Friday, February 11, 2005

A tale of two geeks

I have two young friends who are postdocs in theoretical physics. One is an American kid named Joe. The other, named Sanjay (or Sergei or Song) is from a foreign country whose GDP per capita is a small fraction of ours. Both Joe and Sanjay are brilliant - Sanjay scored in the top 20 in all of India (or China or Russia) on the IIT entrance exam, represented his country on the Math Olympiad team and managed to get admitted to a top American graduate program. Ditto for Joe, except that he went to school in the US and his parents paid a lot of money for Stanford tuition when he was an undergrad.

Joe notices that in his field there are many Sanjays, Sergeis and Songs for every American-born kid, but he realizes that this is just a consequence of the large populations and good (elite) educational systems of their home countries. He also notices that these other guys are really determined to stay in the US, because their job prospects at home are pretty poor in comparison.

Joe is a bit confused, because most of his (American) friends from Stanford went right into finance, law or medical school after college. They, and even his little brother who is a year younger, are all well on their way to being established by their 30's. This bothers Joe a lot, because he was always a much stronger student than his little brother or any of his friends from school - in fact, he was one of the brightest students in his entire class at Stanford! Joe, though, is just trying to land another postdoc, and, in a few years, perhaps a faculty job. He knows that only about 1 in 4 graduates from his top tier PhD program manage to do so. [Actual statistics here.]

I, the tenured professor, am chairing a job search for a theoretical physicist. Our files contain applications from over a hundred Joes, Sanjays, Sergeis and Songs. Despite the fact that the talent in our postdoc pool is tremendous - one could staff numerous derivatives trading desks, chip design teams and software startups with these young people - the successful applicant will be offered a princely salary not very different from that of a police officer or public school teacher. Once hired, he or she will have to slave for another 6 years to gain tenure. (A ridiculously long time - meaning a total of over 10 years of focused post-PhD research before the tenure decision - far more than in other fields where there are no postdoc positions and PhDs can go directly into faculty jobs.)

Homework questions:

1) Do the presence of Sanjay, Sergei and Song affect Joe's compensation or quality of working conditions? Think about what a university has to pay to "buy" a good physicist from the pool. If Joe doesn't like the offer or working conditions, won't he be easily replaced? Is the job market for police officers and high school teachers similarly impacted?

2) Is it paradoxical that the presence of Sanjay and friends is good for both the US economy and US universities, but bad for Joe?

3) Did Joe make good career choices? Do not assume that his utility function is a delta function peaked on "I looove science!"

Additional reading.


Anonymous said...

Isn’t choosing physics as a career much like choosing dance or music as a professional career? You choose it for the personal satisfaction and love of the field. You choose it for the intellectual challenge and not as a “safe” career. Isn’t that why physicists choose physics over say, biology or other “easier,” more practically applicable fields? And as such, wouldn’t Joe welcome the international competition from and intellectual point of view? Typically, competition is a good thing, right? It possibly could drive Joe to a higher level of performance?

How is Joe (or you) defining success? If the answer is to maximize his NPV, then of course the answer is no – the ROIs on the finance, law (less so than finance), (medical is questionable these days) are much more attractive than physics. That is a no-brainer. If his definition of success is ‘impact on the world’, medicine may have been a safer (from a numbers standpoint) track for him – though at age 30 he might be still far from “being established in [his] field”.

Speaking about finance/business (as I feel that you are more specifically thinking about this area as an option for Joe), do we know whether Joe has the other skills required to succeed in these other fields you mention? We all know that many, many PhD physicists (do I dare say the majority of them?!) lack the interpersonal skills, leadership capability, management background, and most importantly the interest to succeed at the top levels of finance and business. Furthermore, the nature of the work at even the highest levels of these fields is not nearly as intellectually challenging as the work Joe would do as an academic. Will he be happy with this? Perhaps happy for a few years, bored in a few more? Will Joe be happy working with and definitely FOR people dumber than he is? Working on a schedule that is not his own? Having the potential to be fired or laid off?

If Joe’s definition of success is to use half of his brain to maximize his money, then I would definitely suggest a career in finance. However, I would also caution him that he will be working with people younger, more arrogant, and much less smart and intellectual. The politics may rival that of academia and he will not be judged on merit alone. His day-to-day work has the potential (especially after a few years), to be mundane and boring. As he progresses in his field his job will be increasingly less technical (presumably his strength) and more managerial. However, come bonus time he will probably do quite well financially. Will his lack of intellectual stimulation be countered by his handsome bonus? In the near term? For 20 years?

