Mid-career scientist looking around for the first time in >30 years

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Comments (9)

Eric in Gaithersburg, Maryland

11 months ago

Not sure if this is the right place for this, but: I am in my mid-50s, a physics Ph.D., and have been a government scientist (basic physical sciences research) for 33 years. It's a good situation, compared to most, and would normally be a lifetime gig. However, my wife suffers from severe rheumatoid arthritis, to the point where the winters even here in the DC area take a severe toll on her joints. For that reason, she has been wintering in more benign climates (first Central America, more recently Florida) for a number of years. This forced separation is very difficult, and I have been motivated to somehow relocate someplace warmer so we can be together all year round. A recent attempt to get approval for a partial-year teleworking arrangement from Florida with my employer was turned down (on purely bureaucratic grounds). This, combined with a general unease at the prospect of remaining a Federal employee for the next twenty or more years, has spurred me to consider alternative employment. I have a very deep and broad mathematical, statistical and computational background, and in support of my own research have been very agile in terms of acquiring and applying new skills and expertise. My only absolute constraints in a job search are geographical, requiring a mild climate year round. I probably do not fit the profile of a "typical" job seeker in technical fields, and I do try to monitor on-line the available jobs satisfying some broad search criteria. What I am at a bit of a loss for is how to make my attempts to match up geography, general technical environment, and reasonable salary expectations into a more "active" process. I would welcome any insights or experiences that others might wish to share.

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Riot in Massachusetts

11 months ago

At this point in your life, have you considered teaching college? Just find an appropriate location and apply to every college and university in the area. From my understanding, relocating for a faculty position is not uncommon, so I don't think you would need to worry about not being local when you apply. I assume that you wouldn't want to spend the time getting a lab up and running, so you can apply to lecturer positions for the universities, and focus on small liberal arts schools and community colleges. As a senior government researcher, I'm sure starting out as a professor would be a large cut in pay, but southern states often have a lower cost of living than the DC area, and if your wife still works, I'm sure you could get by just fine. If you can't cover what you anticipate needing for income, perhaps find a way to consult part-time in an area related to your research.

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tbonejones in Willoughby, Ohio

11 months ago

I'm a 20 year younger version of yourself. Well not really, but have the physics PhD thing going on too. Breaking into teaching is doable, but very difficult. It doesn't hurt to apply if that's something that interests you, but have some other plans too because the teaching thing probably won't work out. But I don't need to tell you that if you've kept up on the state of academia at all. I know people mean well, but 'have you considered teaching' is usually their first piece of advice, and it's usually not very useful.

I'm going to say it's going to be rough. I'm assuming you are at NIST or something like that given your location. You have very useful skills for industry, but getting someone to understand that will be hard. Start networking with companies that might be interested in modeling. For example, medical imaging, aerospace/defense, etc. Possibly look into big data companies. I've been working this angle for close to a year now where I am geographically constrained, and it has been difficult, though there is slight hope. A lot of companies just aren't hiring, and if they are, they either don't understand what you can do for them (and don't give you a chance to really sell yourself to them) or they'd just rather hire a 22 year old with an engineering degree.

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tbonejones in Willoughby, Ohio

11 months ago

It's somewhat of a catch-22. Smaller companies typically have no need for someone with a real hardcore science background like yours, but they are approachable and informal. Much more receptive to hearing you out. Big companies that actually have a need for you (or someone similar) are loaded up with bureaucratic obstacles which make it near impossible to get a foot in the door. Even if you do, you can get tossed in the garbage in the first HR phone interview because you don't meet there narrow requirements. For example, from a story similar to yours, I know a guy who almost didn't make it through the phone screening because he didn't have Matlab experience, never mind that he had about 30 years of modeling and programming experience. He did manage to recover, was eventually hired, and was quickly productive in a completely new field to him.

So, it's probably going to be tough. I'd start networking hard. Talk to your colleagues, see who they know in the FL area, set up meetings, get on LinkedIn. You need to target some companies who could actually use someone like you, and then start working the informal channels to try to get around HR and get to the people who will recognize your value. Sure, apply to colleges too if that appeals to you, but I wouldn't hold my breath for that to payoff.

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Eric in Gaithersburg, Maryland

11 months ago

Many thanks for the thoughtful comments so far. NIST was a good guess, but I am actually at the NIH (where there are more physics PhDs than many people realize). And we are not necessarily tied to the Florida area--"someplace warm" is all we need. Mindful of the length of my original post, I did not go into great detail about my background and outlook; the only additional relevant detail is that retirement (psychological or literal) is simply nowhere on my radar. I briefly considered the teaching option, but I frankly regard that as a form of psychological retirement, given my current intense involvement in research. (The idea of taking on some kind of academic research position, with the constant struggle for funding, has zero appeal for me at my age.)

From what little I have seen so far, the distinction made between small companies and large companies is probably spot-on. My breadth and depth of experience bring a huge value-added over that offered by a freshly minted PhD, but it is absolutely true that most of the advertised highly quantitative job openings that I have found to be at least superficially interesting are probably going to be filled by an early-career engineer. That would be punching way below my weight class. (I am even amused by ads for "senior scientist" positions for which 3-5 years post-PhD would seem to work.)

I agree that networking is probably the most valuable tool here. (I actually know all three of the just-announced winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry--all in academic positions--and even consider one of them a friend. He was already on my short list of "references" long before this.) I have few illusions about the barriers to actually pulling this off. (Do agencies/headhunters ever actually help?) I do appreciate you sharing your ideas and experiences.

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tbonejones in Mentor, Ohio

11 months ago

I have had zero luck with agencies or headhunters. They don't even know what to do with me. My academic contacts (not quite as prestigious as yours) have also been mostly useless since they don't maintain very much contact with industry types. Most of the non-academics in my field work at the weapons labs which is where a lot of my non-academic contacts are.

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Jeff in Silver Spring, Maryland

11 months ago

I've been under the impression that most Ph.D.-level research jobs are advertised mainly in professional society publications, the APS for example. And also by word-of-mouth at conferences.

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tbonejones in Mentor, Ohio

11 months ago

APS has a jobs site that lists some positions. Not all fields of science are well connected to academia/research environments, and I've found that a fair number of companies who want PhD level researchers do NOT post on APS. Or probably even know about it.

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Eric in Bethesda, Maryland

11 months ago

The APS and Physics Today sites seem to mirror the same information, and, as noted, seem to contain primarily listings for academic positions. And I agree that it is likely that most companies looking for PhD level physicists do not even know about these sites. To my knowledge, networking at conferences seems to be most fruitful for those seeking postdoctoral positions. My overall impression is that typical physics conferences (like the APS annual and spring meetings) tend to either be too large to really allow "random walk" networking, or too narrowly focused and topical to attract a decent selection of potential employers.
It's clear from your comments that this is going to require a fair amount of resourcefulness to really plumb the options effectively. I appreciate your taking the time to respond.

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