Dr. Thomas Swan is a published physicist who received his PhD in nuclear astrophysics from the University of Surrey.
Why do People Leave Physics?
Although most people find equations and graphs boring, physicists are usually very passionate about their work, and this enthusiastic attitude is epitomized by the stereotypical "mad scientist." Despite this, more than half will pack up their equipment and leave physics after obtaining a PhD. In this article, I describe my own experience with academic physics and why I chose to leave the field.
1. Little Financial Reward
Although I'm not especially driven by money, physicists are not valued by society. Physicists earn about $50k (£35k) per year after becoming doctors in their field. With a comparable qualification, medical doctors can expect to earn twice this amount. Academic physicists are also stuck at this level of pay for a decade, as they usually have to complete three post-doctoral contracts before being considered for a permanent position. After 10 years, physicists can expect to earn about $65k (£45k), but only if they get a full-time position in a university. After 25 years of hard work, they may be lucky enough to get a professorship, earning about $115k (£80k).
2. No Job Security
Academic physicists are required to find a new job every two to three years after they are awarded a PhD. When a post-doctoral contract runs out, they have to find another one or resign themselves to being unemployed. Each new contract involves going to interviews and presenting research to academic institutions who will consider employing them. Not only is this extremely stressful, but it usually involves relocating to another part of the country—or even to a completely new country! They can forget about settling down and having a family or even a long-term relationship.
After bouncing around like this for a decade, physicists can start looking for a full-time position at a university. Basically, what this means is they become a teacher, so, if you don’t like teaching, don’t bother wasting ten years of your life to become one. Regardless, it is extremely difficult to find a full-time position, even for very talented physicists.
3. No Creative Outlet
Despite the impression that most young people have of physics, the truth is that a physics career may be bereft of any creative or novel thought.
This can be seen in most academic papers that are published in peer-reviewed journals (e.g., my physics papers). When writing for science journals, creativity is frowned upon. Everything must be said in a particular way or it won’t be understood by researchers who lack a good knowledge of the language. Compare scientific papers from a century ago with what they are today and the stifled creativity that is evident in our current publications will be startling.
Even worse, the daily work of a physicist typically involves very little creative thought. PhD students are not encouraged to come up with their own ideas, theories, or formulations. Instead, they are told to sit in front of a computer and analyze data. This can last for a student's entire doctorate and even subsequent post-doctoral appointments. The tedium of learning a simple skill before using it over and over again is all too common in physics.
In a way, this isn't too surprising. Physics has advanced a lot in the past 500 years and it's now at a point where new discoveries are seldom made. The field is stagnating, with theories that are impossible to test with our current level of technology. Great minds may be better directed into biology, psychology, neuroscience, and climate science.
Some People Aren't Good With Computers!
4. Don't Expect to be Doing any Physics
Far too much of academic physics involves writing computer code. Physics degrees even teach students how to code in Fortran. During a research year in the United States, I was told to learn C++ from a book the size of my head. I was dismayed because I had come to do physics, not write software. Until universities employ computer scientists or technicians whose specific job it is to write code, talented individuals will be leaving physics simply because they've been conned.
5. Boring Experiments
The excitement of participating in your first experiment will be quickly quashed by the attitude of the organizers and the nature of the tasks.
Some experiments have as many as forty researchers in attendance, and it immediately becomes clear that no one is meant to learn anything—they are there to take shifts sitting in front of a computer, waiting to see if a red light turns on. Once the red light comes on, you phone someone who knows how to make the light go out. When they arrive, they don’t teach you how to fix it yourself because then they wouldn't be useful. They go out of their way to make sure you don’t learn their precious skills.
By the end of my PhD, I had been on about a dozen experiments. In every one, no one had taught me how to set up the experiment, and very few had required me to think at a level beyond that of a monkey. On the last day of one experiment, I remember taking a schematic to my supervisor and going through each piece of equipment, asking "what is this for?"
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6. Nasty Academics
I have written three academic papers for science journals, but it should be four. I was lucky enough to have a great supervisor, but, when I was writing my first paper, I was unlucky to have a particular Spanish academic as one of my co-authors. This man was a leader in his field, with hundreds of authored or co-authored papers. Initially, I valued his advice, but after weeks of questions and demands I began to suspect foul play. After a couple of months, I was informed that he had published his own data, which overlapped with mine. He wanted his measurements to be published first, so he had decided to screw over a PhD student by causing his work to be delayed. I had to shelve the paper I had worked so hard to bring to fruition.
