk you are building your reputation a little bit, and you are building up skill for a future job application. So take your talks seriously.

For me personally, a good talk is one that I learn something from. So when I’m designing a talk I always try to have at least one moment where I explain/derive some result in a clever or striking way. This “clever result” doesn’t have to be something that came out of my own research; it can be someone else’s idea, old or recent (and you should, of course, generously credit the person who originally came up with it). But the best way to make a scientist like you is to teach them something in a clear and clever way. Don’t pass up that opportunity lightly.

The best talks also have a narrative flow to them. In particular, they clearly set up a dilemma before resolving it. Before you tell the audience whatever new result you have, you need to make them feel uncomfortable about not knowing it. Don’t let your talks be just a summary of what you did.

I made friends in physics, and I put a lot of effort into maintaining those friendships

This may seem a little cynical, but it’s absolutely true: your friendships in science matter enormously to your career success. The people in your field who like you are the people who will provide you with opportunities – invitations to give lectures, invitations to conferences, opportunities to collaborate, positive reviews on your papers, etc. Having friends also just makes the process of doing science more fun.

I am not naturally a socially skilled person, so my method of making friends usually exploited the one interest I knew we all had in common: physics. Many of my friendships started by striking up a conversation about physics. Teaching someone an idea in a clear way is a great way to make a friend, but so is asking them to teach you.

I approached well-known, established people for mentorship and collaboration, and I tried to do good work for those people

This one mostly comes down to courage. Any field has its famous people, who are known for some body of great work. It’s easy to feel intimidated by these people, or to feel like you shouldn’t bother them. But if an opportunity comes to discuss science with such a person, or to collaborate scientifically, you almost have to take it. Eventually, to get a real job, you need to have (multiple) well-known people write you good letters of recommendation. The only way to get there is to boldly take the opportunities to work with those people whenever you get the chance.

Just remember, of course, to have the requisite humility. Be confident about the things you know how to do, and you should even be willing to “teach” some great person where you are able. But don’t ever pretend to understand something you don’t. Don’t pontificate and don’t pose. Most great scientists are happy to explain things, even if they seem embarrassingly basic to you. But they probably won’t tolerate posers.

When I found people who were smarter than me, I tried to learn from them

As an early-career scientist, you will continually find yourself running into people who are both younger and smarter than you. Given the omnipresent job anxiety, it’s easy to let these people make you feel deflated, anxious, or even resentful. Resist those urges as much as possible, and instead try to get these people to teach you things that you don’t know. This kind of earnest friendliness is a wonderful thing for them and for you. Some of my best friendships in science have been made this way.

I was generous, open, and friendly, and avoided being competitive or proprietary

This one can feel surprisingly hard, because there are so many great people competing for a very limited number of permanent jobs. So you can easily feel pressure to be overtly competitive with your peers – anxiously guarding your work away from them, competing for the attention of famous professors, or even “stealing” problems from others. But this kind of behavior will put you on people’s bad sides very quickly.  On the other hand, being generous with your time and labor, open with your results, and friendly toward everyone will help you make much-needed friends.

I made an effort to be creative

In some fields, and in condensed matter physics in particular, there are topics that suddenly get “hot”, and a huge fraction of people suddenly start working on the trendy new topic. This leads to a deluge of work that is done quickly and obviously: people want to be first to establish some new result or stake some claim before others do. And the truth is that you probably need to spend some time doing this kind of work (see another comment below). But I personally tried to set aside at least some time to do creative work that wasn’t directly aligned with any trend or established field. This work wasn’t always cited very well, but I think that in the end people respected me for it. And it allowed others to see that I was someone who was willing to think creatively and across fields. While such broad-mindedness is often a secondary consideration in hiring decisions, it is a purely positive one, and it’s the sort of thing that people like to have in a colleague.

I was willing to sacrifice from my personal life and my personal relationships when necessary

This point is the saddest one to discuss, but I am trying to be as blunt and honest as possible.

