FAQ

V1.9

The Science Career General

Background

The /sci/ has often discussed studying for a PhD and the career choices as well as what to keep in mind. The idea of the general was to have a common place for the discussion and also build this document with hints, recommendations and suggestions. After one discussion on PhD in Physics as a meme, your editor opened the scg general October 2020. For reasons unknown, the mods took a dislike to this, so all such discussions are now moved to the "stupid questions thread", >>>/sci/sqt. Lately the career general threads is permitted again, under the name /scsg/STEM Career Support General, or the name STEM Career General/scg/. Hopefully it will remain. Lately it has been commented that there is a bit much doomer posting. For all the problems you will encounter, remember most people find doing a PhD was worth it. Just don't expect an immediate payoff.

Introduction

The discussions are about science careers including PhD, postdoc and the escape from academia to industry. I, your editor, was insanely naive when I did my PhD in Physics and with all the glossy info it can still be hard to find the brutal truth. A lot of the text below is cut and paste from various contributors with light editing. Many headings below need substantial fleshing out.

Contents

  1. FAQ
  2. The Science Career General
  3. Background
  4. Introduction
  5. Contents
  6. Starting a PhD
    1. Theoretical
    2. Computational
    3. Experimental
  7. Choosing your Professor
  8. Fields
    1. Astronomy Related Fields
    2. Chemistry
    3. Materials Science and Engineering
    4. Pharma
    5. Solid State Physics
  9. Countries
    1. Australia
    2. Germany
    3. Switzerland
    4. UK
    5. US
  10. Resources
  11. Going for a Postdoc
    1. Japan
  12. Further Career
  13. Leaving for Industry
    1. Improving Your Chances for a Job in Industry
    2. Patent Profession
    3. Management Consultancies
    4. Medical Devices
    5. Finance
    6. Quality Assurance
  14. On a Lighter Note
  15. TODO


Starting a PhD

First of all, know what you are getting into. Doing a PhD is a long, hard slog and requires a lot of perseverance. Make sure you get a stipend. Get good grades so people will actually want you. The more you are wanted, the more leverage you'll have when it comes to stipend. Don't haggle, justify why you need that extra cash. There are three main ways to do research (based on Physics and also ChemE):

Theoretical

This is the classic image of a guy with dishevelled hair holding a piece of chalk in front of a blackboard.

Advantage: if your chalk breaks it costs next to nothing to get a new one.

Disadvantage: it is harder to get a job in industry with a purely theoretical background (and you will need a haircut).

Video.

Computational

This is mostly simulating how things should have been according to the (incomplete) theories.

Advantage: if your computer breaks you log into another one. You should be quite certain to complete the PhD on time.

Disadvantage: few, mainly that you miss some experimental aspects

Experimental

This is the classic image of a guy with dishevelled hair holding a piece of recently exploded equipment.

Advantage: this probably gives you the best escape route to industry. Some consider explosions a plus.

Disadvantage: higher risk of failure due to equipment failure or accident. Some consider explosions a minus.

Choosing your Professor

Do a background search on professors, citations, h index, relevancy in the field, impact factors of the journals they publish in. If a guy publishes often in Nature, you might have a chance to publish in Nature too. If the guy is good, he probably has money, which means more conferences. Conferences are great for networking (and a perfect place and pretext to hook up with some cute Chinese PhD student). Also make sure your professor is not featured on Retraction Watch. Fraud is rampant and a database was needed to keep track of the sheer volume.

Some important and counter-intuitive advice based on the experience of a fellow anon (alias "ChemE-anon"): DO NOT aim to get a high h-index professor. I made this mistake. My professor is a top 100 h-index Leibniz prize winner. My Prof. is brilliant, the cons heavily outweigh the pros in my opinion as I outline below:

PROS:

CONS:

When I started I was told that the he will not make time for me until my manuscript is ready (for those of you who don't know this mean that your first research project is already ready to be published). I was fine with this, it suited me even, but what I didn't realize at the time is that my first manuscript had to be Nature potential or equivalent. Publishing anything less is not worth it to your Prof. because it will just lower his IF. So every paper he puts his name on will have to at least stand a chance of beating his lowest top 20 paper for citations. This is not good for young PhDs who need to get as many papers out as possible (you should aim for at least 5, but realistically you need 10 to be competitive, aim for Nature with 1 – 2 of those).

