Saturday, April 26, 2014

Academia isn’t what I expected

The Ivory Tower from
The Neverending Story. [Source]
Talking to the students at the Sussex school let me realize how straight-forward it is today to get a realistic impression of what research in this field looks like. Blogs are a good source of information about scientist’s daily life and duties, and it has also become so much easier to find and make contact with people in the field, either using social networks or joining dedicated mentoring programs.

Before I myself got an office at a physics institute I only had a vague idea of what people did there. Absent the lauded ‘role models’ my mental image of academic research formed mostly by reading biographies of the heroes of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, plus a stack of popular science books. The latter didn’t contain much about the average researcher’s daily tasks, and to the extent that the former captured university life, it was life in the first half of the 20nd century.

I expected some things to have changed during 50 years, notably in technological advances and the ease of travel, publishing, and communication. I finished high school in ’95, so the biggest changes were yet to come. I also knew that disciplines had drifted apart, that philosophy and physics were mostly going separate ways now, and that the days in which a physicist could also be a chemist could also be an artist were long gone. It was clear that academia had generally grown, become more organized and institutionalized, and closer linked to industrial research and applications. I had heard that applying for money was a big part of the game. Those were the days.

But my expectations were wrong in many other ways. 20 years, 9 moves and 6 jobs later, here’s the contrast of what I believed theoretical physics would be like to reality:
  1. Specialization

    While I knew that interdisciplinarity had given in to specialization I thought that theoretical physicists would be in close connection to the experimentalists, that they would frequently discuss experiments that might be interesting to develop, or data that required explanation. I also expected theoretical physicists to work closely together with mathematicians, because in the history of physics the mathematics has often been developed alongside the physics. In both cases the reality is an almost complete disconnect. The exchange takes place mostly through published literature or especially dedicated meetings or initiatives.

  2. Disconnect

    I expected a much larger general intellectual curiosity and social responsibility in academia. Instead I found that most researchers are very focused on their own work and nothing but their own work. Not only do institutes rarely if ever have organized public engagement or events that are not closely related to the local research, it’s also that most individual researchers are not interested. In most cases, they plainly don’t have the time to think about anything than their next paper. That disconnect is the root of complaints like Nicholas Kristof’s recent Op-Ed, where calls upon academics: “[P]rofessors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!”

  3. The Machinery

    My biggest reality shock was how much of research has turned into manufacturing, into the production of PhDs and papers, papers that are necessary for the next grant, which is necessary to pay the next students, who will write the next papers, iterate. This unromantic hamster wheel still shocks me. It has its good side too though: The standardization of research procedures limits the risks of the individual. If you know how to play along, and are willing to, you have good chances that you can stay. The disadvantage is though that this can force students and postdocs to work on topics they are not actually interested in, and that turns off many bright and creative people.

  4. Nonlocality

    I did not anticipate just how frequent travel and moves are necessary these days. If I had known about this in advance, I think I would have left academia after my diploma. But so I just slipped into it. Luckily I had a very patient boyfriend who turned husband who turned father of my children.

  5. The 2nd family

    The specialization, the single-mindedness, the pressure and, most of all, the loss of friends due to frequent moves create close ties among those who are together in the same boat. It’s a mutual understanding, the nod of been-there-done-that, the sympathy with your own problems that make your colleagues and officemates, driftwood as they often are, a second family. In all these years I have felt welcome at every single institute that I have visited. The books hadn’t told me about this.

Experience, as they say, is what you get when you were expecting something else. By and large, I enjoy my job. Most of the time anyway.

My lectures at the Sussex school went well, except that the combination of a recent cold and several hours of speaking stressed my voice box to the point of total failure. Yesterday I could only whisper. Today I get out some freak sounds below C2 but that’s pretty much it. It would be funny if it wasn’t so painful.