I have been married for ten years. But I have lived apart from my wife for three of those years. If I hadn’t been willing to sacrifice from my marriage in this way – if I had insisted that I can only take jobs in cities where my wife is also employed – then I would almost certainly not still have a viable academic career.

This state of affairs is unfortunately very typical in academic science, unless one of two people in the relationship make a decision to abandon much of their career ambition and follow their spouse.

 

What I did wrong

I finished my PhD quickly

This one feels counterintuitive, but it’s an important point.

The first few years of my PhD were atypically productive, thanks to an unusually fortuitous match with my PhD advisor (more on this below). Three and a half years or so after entering grad school, I had authored or coauthored something like 12 published papers. So my advisor and I both decided that I had enough work to defend a PhD thesis, and I graduated after my fourth year. I was angling to stay in Minnesota longer while my wife finished her degree, so I transitioned smoothly to a postdoc with the same group.

Graduating “early” like this seems like a uniformly good thing to do. But it isn’t. The reason is that when you apply for future jobs people will judge your productivity on a sliding scale, with increasingly high standards based on how many years have passed since your PhD. On the other hand, no one really pays attention to how long the PhD lasted. So, all other things equal, a candidate who publishes 16 papers in their PhD looks significantly more impressive than a candidate who publishes 12 papers in their PhD and another 4 in their first postdoc, even if the two candidates started grad school at the same time.

So my advice is this: if you find yourself being very productive in the later years of your PhD, and if your goal is to get a faculty position, then draw those years out as long as you reasonably can. Be productive, write papers, learn a lot of things, give talks, etc., as a grad student. Because when people judge you, you want them to be able to think “wow, that person is such a great scientist, and they’re still just a grad student!”

I avoided fashionable topics

I know, I know, this one sounds like the most self-serving excuse for not having highly-recognized work. (My publication record at the time of being hired is decent, but probably below the level that is typical for a faculty hire at an Ohio State-level university.) There is a very common (and annoying) complaint among scientists: “I did responsible and deep work, but I never got the recognition I deserved because it wasn’t trendy at the time.”

In my case, though, I can’t claim that I avoided trendy topics because I was doing “deeper” work, necessarily. There were other reasons for my reluctance to jump into fashionable and fast-moving fields. And if I’m being honest, these reasons are not particularly flattering.

One reason for my reluctance was a kind of intellectual anxiety, or a lack of confidence. When a field is just emerging, everything feels new and confusing, and it can be very intimidating to try and jump in. You feel overwhelmed by how much you don’t know, and rather than buckle down and try to learn it all, it’s easy to just stay away and work on things you already know. But this is a missed opportunity. A field that is developing rapidly is also a field where people are learning rapidly, and if you stay away you will probably be learning less than you could be.

I think also that I abhorred the lack of clarity that predominates in a developing field. There is a sudden torrent of papers that make confused or contradictory claims; people rush to do experiments that aren’t properly controlled or properly understood; people rush to do calculations that are based on questionable assumptions. I hated wading through all that muck, and I allowed myself to justify staying away from it because I didn’t want to have to do the work of generating a clear perspective for myself.

This was also a missed opportunity, both to grow as a scientist and to establish myself as someone who is capable of creating clarity in a field where it was previously lacking.

I didn’t spend enough time reading new papers

There is a website called the arXiv, on which people post drafts of their new scientific papers, usually before submitting them to a journal for review. The arXiv is sort of the lifeblood of current events in physics. Most established physicists scan through the arXiv every night, catching up on the latest developments and looking for inspiration.

I tried to maintain an arXiv-reading ritual, but the truth is that I hated it. Looking through dozens or hundreds of papers every night, most of which seemed confusing, incomprehensible, and/or completely boring, was too hard for me emotionally. It made me feel overwhelmed, and I would start questioning why I was doing this and why I was in this profession at all. Eventually I just gave up, and I never really developed any kind of routine for reading new papers as they came out. I fell back on merely going to talks and conferences, talking to people at lunch, and googling things as needed.

