Reasons for Leaving Physics
Why Do People Leave Physics?
Physicists are often very passionate about their work. While most people find equations and graphs boring, physicists can display an excitable fervor that is all too often epitomized by the stereotypical mad scientist! Despite this, more than half will pack up their equipment and leave physics after achieving a PhD. In this article, I describe my own experience and why I chose to leave the field.
1. Little Financial Reward
Physicists earn about $40k (£25k) per year after becoming doctors in their field. With a comparable qualification, medical doctors can expect to earn twice this amount. 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 around $65k (£40k), 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 $100k (£60k).
2. No Job Security
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 committing to 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. Nevertheless, 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 physics students have of their discipline, the truth is a physics career will often be bereft of creative or novel thought. This can be seen in any academic paper that is published in a peer-reviewed journal (see 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 to 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 PhD career, as well as during subsequent post-doctoral appointments. The tedium of learning a simple skill before using it over and over again is all too common in physics.
Some People Just 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 participants, 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.
Some Physicists Have Trouble Working Together
6. Nasty Academics
I have written three academic papers for science journals, but it should be four. When I was a fresh PhD student, eagerly working towards my first published paper, I was unlucky enough to have a particular Spanish academic as one of my co-authors. This man was a leader in his field, with hundreds of papers published in his name. At first, I valued his advice—but after weeks of questions and demands I began to suspect foul play. Sure enough, a couple of months later 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 Easy
At the end of my PhD career my passion had died and the decision to leave the field was easy. Physicists may be intelligent, but their competitive edge often makes them arrogant, devious, and reluctant to share knowledge. The picture painted for students about exciting experiments and creative thinking is a fake that quickly melts away to reveal thoughtless tasks, tedious repetition, and an 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 from a career in physics. The sad truth is the world needs physicists more than it needs bankers or business experts. Unless there is a shift in our approach, physicists will continue to leave their field, and human development will stagnate.
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 are helping it happen.