Physics PhD Career Options: Post Docs vs. Quantitative Finance

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By David A. Roffman, December 26, 2012.

When I went into Physics I thought that all I needed was a PhD from a somewhat decent school and then I could go off to be a professor with a discipline in High Energy Theory.  Well, it’s not that simple.  This article will explain how I will best make use of my eventual PhD at the University of Florida while still getting intellectual enjoyment from it.  After talking with the professors in the group at UF, I learned that if I follow the path to professor I will do postdocN, where N >> 1.  There will very likely be no faculty position, and if there is it will be at an institution with no reputation.  If I don’t leave the field I will be forced out as almost all faculty positions are filled by graduates of the top 10 universities.  A postdoc from what I have ascertained, is doing someone else’s work and leading grad students for pay comparable with a high school teacher.  This will last a few years and then most likely lead to another and then another, and after a while I will be in my thirties with no permanent job.  Dr. Jonathan Katz, physics professor at Washington University, has a great article about it all entitled Don't Become A Scientist. So what's the fix?

The first change I decided to make is that I will specialize in High Energy Experiment, not theory. This would still require one or two compulsory postdocs to get a faculty job, and I could get a job at a semi-decent to decent institution.  But the catch is that in order to apply for a faculty position I have to do 3-6 years of temporary jobs after graduation.  There's no guarantee of a faculty job after doing them.  So I doubt that I'll go all the way down this path either. Instead I note that the experimental track lets me do non-physics jobs right upon graduation that have compensation that I find acceptable. 

In the last few months I've seen ads by Goldman Sachs on the boards in the hallways of the physics building.  So I thought, what’s the harm in looking for opportunities on Wall Street?  After many hours of searching for quantitative finance jobs online, I found that the skill set that I will acquire will be suitable to those jobs. If I secure one of them, the starting salary will be almost 10 times that of a postdoc (possibly more, depending on the size of the bonuses).  Why can I do this?  I will likely work on the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) experiment which takes in massive amounts of data and in a very short amount of time and requires programs to analyze and find what's of interest before dumping the rest. Compactly: program computers to analyze vast amounts of particle collisions and scatter tracks as well as determine what data to keep in very short instants of time.  What is quantitative finance?  It is: programing computers to analyze vast amounts of financial data and make stock trades in very short instants of time. Notice the parallels?  See Table Below for job comparisons.

 

 

Postdoc

Quantitative Finance

Starting Salary

~30-60K

~250-500K

Permanent Position

No

Possibly

Intellectually Rewarding

Somewhat

Somewhat

Leads To

Professorship…Maybe

Managing Role…Maybe

Enjoyable

Possibly, but there are problems. See the discussion at http://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=416169.

Possibly

 

What I seek is a job that requires me to think and associate myself with others who have comparable intellect.  Being a professor would allow me to research topics of interest. But the experimental side of high energy doesn’t let me do what I originally wanted to do (study grand unified field theories and understand the fundamental nature of reality). It lets me test theories, but I’d rather come up with them (of course this won’t likely pay the bills). The real life of a professor is teaching/preparation time that is a few dozen hours a week, writing grant proposals, advising grad students, and research.  Only the last part is intellectually stimulating.  I will definitely savor the next 4-5 years studying and researching what I like, but meanwhile I'll read up on hedge funds, Black-Scholes equation and so forth. So I offer this advice: The field of physics may be interesting and worth getting a PhD in, but real options for a career in High Energy are extremely limited.