Careers, locations, and settling

As I start to see the light at the end of the grad school tunnel, I’ve been contemplating more and more my various options after I finish. The most obvious one is to go on to an academic postdoc, with the aim of eventually getting a tenure-track professorship somewhere. (Other alternatives are various industries or finance.) At the moment I’m leaning strongly against an academic career, which has lately seemed unappealing for a variety of reasons.
A major such reason is the fact that there are many more applicants for tenure-track positions than there are positions available, so that after slaving away for several years as a postdoc (generally considered to be an awful job) I’d be lucky to be offered a position anywhere. It’s a job market that’s extremely unfavorable to applicants, and having seen the stress and unhappiness it produces in the postdocs I’ve met, I am thinking I should look at other options.
One corollary to the scarcity of academic jobs is that I would have to take whatever I can get, meaning that I will have basically no choice over where I live—the institution that offers me a job could be anywhere in the country, urban or rural, coast or inland. And I’ve realized that where I live really is important to me. I like living near enough to a major city that I can take advantage of the cultural and economic diversity. Furthermore, I want to live in a walkable neighborhood where essential goods and services are close by—not just for conservation reasons, although this is certainly part of it, but because I’ve found firsthand that it brings a definite improvement in quality of life. (This, of course, is also only possible in or near a major city, and only in certain cities that are planned this way.)
And on an emotional level, I’ve found that I don’t want to leave the Bay Area. This surprised me, because (possibly due to my migratory upbringing), I generally feel like I need to move on every few years and explore a new place. I’ve tried to ascertain why I might have a special attachment to my current location: certainly I don’t want to leave my friends, and I like my current neighborhood, but I feel like there’s something more than that. There’s a sense I have of being settled here, that where I’m living now is woven into the fabric of my life. I haven’t felt that way about anywhere else, but I’ve lived in Berkeley longer than I have any other single place (for a continuous span).
I’m not convinced that this is a good reason to want to stay here—I know that living in different places is an enriching experience for me, and there’s some attraction to going and exploring someplace new. But it will probably influence my thinking on career options.

30 thoughts on “Careers, locations, and settling

  1. Justin

    I wouldn’t characterize being a postdoc as having an awful job. It’s at least comparable to being a grad student. You get paid 2-3 times as much, still get to do 100% research, but you have to look for a new job every 2-3 years instead of after 6-8 years.
    Your take on the faculty job market looks right to me, which is why I’m not going there. :-) You always have a choice where you live, though. Just don’t apply to jobs in locations you don’t like. There’s a real risk of not getting any offers if you’re picky about location, but that’s life. And there’s a real risk of not getting any offers no matter what you do, anyway.
    Are there no staff scientist positions in physics? I’d think there must be something you could do, say at LLNL or various other such institutions elsewhere in the country. Regarding other options, the alumni association had a reception about non-traditional career paths, and I thought the think-tank guy from RAND had a reasonably interesting job. And if for some reason you really like teaching there are always community colleges…
    Btw, what exactly do you mean by “take advantage of … economic diversity”? That strikes me as a rather odd phrase. 😀 Are you running a physics lab sweatshop with poor people doing your dirty work??

  2. Arcane Gazebo

    Staff scientist positions do exist, I’ve been somewhat unclear on the details, although a couple of the postdocs in my current group have undergone smooth transitions into staff scientist positions. Maybe something to look into.
    I recognized “economic diversity” as an odd phrase when I typed it, but couldn’t think of something better… I’m trying to refer to the diversity of goods/services available in population centers, like the excellent independent bookstores and record stores in Berkeley and San Francisco.

