[Bigger Piece on how the academic hierarchy works]

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Donna Strickland

Dr. Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018, along with Gérard Mourou, Arthur Ashkin. She invented “chirped pulse amplification” for lasers while getting her PhD under Gérard Mourou, in 1985, when she was 26 years old. According to Google Scholar, he has 94 publications, some of them in French, most in English. She spent the early nineties as a member of Princeton’s Advanced Technology Center for Photonics and Opto-electronic Materials. She’s a fellow of The Optical Society, and she currently chairs its presidential advisory committee. According to the Canadian Association of Physicists, she is a recipient of a Sloan Research Fellowship, a Premier’s Research Excellence Award, and a Cottrell Scholars Award. She is currently supervising Jeremy Kelly-Massicotte’s MSc and Zujun Xu’s PhD, and JiangFan Xia’s Post Doctoral Fellowship. She’s head of the Ultrafast Laser Group.

In other words, she has a myriad of achievements under her belt. So, it seems surprising that she didn’t have a full professorship upon receiving her Nobel prize. The answer is that she did not apply for full professorship.

But wait a second: how does one become a full professor? And is it strange that a Nobel laureate in physics not have a full professorship?

Let us answer the second question first: Yes, especially nowadays. In the past 20 years, there have been 56 nobel laureates in physics. Of them, 44 have professorships, they seem to receive them on average 10 years before they receive their Nobel, and more than one of them holds multiple professorships at the same time.

There are 12 that don’t, though. And those are:

  • David J. Wineland, who worked for the National Institute of Standards and Technology while doing the work that earned him his Nobel Prize, and who is now an Adjoint Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.
  • George E. Smith who worked for Bell Laboratories
  • Willard Boyle, who also worked for Bell Laboratories, and later retired to go sailing
  • Peter Grünberg,
  • Vitaly Ginzburg,
  • Zhores Alferov who was given an Honourary Professor award (Also, note: look into him)
  • Jack St. Clair Kilby, who was not a professor. Not even a PhD. Got a Master’s in 1950 on electrical engineering and worked on TI in 1958 designing those calculators every highschooler hates.
  • Alexei Alexeyevich Abrikosov. He worked for the  Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics and the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys instead of as a university professor.
  • John C. Mather, who is an adjunct professor of physics at the University of Maryland College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences.
  • John L. Hall, who was a Fellow at JILA, formerly the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, and a Lecturer at the CU-Boulder Physics Department.
  • Donna Strickland – Associate Professor at the University of Waterloo.
  • Arthur Ashkin – PhD, but no professorship, worked at Bell Labs and not at a university.

Here are two people who are full professors in the University of Waterloo, in Strickland’s own physics and astronomy department: Dr. Kostadinka Bizheva and Dr. Melanie Campbell. Of them, Dr. Bizheva has a similar record to Dr. Strickland’s, while Dr. Campbell’s is honestly frightening in how impressive it is.

What is different about them?


Well, to start with, they applied.

So how does one become a full professor?

Well, how does one become an assistant professor? Adjunct professor?

How does the hierarchy work in academia anyway?

Frances Arnold

[Frances Arnold’s history and notable achievements]

The Associate Professor

Changes in the makeup of the population of academics over the past few decades.

Full Professorship

We already outlined how one comes to become a full professor, but upon being one, what changes?


After doing this, there is a note I must make: Why do so many nobel laureates have multiple synchronous professorships?

(Also, note to future editors, there is another Donna Strickland who teaches at the University of Missouri and is also an associate professor. She teaches English though. There is also a Donna Strickland that passed away at age 72. Also one about a Principal Product Marketing Manager at SAS. It’s a surprisingly common name)

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