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November 13, 2011 12:12 AM   Subscribe

The Secret Order of Employed Physicists: How did you get there?

My partner is a newly minted PhD in Condensed Matter Physics, with a heavy computational focus. He's been looking in all the usual channels (goverment job listings, the listings of various research and academic facilities, that sort of thing) with limited success. Not helping is the unfortunate tendency for jobs to be listed even if they are already basically filled from within departments.

He's covered all the avenues of exploration. Quant work is on the cards but way down on the list of things he wants to spend his life doing. Finance is not at all something he's terribly interested in, and he'd really prefer to get away from the theoretical end and into experimental work. Big bonus if it's got an obvious social benefit - climate modelling or renewable energy would be great.

Really what I'm asking is how you found your job, how you got it, and how you're keeping it.

Are there secret ninja level networks that really help with this? Where does one go to learn the right handshakes and the right secret passwords? Networking is important, but how exactly to you stretch it out beyond "my supervisor knew a guy" or "someone else in my group had an opening come up where they were working". Is that even a big deal? How do you find the little back doors and friend-of-a-friend positions? We're six months into the hunt here and any protips would be appreciated.

We're in Brisbane Australia but are pretty keen to get out and see a bit of the world so travel isn't an issue. We're trying to avoid a relocation without a job waiting at the other end. It's also not scary-desperate, as I'm employed full time and am basically content to hold down the fort finacially while the science happens. He's got stacks of IT experience on top of the physics and worked as a systems admin for a while at the Queensland EPA - loads of coding there, dealing with government malarky, that kind of thing.
posted by Jilder to Work & Money (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
IANAP but my husband is. He worked at a think tank after he finished his PhD. I think he applied through their website, which generally means "he clicked 'submit' on a form and then the stuff he wrote went straight into someone's garbage can", but his research interests and educational experience mapped so exactly to their needs that he was an obviously good hire for them. I think that's an unusual story.

He now works at a major software company. He got his foot in the door through an employee referral. Memail me for more details if your partner has an interest in working as a software engineer. I'm a little surprised it's not in your question so perhaps that's not a job he's interested in. I will say, though, that my husband finds his physics training (and particularly his statistics chops) useful regularly in his current work - not at all a waste of his talents.

We definitely have friends working in renewable energy. I think in most cases these are "my advisor knew a guy" situations. Has he talked to his advisor about how much trouble he's having finding work? How about friends in his cohort, or remote people he's collaborated with?

One thing to keep in mind is that a lot of hiring opens up after the first of the year as corporate and government fiscal years roll over. Especially in lean times, hiring can slow down drastically as November and December roll in. So don't lose hope yet, the picture may look rosier come January.
posted by troublesome at 1:00 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

My husband is a physicist (in Australia, though he did his PhD in NZ). His first job out of the Phd was in an investment bank, but he hated it and a couple of years later got a postdoc in Germany - by applying for an advertised position. Since then he's had a number of positions. The first two were by applying for advertised positions, but where his supervisor at the time was close buddies with the new supervisor. Since then he has continued to get contract extensions or different physics positions at the same university.

What is maybe more relevant to you is that the PhD students in his department seem to all get postdocs simply by their supervisor writing to a friend in another lab and requesting it. Most PhDs in his dept seem to have a choice of two or three places they could go through this method. If this is not being offered to you, it might mean your supervisor doesn't have sufficient networks. You might need to butter up some of the other people in your department.
posted by lollusc at 1:30 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Where is your husband's doctoral advisor in this story? Unless physics is radically different from mathematics in this way, the advisor is the one who's supposed to be, well, advising -- telling your husband where he should apply, writing a recommendation letter that will place him in an appropriate job, etc.
posted by escabeche at 6:00 AM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

There is the Condensed Matter / Atomic, Molecular, Optical physics rumor mill.

Typically if he wants to stay in research he would apply for a postdoc position at this point.

