The Back Page
By Peter Abbamonte
As an undergraduate physics student at the University of Texas in 1992, the future shined bright. Though my high school career had by all measures been a disaster, college had illuminated in me a basic talent for visualizing and solving physical problems (where had this been when I was 15?). What had for most of my friends been 4+ years of depression and confusion for me came to be a period of orientation and self discovery. And what I discovered, with the direction of my physics professors, of course pointed toward a career in physics research. I read pop science novels about the lives of physicists in the 50's, found I liked the nerd lifestyle and the people I met in it, and found that physics could be a creative release and not just a series of homework problems. I saw the rest of my life in a vision: a groovy, eccentric wardrobe, conferences in obscure European cities, living on a 26 hour cycle so my meals would precess against the solar calendar, impressing trendy women in cafes with my keen wit and insight. The world was to be my oyster.
Skipping both commencement and post-collegiate reflection, I headed off to the University of Illinois with nothing but a box of books, an obsolete Macintosh, $500 in cash, and inexhaustible enthusiasm. As my first two years passed my elation with life's new direction grew, along with a holistic grasp of basic physics and what felt like my own philosophy toward research. The latter I even named: Informed Experimentation. I found the thesis advisor with whom this philosophy fit and embarked on the phase of physics life I had been craving: full time research.
Life proceeded as planned for those two years, but then things began to change. It's hard to pinpoint when, because it was a gradual drift of attitude and not a defined event. In the earliest stages I remember faculty discussing the recent ubiquity of repeat postdocs. I also remember a few blurbs by Roman Czujko appearing in APS News about a growing disparity between the number of available academic jobs and the supply of young Ph.D.'s. In the later stages, a feature article appeared in Physics Today using the words "physics" and "bleak" in the same title, an association I never imagined I would see. Similar articles followed in the New York Times, Newsweek, and even the local rag, the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette, a periodical which usually emphasizes coverage of local bake sales. I watched in amazement as a spiraling "Physics Job Crunch" became the talk of the town.
What struck me most about the Crunch, besides its very existence, was how differently it affected people in different stages of their academic careers. Faculty, for example, seemed to think of the crunch as a purely academic phenomenon. A few activists added the issue to their postmodern plates, along with responsible science, environmentalism, and multiculturalism. But most just filed it in their mental glossary of current events, aside the war in Rwanda and the AIDS epidemic, and went along their merry ways.
But for graduate students it struck much more deeply. A fog of low morale seemed to fall over the back offices, cubicles, labs, and classrooms of the department. Ironic hallway postings appeared, including a completed employment application to a local Mexican food restaurant and a very Dilberty sign which read "The beatings will continue until morale improves." And productivity became a greater casualty than bliss, as many fell into the drink/sleep/email/play-Doom-to-forget cycle.
Late one night, when work time had turned into reflective commiseration time as it had acquired a propensity to do, I sat talking with a fellow student, who I hear is now self employed. We pinned down one thing that night I will never forget. This employment crisis was doing more than force us to rethink our careers; it was forcing us to rethink our identities. Because we had not come to graduate school to get jobs as physicists. We had come to become physicists. So the reason for the morale problem was not that we were spoiled kids who were being denied our fun. It was that the very foundation on which we had chosen to build our character was crumbling. And adding to the anxiety, looming over our heads, was the $250,000 question: Why?
Why was this happening? Most of us were told it never would. When applying to graduate school, I read in the application to one which eventually rejected me, and which I will not name but is a swanky private school in New Jersey, "The employment market for well-trained, young scientists is excellent and is expected to be for years to come." Was this a lie? What was happening? Absolutely no one knew. A few bold pundits who would publicly speculate blamed the problem on the post-Reaganomics recession and the end of the Cold War, and claimed things would turn around in a few years. But I hesitated to believe them, simply because I felt we had reached the limit of things we can blame on Ronald Reagan. But no one had a better explanation, so everyone continued sleep, play Doom, and work as best they could.