It is better to apply to an associate professor who is still just starting his career. You will be allowed to publish faster (and garner citations/attention while you work towards your Nature-tier cap). Many of my US collaborators are like this and they all have jobs at IBM and Google lined in their second year already.

Fields

Physics comprises many fields, from astrophysics to solid state.

Astronomy Related Fields

Job market after completing a PhD is tough.

Chemistry

Give some thoughts to the survivability of your project and yourself.

Materials Science and Engineering

These in particularly is oversaturated and competitive. Usually graduates who enter our programme will already have 1 – 2 RAs and produced good research in their final year, usually by building on confidence from having proposed and implemented their own ideas in some.

Pharma

Pharma-anon reports:

>I was lead to believe that there was virtually zero potential growth in Pharma/biotech industry for somebody with a BSc
They are right, but the best route is to do your MSc/PhD through their company that is the only way you will actually find employment (to get that opportunity you have to really excell at your entry level role too).

The other alternative is if you do an amazing PhD on the tier that it actually brings you fame in the industry (yes, this is possible). But that is far, far less likely than the first option and in particular if you don't have a solid plan/motivation/topic then the probability of doing a good PhD is almost zero. Like the other Anon said PhD grads are in oversupply and your CV is far more likely to get tossed than someone with professional experience at a company. Never underestimate the value of experience. It is worth far more than degrees in general.

If this is all difficult for you to reoncile it is because there simply aren't many positions in the world that actually need a PhD (or a scientist in general). You should really consider your degree an entry point to a company where you can gain experience in a particular industry rather than proof of a valued skillset (it is not valued).

Another anon followed up with

From my experience in medical devices yeah. That said, once you get to a certain level you either need to go into management or have a postgrad for the higher roles.

Solid State Physics

Job market in industry and academia is good, as the semiconductor and sensor industry will continue for decades.

Countries

Australia

One anon reported that Domestic students are government funded and can usually get a stipend of $28,597+ as a full-time student. Most research groups with supervisors who also teach will give their students part-time jobs as demonstrators/tutors as well (~$48/hr last time I checked but you only work during the 2-3 hour classes).

Germany

Germany, like Switzerland has 70k (USD) salaries if you get a 100% employment contract (usually meaning you are employed by the state as a scientific researcher, but it's a myth that the state ever asks you to do any work, you get to work on your PhD full time, unless you are 50% paid WIMI by Prof. and 50% paid to TA etc). Usually engineering PhD positions especially at Fraunhofer labs pay 100%. Physics and other sciences is usually paid at 60%. More prestigious universities and national labs either pay 0% (you pay out of pocket) or a maximum of 60% at Max Planck Institute labs. A special case is TUM which has a 2000 euro (tax free) scholarship for all PhDs.

Switzerland

One anon reported a 70k PhD salary.

UK

Starting PhD salary in the UK is 12k; GBP 15.2k and it increases with RPI annually. Some programmes increase it to GBP 18k if they're well funded. Also industrial PhD pays more. Not sure of any PhD making more than 18.000. One anon mentioned 15k. You can get more as a TA but might have to compensate the PI for the lost research time with more work during weekends.

US

Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) is available at several sites. It was described by one anon as "REUs are real and legit. Some people may argue how useful the research that comes out of it, but I would say that it gives you a taste of what research is like." Another noted that in general, REUs are not better than local research, but that "the benefit of research at your school is that you can get deeper into the work until you're actually somehow connected to relevant things. however, REUs are still good. if you have no other option (due to availability at your school) then REUs are amazing. if you get one with a good group in your field, it can even be better than spending a summer at your home school."

Resources

There are a few web sites with general advice such as the /Sci/ wiki and the /Sci/ Guide, though the latter suffers from bit rot. The PhD Grind is worth a read.

Going for a Postdoc

There can be many reasons. First of all you are still young, most likely have no attachments and should be free to travel wherever. Postdoc pay is bad so you have little to lose in going elsewhere. It is also a good time to go abroad to widen your horizons beyond technology alone and your brain is still young enough to pick up a new language or two. Knowing foreign languages is a major plus if you go to industry. In any case, life is also about new experiences and a postdoc abroad ticks all the boxes.

This is also about networking, and going from a university to a different place develops your network, perhaps in a place that is more international. This was the case for your editor, going from red brick to a large national research lab in Tsukuba, Japan. This was a fantastic experience, can recommend.

