Sat 2024-Apr-06

Career Paths Not Taken

Tagged: About / CorporateLifeAndItsDiscontents / Physics / Sadness / SomebodyAskedMe

Somebody asked me about Sabine Hossenfelder’s recently published thoughts on the difficulties of academic physics as a career. Yup, she’s right on point!

A Steep Uphill Climb, A Chance-Driven Result

Sabine Hossenfelder is a German theoretical physicist who’s done some fundamental work on quantum mechanics, general relativity, and cosmology. She’s also a very good science communicator, via her YouTube channel and her Forbes column. She’s not afraid of expressing unpopular opinions, such as her view that a fixation on mathematical elegance has led theorists astray.

This video is another unpopular opinion: the process of becoming a tenured professor is something of a meat-grinder, fed by continual human sacrifice of aspirants. You have to work so hard, move around the world so often, and generally have such monomaniacal devotion that it’s hard to maintain good mental health, let alone start a family.

I’m here to say: yes, that’s exactly the way things are. Even so many years ago when I toyed with that path. I got out earlier than her, just after my PhD. But yes, it was giving up on a dream:

  • Ever since childhood, I wanted to be a professor. Specifically, a physics professor. I wanted to understand.
  • As an undergrad, I discovered I love teaching. All kinds of things, too, not just physics. The thrill of viewing each student as puzzle, their minds to be unlocked by the right sort of explanation is amazing. There’s nothing better than the thrill of watching their eyes get big, they inhale, and suddenly the universe opens itself to them, if only for a few seconds.
  • Sometimes the things I learned just made me gasp at their beauty, like the first time I really understood the Wigner-Eckart Theorem. I wanted more of that. Lots more of that.
  • My professors, but undergrad and grad school, were people I deeply admired. They were widely read in literature and history. They were (mostly) kind, and funny, and smart. When I talked to them, I got a lively sense of presence, that somebody was at home here, and they also wanted to understand.

    They seemed to be the embodiments of Huxley’s admonition:

    “Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.” – Thomas Henry Huxley, Nature Vol. XLVI (30 October 1902), p. 658.

I wanted more than anything to build a life like that for myself. And I wanted to use that life to uplift everyone else.

But it was not to be. When I finished my PhD, the job market was bad even for academic job markets, which are usually pretty horrible anyway. Sure, I had this PhD from a prestigious institution. But that didn’t matter much:

  • I knew people who’d done that, and a couple prestigious postdocs (yet another several years of low-paying apprenticeship), but couldn’t even get tenure-track interviews.
  • When I looked at tenure rates, the institutions I wanted were tenuring about 1 in 14 of their junior faculty. That meant almost certain failure: although I’m pretty smart, all my competitors were equally smart, and all willing to work 80 hours a week for years… and 1 in 14 was the best chance of success.

So… I turned my back on my childhood dream and took an industrial job. I had the connections to get a nice gig doing symbolic AI, and then worked into selling myself for additional skills in applied math, then statistics, then machine learning. I ended up doing that in the service of cancer drug discovery, so I at least did some good in the world.

I discovered my love of teaching could be channeled into the presentations I gave, so that was good.

When I retired, I thought that would be a good time to be an adjunct professor, perhaps acquainting undergrads with statistics. (On the theory that they may someday come into possession of some evidence, so they might want to know what to do about it. Besides, there’s nothing like saying you “use Bayesian statistics to tell people how to update their beliefs from new evidence”, to get lawyers to refuse to put you on a jury!) But COVID-19 put an end to that. (Hence the birth of this Crummy Little Blog That Nobody Reads.)

But… Sabine has it right. The process is a long, uphill climb. The result is partly determined by chance and the state of the job market and research funding at one particular moment. It’s not fair and it’s not good, but it’s all we’ve got.

The Weekend Conclusion

I guess things worked out. It’s not the life I wanted, but I’m not in control of the process that selects the people who become professors. What I got instead is good enough.

(Ceterum censeo, Trump incarcerandam esse.)

Notes & References


Published Sat 2024-Apr-06

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