You can find the slides of my lectures here and the guide to further reading here. I hope they live up to your expectations :)


  1. "theoretical physicists would be in close connection to the experimentalists" If Christ returned, the Vatican and Salt Lake City would be murderous. Academia is about administration and its keepers' rewards. "Research" is an unfortunately necessary Potemkin village. How much of your Official day is devoted to creative thought versus Autoritätsdusel ?

    Grant funding is a business plan - PERT chart, budget, quantitative outputs. Wealth is defined by the number of cows in the herd. Quality has no spreadsheet entry.
    Good academic
    Bad academic

    Those who can must never do. Those who can't, teach. Those who can't teach, teach teachers. Those who can't teach teachers manage teachers. Those who can't manage teachers manage programs. Those who can't manage programs dictate policy. Those who cannot dictate policy carry guns.

    Use the microphone. "8^>)

  2. You seem like a responsible person, which is why I am surprised to read these dangerously misleading and misguided comments. Let me point out a few facts from my point of view (I am also a theoretical physicist):

    1.) I get to talk a lot to experimentalists and also to mathematicians. On one day I could have a discussion with a Higgs experimentalist or a condensed matter person, and on the next day I would talk to some mathematicians about subtleties in Kodaira-Spencer theory. This has already happened dozens of time, and my career is not that long...

    2.) Many people I know, myself included, have not made more than 3-4 moves, and the best people in the field make even less moves than that. People often find a tenure track job within 4-5 years after their Ph.D, and the most talented ones need even less than that.

    Mediocre people do tend to remain without a job for many years (and sometimes they never find one) and to make many moves. Also people working on unpromising areas of research would tend to be stuck without a job and have to relocate every couple of years. Also, people working on misguided ideas would tend to be disconnected from serious experiments and would not encounter novel/deep math in their research (because bad ideas usually dont involve deep mathematics either).

    So, what I have to say to the young generation is: theoretical physics IS truly exciting, full of interactions with other branches of science and with experimental physics. And, if you are good, is likely to provide job security for you with very respectable income..That has been my experience.

    Of course if you are not so good, or intend to work on misguided areas of research where there are no deep ideas and no deep mathematics, then your experience might be very different than mine.

  3. I enjoyed a lot your lectures, Sabine.
    Thanks, Marco

  4. SH 1:38
    I think I know where your ideal work place is. I just read Rhesus apes can do math problems so I believe you have a lot of contacts with experimentalists in your rapid rise as a bright young theorists.
    But if you ever learn to write English you should know calling someone mediocre is considered mediocre.and bad journalism. I would not want you to be my son's teacher. Have you tried administration?
    But in that long rant a surreal paper generator would have had more scientific content I did see one thing.
    Kodaira-Spencer. Well, that six dimensional theory comes "dangerously" close to fossilizing all further progress in physics. It is no where close to the description, depth, and actual inquiry as Sabines sensible phenomenology of gravity.
    It is observed that an ape and human raised together the ape at first excellent ahead then is left behind.

    In the Planet of the apes where men do not speak and certainty not the women if that species. Liberty raises her torch just above being buried in the sand.

    Enjoy your secret priesthood to keep power over those who in lack of knowledge might blow up the world. It is not long before these footnotes will be forgotten and you can retire early decorating your cage any way that makes sense to you in the particle zoo.

  5. SH,

    I don't see your problem. This is very clearly stated as "my experience". Yes, I get to speak with experimentalists and mathematicians every once in a while. But the vast majority of theoretical physicists I know do not get (or take) any input on their work from experimentalists or mathematicians. You just have to loop at their reference lists to see that this experience of mine represents reality.

    About the moving: 3-4 moves is, in my opinion, already too much, but clearly that's a personal opinion. Let me just give you my husband's count in comparison because he's not in academia. He changed town to make his Phd. He moved a second time when his employer moved (paid by them). End of story. That's how normal people live, at least over here.

    (Btw, to be fair, not all my moves were international ones, I just changed apartments a few times.)