This reluctance to read papers cost me significantly. I was usually late to learn about new developments, and I missed many opportunities to collaborate with others or provide them with information or references (including to my own work) that would have been helpful.

I allowed my work to become scattered, rather than focusing on a single field

When it comes to science, I have a bit of a short attention span. A scientific field is always most exciting to me when I am just learning its central ideas, and once I understand those I am easily distracted by some other field.

This tendency isn’t bad, necessarily, since it leads to rapid learning and creative thought. But when you are a young scientist you need for some community to recognize your work, and to know you personally. In my early years I made the mistake of scattering my work across many disconnected scientific communities. Suddenly, I found myself four years past my PhD and I realized that there was probably no scientist alive who would have read more than 3-4 of my 25 papers. This was a problem, and it probably delayed my employment significantly.

I insisted too often that people explain things in my terms, rather than learning to understand things in their terms

I realized relatively quickly that I had a “style” of doing physics. I had a particular way of thinking about things, which was based on intuitive pictures and simple math. This is not a bad thing; I have come to realize that my style has real value, and many people appreciate it.

But a lot of the time I would insist on thinking only in this style. When someone was trying to explain some idea to me, I would insist on parsing it in this way, asking lots of questions and forcing them to rephrase what they were saying until I could understand it and derive it in my natural language.

While understanding things in your own terms is probably essential to learning, it’s also true that I should have put in the work of learning how to think in multiple different ways at once. There were a lot of popular, “formal” ways of thinking in theoretical physics that I was slow to develop, to my detriment.

I didn’t prioritize my career over my wife’s career

This point, again, is difficult to admit, and even embarrassing, both for myself and for my profession.

Starting with graduate school applications, my wife and I made career decisions jointly. We always tried to weigh the options and choose the one that maximized the combined net benefit to her and to myself. To me this is the obviously correct, human way to behave in any kind of partnership. But in some cases the human approach meant that I didn’t get my first option, and in an ultra-competitive field that always made me more than a little nervous.

I don’t want to overplay this point, because in the end I got a very good job, and it’s hard to imagine that I would have done significantly better in some alternate timeline. And I’m more than grateful for the sacrifices that my wife made for the benefit of my career, and for all the times when she didn’t get her first choice. But it’s also true that by the time I arrived at my postdoc at MIT, most of my peers were either single or had partners who had agreed to subordinate their own career ambitions to that of their physicist partner. It is usually true, with some rare exceptions, that if you want to be a professor you don’t get to choose where you will live, and that means that someone’s career will probably have to take priority.

 

Ways in which I was lucky

I was uniformly encouraged

I was something like 8 years old when I first thought it would be cool to be a scientist. From that point onward, I would occasionally tell people that this was my aspiration and I don’t remember anyone ever giving me a single discouraging word.

It wasn’t until adulthood that I realized what a big deal this is.  When I told people that I wanted to be a scientist, and they were encouraging, it allowed me to believe in the reality of the future I wanted. When difficulties inevitably arose, I was able to view them as simply difficulties, rather than as evidence that I wasn’t intrinsically good enough.

I had undergraduate advisors who cared more about my future than about their own research

As a freshman in college, I picked a research advisor almost at random. I asked the guidance counselor which professors wanted undergrad researchers, and then I went to the first person on the list. That the first name on the list was Beate Schmittmann was maybe my first really lucky break in physics.

Dr. Schmittmann was unusual in that, in her interactions with undergrads, her only real motivation was to introduce them to research and give them opportunities. Amazingly (in retrospect), she never tried to use my (inconsistent) labor to advance her own research. She introduced me to physics ideas, took me to conferences, and helped me through applications without ever asking for publication-quality work from me.

And I had a number of other professors who treated me this way: Dr. Bruce Vogelaar (also at Virginia Tech) introduced me to experimental particle physics, and gave me a number of really wonderful opportunities even though I was ultimately terrible at both particle physics and performing experiments. I did summer internships at MIT and at CERN, and it is really humbling in retrospect that anyone devoted any kind of resources to someone as inept as I was.

