EDIT/TLDR: Professorships are hard to find so I’ve never expected one. With recent PhD admissions success, is becoming a university/liberal arts professor now realistic and how can I best meet that goal?

I was recently accepted into an astronomy PhD. To give a rough characterization it is ranked in the US top 10-20 for physics/astronomy, whatever that’s worth. My new department paints an optimistic future picture but I wanted to get an objective view. With this prior, what can I expect in terms of career outlook?

From my undergrad experience in physics as a TA+RA I love to teach and research, and want to do both as a job whether that is at a research university or liberal arts college. I would also be grateful to teach at a community college, slightly more so than being a staff scientist at an observatory, but would still prefer to get the chance to research as well.

My undergrad productivity was pretty good - I was able to turn all my projects into publications, so hopefully I can build up from that. What other steps should I take to improve my chances to become a professor, especially at liberal arts colleges? Should I try to TA beyond my second year?


With recent PhD admissions success, is becoming a university/liberal arts professor now realistic?

First, you should not expect to get accurate advice about this. As a new graduate student, you are at least seven years away from being competitive for a faculty position. Nobody can predict the job market seven years ahead.

Currently, faculty positions in physics are extremely competitive. There are many massively qualified candidates for very few positions. Often, new assistant professors have more publications than the retirees they replace.

Owing to falling birth rates, there are too many colleges in many parts of the world. As a result, some will fail financially before you finish your PhD. Private liberal arts colleges that do not have endowments will be the first to go. During the current pandemic, enrollment may fall 20%, which is fatal to many institutions if they are not bailed out by the government.

Community college hiring is also competitive. It has different practices from research universities, but do not listen to anyone who tells you that if it's not elite you can easily get a job there.

What other steps should I take to improve my chances to become a professor, especially at liberal arts colleges?

For any institution, publish a lot. The number of publications you need to get a job keeps going up. Physics research is really expensive. If you want to have a choice of employers, you need to learn to do research that is really cheap. A good research university lab has a budget well into the six figures, but you are likely to get an annual budget in the low three figures when you are an assistant professor. It might be zero. For liberal arts colleges, it is essential to include undergraduate students in your research. Start supervising student projects as early as possible.

Should I try to TA beyond my second year?

In my opinion, this is irrelevant unless you learn something about teaching by doing it. If you are TAing for someone who does not know how to teach, you are wasting your time. If your university has excellent TA training, take it. Seek to teach a whole course by yourself.

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  • Very helpful, and to be honest I think the most motivating answer is “it is still incredibly hard.” Which is true I guess. How many publications do such new hires have exactly? I know this is not a clean metric, but how many as first vs co-author? – Throw Away May 3 at 1:32
  • 30ish publications. – Anonymous Physicist May 3 at 1:43
  • 30 first author? If I doubled productivity in my PhD that’s about 10, so I’d have to double productivity again in 2 post docs to get to 30. I think the first is doable since I won’t have courses after my qual. The second is too far away to judge - could see getting in a scientific rhythm... idk – Throw Away May 3 at 2:10
  • There's huge variance. The number of publications possessed by new hires does not tell you the number of publications possessed by those who are left without the job they wanted. – Anonymous Physicist May 3 at 4:35
  • @ThrowAway you shouldn't think of it as doubling productivity. Paper writing tends to get easier the more you do it. Build a big network of good collaborators and the burden will be further shared. – astronat May 3 at 8:15

First the good news. Most colleges and universities in the US have a department of physics or at least one for which physics is an important part. This is pretty much everything from Liberal Arts Colleges to R1 universities.

Now the not so good news. Most of those departments are pretty small and most of the professors teach a lot of lower level courses. There may be a few physics majors, and most will be pretty good students, but most of what you do is teach in support of other majors. That can be rewarding or not.

Also, not so good, is that if your specific field requires expensive lab equipment then larger schools at the upper end are probably where you will wind up. State Universities, for example. Also, you will be more or less on the hook for writing grants to provide the equipment (and help) that you need. Theoretical physics may not need the lab equipment, but it does need a critical mass of people with ideas. Astronomy can require a lot of equipment or not, but it may require access to equipment, which means travel to out of the way places if direct observation is essential, though I doubt that it is these days. But travel for collaboration will probably be needed even if you don't need to go to Arecibo or farther.

Since you are at the beginning of your studies, I have one overriding bit of advice. Start forming a circle of contacts who will eventually want to collaborate with you on whatever topics/research you are interested in. Your advisor can provide a start but you need to expand outward from there. If travel to conferences and meetings is possible, then do a lot of that. Talk to a lot of people, share a lot of ideas. Talk to others like yourself, but also to the luminaries of the field if given a chance. Your advisor or other faculty can, perhaps, provide introductions. And introductions can be internet and mail based as well as face to face.

Collaborations will be especially important if you wind up at a small place and want to continue to do research.

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  • Great advice - I am only just starting to see how valuable such relationships can be! I hadn’t thought about equipment costs, but the observations I’ve done were with proposals etc., not our own instruments. I am assuming theory is way harder to get a job in though? I ask because I have a few options for advisors - my first choice is an observationalist but another theorist wrote the leading textbook in his field. – Throw Away May 2 at 22:36

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