Thursday, September 5, 2013

Thirty years ago in Princeton

This month many bright and ambitious young people will begin science Ph.D's in the USA.
What might they anticipate?

Exactly thirty years ago I was one of sixteen young men in the incoming Physics class at Princeton. Here is a photo of fourteen of us outside Jadwin Hall. Thanks to Stephen Naculich and Bill Somsky for providing this copy.

Also, here is a picture of me in the front of Jadwin this week.

Here are a few random observations about my class and where we ended up. I am not sure I have all the history correct so others should feel free to correct me.

There were no women in the class. We came from the USA, Canada, Greece, Italy, Australia, China, and India.

Our future appeared to be bright and exciting.
Prospective advisors included two Nobel laureates [Phil Anderson and Val Fitch] and three future Nobel laureates [Joe Taylor, David Gross, and Dan Tsui]. Other faculty included a young Ed Witten, Bob Austin, Ian Affleck, David Wilkinson, James Peebles, Bob Dicke, Elliot Lieb, and Arthur Wightman. [Wigner still shuffled around the department].
At the time, I did not appreciate the stature of some of these people.

Most of the class wanted to be high energy theorists. But the first year we were assigned to work twenty hours a week for a specific experimental research group as "research assistants" [cheap labour] in the hope we might switch to one of these groups.  No one did.

Two big scientific events happened during our time, affecting some of our futures and thesis topics: the first string theory "revolution" [Schwartz-Green, 1984] and high-Tc superconductors and RVB theory, [1986]. Three students did theses on string theory. One did a thesis on RVB [not me]. I still have a preprint copy of Anderson's RVB paper.

The department was dominated by high energy physics, gravitation, and cosmology. There were no tenured faculty doing experimental condensed matter! Ong and Chaikin came at the end of our time. Anderson was the only tenured condensed matter theorist!

Biophysics was a new field. Apparently there were some faculty who did not think it was legitimate. There were two young assistant professors, Sol Gruner and Bob Austin. It was not clear they would both get tenure. [They did].

Generally, most of the assistant professors did not get tenure or left to elsewhere.

When we started there were no laptops, internet or email. The latter only came as we were graduating.
Some faculty had desktop computers. Most of the computing was done on mainframes.
To get journal articles one went to the library and photocopied them.
Reprints of articles written by Princeton faculty from the reprint room in the basement.
As there was no arXiv; preprints were obtained from faculty who were on snail mail lists.

John Nash was stalking Jadwin and Fine Hall, leaving weird encyrptions on the many chalk boards and sitting in the library reading Scientific American.
But, I did not know who this strange man was.

The General exam [taken by most after 2 years] was much harder and more comprehensive than it is today [see this book]. I learnt a lot from studying for the exam. We did not have to take any classes. Just pass the exam. Some of us formed a study group, which we found very helpful.

What happened to people ?
I have written before that I don't think comparisons are healthy and so avoid them here.

Everyone got a Ph.D. Two did transfer to other universities.

Everyone did a postdoc.

Here is the most shocking and discouraging statistic.
I believe that 15 years after commencing the Ph.D only three or four out of sixteen had tenured/permanent positions.
On the other hand I think now only four have left basic science research and teaching. The rest have permanent jobs in science. But, it sure took us a long time to get them.

We entered a very tough faculty job market in the early 90's. It was flooded with prominent scientists from the former Soviet Union and the collapse of industrial labs (Bell, IBM, Kodak, Xerox, ..).

Only one of us failed the General Exam. He passed second time and was the first to get a tenure track job!

One went to Wall street.

Two became assistant professors at Ivy League universities, did not get tenure, and are now doing quite different science.

One published a single author Nature paper that has been cited more than 2,000 times.

Three-quarters have stayed in the US.

What do I think now about the experience?
Would I do it again? Yes.
What do I wish I had known then?

I consider I was very privileged to have had the opportunity. But, I wish I had made more of it.
Particularly, I wish I had taken more initiative at talking to people.
I wish I had known something about mental health issues then.
I wish I had known how hard it would be to make a living in science.
We were naive.


  1. Although I have no association with the institute, thanks for your thoughts that give a sense of hopeful agitation as I begin my career in academia.

    On the mental health issues tag .... thanks for all the related observations. Someone once told me that exercising only the problem-solving parts of the brain, without focussing on developing an inner equanimity, is like doing cardio exercises on only 2 of the 4 valves of the heart. The value of mental health is indeed grossly underestimated, with the sad general idea that it's okay, or even required, for a scientist to be slightly mad and maladapted.

  2. Thanks a lot for the perspective looking back on that era (a couple years after mine) and where people ended up. It's pretty much the same as what I've seen over the years.

    One thing I often wonder about is how things look different to the current generation of Princeton graduate students. Over the last decade or so, many of those tenured in the sixties have retired, opening up some academic jobs, but very often they're not begin replaced (by permanent jobs), and huge numbers of Ph.D.s are being produced, so the job market remains quite bad in academic physics. At Princeton there's the odd situation of almost all the theory group still identified with string theory, at a time that has become much less popular. This can't help job prospects for young theorists.