It is also important that you leave your professor. If you stay you will be treated as his "student" forever. You will get some early promotions, sure, but you will also stagnate. There is also the risk of increasing academic inbreeding, and I have seen that myself. They had to interview me but knew they would reject me, at the time I was too naive to understand this so I was annoyed they hired a guy who was not even finished with his PhD over me who already had a PhD. In hindsight I think it was a good thing I didn't get that job.

Do at least one postdoc, preferably in different countries. Make sure you try to learn the language. The purpose of doing postdoc around the world is not just to stay in the lab and make results, it is also about building a network. Language skills can also be useful if you go to industry.

Japan

In Japan you have several postdoc fellowships available. And you can chose between academia or national laboratories. Academia can be a bit feudal where the professor is your local warlord and you need to learn some Keigo. National laboratories are more relaxed. Many are located in Tsukuba, a relatively new science city. There are two main groups of foreigners in Japan: scientists and English language teachers. Some have been known to go back and forth between research and teaching. There is a Wiki dedicated to Tsukuba.

Also: Let's Speak English is an autobiographical comic about an English Teacher in Japan. If you learn Japanese you should consider taking the official Japanese proficiency exam, Nihongonouryokushiken.

Further Career

Expect to do 2 – 3 postdocs lasting about 2 years before a realistic chance of tenure. Competition is brutal. Nepotism and academic inbreeding are not uncommon. In some places (such as Taiwan) there are rules in place to avoid academic inbreeding while other places use it openly for empire building. Check out the background of the people working there before applying; it could be a colossal waste of time. Make sure to search for "academic inbreeding" and also conflicts relating to Employee Inventors Act in the respective countries.If you stay in academia, be aware that the pyramid is tall and narrow. Academia is super competitive. "Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small" is a quote with many variation and attributions.

Leaving for Industry

ChemE-anon notes DO NOT do a postdoc, it will definitely harm your career if you fail to get into full time academia after. You should aim to start networking heavily at conferences and through your professor in your final year. Also a PROTIP is that PhDs can still do internships at R&D departments. This is more than worth it if you do well you will get your 6 figure starting salary when you graduate.

As for the job market, the good news is that there are a few industrial positions that only hire PhDs, especially in pharma, aerospace, computational chemistry firms, big data etc. The bad news is that there are far more PhD graduates than open positions. Look for universities that have strong ties to an industry you want to work in and do not just at the most prestigious universities. I've met Stanford and CMU grads that are unemployed. You _need_ to work your network for a position. About 1 in 10 PhD grads end up working for really cool companies in areas like defense, aerospace or pharma. About 5 in 10 get low salaried positions at startups (battery companies, specialist industrial equipment) and the rest do postdocs. This is less gloomy than the undergrad picture (everyone is employed in an actual STEM position).

The sticky mentions patents. Be warned that at most labs patents you develop belongs primarily to the lab. You might get some royalties for it, but you can't usually start your own company with it or sell it to Musk.

In general I would recommend you follow the meme trends. Even big, serious companies jump on the naive hype train and hire you. Ten years ago a lot of firms hired on the "nanotech" buzz word. Today if you get some kind machine learning publication at on of the top 3 conferences you will likely get a good position somewhere. Quantum computing meme is also hiring. One final note of advice: don't waste your time posting about major politics on /sci/. Where you publish matters far more than the discipline on your degree.

Improving Your Chances for a Job in Industry

One anon asked this question, and the advice can be summarised as follows:

Patent Profession

A frequent escape route for scientists is intellectual property (IP), either as a patent Examiner or a patent attorney. In this profession a PhD is normal and also appreciated. Information on life as an Examiner at the European Patent Office (EPO). Unofficial figures are that 30% of examiners at EPO have a PhD. Salary is high and since the EPO is an international organisation, employees do not pay taxes (other than a 2 % contribution to the internal retirement fund). Also United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is hiring. Both employ several thousand Examiners and just to keep up with retirements alone will have to hire new people continuously.

Information on life as a patent attorney (British focus).

Very roughly half new hires into the patent profession are former Examiners, half come from industry. Few are fresh graduates. Also only few patent law firms recruit Examiners from EPO since their salaries are rather high and hard to match.

Management Consultancies

Management consulting (MC) has many facets which have one thing in common: management. Management consulting subsumes strategy consulting, which is the most prestigious section of MC. There are other sections of MC like technology, risk management, advisory (often financial, sometimes strategy), or IT.

