75 percent chance of career failure considered in a positive light

I was chatting with a successful physicist the other day. I said that reading Losing the Nobel Prize made me realize what a risky career choice science was. He scoffed at my timidity. “If you get into a top graduate school, you’re practically guaranteed a post-doc.” (i.e., a $52,116 per year job after 5 years; roughly at age 35 if the PhD program is started at 24 and it takes 6 years to earn the doctorate) What about after that? “You’d have a 1 in 4 chance of getting an assistant professorship.” Once on the tenure track, he considered actually earning tenure to be straightforward.

If we define “success” in science as a long-term job as a scientist, he was saying that the chance of failure was a minimum of 75 percent (maybe closer to 90 percent if we consider the probabilities of not getting into a great graduate school, not getting a post-doc, and not getting tenure once on the “tenure track”). In his opinion this was only a minor detraction from the appeal of a career in science.


  • How Many PhD Graduates Become Professors? (from 2016: “life science PhD graduates in the US have only a 16% chance of finding a tenure track position”; but how many people on “tenure track” actually do get that lifetime guaranteed job?)
  • “Women in Science” (“This article explores this fourth possible explanation for the dearth of women in science: They found better jobs.”)

10 thoughts on “75 percent chance of career failure considered in a positive light

  1. I did the whole PhD/Postdoc/faculty job search. And yeah, the odds are really low of getting a position even with a good stack of publications and coming from a highly ranked school.

    The competition is fierce. At an undergraduate institution I interviewed at, the interviewers had 1-2 publications over their graduate and postdoctoral career in the 90’s. I had 8. They went with a guy who had 15 and a lot more time as a grad student and postdoc then I would have been willing to do. This, all for a job that made $65k starting in one of the most expensive areas in the U.S.

    Looking back, the whole effort was insane and I would not have done it given the choice again. Reading the women in science article is eerily similar to my experience in academia and in industry.

    I plot my escape from science at times.

  2. Even if you get an asst prof appointment, tenure is not guaranteed. Need to bring in funding. But funding is hard to come by for junior researchers.




    Of course, this never happened, the oldies shot it down.

    There is some push back.


    But a generational cohort has been, not lost, but shrunken. Which seems likely exacerbate the knowledge gap discussed here:


  3. The old saw “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” applies to those aiming for positions in STEM academia, though.

    A physics PhD is considered a strong qualification for a quantitative finance job (and those tend to gross better than $52k).

  4. @Gray,

    The physics/math PhDs can do quite well. I think they are truly smart. Those of us in the more heavily experimental biology/biochem areas are really just lab rats holding pipettes that can be easily replaced and have few skills beyond the bench.

  5. Gray: “A physics PhD is considered a strong qualification for a quantitative finance job”

    How much of this perception is due to sample bias? Plainly SOME physics PhDs have become successful quants on Wall Street (so they get to pay $5 million for a 2,000 square foot home and thereby (slightly) out-earn a Midwestern dermatologist while enjoying a much lower standard of living!)

    But what evidence is there that the TYPICAL physics Ph.D. who fails to make it from postdoc to assistant professor actually does get and keep an awesome job on Wall Street? Or consider the assistant professor who fails to earn tenure. You’re talking about a 45-year-old with two kids in Wisconsin, let’s assume. A Wall Street firm is going to be desperate to hire this individual for an entry-level quant job?

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/investopedia/2013/06/07/quants-the-rocket-scientists-of-wall-street/#647cc5ed4548 says “Compensation in the field of finance tends to be very high, and quantitative analysis follows this trend. It is not uncommon to find positions with posted salaries of $250,000 or more and with bonuses, $500,000+ is achievable.” The 45-year-old has to move to Manhattan to take up this job, right? $250k won’t stretch too far. Let’s say that the spouse didn’t want the 45-year-old any more than the university. So the physics genius was an unsuccessful divorce lawsuit defendant and has to pay 25 percent of pre-tax income to the plaintiff (see http://www.realworlddivorce.com/Wisconsin ). After-tax income in Manhattan on $250k is about $130k? And $62500 goes to the plaintiff. Now your physics expert has $67,500/year to spend on an apartment in Manhattan, all other living expenses, plus periodic trips back to Wisconsin to see the former kids. How is this better than https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/25/business/partner-in-a-prestigious-law-firm-and-bankrupt.html ? “Legal fees from a divorce depleted his savings and resulted in a settlement under which he pays his former wife a steep $10,517 a month in alimony and support for their 11-year-old son. … How far does $375,000 a year go in New York City? Strip out estimated income taxes ($7,500 a month), domestic support ($10,517), insurance ($2,311), a mandatory contribution to his retirement plan ($5,900), and routine expenses for rent ($2,460 a month) transportation ($550), food ($650) and miscellaneous outlays for things like utilities, medical expenses and cellphone and Internet service, and Mr. Owens estimated that he was running a small monthly deficit of $52, according to his bankruptcy petition. He has gone back to court to get some relief from his divorce settlement, so far without any success.”

    If you could work as a quant in St. Louis and earn $250-500k/year, that would be awesome. But IF it is a job that is available only in the world’s most expensive cities AND it is a job that is available only to some physics PhDs who’ve been unsuccessful as scientists THEN I don’t see how one can casually say “Oh, well, if your career tanks you can always just slide over to Wall Street.”

  6. > If you could work as a quant in St. Louis and earn $250-500k/year, that would be awesome

    In theory quants are so super smart they could outsmart the market while trading from anywhere! In practice the law of averages eventually catches up, and things even out. Case in point: Calgary-born MSc math whiz quickly earns $69M on Wall St (betting on natural gas prices), convinces NYC investors to let him+crew to set up a remote trading desk back in affordable Calgary, proceeds to lose $6.6B (betting on natural gas prices).

  7. First of all, the numbers have risen (slightly):


    Year 5 is now $55,308.

    2nd I don’t know to whom these stipends apply but clearly not to everyone.

    That being said, getting out of academia and taking an industry position is probably a wise choice for many vs. taking endless postdocs with slim hope of ever getting a tenure track position. Of course it helps to get your degree in something for which a direct market exists but people with strong quantitative skills are valued not just on Wall St. but in consulting and other fields as well.

  8. Tiago: 1 in 222! Those are long odds indeed! The study shows that the English don’t sugarcoat everything the way we do here (“follow your dream”).

  9. I think Phil is right that earning a PhD in physics with the expectation of a lucrative fall back position in finance is unrealistic. I doubt there are that many of those jobs anymore as it seems the asset management business may have peaked. And the mindset of a 35 year old who has been doing science for many years will be very different from the business mindset, which is about making money. Reinventing yourself and then selling that product to someone else for a lot of money is not all that easy.

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