  3. Mason

    Clearly, you should try to get a job at Oxford so I can get a gaming group going on the other side of the pond. :)
    More seriously, postdocking for a couple of years is a good transition to jobs outside of academia as well as those in academia. Plus, by living somewhere else for two years, it may well help you decide with more certainty about your feelings for the Bay Area. It’s only temporary, so you can always come back.
    Of course, I am coming from the itinerant corner — find the best job I can get and run with it. Location was a factor for me in terms of things like walking to work and having culture around me, so there was potentially a trade-off in such respects (this includes the ‘I really don’t want to live in Troy, NY’ proviso and similar things that would make certain good schools less appealing than they otherwise would have been), but in terms of location I was concerned with style of city rather than where it was per se. Hence, I’m going across the pond because that’s where I found what I want — notwithstanding all the stuff I care about that will soon be far away from me.
    Anyway, my own take is postdocking for a couple of years is valuable no matter what your choice ultimately is. The extra experience will also increase your options within many (and perhaps most) such possibilities.

  4. JSpur

    As respects finance, all the major investment banks have a Bay Area presence of one kind or another. One thing to consider is chatting up somebody who works at a venture capital fund like Kleiner Perkins to see what they would suggest, not just relative to their own staffing, but to their portfolio companies. Let me know if you want an introduction at Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley or DeustcheBank.

  5. Justin

    Regarding finance jobs, from what I’ve read they have two problems. One, I believe they’re likely to be suit & tie jobs. Second, on the west coast the working hours are likely to be insane since much would be synched to Eastern time. Perhaps not a problem for other people – I realize I’m more resistant to mornings than most. :-)
    If you do find out about finance jobs which are culturally compatible with someone coming from academia, please let me know. It’s a standard move for astronomers who leave the field, and I’ve never understood why.
    Phrasing: perhaps mercantile diversity would work better?

  6. Mason

    Finance jobs do not have to be suit & tie. I know at least one person with a physics Ph.D. from Cornell who (by his own description) spends a lot of time working from home in his underwear. Naturally, I took his word for it.
    Also, one of the Techers from our era (Richard Yeh) works for such a company and has gone to at least one math conference to recruit. I don’t know if his situation is a suit & tie one.

  7. JSpur

    I’ll talk to a couple of my friends on the Street and add to the comments thread anything that comes out of that that seems useful.

  8. Jenny

    The business school hosts lots of receptions for various finance companies. They are really hot for physics Ph.D.’s. They also pay buckets of money and many include a lot of travel and are based in either SF or NY. If nothing else, you get high quality free food from these receptions. They’re all listed on the Career Center page

  9. Arcane Gazebo

    The buckets of money thing is definitely the attraction of the finance route. Otherwise I’d prefer to have a more science-related job (even if it’s at the commercialized stage as it would be in industry). I’m basically considering all options at this point.
    The suit-and-tie I don’t mind. The hours for west coast finance jobs might take some adjusting though–I’d heard the same thing, that they’re synced to east coast time, and thus start at 5am or thereabouts…

  10. Wren

    The standard way to get a LLNL (or LBL, which you might like more) staff scientist job is to go there as a postdoc at $60K/yr, not screw up(*), get converted to a flex-time position, continue to not screw up, and obtain “tenure” as a staff scientist.
    Now, I wasn’t interested in that route, largely because the group I’m affiliated with had some serious serious issues, but if you have a lead on a good working group, it can be a good way to keep doing science without fun of academia. (Especially since postdocs get one day a week to work on their own projects, although depending on the finances of your group that can effectively disappear.)
    I can put you in touch with people who have done this or who had more positive experiences–this all applies to LLNL; I assume LBL is similar but harder to get a job at and probably more relaxed.
    (*) Not screwing up means as long as you get programmatic science done, you can pretty hideous otherwise: insulting new hires until the quit, making sexist remarks, etc.

