Jim, a fictitious character, scored a mediocre 3.48/4.00 in his undergrad (in Physics). It took him 6 years to complete the 4-year program. He is enrolled in a masters program but due to COVID, he missed the on-campus exams. So he has to sit for the exams next year. He is unemployed and feeling very low. Is it possible for him to make it big in academia and get research or teaching opportunities in future?

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    Yes, it is possible. – Buffy Apr 24 at 11:43
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    Keep working hard. For some emotional issues professional help is indicated, of course. – Buffy Apr 24 at 11:57
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    Does Jim plan to make different life choices depending whether a bunch of strangers on the internet say "yes" or "no" to this question? I don't necessarily think that would be wise. – Daniel Hatton Apr 24 at 12:40
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    This site tends to answer "you can do it!" to pretty much every question. And it's true, "Jim" could wake up and in his sleep have come up with a breakthrough in string theory, with Harvard knocking at his door. However, it's also important to face tough life choices realistically. Given what little information you shared, it is unlikely "Jim" will make it big in an academic environment where people with considerably superior qualifications frequently fail. I recommend "Jim" start investigating alternatives. – gnometorule Apr 24 at 12:58

It is possible but not probable. Also depends on what one means by "making it big." Nobel Prize? I mean, that is a vanishingly small percentage of even top graduates of top schools. Make full professor and have the esteem of some colleagues? More probable, but in today's world, where the tenure track is largely disappearing, still hard even for the most qualified.

The dirty secret of academia is that it creates many multiples more qualified people for the "good" positions than there are "good" positions. The academic labor market is severely misaligned, in terms of ratio of Ph.D.s produced to demanded. So everything else being equal (including qualification and achievement, and those are of course not equal!), most people in academia will not make it big even with the wind at their backs.

Like many areas, academia tends to look at credentials--not only where they are from in terms of prestige, but the manner in which they were acquired (how long it took, and so forth).

In addition, academia also relies very heavily on personal recommendations of advisers, and someone with these credentials (OK but not great GPA, long time to degree completion, missing exams, and so forth) would probably not do well in the evaluations necessary for advancement, like letters of rec, or being thought of when a job comes up that needs filling.

This fictional character would likely need to gain a foothold in some sort of more technical job, like working for a large collaborative project where he could do "grunt" work, demonstrate superior completion of that work, and then use that work up the ladder.

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    Honest and spot on! – A rural reader Apr 24 at 15:13
  • The probability of any individual winning the Nobel Prize in their field, rounded off to a few decimal places is probably 0. A better measure is producing a few doctoral students who, themselves, do the same. – Buffy Apr 24 at 15:53
  • Thank you very much. I really appreciate it :) – Noob Apr 24 at 16:20
  • Sure. But even that is a proportion that approaches 0 asymptotically. And is producing such students "making it big"? OP would need to tell us what the definition is. – Nate Apr 24 at 16:20
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    Except you can't work up the ladder. Spend a few years in a technical job and everyone thinks of you as a technician and not a research leader. – Alexander Woo Apr 24 at 16:58

Can Jim "get research or teaching opportunities ...?"

(Answer for the US) YES, at least to teaching. Two- and four-year colleges hire Ph.D. physicists for teaching.

Research opportunities will depend on Jim's Ph.D., not on his earlier academic performance.

  • Thank you for answering. This is really helpful. – Noob Apr 24 at 16:13
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    But his ability to get into a Ph.D. program (just the first step) will probably be predicated on undergrad and master's degree performance (assuming the master's degree mentioned above was terminal or otherwise not-on-the-Ph.D. path). (N.B. Most Ph.D. students get a non-terminal master's somewhere around the 2nd or 3rd year, as an indicator of completion of exams or prospectus defense.) – Nate Apr 24 at 16:27
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    Lots of 2 and 4 year colleges are closing their physics programs and have just one poorly paid part-time faculty member in physics. Full time teaching jobs are very competitive and hard to get. – Alexander Woo Apr 24 at 16:55
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    In my opinion, Jim's chances are no different from any other randomly selected person. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 25 at 10:59
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    @GEdgar - Yours is a biased sample. Oberlin is easily in the top 2% of 4-year colleges, and Ohio Wesleyan well in the top half. The OSU branch campuses are all comparatively well-resourced. – Alexander Woo Apr 25 at 15:02

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