I ended up with a PhD advisor who (1) was famous, (2) really cared about teaching me, and (3) worked relentlessly to find me opportunities

By far the biggest piece of luck I had was in who I had as a PhD advisor. When you’re an undergraduate applying to grad schools, you have no understanding whatsoever of what makes a good advisor, or who the people are at the schools you’re considering. For the most part, you just look through people’s websites and see if they have any words or pictures that you like.

When I arrived at the University of Minnesota in the summer of 2007 I didn’t really know anything about the people there. I ended up working with Boris Shklovskii almost randomly – I chose condensed matter theory, and he was the first person who reached out to me. I also liked the titles of some of his papers.

But it turns out that who you have as a PhD advisor is the single biggest determiner of your academic success. Ideally, you want someone who is well-known and well-connected, who will provide you with good topics to work on and opportunities to make yourself known, and who will take time to teach you. It is rare to get all three of these things, and I was extremely fortunate to have all of them.

Boris is a rare and singular person in many regards. He is such an uncommonly clear scientific thinker, and he devoted an enormous amount of his time to me personally. All I can say is that I am exceptionally fortunate and exceptionally grateful for my time as his student, and I will have to write a proper post about him as a scientist some other time.

It turns out, though, that even having an advisor with all these qualities is not enough to make your PhD successful. You also need your advisor’s style of thinking and working to be compatible with your own. And it happened that Boris had his own unique style, which was remarkably closely aligned with the way I wanted to think about physics. So my good luck in that regard is really remarkable.

I went to the Boulder Summer School and made lots of friends, many (most?) of whom remained in academia

The biggest month of my early career came in the summer of 2013, when I attended the Boulder School for condensed matter physics. This was a month-long summer school, during which PhD students and postdocs could attend special lectures while living together in a dorm at the University of Colorado.

It is hard to overstate how important that summer was for me. Not necessarily because of the lectures (from which I learned much but retained relatively little), but because I suddenly found myself surrounded by exceptional young scientists, most of whom are still in academia. To be in that environment was so exciting, that all I wanted to do was hang out and talk about physics with them all day. It was during that summer that I really learned the joy of making friends with someone by teaching each other physics. We also did adventurous things, too, like go hiking and camping, but the real joy was the physics itself. Many of my best friends were made that summer.

I don’t know whether every year at Boulder School is like that, or whether I was part of an exceptionally good group. But if you are a student or postdoc, and you have the opportunity to go to a summer school like this one, I can’t urge you strongly enough to go. Go, make friends, and talk about science all the time. It will pay dividends for a very long time.

I got a postdoc position with an independent travel budget, and I used it to my full advantage

My postdoc at Argonne National Laboratory started in the fall of 2013, and it came with an unusual perk: a $20,000-per-year discretionary budget. This is extremely rare for a postdoc, and is probably a vestigial remnant of an arrangement that was originally designed to provide an experimentalist with equipment.

But I took full advantage of that budget. I traveled to give seminars at places that wouldn’t otherwise have had a budget for it. And I treated myself to a whole range of conferences both foreign and domestic. It was a great way to introduce myself to the wider scientific world, to make friends and to make myself known. And I also got to add a disproportionate number of “invited seminars” to my CV.

Someone was kind to me and gave me a postdoc job when I was floundering

In the spring of 2015 I was in something of a panic. Despite my rampant (mis)use of government funds, I couldn’t find a job. And to make the matter even more difficult, my wife was going to medical residency, which is governed by a tyrannical and completely non-negotiable matching algorithm. Predicting the outcome of the match is a hard thing to do, but after some agonizing it seemed like she was likely to be sent either to San Francisco or to Boston.

I think this was the first time when I really thought that I was done for. The outcome just looked too bleak: I couldn’t bear to be apart from my wife any longer, and I couldn’t see any way to get an academic job in either of those cities.