  11. Lemming

    I wish I had some quality advice for you, but instead I’m going to mostly lurk and see if anything anyone says applies to me — I’m still wondering what I want to be when I grow up.
    My own reluctance to leave Pasadena is a pretty big deal. Combine that with other issues…
    I do know a couple of people who’ve either chosen to get into, or shied away from finance, and personally it’s a terrible thing to do with your life. It’s not the early hours that kills it — it’s the long hours. If you’re happy with work being your life, otherwise it’s terrible, because there won’t be anything left of you. The nice thing about a big paycheck is what you do with it — if you don’t have any time left to spend it, you’re just working for happiness “tomorrow”, which your may or may not ever get around to.
    Hell, I still haven’t ruled out running away and joining the circus. If I do, I’ll be sure to let you know how it turns out.

  12. Arcane Gazebo

    Lemming: I’m with you on the hours issue, although I didn’t bring it up in the original post. I’d heard reference to “investment banker hours” (meaning insanely long) but I don’t know how it compares to postdoc hours (which of course are also insanely long) or industry scientist hours (I don’t know, but I’m guessing insanely long). Indeed, it’s a distressingly common feature of my career options, almost as if having a physics PhD signals a willingness to work insanely long hours…

  13. Mason

    Actually, in my case the only thing that makes me work insanely long hours is myself. I could do well as a postdoc and spend a more “normal” amount of time on this stuff. (He writes at 2am as he enters his fourth hour fighting Nature’s submission form…)

  14. JSpur

    The finance world- at least, the part I am familiar with- divides roughly into two sets, the agency side and the principal side.
    Agency bankers are essentially in the personal services business, helping big corporate clients raise capital, working on mergers and acquisitions, etc. The hours are excruciatingly long and the work is, in my view, not worth it. The agency side is to be avoided at all costs.
    Principal side bankers generally are in the business of investing capital in various strategies- venture capital, leveraged buy-outs, real estate, hedge fund plays. While these bankers work no less hard, their work is a good deal more interesting from an intellectual perspective, and lucrative as well.
    Other principal investment organizations are the smaller, independent shops- the VC and LBO firms like Kleiner Perkins and Blackstone. These folks typically hire from the big investment banks and have their pick of the talent pool.

  15. smm

    Perhaps when considering a move from physics to finance, you (for example) should evaluate the ethics involved. Namely, are you upholding your debt to society by undertaking such a transition?
    I’m considering such a move myself, right now and this is the dilemma I face. Am I upholding my end of the bargain by taking my publicly funded science education as simply credentials for a high-paying low-material-production career in finance? Perhaps I should have stepped aside earlier in my education to make way for someone whose intentions are more inline with expectations? Surely the science initiatives that funded me expected me to continue to work in science.
    On a related note, what is the material/societal benefit of a derivatives quant? (I’d like to be convinced.)

  16. Mason

    Actually, the funding expectations for people with science Ph.D.s are that they do technical stuff (which includes finance). If you ask, for example, the NSF people, they are quite flexible with where they want trainees to end up. The country needs more quantitatively savvy people in all walks of life, so it’s not a matter of the funding agencies automatically expecting everybody with a Ph.D. having science as their main gig. Then, of course, the non-training components of a grant would care about the science being produced during the training but presumably that’s judged to be sufficient by your advisor when you are allowed to graduate. Anyway, I don’t think debt to society is at issue here; the funding agency officers (at least the ones trained in science) aren’t expecting anything as narrow as you’re assuming. If you decide for yourself that you have a debt to society, that’s another story entirely.
    I’m in science because I want to be here — not because I think I have any debt to repay.

  17. shellock

    Mason: I have some very fond memories of Troy NY thank you very much.
    AG: Industy sound the most temping to me. Science for profit may not be pretty but it pays and industy has perks. Finance is also cool but i just done see you as a finacne guy.

  18. smm

    Yes. I guess you’re right. It’s probably worse that a person stays in science out of some vague societal obligation. In fact, it’s un-American!

