Starting a Pyramid
By Hugues Sicotte, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health
Physics graduate education is a pyramid scheme where the upper levels have strong financial and professional incentives to recruit and use people below. When the pyramid scheme fails to add another level, the lower levels of the pyramid must do something else with the education they thought would get them up the pyramid. What can you do with this education? Simple arithmetic dictates that most of us will have to change fields, whether it's a lateral move toward another field of physics or toward another field entirely. This is how I went about making a big change in my career.
New career opportunities start when someone realizes that a physicist can do a job for which there is a shortage of trained people and no formalized training system. The word spreads around and other physicists get into the new field. Eventually within about five years, either all the slots fillup or, for highly growing fields, universities react and produce graduates with the proper training, closing opportunities for career-changing physicists. So one has to either find one's own new opportunities or act quickly. This applies both to physics and non-physics emerging fields.
Look for fields where there is a large potential for growth, where there is not yet any institutionalized training program, and where some of the skills physicists have are required to do the work.
The first step is to decide what career to pursue. In grad school my excuse for not thinking about this was that if you spend too much time worrying about alternate careers, you'll work yourself right out of a career in physics. While there is wisdom in this, you have to ask yourself: What do I want to have achieved 10-15 years from now? This whole process is very personal, so instead I will concentrate on ways to find out about interesting opportunities.
About one year into my thesis work I saw, as my advisor had warned me, how really bleak the future was. So much for solving the mysteries of the universe and getting paid for it! My first thought was that since I had already invested much time toward my PhD, I should finish my thesis. Many interviews have since convinced me of the wisdom of this.
A Ph.D. will open more doors; finish it if you've started it.
Many physicists can move toward industrial physics, but for many theorists this is not an option. Although a theorist, I have enough experimental background that I could probably have made the transition using a Canadian program (I am a Canadian citizen) that, for two years, provides half the salary of an academic physicist to make the transition toward industrial physics http://www.nserc.ca/programs/irfen.html.
We've all heard of the financial services career path as Quant Jock (see http://www.jpmorgan.com/CorpInfo/Careers/NA/PhD_top.cfm for career paths info) or computer programmer but I wanted something else. I like science and I want to be part of a world-changing enterprise like the harnessing of nuclear energy or the semi-conductor electronics revolution.
It's not only what you can do that matters, it's what you want to do.
Near the end of my thesis my funding ran out and I earned money as a teaching and lab assistant in the chemical engineering department. This turned out to be helpful later on as it gave me a base to understand many experimental biology procedures.
Broaden your skills and acquire marketable skills whenever you can. This means that everybody should use C or C++ at least some of the time instead of FORTRAN.
I kept asking myself where are the jobs?, which field will be booming? Some of the best leads I got were from talking to friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, as recommended many times in stories I read on the Young Scientist Network.
Ask for advice from people you know.
A friend, working at Bell Labs, is convinced that wireless communications will revolutionize the world. Another friend started doing commercial artificial intelligence (you can start your searches at http://www.ai.mit.edu/ and was convinced that there lies the future. But something else fascinated me even more.
To keep my finger on the scientific pulse of our time, I subscribed to Science magazine. What's great about Science is that many important scientific articles are summarized so that a physicist can understand a biology piece and vice-versa. One day I read a Science special issue about bio-informatics. The more I thought about it, the more I got excited! I could be part of the next revolution that would change humanity, the control of the genetic material! Since there was no unique training path, I could apply my computational and data analysis skills to those problems while learning the required biology. I nevertheless noticed that most people in that field had a biological background and were learning the computing aspects, so I probably needed to learn a minimum of biology.
While questioning discretely (you don't want to be tagged as somebody leaving the field) certain colleagues whose research had some biological connotation, I learned that some of my colleagues were working on a bio-informatics topic in their spare time. I learned as much as I could about their research, and that got me started. I knew I could do that kind of work, and I found a way to make myself valuable from day one. When you're being retrained, somebody has to gamble on you. They are more likely to gamble if they can see the immediate return.
Use your alma mater and present institution. Researchers in your own institution will usually talk to you, even if you are not in their field.
To find a position, there is no magic. Find out who has money and power to hire you, what they do, and how your skills might be relevant to their needs. Decide what skills you have (or will have) to offer, what you can bring to the work, and what you expect to get. Be ready to explain why you want to change fields.
To find job leads I started by using Lycos, AltaVista, and Webcrawler (These services, unlike "best-of" services like Yahoo, index anything they can find on the web) to navigate around. A good trick to find out who has money, and who does what, where, in a field you don't know is to search the funding agencies' web-sites.
Follow the money trail.
Search the NSF (http://www.nsf.gov/verity/srchawd.html), DOE (http://www.doe.gov/), NIH (http://www.nih.gov/), and ARPA (http://www.arpa.gov/ web sites for any information on funding and on projects which recently got funded. This is also a great source of ideas for career path changers. This will give you a much better idea of the direction of research than the literature. What is being funded now is what will get published in a few years. Searching these sites will also give you the names, location, and interests of a number of PIs.
Published is perished; any published data, web or otherwise, lags behind the knowledge that people have.
So only use the web as a tool to get you in touch with people, to acquaint yourself with what interests them, and to set up visits. A good clearinghouse of funding and training source for Human Genome Research is http://www.ornl.gov/hgmis/funding/fund.html. One opportunity for retraining in bio-informatics are the molecular biology fellowships offered by the Sloan foundation (http://www.sloan.org). See the related announcement. The Sloan foundation policy tries to identify fields were there is a national need and a lack of organized training. This is a very useful to young scientists.
Eventually I got a few leads and a few interviews/visits set up over email. This was somewhat awkward in my case as I was a postdoc in France at the time and I wanted to return to the U.S. It's important to visit people who friends, colleagues, or professors recommend, (see Lesson 5,6) even if they don't have a job to offer. You'll learn something and you might meet somebody else who may have leads. For example I visited my graduate alma-mater and talked to some bio-physics professors I knew, one of whom connected me to a postdoc at NIH. That post-doc introduced me to a few NIH people when I visited him. Make sure you do your research and find out (from the websites and from literature searches) what the people you will be talking to do. In the bio-medical fields you can search all abstracts for free at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/Pubmed (that's where I work). One thing that helped me is that I prepared a journal-club type talk on the recent bio-informatics work I had studied. The point was that I showed I was able to use the jargon (partly thanks to my stint in chemical engineering) and do the technical work. I also made sure to point out how the physics work I did for my thesis and postdoc gave me skills useful for the job.
I'm very happy with my switch in career paths. But, this particular path is rapidly closing. There will soon be enough computer literate biologists to fill the niche. There were two new physicists hired since I was, in addition to two already there, but I believe that opportunities will only last another year or two. While it is possible to get programming-only jobs with bio-informatics companies or with sub-contractors (an often neglected source of employment), longer term employment will mostly come to those who can learn the biology to participate in the drug or diagnostic discovery.
Think about the long-term career prospects.
New career paths for physics graduates will not come from established fields, they will come from areas without formal training programs where the physicist's general problem solving, mathematical, and computational skills can be used. I also believe that there are some new fields of physics that will open up, but the physics community needs to be accepting of physicists who don't follow the straight undergrad-to-tenure-track research career paths.
Start a new pyramid.
Hugues Sicotte received his physics Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1995 specializing in cosmology. After a postdoctoral position in France at Universite d'Aix-Marseille II, he returned to the U.S. and began a new career in molecular evolution/genomics.
©1995 - 2017, 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.