One night I was despairing to a Boulder School friend of mine who was a grad student at MIT, and he said “why don’t you just ask my advisor for a job?” This had never occurred to me. My friend’s advisor was an intimidating Russian theorist who was widely regarded as a genius. I had, in fact, had a few good (but short) conversations with him, at a couple conferences and during a self-invited visit to MIT. But I never expected that he would deign to hire a (very) non-genius like me.

Nonetheless, I wrote to him one night and said [verbatim] “I find myself these days coping with a sort of tricky two-body problem, and recent developments are making me very motivated to find a job somewhere in Boston. … Do you know of anyone in Boston who is looking for a postdoc that might be interested in me?”

The very next day he said “I’ll make some inquiries and get back to you”, and within two weeks I had an offer letter for a postdoc at MIT.

I can hardly tell you what a miraculous event this was. My wife and I got to live together, and I got an office on the Infinite Corridor at MIT.

I should admit at this point that I had harbored an unrequited crush on MIT for a long time. Up to that moment, I had applied to be at MIT five times – for undergrad, for grad school, for a summer program, and for two postdoc positions – and had been rejected every time. In the end I got a position that required no application at all: just an email and a bit of nepotism.

I befriended people at MIT who became great scientists

The year I arrived at MIT there was an unusual cohort of brilliant and friendly young postdocs. I became fast friends with many of them, and have developed friendships that I truly cherish. I learned enormously from them, wrote papers with them, sang karaoke and went on hikes with them, and I can’t tell you how excited I am that I get to have a scientific career in parallel with them. Most of them have now gone on to faculty positions of their own.

Someone was kind to me and kept me on when I was about to fail out

I should say, finally, that even after making it to MIT it was not at all clear that I had “made it” into a permanent scientific career. During my second year at MIT I applied to seven faculty positions and didn’t get a single positive word in return; not an interview or a phone call. I tried again the next year, ostensibly the last of my three-year postdoc, and applied essentially everywhere that had even a remote chance of working for both me and my wife. The initial returns seemed good: I got six interviews at six good universities. But in the end I was not quite good enough anywhere, and after a protracted period of “maybe” from a few schools (and a few quicker rejections from others), I found myself completely without a job, seven years past my PhD, and with just a few months before my current job expired.

At this point I really thought the game was up. I was preparing my exit strategy, and trying to line up interviews in the private sector. But a different professor happened to hear about my predicament, and he offered to pay for me for one more year. This gave me one last chance at the academic job market, and the rest, I suppose, is history.

 

What to make of it all

If you are a young grad student or postdoc in science, reading this (overlong) account, I don’t know how you should feel. On the one hand, my career arc thus far has been a great adventure.  If I saw someone else getting excited about the prospect of such an adventure, it would be easy for me to get excited with them.

But this arc has also been a difficult and very tenuous journey, generously supported by good fortune and by kindness from powerful people at just the right moments. If your decision upon reading this account is to avoid the whole mess altogether, then that seems as rational to me as anything else.

34 Comments leave one →
  1. Abdul Ahad permalink
    March 26, 2019 1:53 am

    Finally congratulations Brian, I dont no what people expect from a person for good position. But this article will be inspirational for Grad students like me.

  2. March 26, 2019 8:19 am

    Thanks for such an extensive dissection of your journey, and congratulations on finding your dream job. I can only imagine what’s it like at this point.

  3. Jim C permalink
    March 26, 2019 11:08 am

    Congrats! Did you find that Twitter (esp. related to the high-Tc thing) was a net positive for the search (“hey, I know that guy”) or net negative (“we don’t hire people who are on Twitter”) or irrelevant?

    • Brian permalink*
      March 26, 2019 12:05 pm

      As far as I can tell, it was pretty irrelevant. People seem to have mostly forgotten about it by the time they were reviewing applications.

  4. Praharsh Suryadevara permalink
    March 26, 2019 1:50 pm

    Congratulations!