This cycle would have continued ad-graduatum, at least for me, had it not been for a single event which I can honestly say changed my life. I found, in the garbage in my communal office, a tattered yet just legible photocopy of David Goodstein's American Scholar article. It had apparently been published several years earlier but was not widely read. It was also not focused on employment. But it had one particular merit: it had the answer to "why?"
I read the article in its entirety while standing next to the garbage. The answer was so ridiculously simple I almost hit myself: if every faculty member trains 15 new faculty members in his or her career, by the year 2085 every man, woman and child in the United States will be a physicist. Conclusion: an employment crisis was a priori inevitable, but had gone unanticipated for decades.
I was stunned. I continued to stand next to the garbage. I looked up from the page and out the window. As I looked a translucent curtain, which I had never noticed until it began to rise, revealed a gray world of dispassion and uncertainty. The hallowed world of physics transformed before my eyes into a regular profession, like Law or Medicine, occupied not by visionaries but by normal people acting in self-interest. One question pulsated in my mind: how had physicists gone so long without ever turning their talent for analysis on themselves? How had I failed to do this myself? I didn't know. But there was one thing I knew for sure: What was happening now could have been anticipated at any time during the previous 80 years by literally anyone who knew the solution to N(t)=+r dN(t)/dt. But it wasn't. Conclusion: I could not count on anyone to step in and help me. So I had better damned well do something to help myself.
But what? I figured what I had to do was prepare for the end of my academic career. And this, I imagined, meant I would have to get a regular job. But how? What is a regular job? What do I do? I started asking my peers, hoping to stumble on some insight. There was none. I found, to my shock and dismay, that not a single person in my class had ever thought about not being an academic physicist. Given that Roman Czujko was forecasting less than one academic position per four graduates, this was disheartening indeed.
It was then that I realized our Physics Job Crunch was much more than just a Job Crunch. It was a Truth Crunch, a Communication Crunch, an Ego Crunch, and most of all a Knowledge Crunch, all wrapped up into one. What a friggin' mess. But as daunting as it was to state the problem that way, it made me optimistic. Because now at least I knew what the problem was. And articulated as such, it pointed to an obvious solution. As physicists, while maybe we are a bunch of babies, there is one thing we know well: how to behave when we do not know. So the answer was simple. Someone had to perform thorough, well-documented research on what employment alternatives exist for young physics PhD's. With any luck, there would be some.
What grew out of this idea was the Open Forum on Alternative Careers for Physicists. This was formed to be a research organization dedicated, by whatever unorthodox means necessary, to establishing what young physicists can do with their PhD's besides academic research. It turns out that options for the savvy and prepared PhD are plentiful. Some of them are briefly described at http://www.physics.uiuc.edu/jobs/non-physics/forum.
Ironically, since then my academic career has taken a turn for the better, as I lucked into some high- profile research at the politically beleaguered yet technologically supreme Advanced Photon Source at Argonne. So the Forum is latent. Yet a spirit of self reliance, of which the Forum was just an outcome, appears to have endured. Very recently, several other Urbana students worked out a technique for a physics PhD student to infiltrate their local engineering placement office, and all found industrial jobs as a result. So what is important really is not the Forum itself, but the spirit of which it is a manifestation.
Even if my research career works out, it will not be the same as it would have been. Because the approach I try to take to science now is not that of a child staring at the stars, but of a professional performing a craft. Some would oversimplify by saying that my interests are now "more applied." But it would be more correct to say that they are more informed, namely of the history, culture, and humanity in which they reside. Plus, if my research career ever ends, whether that is now or when I am 50, I now know how to survive. It makes me wonder if the employment Crunch is not a curse placed on physicists, but rather a blessing in disguise.
Peter Abbamonte is a graduate student at the University of Illinois, Urbana in the Loomis Laboratory of Physics. He is a member of the APS Task Force on Career and Professional Development.
©1995 - 2014, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.