I think Joe needs to do some soul searching and figure out what he wants to do with the limited time he has on this world. We all could to many things professionally; Joe must figure out what his priorities are in the near term and in the long term.

Joe sounds a bit like my friend who has a PhD from Julliard. She is an accomplished musician and came very, very close to a promising performance career. However, with all the competition from both the US and internationally, she did not achieve her goals. She would not recommend her children to go into music, although it is something that she loves deeply. She now teaches music to children. (You might remember the story the NYTimes did on Julliard grads 10 years out – many are no longer in the music field due to financial reasons).

But on the other hand, what is the point in life if is isn’t to dream and shoot for the stars? So many people can be successful business people; a much fewer number can shine in physics.

Joe, figure out what YOU want, make your decisions, and live without regret.

Steve Hsu said...

Hi Anonymous,

Thanks for a very balanced and thoughtful post! Much better in many ways than my (hopefully amusing) polemic... :-)

Anonymous said...

1) Duh! This one's a freebie.

2) No, it is not paradoxical, because Joe's welfare is only 1/250 millions the total welfare of the US, and is lost in rounding errors assuming we use 32bit floating point in our computations.

3) Depends on whether you give him the job.

What's my grade?

Carson C. Chow said...

It seems like what we need is a better way of funneling talent to where it could be used after the education process. That way Joe could still give it the old college try in physics and then bail out into finance, engineering, or wherever else he might be useful if it didn't pan out. Maybe is starting to do this.

Anonymous said...

I'm a "Joe" who postdoc'ed for 6 years and then moved to finance, where I (to quote anonymous) "use half [my] brain to maximize [my] money". If I had started college thinking I'd be a stock investor, I would never have studied with such enthusiasm. I think theoretical physics was a terrific career choice because 1) I had the opportunity to learn as much about (certain aspects of) how the world works as anyone who ever lived, and 2) I had the motivation to learn analytical skills that have proven valuable in my current career.

Alan Guth more or less told me flat out in freshman year that this would be my likely path, so I did it with eyes wide open, and no regrets. Sounds like you're now having the same crisis of conscience that Alan was, Hsuski!

Anonymous said...

Just to continue the discussion, if money was not an issue (ie a desire or goal), would your career choices be different?

-from Original Anonymous aka ATL :)

Anonymous said...

If the Chinese can study modern dance, we can study physics and dream of being physicists.

February 8, 2005

In Modern Dance, Reflections of a Restless China in Flux

In a country where the arts are expected to support government policy rather than exist primarily as independent forms, China's still-young and rapidly expanding modern dance has a distinct advantage. It is a wordless means of individual expression, especially open to ambiguity and interpretation.

When the Beijing Modern Dance Company, founded in 1995, makes its New York debut tonight at the Joyce Theater, with "Rear Light," a piece choreographed to music from "The Wall," the 1979 rock album by Pink Floyd, viewers will certainly spot the general aura of alienation. It may be less easy to agree about specifics.

The sight of young people placed "up against the wall" and of crime-scene body silhouettes painted on the floor as well as dancing that veers between turbulence and regimentation may all evoke the 1989 repression of demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.

Yet there is also an intimate male-female duet and a wild disco scene, usually with audience participation onstage. For Willy Tsao, the company's Hong Kong-born artistic director, this disco episode is not just a release but also a critique of mindless youth. "It shows a wild bunch of kids enjoying themselves," Mr. Tsao said. "They don't know what's going on around them. They hide from the truth."

Any recent visitor to China who has run into the night life in Shanghai and Beijing or seen the pop art in official museums that portrays Maoists and punk rockers side by side will understand that artists who do not want a return to the past may also be unhappy with China's rediscovery of materialist values.

An allegorical transposition of the original tale about an alienated rock star in the 1982 movie version of "The Wall," "Rear Light" is at a far remove from a realistic dance about peasants in the fields that was included in the 1991 United States debut of the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, the seedbed of Chinese contemporary dance.

Reflecting a society in flux, professional modern dance has spread beyond Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai to attract budding choreographers in universities in other provinces. True to the essence of modern dance anywhere, it is no longer limited to one kind of movement idiom or aesthetic....


Anonymous said...

After all, I am reading Don Quixote in the Elizabeth Grossman translation. We can dream and institutions may even be changed for the dreaming, though not at once.


Steve Hsu said...

ATL: Wow, I didn't know it was you! :-) If money were no issue a career in academic physics would certainly rise in appeal!