    This is exciting! I’m starting out as a grad student, and I think my view towards grad school is to not expect an academic job at the end considering there’s probably a 1% chance that people will get one but I’d still like to do as much physics as possible, since I like spending time on it.

    This gives me some hope, and some sense of what I’d need to expect and what I might need to do, and the luck I might need If I’d like to direct some of my effort in the direction of an academic career.

    Would you be able to give examples of your work that you feel is creative? I don’t mean to be invasive, I want to get some understanding of what constitutes a creative but less traversed direction especially because right now, my initial and I know is horrible way of judging papers is looking them up by citations because I don’t understand most of them.
    (I really want to develop an understanding of what makes a good paper)

  5. Tracy Thomas permalink
    March 26, 2019 3:03 pm

    Congratulations on your new job! And thank you for this post. Your willingness to be vulnerable will doubtless help many aspiring physicists who are considering this path. I left academia immediately after my PhD. The more time passes, the less I question whether that was a good decision. I could clearly see the difficult path ahead of me if I chose to pursue a tenured faculty position, and I just didn’t have the passion for the field necessary to endure that path. I had fun in grad school for sure, but I wasn’t as devoted to physics as you describe, and I could feel that difference. I also really appreciate your delving into the complications that arose with your and your wife’s career choices. I married a fellow grad student before we both finished our physics PhDs, and the two-body problem was clearly a looming one for us.

  6. Dung Nguyen permalink
    March 26, 2019 3:20 pm

    This post is really encouraging. Thanks alot.

  7. March 26, 2019 3:30 pm

    Congratulations! I got my PhD in the astronomy department at Ohio State, but I’d go over to the physics department to talk with people at CCAPP every now and then. I remember going through the deluge on the arxiv every day was hard, but the astronomy department has Astro Coffee every morning at 10:30 where pretty much the whole department gets together to go over the latest papers. That helped me a lot. It’s probably a bit far afield of your usual research, but you should definitely check it out (4054 McPherson). Who knows, maybe you’ll find some interesting directions to move in! (A number of papers have come out of Astro Coffee discussions.)

  8. Priya permalink
    March 26, 2019 9:26 pm

    My husband is looking for a postdoc position in nuclear physics. Could u help on it. His field is quarkgluon plasma

    • Brian permalink*
      March 26, 2019 9:37 pm

      I really can’t; I’m sorry

  9. March 27, 2019 1:05 am

    Congrats. Nice post. Now it is the moment when life gets actually tough…

  10. Anonymous permalink
    March 28, 2019 8:59 am

    Additional luck point – managed to stick it out until some faculty finally retired after their 401k bounced back from the crisis of 2008.

  11. Anonymous permalink
    March 28, 2019 10:54 am

    Congrats, Brian! It’s great to see that someone with your talent for communicating physics can find a place within its halls. As a student finishing a PhD and figuring out my next moves I appreciate your reflections on your path as well.

    While I agree with you that the idea that everybody gets what they deserve is dubious, it’s hard to argue that this wasn’t the case here. I’m not nearly invested enough in academia to take the path that you did, and I’ve reconciled myself to that.

  12. March 29, 2019 12:40 pm

    Congratulations, and thanks for sharing your experience!

  13. Ruslan Mukhamadiarov permalink
    March 29, 2019 7:29 pm

    Congratulations! Thank you very much for this very detailed post! I found it extremely helpful!

  14. Anonymous permalink
    March 31, 2019 12:25 pm

    Congratulations, Brian.
    But what I didn’t get was why getting a faculty job is of such importance to you that you just kept ploughing on despite all the difficulties and setbacks. What is it worth to you and why is it worth so much? I’m struggling to figure that out myself now… it certainly is the path of least resistance given I’ve been at it for the past 6 years now and it makes sense to just continue (going on the job market soon), but of late I realize that even seemingly insignificant things like checking the arXiv every day gives me anxiety (did I just get scooped? why is person X, my peer, publishing so much and I’m not?). There are days when I do physics and I like it very much but then there are days I am reminded of the ugly politics in it (nepotism, scrambling to get citations) and whole uncertainty of it all and I wonder why am I here.