  19. Justin

    Regarding the hours issue, the main advertisement astronomers who left the field make at AAS “non-traditional career options” sessions is that you get to have weekends, never take your work home with you (usually you’re forbidden to do so, esp. if it’s defense related), etc. So I think you are incorrect about industry scientists at least. Postdocs don’t have to work insanely long hours either, though those who want prestigious tenure-track jobs like Mason’s will have to work insane hours – like Mason. :-) Personally, I’m married, I like goofing off on weekends, and I’m not aiming for tenure-track jobs, so I work sane hours.

  20. Arcane Gazebo

    Mason: My impression has been that the driver for long postdoc hours is the need to be competitive for the small number of open faculty jobs.
    smm: It’s a point I hadn’t considered, but I’m not convinced it should be an issue. Primarily because the funding agencies are training more scientists than there are jobs in science, which implies that (as Mason says) there was a decision at some level that it’s valuable to have scientifically-trained people in other careers.
    It’s also hard to think about this question without considering the particular government institution that paid for most of my graduate education. Given that their other funding priorities are in many cases quite deplorable (death, destruction, torture), it’s not clear that I should place any value on what they expect me to do with my degree.
    As for the societal value of a derivatives quant, I expect that such work allows markets to be more efficient (in the economic sense of the word) which in principle is a net benefit for society. It’s probably a pretty marginal effect, but then so is the societal value of a lot of scientific research.

  21. JSpur

    AG- that is just how I would have depicted the societal value of a derivatives quant. I am not one to minimize that in the least but, then again, I spent twenty years practicing tax law. Talk about low on the societal value scale.

  22. Lemming

    I’d say that “selling out” almost never contradicts any societal obligation you might have — as I understand, it’s actually quite helpful, and an important piece of the infamous “Phase 2″ (In the “steal underpants” sense).
    Phase 1: Educate students.
    Phase 2: ???
    Phase 3: Profit! (Well, at least sustainability to continue educating.)
    Much of my financial aid for college came, directly or indirectly, from alumni donations of some form. The more money alumni have, the more then can (hopefully do) donate. There’s your phase 2.
    So long as your guilt inspires you to write the occasional tax-deductible (maybe?) check, anyway.

  23. Mason

    I never thought I’d get in trouble for insulting Troy, NY. But I visited and there didn’t seem to be anything there aside from RPI. Good school, place I don’t want to live at all. Hell, I found it tons more boring than Ithaca and that’s saying a lot.
    Yeah, my motivation to get a prestgious faculty job had something to do with my hours. But what I was partially trying to get at is that one can get (and frequently do get) lots of very good, possibly less prestigious faculty jobs (at liberal arts schools, less-prestigious doctoral-granting schools, and so on) while working sane hours.

  24. shellock

    Mason: I should admitt Troy is a dumo but i did have a few great years at RPI so there is just some nastalgia towards the place.
    AG: what you should do is move back east. :}

  25. Chris L-S

    I’m not sure if you saw my LJ comments (I forgot about the main blog… DUH!), but my dad worked for LLNL for something like 30 years and was heavily involved in recruiting for them. If you like, I’d be happy to make an introduction. While he isn’t there anymore (retired) I’m sure he knows who to put you in touch with.

  26. RBH

    I’ve been a trading systems developer and market modeler for 15 years, and most of the people I encounter in hedge funds and on prop desks of investment banks are physicists, mathematicians, and EEs (my Ph.D. is what is now called cognitive science). Most of them work in applied research on modeling market systems to drive trading, risk estimation, portfolio composition, and the like. This is my third career (the first was 10 years in the aerospace & defense industry, the second 20 years teaching in a small private liberal arts college), and it’s the most interesting (so far!). There are opportunities in interesting places (e.g., Prediction Company in Santa Fe), and yeah, I can work at home in jeans and a t-shirt most of the time. I wear a coat and tie maybe 4 times a year for a day or two when I’m visiting the rare client organization that likes them. My situation is a little out of the ordinary, but few of the trading operations I’ve been in or worked with are coat-and-tie environments.
    It’s a different environment from academic research, to be sure — there’s more pressure for short-term results — but it’s no less challenging.

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