Hitler doesn’t get a postdoc in High Energy Theory

I recognize that this is a genre that is a bit tired, and arguably in poor taste, but the commentary on the HEP theory postdoc job market in the video Hitler doesn’t get a postdoc in High Energy Theory is insightful. As far as I can tell the HEP Theory postdoc/junior faculty market has been the same for the last 45 years or so: far more people than jobs, and if you want one you better be working on one of a small number of “hot” topics. One might speculate that this correlates with the lack of progress in the field during this time. I’m a bit better informed about the mathematics job market for fresh PhDs, which is much healthier, as is the intellectual state of the field.

A recent trend does seem to be fewer jobs in the US, more in Europe. Anyone with better information about what is going on is encouraged to comment here (and, condolences if this is because you’re on the market).

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38 Responses to Hitler doesn’t get a postdoc in High Energy Theory

  1. Jeffrey M says:


    You are certainly correct that the job market in math is much better than in HEP, but just so no one gets the wrong idea, the job market in math sucks. It’s sucked for 24 years. I managed to get my Ph.D. the first year it collapsed, and while I got a job, and so did most people I know, they weren’t what we were expecting, and it got worse. Got better for a bit with some new NSF postdocs, but now it’s much worse again. It’s no picnic, even with a good advisor and a good thesis. My thesis was published in Mathematische Annalen, and I was lucky to get a job with a 4 course teaching load.

  2. RhoPhi says:

    Does anybody have data on post-doc jobs offered, faculty jobs offered and drop-outs every year? can think of a couple of ways to measure these from rumor sites and arXiv.org but I was wondering if data exists.

  3. Manfred Requardt says:

    I have just seen the video Hitler doesn`t get a postdoc in HEP and I think, it is a brilliant piece of modern art.

  4. DR says:

    My thesis was published in Mathematische Annalen, and I was lucky to get a job with a 4 course teaching load.


  5. John says:

    One can argue that the tight job market in the USA should be no problem for people, because they can just move to Europe, right? Or China for that matter. Well, the problem for people to move to another place is often a very personal one.

    For example, my wife and I live in Europe. I have a postdoc position, my wife has a good (non-academic) job and we have a young child. This means my academic career will soon end because I cannot just move with my family to pursue some other postdoc position somewhere. My wife would have to quit her job. She already did it once for me, but this cannot continue.

    Because scientists are supposed to do various postdoc positions at various places before entering a tenure-track position (with not having job security even then), my question is:
    Are there scientists out there who have a partner with some professional ambitions? If yes, how do you manage?

    I think it is very old-fashioned for one partner to work and the other to stay at home, but this seems to be the effect of the postdoc-system.

  6. Ramsey Glissadevil says:

    Enjoyed the Hitler video. Yet, I’m sadden so many bright and dedicated physicists leave the their fiancé for finance.

  7. Chris Oakley says:

    God knows how many sets of fake subtitles I have seen for that clip from Der Untergang … the original one was about Hitler being banned from Xbox Live, but there has also been his problems with installing printer drivers, problems with booking a skiing holiday and many others. What distinguishes this one, though, is the lack of spelling errors. So maybe that it the thing, out-of-work or soon-to-be-out-of-work particle theorists: if you cannot get a job compactifying fluxes in 11 dimensions maybe you should consider teaching English.

  8. anonymous says:

    @ John:

    That’s a tough situation and I sympathize. My wife and I are both academics, so our situation is a little different (worse in some ways, better in others). We married right around the time we graduated and spent the next five years apart jumping through all the academic hoops. We eventually found dual positions, but it was challenging and we both sacrificed better positions to be together.

    Someone remarked to me that it’s easier to find a spouse than an academic job. Given the competitiveness of the job market, I think this is unfortunately true. Are aspiring academics supposed to remain single and unattached until they get a TT position? Or find a partner who is willing to relocate every couple years? Ugh. It’s a nightmare.

    The majority of academics I know have a spouse who fits the mold of “stay-at-home”. The exceptions are older couples who were on the job market 10-15 years ago, or those with a spouse who travels a lot for work or can work from home.

    I wish you well in your situation.

  9. Ignatz Ratzkywatzky says:

    I recall an apocryphal story my supervisor told me.

    After a lot of applications, talks, and networking, a clever HEP theory postdoc at a national lab was offered an assistant prof position at a major university.

    However, his wife had a well established career with a high paying job in the nearby large city. Her job was not very transportable.

    After quite a bit of soul searching, the postdoc told his colleagues that he was going to turn down the offer.

    They reacted,

    “Are you nuts?
    You may never get another such wonderful offer.
    You can always get another wife.”

  10. Tim May says:

    All, it’s hard to post an optimistic personal account here that doesn’t appear to be boastful. But I think sometimes the negative stories need to at least get some counter-response.