    • Brian permalink*
      March 31, 2019 4:02 pm

      Thanks for asking this. “Why is it worth it?” is a good and important question, which I didn’t really try to address. I have certainly had a lot of days like the kind you are describing.

      I have seen a lot of people stay in academia either out of inertia or because they enjoy the process of problem solving. The former certainly isn’t a good enough reason, and I actually don’t think the latter is either. There are lots of fun jobs that are built around technical problem solving, and most of them don’t come with all the baggage associated with academia. (And most of them allow you to devote a larger fraction of your time to the process of problem solving itself.)

      Here are the basic reasons why I, personally, couldn’t give up academia:
      1. I love physics specifically. I deeply enjoy the way the perspective that physics takes on the world, and I want to immerse myself in that perspective, teaching it and employing it to describe things around me.
      2. I enjoy the process of acquiring new ways to think about the natural world. A career in academia more or less guarantees that you will be continually learning your whole life, forever acquiring new perspectives and new skills. This is in contrast to my nightmare scenario, which is to become an “expert” who has a particular technical skill that he applies over and over again to similarly-looking problems.
      3. I really enjoy the peers you get in academic physics. I am not naturally a very social person, but for whatever reason I love being around the kind of people who choose to spend their lives talking and thinking about physics. A lifetime of being around these people, learning from them and teaching them in turn, going to conferences with them, being collaborators (or competitors) with them, is exciting for me.
      4. Academia is a rare profession where you have freedom to decide for yourself what you want to think about. I don’t want to overemphasize this point, because there are lots of pressures in academia to do a particular kind of work. But at some level (and especially as a theorist), you really can ask yourself “out of all the things in the world that I could think about, which ones are most interesting to me?” I’ve become so spoiled by this kind of freedom, that the idea of having a boss who tells me what I have to think about every day sounds intolerable.

  15. Anonymous permalink
    March 31, 2019 9:33 pm

    Thank you for sharing. I certainly resonate with 1-3 (well, 3 to some extent — I have met my share of belligerent fame-seekers and claim-stakers). But is 4 really true? I find myself worried that I might have not done myself any favors by sticking to something I personally am interested in and not doing something more trendy. Things like jumping onto the twisted bilayer flat-band wagon, SYK stuff, fractons… academia at least in the States seems to be heavily dominated by hype and trends, and one needs to time one’s papers to be fashionable at the time one enters the job market.. I really don’t like the business aspect of physics but it seems it is a game I have to play till I ‘make it’.

  16. Grumpy permalink
    March 31, 2019 11:04 pm

    This is really a Disney type story of the faculty job search. Congrats on the job and the outstanding storytelling. As an assistant professor in physics at an R1 who also had a non-standard path, I could relate to so much of it (even when I disagreed with some of the advice/conclusions).

    I just hope others reading this realize what an outlier your story is. Most postdocs on their 7th year are not going to get a position like you got ever.

  17. enl permalink
    April 3, 2019 8:28 pm

    congratulations.

    I will be passing this post on to my students (pre-uni, accelerated– generally 1 to 1.5 years of advanced credit) to help with their planning.

    I am well past the point where I can reasonably consider another degree– I am the family disappointment, having no PhD. I admire the your commitment to what is important, despite the negative career portent, and envy the focus you have on and in physics, and hope it brings you dividends, not critics.

  18. reza permalink
    April 5, 2019 1:08 am

    Congratulations. Could you say about other paths or ways we could do instead of staying in academia? I mean what kind of other jobs we could have in our mind? If you could not find this job what was your next step, what did you want to do instead?

  19. The Chromatic Universe permalink
    April 9, 2019 3:29 am

    Congratulations and thanks for sharing this. I will re-read, re-re-read this I don’t know how many times. However, I disagree with one point you made about not prioritizing your career to your wife’s in what you did wrong section. I think that is a good point that you balanced out your career and hers and could stay in Academia still(you had continuous post-doc positions). This actually inspires me in a way, that I can do my dream job along with following my preferences in life, whatever that might be.