Leaving Physics Was an Easy Choice
Having said all of this, I do not necessarily regret doing the PhD, which gave me many transferable skills, a prestigious qualification, and an opportunity to travel the world. A physics degree may even be a good choice if you don't know what career to specialize in. However, there are clearly many problems with the field, and leaving it after the PhD was the correct choice.
Indeed, at the end of my PhD, my passion for the subject had died and the decision to leave the field was easy. Physicists may be intelligent, but their competitive edge and poor interpersonal skills can make them arrogant, devious, reluctant to share knowledge, and even cruel. The picture painted for students about exciting experiments and creative thinking is a fake that quickly melts away. It is replaced by thoughtless tasks, tedious repetition, and a stagnant academic discipline that has more in common with computing than genuine scientific endeavor.
Physicists are leaving in droves because governments and universities take it for granted that they are passionate enough to accept the punishment. These institutions take advantage of their dedication by offering low financial rewards and non-existent job security. As a result, many young people are put off a career in physics. The sad truth is the world needs physicists more than it needs bankers or marketers. Unless there is a shift in our approach, physicists will continue to leave their field and human development will suffer.
I have become increasingly bitter in my condemnation of academic physics. Partly this is because of my belated realization that I was training for a career that I wouldn't have enjoyed, and partly it's because I'm heartbroken that my love of physics wouldn't have been compatible with such a career. Our society is failing the very people who will see it advance to the next stage of technological development, and our universities, which now operate more as businesses than as educational institutions, are chiefly to blame.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Thomas Swan
Kazimierz Mroz on February 04, 2018:
Could it be that the field of theoretical physics has gone of the tracks in regard to reality based approach? Why was the Copenhagen Interpretation necessary? Why do postulates have to be invoked to lead towards some kind of understanding of what might be really happening. Why would the math that is supposed to be so accurate in describing reality need so many free parameters to do that. Why was Erwin Schrodinger so against anyone using his own wave theory? Why did Einstein, Laue, Popper all join with Schrodinger in warning against the use of wave theory? Why did the classical physics that Herman Haus had to use produce a purely classical model of the electron that only that model of the electron could be used to finish developing the Free Electron Laser for the USA military. How is it that a student of Haus was able to extend the work Haus did on that model of the electron into a Grand Unified Theory-Classical Physics, then make two more items after the FEL based on the predictions of that theory, items that should not work according to quantum mechanics. And three more items in development based on the predictions of the GUT-CP.
Or an antigravity device being developed at Massey University in New Zealand
For a lecture regarding the theory with some details about various forms of gravity and the anti-gravity device, see minutes 30-38 of:
Peter Parke on November 26, 2017:
You think physics is bad? Try biomedical research science. They use the junior people, 80% of the research is junk. And the arrogance is beyond belief -- at least physicists are smart enough to be arrogant, at least in a non-offensive manner. The bios, while bright, are way more arrogant
muhammad abdullah javed on September 25, 2014:
Convinced Thomas sir, what matters most is the solace of heart, in spite of leaving you are at comfort. Thanks for those invaluable views. Regards.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on September 25, 2014:
Thanks for commenting m abdullah javed. Leaving physics was the right decision for me. I don't believe I would have been happy taking it any further. I don't necessarily regret doing a doctorate though. It's a useful qualification to have. It allowed me to travel the world to conferences and institutions at no expense. The doctorate taught me many transferable skills that have proven useful since leaving the field. It also allowed me to become a published author. So despite my disdain for academic physics, I'm very happy with how things have gone and the opportunities that my hard work has earned me.
muhammad abdullah javed on September 23, 2014:
Hi Thomas nice hub in the sense it speaks about some practical dificulties, but im not convinved with your leaving of a very notable stream of physics and that too after the completion of it highest level study.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on March 05, 2014:
It pays better in the States than in Europe. However, those numbers also include the ones that went into physics-related jobs in industry. Going the academic path is less profitable, but it is physics in its purest form. In my other article called "the benefits of studying physics" I explain the diverse professions that you can go into with a physics degree.
arash on March 05, 2014:
what about this: http://www1.salary.com/Physicist-V-salary.html
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 14, 2013:
Hey Oscar! Good to hear from you, and I'm glad you found this interesting. I don't remember much from those days. I remember you, Matt, and Magda I think, but it's already quite sketchy for me.