But I have to echo escabeche's sentiment: If he doesn't know how to network within the field at this point then there's been a serious failure of mentorship/advising. The department/university does not want its alumni to go unemployed, so perhaps he should go back and ask for help. (Even if the advisor is not helpful, perhaps someone else? Who else was on the PhD committee?)
posted by secretseasons at 7:52 AM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Where is your husband's doctoral advisor in this story?

Yes, this.

If he doesn't know how to network within the field at this point then there's been a serious failure of mentorship/advising.

Also, that.

Nobody in the sciences pretends that you can get a job just from reading the ads and sending in unsolicited applications. Although that could be a USian perspective, maybe in Australia it is different. But everyone I know who's had a postdoc has pretty much had it lined up before turning in their dissertation. Those who did not, had a much harder time (as you're learning). We all relied on our advisors for information, contacts, and recommendations (informal as well as formal).
posted by zomg at 10:12 AM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Is he only looking into advertised physics positions or also in engineering? Many engineering research groups have physicists in post-doc or research scientist positions. I would recommend looking through semiconductor device groups in electrical engineering and MEMS/NEMS groups in both electrical and mechanical engineering. Depending on his interests, a materials science department could also be a good home for him.

Good luck!
posted by copperbleu at 11:05 AM on November 13, 2011

IAAP, my two eurocents -- I found my first postdoc by responding to an ad. Simple as that. I also got offered two others spontaneously from people I knew (that I should have taken instead ;-) ).
Second postdoc was also through an ad, though I did not get the position I wrote the letter for. This was a much better fit than the advertised one, got extended and eventually landed me a faculty position. In the process, I basically switched research fields two or three times which is an adventurous but dissipative way to build a career in science.
Up to the faculty position, this is not an unusual story AFAIK.

Not to derail but -- "climate modeling" and "into experimental work" are virtually mutually exclusive. This first postdoc I did was in remote sensing, in what was called the "experimental group" of the institute, which meant "experiments" in a lab 800 km up in the sky in a polar orbit... I'm mentioning this specifically because I had a similar social benefit bias and gave up too much day-to-day work pleasure for that. I switched back to real experimental work after that (and to *&@^%$@#!*% grantwriting)
posted by gijsvs at 11:33 AM on November 13, 2011

Response by poster: Hey everyone! Thanks for the input.

He's currently speaking with his supervisor, a bunch of dudes in that group, plus a bunch of other guys he studied with. The biggest issue with jobs from his supervisor is that they're all here in Brisbane, and I need to move to a larger city to find work in my field. I may have a job, but I've basically outgrown it and it's time for me to find a new one. Moving is a pro here, not a con!

Also yeah, climate modelling is experimental. It's kind of the exception to the rule as far as what he wants to do goes.
posted by Jilder at 8:06 PM on November 13, 2011

I got my first postdoc from a researcher who collaborated with my grad advisor (not on my project, I didn't know them well) and a second postdoc from a new prof who had been a post-doc in my grad group and was a collaborator with my post-doc boss. (i.e. similar job, different project, different funding, same building). As that project was winding down, had a back-up offer for a third postdoc from another researcher who'd recently moved to a new facility, but he knew it wasn't what I wanted.
At that point my job search was split between professor-type jobs, and anything else I could find; realized that academia wasn't for me, thus my (somewhat incestuous) network wasn't going to do me any good at all. Answered an ad on the aps web site, am now doing industry work - started out being very relevant to my grad specialty, but now it's something else entirely, less fun on a science level, probably adequate on a career level (stable), and pretty fun on the job/coworkers front, so I'm happy with it.
posted by aimedwander at 8:20 PM on November 13, 2011

Response by poster: Let's see:

Jilder: Metafilter seems to think Dr. Supervisor should have helped you find a job by now.
Dr. Jilder: The hell you say.

So he strollollollolled into the uni, came back employed. Thanks, everyone.
posted by Jilder at 6:54 PM on November 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

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