  6. Alessandro,

    Thanks for the kind words and I'm happy that you enjoyed my lectures. Best,


  7. You do have a strong point there Bee.Most theoretical physicists are focused strongly on their work.Perhaps they intend to be the next Einstein and be inducted into the Parthenon of the gods of Physics.This tunnel vision is egoistic to say it politely and is detrimental to the advancement of knowledge. If the efforts of mathematicians, experimatal and theiretical physicists are pooled together there would be undoubtedly significant advances in our understanding of physical phenomena.

  8. Stuart,

    I think it's a selection effect. The system presently doesn't favor broad knowledge, it favors specialization. Einstein actually worked on quite a large variety of things if you think about it compared to what people do today. Arguably this is mostly due to the fact that there is much more details to learn today. Best,


  9. Thanks for capturing so well how academia diverges from the image most of us have going in.

    My experience wasn't what I expected, but I can't think of much in life that *was* what I expected -- the biggest shock was how much harder all those things were to deal with than my naive optimism lead me to expect. I was given plenty of "warning" of what academia was like, but I didn't really listen. I wonder if ignoring good advice is part of the key to survival? I wrote an account of my impressions (, which I thought I was exaggerating, but I'm not so sure.

  10. You are everything everyone expected you to be.

    Why stop there?

    You are more.

    That sets you apart from all those on par with expectation. For the most part little notice is given to those on par with expectation. Like weather correctly predicted.

    Count the people who have met you happy to have met you.

    Don't take my word on that. Ask your family, Sussex members and anyone.

    Of course too much of anything is toxic.

    Except when trying to spoil newborns with attention. That's not possible. Try it and they will fall asleep on you.

    Now try imagining Academia falling asleep on you.

    Or screaming for your attention.

  11. It's nice to see your take on academia. At the moment I'm trying to convince myself to leave academia. It's really difficult to known what you get yourself into and I didn't know until I entered the PhD stage.
    I'm a theoretical physicist (1st postdoc, same country) and I love physics, but I don't want to move and risk my relationship and I don't like the very small chance of obtaining an academic job in my home country. Also the pressure is somewhat high to publish, which means you don't feel comfortable to just sit down and systematically understand what you are doing.

    I think that when my contract ends next year I will be finding a job outside academia, even though this raises the ominous question: what kind of job?

  12. "I think that when my contract ends next year I will be finding a job outside academia..."

    yes, I've been thinking that too, a few times. I also got fired once (unsuccessfully) and quit once (equally unsuccessfully). It might be more difficult than you think ;)

  13. Your points 1 and 2 is especially true in high energy physics (from quark to higher energy). That's already less true in other domains like soft condensed matter.

    I worked in chronological order in hardronic physics, mathematical physics, nonlinear physics, pattern formation/morphogenesis. I saw different behaviors in all those domains.

    Soft condensed matter is close to real world with rather small sized experiments done by few people. In that case, theory and experiments are closely related and people talk to each others. A theoricist can even do experiments (my case) or at least suggest experiments because they can be done much more easily than in high energy physics. People are also quite interested by works done by others.

  14. ”I have little patience with scientists who take a board of wood, look for its thinnest part, and drill a great number of holes where drilling is easy.” – Albert Einstein


    But that is the way to survive in academia. Breadth is a distraction, and tackling the thicker parts of the board means likely insufficient publications.

  15. I remember reading a biography of Einstein in which he was bitching about the tintinscheisserei which was translated as Mickey Mouse crap. I suppose they had that kind of stuff back then, and it's cross cultural. I do agree that the pressure of the publish-get grants cycle has gotten more intense and interferes with doing actual science.

    The 2nd family develops in a lot of institutions where one gets moved a lot. Army brats, as they call the children of soldiers who get moved fairly frequently, often remark on the ready made community and the general inclusiveness of the social structure. IBM (I've Been Moved) people were noted for choosing suburbs appropriate for what the British called the "spiralists", twisting their way up the corporate hierarchy. It is born of necessity and one of the good things.

