Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Astrophysics as a Career: An Introduction

When I was applying to graduate school, I hadn’t really thought about what I wanted to do with my life other than some vague notion of becoming one of my professors. I liked school and I liked doing research so graduate school seemed like a great option. I also knew that the unemployment rate for Ph.D. physicists was extremely low (2% in 2006), so it seemed like a good career choice. For me things have turned out pretty well - I am in a good program in a good research group making progress towards my PhD. I consider myself lucky, though, as I have seen several people either fail out of grad school or chose to leave without completing their degree due to dissatisfaction with their adviser, their institution, their research topic, or simply their career.

Much of the advice I received as an undergrad was anecdotal and varied strongly with the career path of the source. Those that had done well told you grad school was a wonderful idea while those on their fourth post-doc told you to do something else. In my next several posts I’m going to explore some of the available data on career issues relevant to PhD scientists in an attempt to give anyone thinking seriously about their career in physics some conclusions based on data rather than stories. I will specifically highlight my sub-field, astrophysics, because I know it well and it is small enough to be manageable. These results will translate to varying degrees of exactness to other sub-fields.

I should also mention that I am by no means an expert in this subject. I’m just a third year grad student armed with some data both from other people and myself that wants to help you think about grad school and your career before you hit that 4th post-doc.

To start, let me layout the career path for someone in physics and astronomy. Details on these steps will come later, but for those of you that don't already know, here's a career in physics and astronomy:The data for this chat is available a the American Institute of Physics' Statistical Research Center.


  1. Sounds like an interesting series Nick. I am excited to read it.

  2. I wish my PhD salary was $25k!

    Like Joe, I am excited for the fruits of your labor, Nick! Thanks!

    That last branch to the left on your chart doesn't look too bad, and five years short to boot.

  3. You can make 6 figures with a BS in CS after just a few years experience. I'm just sayin... =:)

  4. Ben,

    My condolences on your salary. $25k the average 12-month salary according to AIP, but that number varies pretty wildly. For example, Stanford pays significantly more than that, however it also costs about a billion dollars to rent a cardboard box in Palo Alto; Illinois pays significantly less than that but you can buy a 3 bedroom home within 2 miles of campus for under $100k right now. Basically, with salaries this small cost of living is as important as amount.

  5. Stan,

    A lot of people that follow the "get a job" route essentially become engineers or computer scientists. In fact the average starting salary I used was the one reported by the AIP, which counts grad students and therefore isn't directly comparable with other "starting salary" lists. For that I would direct you to which claims that the median starting salaries for computer science and physics are $56.4k and $51.1k respectively. If you look at the median mid-career salary physics is actually higher at $98.8k with $97.4k for computer science. I'm sure that the difference is not significant, but it shows that essentially you'll be paid the same with either degree at mid-career on average.

  6. Or like me you can decide to quit the university after your MSc without applying to any PhD (even if it was rather probable to find one), because you find that European universities are too much corrupted and that you can do better by studying on your own ; then you can have more and better ideas than you can find in any French university, and then against which they have nothing to say. And you learn that normally you have a PhD equivalence (what seems more than normal), but because of the corruption of the universities it will not be easy to have the money that you deserve ; also in France the best jobs are not for the ones with the best ideas, but for those who are for a long time in the university, what is a shame for theoretical research, which depends more on the fact to think and to have ideas (So you have to have a boss which could be unable to do the same thing as you and who will explain you how to do what you have done and he has not done :), with being paid more than you.). Lastly I will not recommend this way in Europe, especially in France, because it is not easy to have the money that you deserve.


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