Yea, I've been working almost exclusively on the internet this past year while I figure out what I want to do. I might try to write a science fiction story soon. Then I might try for a phd in cognitive science if i can get funding. Giving up physics has made me miss traveling a bit.
I'm happy to have inspired you to sign up here. I think it's a pretty good place to write. They keep out the spammers and scammers for the most part, and they're trying to conform with what google wants, so I expect it to have a future. I don't know much about the language industry if I'm honest, but for that reason, I'd like to learn more. So I look forward to reading whatever you choose to write about, and shall follow you back! Cheers!
Oscar Newman from Seoul, Korea on October 13, 2013:
Very interesting post. You may have done me a great service by curing my idealistic notions of academia; in physics, at least.
You inspired me to sign up for this website. I work in the language industry now, but I feel that I'm at a turning point in my own life, too. (i.e. I want to quit =)
So, I Googled our fellow students from MPhys class. Couldn't find much on the others. However, you seem to have quite an internet presence!
I have a lot of respect for your articulate insights. Keep up the good work, and I hope life sends something rewarding your way.
Ravi on September 24, 2013:
Don't underestimate the computer coding skills and other soft skills. It could be usefully applied in a whole variety of other areas.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on August 14, 2013:
Thanks for commenting mbuggieh. Your experience sounds terrible! I hope you recover eventually.
There are a lot of problems with PhD programs, though I don't completely regret doing it. It's nice to have a good qualification, and I learnt a lot of useful information. I improved my writing, computing, and presenting skills, and found time to pursue some of my other interests. However, the reasons in the hub were enough for me to quit after the PhD was finished. A career in physics is wholly unattractive. The PhD itself wasn't so awful, though the uninformative experiments and computer coding were a big let down.
mbuggieh on August 10, 2013:
I left a PhD program after 7 years of doctoral studies and for the same reasons you have noted. Academia is a miserable place populated by tin gods and their minions.
I was bitter for a long time, but now and almost a decade later, I am better. Not recovered, just better.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on May 04, 2013:
Thanks RCW, it's certainly a shame when physicists let their "all-to-human" emotions and desires get in the way of scientific endeavor. Another experience from my physics degree was the need to do compulsory training. I got dragged along to a seminar on how to prioritize and use my time effectively. Suffice to say, it was an ironic waste of time to attend. Coupled with the teamwork and leadership exercises, and the mandatory presentational skills, and you'd think we were business management students about to go to work in an office. They try to mould physicists into something they're not, something wholly ordinary. It's having a unique perspective that drives creativity, innovation, and the emergence of new theory... not what physics departments are churning out.
RocketCityWriter from Alabama on May 03, 2013:
Having just completed a postgraduate degree in astrophysics, I couldn't agree more with your third and fourth sections (and in general, I've experienced many of the same issues mentioned in the rest of the article).
In my particular case, department leadership changes and more interest in personal career agendas than student enrichment has killed the spirit of our department. Professors battle each other and the bureaucracy and the students take the punishment.
Thanks for the article. Good luck with whatever is next for you!
RoGuKa on April 30, 2013:
Experimental Condensed matter is more interesting and has a broader job range...I'm glad I didn't choose nuclear or hadron physics ...thanks for your writing...now I have convinced myself of the choice that I made.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on April 30, 2013:
For all the reasons stated. I could have lived with the low salary, but the lack of job security would have been stressful for someone like me. I wouldn't have liked going to interviews every couple of years, presenting my research, and living in hope of another appointment. Though, the main reason is it wasn't what I signed up for. I didn't come to do computing, analyze data for 3 years, and go to experiments where the primary job is to watch a screen and phone someone else if something goes wrong. My PhD was basically 80% sitting in front of a computer analysing data, 15% trying to figure out computer code, and 5% going on experiments that were not what they cracked up to be. No creative thought, no interest, no new experiences; just a stagnant environment. It was easy to decide not to do that for the next 40 years.
