- physics does not separate so easily into neatly separated sub-disciplines.
- physics is far from a strict meritocracy, and, just as in the business world, networking/schmoozing are important
- a tenured faculty position has a strange mix of stress and reward
It's this last item that I think confuses so many not "in the know" (such as my extended family). I'll try to describe the unique stresses associated with the job later, but what I want to discuss is the reward. More particularly, the feedback one gets as a professor.
My experience is that my job is a bit like being a housewife. You toil all the time; there's no escaping it. You are your own boss and if you don't fix something, or make progress on what you're doing, there's no hiding it. People with little idea of what the job is like give you respect for having your job, but then generally figure you loaf all day. But most importantly, you get very little feedback.
I'm not talking about students and their evaluations. I'm talking about your research. You can look at citations, but you look pretty ridiculous worrying about so-and-so's paper cited yours. You can be happy about being invited to conferences, but you inevitably go through dry periods and start to get cynical like me about the politics involved.
As I've mentioned before, it's a great job. On the worst of days when I'm pissed at someone or another, or sick of doing what I'm doing, or totally frustrated not getting something to work, I push back from my computer, lock my office door, crank up Pandora, and pull out Scientific American...
Update: Conincidentally, today the NYT has a good interview (free sub. reqd.) with a Stanford professor who mentions that women get lots of negative feedback in the sciences. He has first hand experience as a former woman.