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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Crappy Majors: Math and Physics

I think math and physics are some of the hardest fields to get a PhD degree in. Yet those fields have some of the worst prospects in terms of pay and employment. I remember my math professor told us that a starting salary of a PhD graduate in their department was like 27K (I think he meant post-doc). I personally knew a PhD graduate in physics who was happy to find a job as a car salesman after 7 years in grad school!

Can someone please explain me this? You really have to be "one in a million" to be good in math in physics. I would think that those who are willing and able to do this would be in short supply and would get paid a lot. But this doesn't seem to be the case, right?

18 comments:

  1. Right now this is certainly true. Before the crisis some of the phys. & math. Ph.D.s had an option of going into the financial sector.

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  2. Yeah, I've read about those stories in my finance textbooks. I even saw an ad once from an investment firm where they were looking for a person with an advanced degree in math/science. Haven't met anyone who went into finance personally though...

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  3. Thats insane, firstly it's easier than other areas where you have to develop some sort of complex 'informed opinion'.

    Also, lots of jobs are available for numerate people in things like quants and computing.As well as spin-off companies and high tech companies such as materials and energy.

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  4. I'm pretty sure that there are opportunities out there. Just like there are opportunities to make millions in a hunger-stricken country or a casino. I just don't think those opportunities are proportional to the number of science PhDs and their intellectual abilities.

    Unfortunately, I don't have any hard numbers to back up my pessimistic analysis. I remember seeing a statistics that only 5% of PhD graduates in sciences end up getting tenure-track positions. I hope those remaining 5% end up on the Wall-Street or in the Silicon Valley. But I highly doubt that.

    I also remember reading an article which stated that an average janitor in Harvard makes more money than an average post-doc in Harvard.

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  5. After getting my PhD in statistics, I got hired at a university at $78,000 and other colleagues received relatively similar salaries in public and private sectors...so I'm very skeptical of previous postings.

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  6. Applied Math, Physics, Statistics and Computer Science Ph.D.'s who've developed a broad range of skill-sets (computing, communication of complex ideas to a variety of audiences etc.) and who aren't complete toads have many career options in business, industry and the public sector. Combined with a certain degree of practical interest in chosen field of application, these are some of the best doctoral degrees to possess not only in terms of getting jobs but in terms of being a useful contributor to the world. Just search for quantitative Ph.D. Chasing elite academic positions is another story entirely but this is highly overated.

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  7. I think your statement is right X percent of the time... However, I suspect X is rather small. Overall, the idea of getting a PhD in, let's say, Physics in order to land a job as a Wall Street quant sounds a bit strange to me. Overall, I think there are easier ways to be a useful contributer to the world than getting a quant degree. But this is just my opinion not substantiated with any statistics. I'd be happy if you prove me wrong. But please don't mislead people by saying that the future is so bright for most quantitative PhDs. You are damaging your karma!

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    Replies
    1. I am in my first year getting a phd in Biostat and am thinking about quitting. Please be honest and tell me the job perspective in NON ACADEMIA for biostat. I just dont see how my thesis topic relates to the industry.
      help please. I want to get out before its too late.
      pattydunn@gmail.com

      Delete
  8. I think it was because of the economic sector shutting down the door for phys and math PhD to enter it. It would be good thesis ideas to create a topic that would help propel to enter the economic sector. Anyway, they might be a lot of other reason why math and physics are getting harder and harder.

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  9. I have a math PhD, and yeah, it's pretty bad. I've been semi-employed (tutoring) for over a year after the PhD and had to move back in with my parents. There are lots of jobs for math PhDs with 5 years experience, just happen to know five programming languages, have an in-depth understanding of machine-learning or stochastic calculus, happens to know Hadoop, or just conveniently happen to be able to pass programming tests designed for people who have been programming all day every day since age 12 (okay, so I'm exaggerating on this one, but many computer science majors would have trouble with them), etc. I could imagine someone who doesn't know what most math PhDs actually spend their time studying wouldn't see the problem here, but those things are not typical for a new math PhD to have. For the average new, inexperienced math PhD who studied non-commutative ring theory or 4-dimensional manifolds or even the less practical aspects of some applied subject, there's not a whole lot out there. We're generally not known for our social skills, which are necessary to do well in interviews and do all the networking to find that obscure employer who's willing to hire us. A good number of us manage to get postdocs, and a decent number of the rest might have had some clue about the how awful the job market is and prepared accordingly or planned a career in industry from the start with a more relevant research topic, but I think the rest of us tend to get screwed, at least for a while, unless we get really lucky. A few employers care about raw talent, rather than ability to hit the ground running, but they are few and far between.

    By the way, statistics is a different story--those guys are actually in demand.

    There's this book, 101 Careers in Mathematics about different careers in math, but like half the people in the book have some other degree besides math (some of them have no math degree at all, but they were included as people who use math in their jobs). So, there are jobs for people who are good at math. The problem is that very few employers are interested in developing talent, preferring to have their math people have the exact tailor-made skills that they need right now, and not six months from now, and therefore it's highly advantageous to have an additional degree in something else like computer science, engineering, economics, statistics, plus internships, for which there's this bizarre, irrational, and unfair rule that you generally need to be a student in order to get. Also, there are really bizarre cultural rules like being unable to set your price according to demand, rather than having an artificial, culturally-imposed floor, the way things work in a normal, healthy economy. In a system that made any sense, all I'd have to do is say I'd work for minimum wage to get my foot in the door, and get raises according to the results I am able to produce, and I would be unstuck, but I can't actually do that because then they suspect there's something wrong with me, as a PhD willing to work for minimum wage.

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