Tier 1 is known as MBB (McKinsey and Company (AKA "The Firm"), Boston Consulting Group, and Bain & Company). Hardly anyone is going to be able to get into a T1 firm, though they recruit a wide range of graduates practically continuously, and word wide. Some, such as McKinsey, recruit fresh graduates including people with research background and PhD. Before joining it is important to read up on how these firms work, especially the "up-or-out" policy. While very competitive these firms often promote intellect rather than years of experience, offering a way into this profession. McKinsey publishes the McKinsey Quarterly which can give you some impressions about the work.

Accenture, AtKearney, OliverWyman, etc. are tier 2, and the MC divisions of the big 4 accounting firms are tier 3.

The important factor about MBB is that they are considered purely strategy. So if you for instance are good at data science, you would be brought into Accenture on their tech side. At McKinsey you would be matriculated into their newest class the same as everyone else but would be staffed on their data science projects since that is in your skillset. Note, however, McKinsey Quantum Black and BCG Gamma for the latest offerings.

Besides being considered the most prestigious section of all consulting roles, the benefit of management consulting is the fast track to management and exit strategies. In industry it might take someone 5 to even 10 years to reach senior management. Whereas in any management consulting firm you are pretty much guaranteed senior manager by 5, and the higher the tier the quicker that happens. At McKinsey, for instance it's possible to make senior manager in as little as 2 years. Over the years you will have built connections at various companies, again the higher tiers will have better clients, and you can decide to jump ship into industry at senior manager or just manager if you really hate consulting (many do).

Medical Devices

One anon mentioned that a PhD is required for research and development activities in this field:

Industry science jobs. Can't go above research drone without the qualifications. Some of it is even built into the requirements for medical research.

And

Medical devices. I'm not sure which country the requirements come from but we submit to the FDA (US), EMA (EU), TGA (AUS) and Japan/Korea/China but I have no idea what their agencies are called.
QA were telling me there's certain docs you can't sign-off on unless you're a postgrad chad.
I don't see much in the way of career progression available unless I moved into management or into engineering instead of research.


Finance

It is perhaps close to a cliche, that science graduates can get into quantitative analysis and earn obscene amounts of money. Two quant-anons commented that:
>specifically quantitative analyst at a hedge fund
I was a quant analyst at a very well known GM fund for a while. Pretty decent and fun work, but you sell it way too hard. Like any job the gains you make your employer pale in comparison to the salary, at least until you become PM and get some risk exposure.
I've realised that the true answer really is taking the startup-pill, unless you are horribly autistic and prefer being told what to do forever.
>only for the top students at top schools
this is generally true, but not always. There are always the odd people that come from tier 3 unis (I know someone at Millennium who did that).
>also what do you have to train yourself in?
AFAIK nearly all big shops (outside of a few like Jane) use Python for the quant infrastructure. So get amazing at Python / Stats first. Learning fullstack also doesn't hurt if you are in more of a generalist role (I was mix of tool dev and systematic strat dev during my time).

Also:

>(getting in?)
Start recruiting. The people who get top jobs out of uni have usually been groomed for that position their entire lives. They started doing internships since their sophomore year and usually have some awards like IMO medals. But if you aren't this then you may have to lower your expectations and recruit for simpler roles.

If you want to explore a bit, JP Morgan always has a huge list of open jobs and their search functionality is top notch so you can easily find everything that is out there in the market and filter specifically for what interests you.

>(only top students from top universities?)
It is and isn't. If you are not the best of the best yet you can build yourself and eventually your experience will beat out any 'natural' talent. And it is true that most places have an attitude that if you are a mathematician they can teach you finance so you should focus on actually being smart first. But if you can apply that on your own to finance and, for example, create a traidng system that is an improvement. Specially if you can trade it on your own in a small scale and build a short track-record (3 months to 1 year) of profitability. Then you'll be a top candidate.

>but you sell it way too hard. Like any job the gains you make your employer pale in comparison to the salary

This is true for any job. And if you are getting paid well then why should you care? Eventually you can get a share in the fund and enjoy the true benefits but if you are getting paid 200k+ a year you are already living pretty well.
Generally, this topic is frequently discusses in this general.

Quality Assurance

With a scientific training you can do great work here. That makes you bearer of bad news, and if you have integrity this will be an interesting but short career. The rest of the story was a doomer post and not repeated here.

On a Lighter Note

Let us not forget the comics!

Piled Higher and Deeper, life as a PhD student

Antimatter Webcomics – Annihilating matter since 0.2 milliseconds after the Big Bang.

TODO

This document is new and in need of a lot of inputs. Please post a note in 4channel.org/sci/scg