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  17. Probably the biggest change from the days of Feynman et al. is the fact that many more people stay on as postdocs etc, though the trivial theorem still holds that, on average, each academic with students will have one student during his entire career who will go on to being an academic with students. In other words, they sifted out earlier back in the good old days. (Add to this the fact that the number of permanent positions expanded in the 1950s through 1970s, and one sees that the chance of a permanent job back then were much higher with, let's be frank, much less effort necessary.)

  18. Sabine: I looked at your slides. Very interesting. But IMHO you need to remember that Einstein considered a field to be "a state of space" and that the electron has one field only. So look into electromagnetic curvature and consider a virtual photon to be a virtual graviton in some situations. Think of the current-in-the-wire where electromagnetic forces don't quite cancel. A "trace" force remains, and two wires move together. Then stop the current in the wires. There's still a trace force left, isn't there?

    Hum Bug: don't lose hope.

  19. @SH:

    "People often find a tenure track job within 4-5 years after their Ph.D, and the most talented ones need even less than that...Mediocre people do tend to remain without a job for many years (and sometimes they never find one) and to make many moves."

    I guess Green and Schwarz must have been mediocre then, until they suddenly underwent a magical metamorphosis and became brilliant.

    It is true that many (or at least some) people do get permanent jobs after only a few moves, like you said. These people tend to have similar characteristics as researchers, including characteristics which are not shared by Green and Schwarz. ;)
    We can take those common characteristics as our definition of 'good', then your statement becomes completely correct.

    Although there are a multitude of other definitions of 'good' that various people advocate for, depending on what makes them look best of course. My personal favorite is number of single-author publications in PRL. Some people dispute the superiority of this measure, but we all know that the real reason they do so is because they are too mediocre to publish there themselves. :)

    "So, what I have to say to the young generation is: theoretical physics IS truly exciting, full of interactions with other branches of science..."

    Does this include application of AdS/CFT to condensed matter physics, which the condensed matter physicists themselves are so impressed and awed by? Feel free to mention some more of those exciting interactions you have in mind.

  20. The typical time to tenure track and tenure depends greatly both on the field as well as on the country. The only general statement about it that seems reasonably accurate is that the time has gotten longer.

  21. Sabine: "It might be more difficult than about think ;)"
    Oh I know very well what you're talking about. after my phd I searched for jobs outside of academia but little appealed to me, as you don't know what you are getting into. Then I got the chance to do a postdoc through a friend who simply called me up saying "you want to work together?" and I couldn't say no!
    But next time I will be forced to move outside my home country and my girlfriend can't move with me because of her job and life. and im not going to push her to come with me on this extremely risky endeavor. For me this is a deal breaker for going on in academia. Some things in life are more important than a job..
    I know your situation was a bit better with Stefan also being in academia, but if I may ask: how much strain was there in your relationship due to the constant moving and job insecurity?

    Also I haven't found many professors or members of permanent faculty which have a normal work/life balance, by which I mean in its most restricted form a normal relationship with their spouse.

  22. The strain was substantial. But please note that Stefan left academia after his PhD. He did not make a postdoc.

  23. Thanks for the excellent talks at Sussex, Sabine.
    There was a question I asked and in your response you said that you'd have to send me a paper. It might have been concerning whether DSR predicts vacuum Cerenkov radiation, but I can't really remember.

    Concerning this post - it seems even within theoretical physics that many specialisations barely communicate.
    And the nonlocality (especially of Postdoc life) worries me. Maybe I'll end up leaving after my PhD... It's too early to say how I'll feel about it by then.


  24. Peter,

    Glad you enjoyed my lecture. I can't recall what paper I was referring to. If it's not on the literature list, send me an email and let me know what we were talking about. Email is hossi at nordita dot org.


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