One thing I didn't mention is the way the physics profession tries to mould you into someone you're not. They try to churn out a particular kind of individual; someone who is confident presenting at conferences, interacting and working in groups, writing papers in a particular way with a particular choice of language. You could have all the brain power of a genius, but if you're more of a bookworm who prefers to write, you're not their definition of a physicist. It's like the profession is trying to be it's own stereotype: Brian Cox or Carl Sagan.
Mind you, that was my experience of nuclear physics. Perhaps astrophysics would have been more stimulating. I almost went into that too.
RoGuKa on April 29, 2013:
You got everything right....but why did you give up? I don't...I haven't
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on February 06, 2013:
Thanks JanMaklak, I've noticed the same thing when it comes to universities. They charge foreign students 3 times more than home students, and then fill their places with as many as they can to rake in as much money as possible. They open university-run bars, restaurants and clubs, and charge a fortune for beer, food, or entry. In Britain they've just increased tuition fees to incredible amounts that cut out most of the poor. The education secretary in Britain even seems to be privatising schools with his academy policy. He wants a return to Victorian times when education was for the rich. Right wing governments seem to perpetuate the status quo, or even make it worse, but then we're not given a leftist alternative any more.
JanMaklak from Canada on February 06, 2013:
I am a believer that schools are more of a business than places of higher learning. How can a university teach ethics and then fail to deliver on education? How can that same university fail 90% of students because of a professor's elitist attitude. With the economy of today education needs to rapidly change to accommodate societal needs. It's too bad that someone wasn't able to see the importance of science back in the middle ages. Where would we be today. While I'm not a scientist I can fully appreciate the need and it's too bad that the field treats people so poorly.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on January 31, 2013:
No problem diliptech. I still believe that studying physics is worthwhile, but as a career it's not very attractive. My other article explains why it's a good study choice: "Benefits of studying physics": https://owlcation.com/academia/The-Benefits-of-Stu...
Dilip from INDIA on January 05, 2013:
Good share ,thanks. got some factual knowledge about how it works there (society) .
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on January 02, 2013:
Thanks LiteTec, I agree that science and technology are important for the economy, but the income that comes from the financial sector is more tangible and sizable. Global culture would need a massive shake up for that to change. Economies can't keep growing forever though. Eventually we'll realize the futility of competing economies, and make a collective effort to advance our species technologically and philosophically. I'm in my late twenties, but I wonder if I'll be alive to see that happen.
As ever, we find unity through adversity. Adolf Hitler did one thing for the human race, he brought us together to unite against him. Whether it be a pandemic, an asteroid, global warming, or an alien invasion, it would take a colossal threat to bring the world together in a lasting way.
Hoa Xuan Nguyen Thi from Hanoi, Vietnam on January 02, 2013:
While science and technology are vital to the economy of any country it is often a very bad choice of career for the individual. You really need to make sure there will be an easy to obtain job for you as a result of doing a particular degree. And you had better understand that some sectors like IT are so ferociously competitive that you had better not go near them and anyway you will be out the door by 40 because you can no longer compete. Find something that there is demand for and that will see you through to retirement age.
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on November 27, 2012:
Oh, I hope you write a hub about cognitive science and how physics contributes to it. It sounds like it would be a very interesting topic:)
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on November 26, 2012:
Thanks for the comments monkeyminds and grand old lady!
Grand old lady, while physicists have a lot of mental horsepower, they tend to have problems interacting with other people in "standard" ways. I have always been quite shy, and it's affected my work at times. Thankfully, I never had a personality malfunction like some of the people mentioned in this hub (to my knowledge!).
Many physicists also seem to be mere repositories of physics knowledge, with little knowledge of anything else like philosophy and ethics. As a result, many are no different from Joe Public until they are asked something about physics.
I have another love now (cognitive science), and sometimes I can tap my physics knowledge for it. It gives me a unique perspective, and for that I'm grateful.
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on November 26, 2012:
This is one side of physics I never knew about. I always thought of physicists as well paid men with lots of endowments and a whole lot of mental horsepower. The part about the teacher sabotaging your discoveries and claiming them for his own is very interesting. I guess it happens in all professions and it is pretty disgusting. Now we know how some get to the top.
I hope you will find new ways to tap physics as your first love without having to go through all the disturbing elements that are a mean letdown. Maybe you should write a tell all:)
Monk E Mind from My Tree House on November 26, 2012:
Thanx! For writing this Hub.