Another problem with physics which is not discussed directly in the post is how hard it is to make any significant contribution, given the number of talented people in the field. I feel a lot of physicists could have a huge impact in more applied fields if they gave up some of their starry-eyed obsession with the "theory of everything" :-)

CC: one of the most negative "job conditions" associated with physics is the long trial period over which the field gets to judge you before granting you a permanent position. It's great for the field but terrible for the indvididual. Sometimes I think it would be much more humane to make the cut right after the PhD, so people could get on with their lives if they don't make it. Of course you'd make worse decisions about who gets to stay, because the track records would be non-existent by today's standards. If there were fewer good people interested in physics, then "labor" would have more power relative to "capital" and job conditions would improve!

DB: Nice to hear from you!

Steve Hsu said...

Oh, BTW, the one person who turned in the HW got 100% :-)

The prize is a free beer, but they have to come to Eugene to collect :-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a good blog of various posts and comments:-}

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Regarding the length of time an aspiring physicist must work to get the faculty job he/she seeks, I'm wondering if this at a timing issue to some extent. Do you feel that it has always been this way (poor job prospects, long time to be judged "worthy", etc) or particularly bad for our generation who suffered from the "rules of the game" changing (i.e. cold war ending, defense spending cuts, etc) during their lengthy time in grad school? Do you feel that it is particularly tough for the roughly 34-41 year old physics PhD to a) get a top physics academic job and also to b) make the major impact that you refer to as a result? Seems to me that the physics PhD pipeline got filled up with many students who, when they entered the field had every reason to believe. Some left voluntarily, some truly "made it," many "made it - but to a lesser degree than they originally hoped", and some are still out there on their nth postdoc (and in therapy?).

Could it be that the current reality of the field will better balance the supply of PhD talent coming out of top universities to match the number of jobs at the end of the tunnel? How do you think the next generation of physics will be? Will this pre-weed out the non creme de la creme, by in large or terriblly comprimise the quality of the next generation?

Will we always need to train 100+ physicists to get 1 top deep thinking physicist?


Steve Hsu said...


It is probably a good thing that each generation of young people is as idealistic as the last, and disregards the warnings of their elders, no matter how wise.

There doesn't seem to be any shortage of people who want to do theoretical physics, despite the odds against succeeding. But, I do detect a shift in national origin - there really are very few Americans nowadays. Whether this is because our educational system is falling behind, or the rest of the world (where the bulk of the population resides) is catching up, or American kids have just gotten wise, I don't know.

I do disagree with all the nutty idealists who deny that ordinary labor economics play no role in our field. If salary or working conditions are bad, you *will* lose good people from the talent pool. Of course you can sit on your high horse and say that physics doesn't need anyone who really cares about crass material things, but then you are only left with very atypical personalities in the pool (oops, are we already there?).

Wall St. quants (or Silicon Valley technologists) are not necessarily losers who couldn't make it in academic science. Many are very, very able types who just made a career decision, balancing economic return against intellectual reward. The sad thing is that occasionally in some committee or faculty meeting (esp. those with non-physicists) I am reminded that many of my "peers" in academia are actually not as smart as people I know at hedge funds.

Anonymous said...

The sad thing is that occasionally in some committee or faculty meeting (esp. those with non-physicists) I am reminded that many of my "peers" in academia are actually not as smart as people I know at hedge funds.Name names! Just kidding.

It's interesting how much stake we put in the intellectual capacity of someone just because they have been hired as a faculty member at a university. I wonder how much the distribution of "good people" in physics varies along all the steps towards becoming a faculty member: undergrad, grad, postdoc, junior faculty, tenured faculty. Surely there is a strong selection effect from undergrad to starting a postdoc, but I suspect that the distributions aren't that different from postdoc to tenured faculty.

-Dave Bacon

p.s. enjoy your blog and also your paper on the shortest distances which are measurable.

Jodie said...

My first degree was in French and Spanish; also did graduate work in English. The market for teachers who teach French, Spanish and English is remarkably limited; at least it was when I graduated in 1980.

Now I work in head and neck cancer research after going back to school for an RN.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that this phenomena is not limited to physics. I've never regretted my first degree; and I'd guess your theoretical physicist wouldn't either. But we all have to put food on the table and a roof over our heads.

Steve Hsu said...


I enjoy your blog as well. We went to all the same schools, you know!

I can't name names without getting spanked ;-)

I do feel it is the better postdocs who get faculty jobs, though of course the correlation is not 100%. But there is a big difference between the hyper-competitive th. physics world and other academic disciplines. (Not naming names...)