    In 1970 I was accepted at MIT, Stanford, and Berkeley for college. I transferred my acceptance and Regents Scholarship from Berkeley to UC Santa Barbara. A lesser school compared to Berkeley, on overall grounds, but a more interesting fit to my interests. (College of Creative Studies, with many advantages.)

    By around 1972 it was clear the Big Drought was unfolding. Tales of Ph.D.s driving taxi cabs, professors advising that the odds of the then-current Ph.D. candidates getting a real position were dwindling. (Besides the overall downsizing of HEP and other physics funding, there was a glut of physics professors who had been hired in the post-Sputnik boom era….and they were still 30 years or more from retirement.)

    Fast forwarding, I decided to not apply to grad school and instead join a small semiconductor company. There, I worked on a bunch of “engineering physics” probems. Because we were the leaders in dynamic RAM memory, I had exposure to some intersting problems. One of them was the mysterious issue of bits sometimes being flipped, but not permanently. In fact, the bit flips were apparently random and occurred only once (or at least close to only once…).

    My physics background served me well, as I knew about the physics of how the devices worked (more so than a lot of the EE folks, who thought in terms of circuits), and I knew some geology. I had a brain storm that maybe low levels of uranium or thorium or the like in our ceramic and glass packages were causing the problem. Some experiments confirmed this. And all of the physics calculations about charged particle tracks in silicon matched. A lot of stuff I don’t have the space here to describe.

    So my career was launched. Lots of papers on this “soft error” phenomenon. (Oh, and the cosmic ray corrollary was indeed obvious: but in 1978 when the first paper was presented, it was insignificant as a source as compared to alpha particles.)

    Instead of spending until 1980-82 doing a Ph.D. and then 4-8 years or more as a post-doc, I had some fun and retired from Intel in 1986.

    I’ve been pleasantly able to pursue whatever interested me ever since.

    So, there are also some alternatives to going to a hedge fund (not an option in the 1970s, early 80s, of course). And some of these may even let you do some fun physics and make some good money.

    I’m not saying the options are the same today. But it shows that the pure academic track is not the sinecure it was in the WW II to around 1920 period. The poor prospects for good employment are sort of a reversion to the earlier situation, I think.

    I have no guesses on what some current options might be. But I’m pretty sure most HEP grad students and post-docs will be facing some tough choices.

    –Tim May

  11. Richard Séguin says:


    I remember that bleak 1972 period. Where I was at the time, mathematics grad students were urged to take some computer science or statistics courses as fall backs. It was very discouraging, especially if you were not particularly interested in those topics.

  12. RhoPhi asked about data on “attrition”. I don’t know it for math or physics. However, there is hard data for biology, summarised in a nice graphic.


    It is pretty depressing. In particular, less than 8 per cent of entering Ph.D students become tenure track faculty.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I don’t know if postdoc employment situation is really better in Europe, but I can say that getting a permanent university position is definitely just as difficult here as it is in the US. Maybe you can get a postdoc position or two after your PhD, but that is just postponing the inevitable; in the end you have to think of something else because there are just not enough permanent positions in the academia for everyone. If you want to save yourself a couple of years of moving from country to country and a lot of stress, you might as well quit academia after PhD (ever even after masters).

    I don’t believe that this system even chooses the best people for the professorship positions. It merely chooses people who have the mental fortitude to withstand all this bullshit for a decade. Most people (no matter whether they are good physicists or not) see the bleakness of their future prospects already during their PhD or first postdoc and leave.

  14. Tim May says:

    Yes. Richard Séguin, 1972 (plus or minus a year or two) was a terrible awakening.

    An awakening about how many graduating physicist would find no jobs.

    I don’t recall panicking, just realizing that any thought of being a university physicist was probably a fantasy.

    By around 1973 I think I was ready to move into industry. For various reasons, my small group hosted Feynman. I was the designated grillmaster, so I ended up cooking a steak for Feynman. As he sat on a couch at our place, chewing on his probably-overcooked steak, we grilled him (ah hem) about the future of physics.

    He opined then, in the spring of 1973, that he thought if he were then starting out, he’d go into computer science. (He did a lot of fundamental work in CS not long after.)

    He influenced me a lot. About a year later I joined Intel. For about a year I thought I was not figuring out the fundamental laws of the universe, but then I came to like what I was doing and realized that only about a couple of people per 30 years really do much about figuring out the real basics.

    I appreciate guys like Nima, whether he is right or wrong, but most of us will not be Nimas.

    (Not a big fan of string theory, but I like Nima’s talks.)

    I sometimes think Physics–the industry–has gone too far in emphasizing the Hero, the Conquerer, the World-Changer.


  15. Bernd says:

    I don’t work in HEP, I work on more condensed-mattery stuff, but I sometimes get applications from HEP people. My impression is that the postdoc situation is a bit easier in Europe because all the hotshot postdocs go to the US, so the competition in Europe is less harsh. For real jobs, it’s a different matter because 1) there are way less permanent positions than postdocs and 2) many of the people who went to the US for a postdoc are trying to come back.

