Editor’s note: This article is part of a career advice series contributed by Physics Today’s partners at the American Institute of Physics Career Network.
Many college students pursue an advanced degree in physics because they love research and want to do more. They often don’t think about their long-term career objective until they are well into graduate school. By that time, they are surrounded by tenure-track faculty, which makes that career path seem like the logical choice. But is it the only one?
Before you can decide if a professorship is what you want, you need to know what it is.
While in academia, you have a front-row seat to the realities of that career path. Watch how the professors allocate their time among teaching, research, and service, and note the specific tasks they do. To be successful as a professor, you must love either research or teaching—and at least like the other one—and find a position at an institution that lets you do more of what you love. If research is your passion, you will want to focus on research-intensive, PhD-granting institutions. If teaching is what you love, a primarily undergraduate school might be a better fit, or maybe an adjunct or high school teaching position.
Are there tasks you think will be fun but haven’t had a chance to try? If so, seek them out. Can you teach a class for your professor or help write a grant proposal? Actually doing some of those tasks will not only help you learn if you like them and if you are good at them, but also can provide practical experience to put on your CV or résumé if you decide to pursue the tenure track.
What is the market telling you?
Faculty positions are highly competitive, mainly because academia produces many more PhDs than are needed for tenure-track positions each year. If each professor trained only one graduate student over their entire career, they could replace themselves. Actually, of course, they train many more than that, which allows colleges and universities to be very selective when hiring faculty. To look at it another way, 2241 PhDs were granted in physics and astronomy in the US in 2020 alone. But, as of May 2021, there were only 12 460 postsecondary physics teachers in the entire country, and not all of them have tenure-track positions.
Even if you are set on a tenure-track position, be sure to listen to what the market is telling you once you apply. How many application cycles have you participated in, and what were the results? If your first round of applications after one year in a postdoctoral position netted six interviews without an offer, you might want to try again the next year. But if you have applied to many institutions over multiple academic cycles and have not received any interviews, let alone job offers, it may be time to start expanding your professional horizons.
Although doing another postdoc and reapplying afterward is always an option, you need to weigh the chances of getting a faculty position against the opportunity cost. If the second postdoc ends up just delaying your entry into a nonacademic job by three years, that could be a long time for little reward.
What else is out there?
If looking beyond a career in academia seems daunting, consider that all of those 2200 physicists getting their PhDs each year are going somewhere. But where?
Start exploring your options. Can you do an internship or postdoc in industry to find out what that environment is like? If that’s not a realistic option, talk to as many people as possible who have moved into industry or government positions. Former coworkers, fellow students, alumni of your research groups, collaborators, friends of your adviser, and conference attendees can all be rich sources of information about career paths you did not know existed. Ask them what they do, how they got started, and what they like and don’t like. Also ask big-picture questions, such as where they see their field or industry headed in the next 5 to 10 years. Is your initial reaction “Cool, tell me more,” or “I’m glad you do that, so I don’t have to!”
Read online job descriptions to see what physicists do, where they work, and what skills they use. Which jobs seem like something you’d enjoy, and which do you think you’d excel at? The skills you learned in school are highly transferrable to all kinds of fields, including finance, procurement, project management, competitive intelligence, technology transfer, business, intellectual property, medical physics, education, and many more.
What’s in you?
Conduct an honest evaluation of your current capabilities and passions, both technical and nontechnical. Is writing scientific papers your favorite part of the research process? Perhaps a career in technical communication would be a good fit for you. If developing new algorithms is what you do best, maybe you should explore careers in software development.
You may have been an undergraduate student when you decided to pursue a faculty position. The world has changed, and you have changed—both personally and professionally. Your priorities may have changed too, and perhaps that goal no longer makes sense. Decide what your new path will be, and then let others know about it.
You may have to take a side step to learn something new, which will ultimately let you move ahead. For example, is there a certification or training you can take to explore an interest while also making yourself more marketable for a particular career?
Even if a first job in, say, industry is not your forever dream job, it will be a learning opportunity, and it will allow you to grow your expertise and professional network in your sector of choice. Once you start your career, you will learn about more roles in that sector and gain experience that will make you better qualified for even more opportunities.
In the end, only you can determine your professional goals, and only you can decide if and when to change them. When should you stop looking for a tenure-track faculty position? When you’re no longer just turning away from professorship but turning toward something else.
Lisa M. Balbes has been a freelance technical writer and editor at Balbes Consultants LLC for 30 years. She has published more than 300 articles on career development for scientists and given more than 300 presentations in the US and abroad. She is the author of Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers (Oxford University Press).