Have a look at this hedge fund team (people I know personally) and tell if you think some of them might not be smarter than many profs (even in physics!).

Anonymous said...

A team with a Putnam winner and a U.S. Junior chess champion certainly competes pretty nicely with (if not beats) most physics departments. I have anecdotal evidence for the quality at some top firms because the top student in my physics class at Caltech went on to the big world of finance and I would certainly put him up against most of the field of physics profs (my advisor at Caltech gave him Jackson as a freshman and said "Do as many of the problems in this book as you can." So he did them all.)

Cool: Caltech and then Berkeley. So when I read your webpage, am I looking at myself in a few years? Probably scarier looking at me and thinking "was I like that a few years ago?" Heh.


Anonymous said...

ATL: "Could it be that the current reality of the field will better balance the supply of PhD talent coming out of top universities to match the number of jobs at the end of the tunnel? How do you think the next generation of physics will be? Will this pre-weed out the non creme de la creme, by in large or terriblly comprimise the quality of the next generation?

Will we always need to train 100+ physicists to get 1 top deep thinking physicist?"

The current situation in academia, to the best of my knowledge, has been in effect since 1973.

Or, perhaps to put it better, there was a golden age from 1945-1973; growing gov't funding of research and education, an rapidly expanding educational system.

Anonymous said...

Professor Hsu,

I am interested in become a biologist or medical researcher. Do you think your comments apply to those fields also?

Steve Hsu said...

Anonymous: my comments are probably less relevant for a medical or biology researcher. You might look at this article, though:

Anonymous said...

I have a PhD in theoretical physics from India and have some programming experience. Can somebody tell me how I can find a job in financial field ?.

MaysonicWrites said...

The Ellington team sounds interesting - I wonder if I would fit in - probably not - I never got my BA although I scored thrice on the Putnam (top 200, top 150, top 100) and 990 on the maths GRE. Oh well, life goes on.

Is the situation in math as bad as in physics?

Anonymous said...

On the topic of finance job vs academic job I am confused as to why this is an exclusive or?

I mean if an academic needs only half a brain to make it in finance, why not use all of it to maximize income over a minimized time step, then go back to academia?

Sure if you want to teach at one of the Ivy's this ~N(10, 2.5) year gap may be problematic. But most of us aren't going to teach at an Ivy.

So why not spend ~N(10, 2.5) years to get a pile of money and the experience to manage it well, then go back to teach at some university and not have to worry about the horrible salary to workload ratios of professors?

Just my 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

2) It's not at all paradoxical. It's the standard immigration argument: immigration is unambiguously bad for the parts of the population that immigrants compete with, and always has been. The only thing which makes this paradoxical is the ideological rubbish which gets published on this sort of thing; this rubbish is always published by the class of people who benefit from cheap labor. When you hire an illegal alien for cheap to build a house for you, life is great for the guy who didn't have to hire a redneck to do the job. The redneck suffers, because his work has been devalued. Sure, you get "more people lose" situations like inflation in the situation where you have to pay Mr. Redneck a decent wage for manual labor, but the fact of the matter is, you are really taking something away from Mr. Redneck. To say otherwise is a lie. You can look at the entire immigration "debate" as a battle between the classes who benefit from cheap labor, and the classes who lose.
1) The situation is no different with intellectual workers. The reason physics pays so poorly is because we import lots of cheap labor. You can dance around this issue all you like: it doesn't change this simple fact. The only reason it seems like a "paradox" is because people are unwilling to talk about it honestly. H1B visas, a form of indentured servitude, have made my post-grad school career much less profitable than it would have been otherwise. Makes the H1B people happier though.
3) Of course he made a bad choice. Any career which is subject to replacement by cheaper globalized labor units is a bad career choice. The reason so many nth (n>1) generation Americans go into Medicine or Law is those professions are protected by powerful labor unions, which keep their salaries high. This is becoming less true of Law, due to the overproduction of Law students, but Law is still a pretty good racket once you're established -and can be parleyed into all kinds of business jobs only open to nth generation Americans.

Vishal Minhas said...


I have appeared for the IIT-JEE and I can think of what kind of a person Mr. Sanjay is. He is simply a genius. IIT is the toughest examination, not only in India but world too. So being the toppers, people like Sanjay are among the best brains in the whole of humanity, so they can be anywhere they like to be.

1. So Joe will obviously be affected by people like Sanjay.

3.I must say it was JOE's mistake.

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