  20. Rolando Valdes permalink
    April 20, 2019 2:42 pm

    Brian, thank you very much for the honesty and vulnerability in this post. i identified with so many of your points.
    I am (and afaik everyone in CM here at OSU is) excited for your arrival, and can’t wait to start working together.
    I will be sharing this post with my grad and undergrad students as they move along in their careers. It truly is fantastic.
    Best,
    Rolando

    • Brian permalink*
      April 20, 2019 3:59 pm

      Thanks, Rolando! I’m looking forward to having you as a colleague!

  21. Maarij Syed permalink
    April 28, 2019 2:53 pm

    Brian, Thanks for writing this blog. I will share it with my students. There is a fine balance between trying to appear encouraging to students about academic future and at the same time, being honest and forthcoming. Your blog post is required reading! Maybe at some point you should write about the journey toward tenure, and how the sun may be setting on the idea of tenure itself.
    Wish you all the best, and hope to catch one of your seminars at some point.

  22. Alex permalink
    April 28, 2019 7:58 pm

    All of this spiel… Not very encouraging.

  23. May 30, 2019 5:38 pm

    This is truly excellent and informative account. Thank you for taking the time to write it. Most of all, thank you for advocating conceptual knowledge over conceptual knowledge. My undergrad, which I am half way through now, has been super discouraging about prioritising understanding as we have a ridiculous number of exam based credits. So thanks for saying it’s worthwhile to think about what you’re doing, it’s good to hear that sometimes, especially when cramming for exams as I am now.

    Well done for persevering and for having the heart of a lion. I don’t know you, but I’m proud of and I respect the hell out of you.

    • Brian permalink*
      May 30, 2019 6:42 pm

      That’s (excessively) kind of you to say. Thank you.

  24. Jacob permalink
    June 5, 2019 3:39 pm

    Brian,

    I cannot express how grateful I am that you wrote this. I felt like writing something similar this season, but I would have almost certainly done a worse job, and my narrative would have sounded like plagiarism: You see, I also just got “a job” in physics after 8 years of being a postdoc; I also started undergrad in 2002; did summer projects at CERN; went to summer school in Boulder; got my PhD in 2011; and so on. There are a few important differences between our trajectories, but so much you wrote resonated strongly with me.

    Anyway, you’ve done a wonderful thing with this post; and I expect I’ll be sharing it with students for many years to come.

    Congratulations on your success, and warm wishes from a fellow physicist! ~J

  25. June 6, 2019 10:36 pm

    Dr. Brian, your note is brutally honest depicting the competitive environment in academia. Thank you for your organized writing. However, did you at any point had any 2nd plan if your 99 applications didn’t work out? What should be concerned while making a plan B? Thanks for your time.

  26. June 9, 2019 1:00 am

    I was writing an article about the recent discussion on superconductivity paper, and that brought me to your research papers (and hence to this page). I enjoyed reading about your journey. I don’t know if we had an overlap, but your name sounded familiar (I attended VT Physics for my PhD from 2007-2012). Seeing Beate and Bruce’s name brought back fond memories. Congrats for your new job! I also had hell of an adventure after graduating. I can totally relate to your story.

  27. Sandy A. Ekahana permalink
    June 28, 2019 1:45 pm

    Thank you for sharing 🙂

  28. Joseph Tibbs permalink
    July 5, 2019 3:19 pm

    I got here after a google search about driven harmonic oscillators took me to one of your posts As a student about to start my last year of undergrad, I am on the verge of feeling a daily anxiety about my future. Reading your post helped me realize what I should prioritize, and what I should know about myself before jumping into a long career in academia. Graduate school still seems to be my path, for now. But I appreciate your candor and the clarity of your writing style. Whatever non-genius tendencies you may think you have in physics, you’re an excellent communicator.

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