THE PhD Glut in Physics

The PhD glut
© Fernando Caracena December 2011

At the end of the Summer of 1968, I had no job after having come to the Summer Institute for Theoretical Physics in Boulder, Colorado, fresh out of graduate school from Case Western Reserve University with a PhD in theoretical physics. It was the year of the PhD glut in physics, which was brought on by the president in response to protests of physicists against the Viet Nam conflict. Watching protests on TV, the president, LBJ, had asked his men to target research grants of dissident professors, which he called SOBs. The result was the PhD glut that affected mostly young physicists fresh out of graduate school. Because I did not have a university position lined up at the end of the Summer Institute, I felt that I was unemployed.  To survive, I needed some kind of job. Any job would do until I could find "real" employment. There were always menial jobs available then, if you were willing to work.

I thought to my self, “If I am unemployed, Colorado is the place to be.” I had only myself to worry about. Maybe I could earn enough money by using my wits, to be able to live in this great state and explore the mountains, forests and streams. I was an optimist and supremely self confident. In the winter I could go skiing, perhaps bum around in Aspen.

In 1968 the United States was still a meritocracy. Potential employers were impressed by a PhD, but in a way that worked against me. The job interviewers told me, "You are overqualified. You could easily do this job; but you would leave us quickly when you would get a better offer. Even if that were true, you would think that an enterprising business man would jump at the chance to hire an overqualified employee. Perhaps such a hiree would bring him a great business breakthrough.

I knew a fellow who after earning his M. S. refused to go on for a PhD against the urgings of his professors. His reasoning was that with an MS, you can get a job in most metropolitan areas and that way, be able choose where you want to live; but if you have a PhD, you have to broaden you search for an academic position nationally or maybe internationally. In my case, I preferred to live in Colorado than many other states and I was single. I wanted to concentrate on finding some kind of work in Colorado that would afford me enough leisure to do all the fun things available here for a young man.

The problem was, "How do I get enough of a job to will pay me enough without having to work long hours?" My expenses were very low and I was fiscally very conservative. A friend of mine, a BS physicist from Case Western, who lived in Aurora, Colorado, suggested that I should get a temporary teaching certificate, which Colorado grants automatically to people with advanced degrees. With a temporary teaching certificate, I was able to sign up as a substitute teacher in several school districts in the Denver area high schools. I preferred substitute teaching rather than full time teaching status, because I figured that I would have a lot of slack time. With just a few day's pay a week, I could make enough money to meet all expenses, and still have enough time and leisure to go camping, fly fishing and skiing--in short, to explore the great outdoors in the Rockies.

Other opportunities soon opened up: a Catholic Seminary wanted someone to teach a physics course for theology students; a local startup, state college wanted someone to teach a physics night course. In addition, my friend from Case Western and I begin a venture, which we called "Cooperative Consultants". We hammered out the structure for the effort on paper and hoped to turn it into another Batelle Institute. We were thinking big!

The idea of Cooperative Consultants was the recognition that scientific talent and knowledge is a form of capital, which we could market to address any applied physics project that a client was willing to fund to solve one of his problems. We knew enough talented people to be able to bring them into such a project when and if needed. We did not require any risk capital. All we needed were customers who were willing to fund an applied research effort. We worked out the details of how to structure Cooperative Consultants in a series of back-of-the-envelope discussions late at night--the kind physicist are famous for. We canvassed the area for anybody that needed scientific consulting. One poor fellow, who was intrested in hiring us, had a small company that manufactured bolts that held multistage rockets together. These bolts could be electrically severed through a process that he had patented: shaped charges directed shock waves that converged on the area of separation. Unfortunately although initially interested, this fellow became entangled in a prolonged expensive lawsuit against a large corporation that was infringing on his patents.

My friend, who was also an airline pilot, had worked for a chemical company in Cleveland. On that basis, he was able to get an audience with executives of a well know rubber company in Denver. They had previously hired a summer researcher who had developed a technique for sputtering polymer films using a radio frequency (RF) sputtering. An RF generator acting on dilute monomer gases generated organic plasmas, within which polymers produced grew form the organic ions. Organic polimers deposited themselves as thin films on the inside surfaces of the bell jar, specifically on glass slides that were partially masked to produce thin films having sharp steps between their top surface and the substrate, on which they sat. The rubber company wanted sufficient technical data on the techniques and properteies of the deposited polymer films to be able to put together patent applications. To reproduce and extend these experiments, we needed laboratory space and equipment, which were expensive to own. But, my friend was confident that we could do the whole project inexpensively using rented equipment and rented laboratory space. A lot of the rental equipment was available by mail and in some cases, locally. There was also plenty of rental laboratory space available in Denver.

I was astonished by what we were able to do with rented equipment and laboratory space. Soon we were doing real science in the area of thin films following material from a book on thin films written by Kasturi L. Chopra. With RF-sputtering techniques, we began producing thin films, which we subjected to a variety of tests. We measured film thickness through interferometry across a reflective surface of sputtered gold strips overlain on the step-ups from substrates to tops of thin films. Using a microscope having a Michaelson interferometer attached to the objective end, we counted fringes across the steps between the edge of a thin film and its substrate.

Very thin films had very interesting properties. As thicker films they were good electrical insulators, but as very thin films they allowed leakage currents through quantum tunneling of electrons.

There were also some strange results associated with the organic plasma that we hoped to publish someday. The experiments drew more and more of our free time, at a time when I no longer needed the extra income. In the interim, I had married a girl that I met in Denver, and had a full-time job as assistant professor of physics at Metropolitan State College in downtown Denver.

In meetings with our sponsors at the end of the contract period, we found out that the kind of patents that they were thinking of developing were for heavier industry, such as the coating of the insides of cans, which we thought were inappropriate. We thought that they had a valuable high tech product.

At the time, the field of integrated circuits and thin films was undergoing explosive growth. We advised our clients to seek out some kind of partnership with Texas Instruments. However, suggestions by consultants do not necessarily carry any weight with company executives, and the company moved away from the high tech area in its patenting process. Meanwhile, what we did not know was that at the time,Texas Instruments was combing the countryside for experts in thin film technology. In retrospect, our advice was right on. If we had made contact ourselves with Texas Instruments at the time, we would have probably been offered very tempting offers to move to Texas.

What this consulting experience taught me is that given funding for operating expenses, an imaginative physicist could organize a project to solve a serious problem in applied physics. If the problem were too big for the physicists involved, they could always bring in others who could fill in the expertise.

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