  16. John says:

    @Ignatz Ratzkywatzky
    Your anecdote nicely illustrates how sick the community is.

    Let us not forget what it means to be in science: you have a parttime teaching job with most of the rest of the time supervising students, writing grant proposals, dealing with institute evaluations, meetings etc. There is no such thing as independent research because you need have impact, so you are stuck with the hot topics. You are crazy to choose this over your family. The only reason some people still do it seems to be status. A lot of tenured staff are in it for the status, and do not really care about science.

    But, if you want to do real independent research and do not care about status, then take, say, a parttime job as a webdesigner and spend your spare time on research.

    @anonymous (January 24, 2016 at 4:14 pm)
    Yes, it’s a nightmare. And especially so for women. For a woman, if you wait until you have a tenured position before choosing a partner, then you lost maybe all of your childbearing years. Women tend to be attracted to someone she can look up to. So, choosing a jobless partner who stays at home all day may not be attractive. Governments ask why there are so few women in science. Well this is your answer, right there.

  17. chris says:

    At least in Germany we are flooded with postdoc money. It is difficult to get a decent postdoc because there are so many open positions. And it is especially difficult as you have to tell them that after 6 years there is close to 0 chance they will land a permanent job.

    And yeah, basically all my tenured colleagues have spouses that gave up their career or are single.

  18. Confused says:

    Dear All,

    I liked the video, but I am left confused. Could you please explain to me why in the video Hitler is angry for not having any academic job offer but He’s saying “… you want me to spend another year teaching undergrads…” Is that not an academic job? Or am I not understanding the american academic system?

    Thank you.

  19. Richard Séguin says:


    “But, if you want to do real independent research and do not care about status, then take, say, a parttime job as a webdesigner and spend your spare time on research.”

    You realize, though, that dropping out of official research environments (academia, research institutes, and the less common structures in private industry) makes actively participating in the research community more difficult. It’s not impossible, but you have far less day to day contact with others of like mind, it’s generally harder to network, and unless you’ve previously established a reputation, you have the sniff of a crank unless proved otherwise.

  20. AcademicLurker says:


    My understanding is that most postdocs don’t teach undergraduate classes. Perhaps they made a special exception for Hitler.

    There’s such a thing as a “teaching postdoc” that combines research with undergraduate teaching, and I think is designed for people who plan to apply for jobs primarily at small liberal arts colleges.

  21. Peter Woit says:

    You need to understand that much of the US system is now a two-tiered one, with poorly paid adjuncts doing much of the undergraduate teaching, full-time tenured faculty doing relatively little undergrad teaching, more grad teaching, research, supervision of graduate students. Postdocs generally don’t teach (although in some cases may pick up extra funding by adjunct teaching). I took the reference you quote as being to the prospect of having to try and support oneself as an adjunct if no further postdoc position was to come through.

  22. Tim May says:

    Richard Séguin,

    Just to be clear, I didn’t write the paragraph about being a part-time Web designer and doing research on the side.

    I’ve already said enough in this thread. But I agree with you that doing physics on the side, or as in independent, is tough. Math may be easier to do this way.

  23. Michael Hutchings says:

    With a couple of spectacular exceptions (Perelman, Zhang,…), being isolated from the community is generally fatal for serious mathematics research.

  24. Jeffrey M says:

    @Michael Hutchings,

    Well, Perelman had positions at Courant, Stony Brook, and Berkeley, and then at Steklov. And Zhang, who was out of math for a number of years after grad school, did get a job as a lecturer at UNH. Neither of them were really isolated, though Zhang certainly didn’t have the usual teaching load for a high level researcher. I would agree isolation is generally fatal, I can’t offhand think of any real result coming from outside the academic community in recent years.

  25. Michael Hutchings says:

    Jeffrey M:

    Yes, but my understanding is that Perelman proved the Poincare conjecture while hiding away for a long time in the woods in Russia. And I suspect that Zhang didn’t have much contact with the number theory community while doing his famous work. I think that even for professional mathematicians with solid training and credentials, going into isolation is usually very bad. In this regard it will be very interesting to see what happens with the abc conjecture…

  26. a job market survivor says:

    @Confused, @Peter, most graduate students in HEP theory are supported on TAships in the US (as NSF, DOE funding has been cut so much that even rich institutions can’t support theory students on RAs anymore). Hitler is saying he’s not willing to postpone his graduation for another year in the hopes that he’ll have better luck on the postdoc market next year.

    @John, while the whole issue of childbearing, and more broadly speaking, the likelihood of facing long-distance relationships during the grueling postdoctoral phase of an academic career is a big structural problem that badly, badly needs addressing, I can assure you that the issue of underrepresentation of women in the sciences starts with the systematic discouragement of girls from pursuing science and math in grade school, and good old-fashioned bias, both implicit and explicit, is still a very real factor.

  27. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks a job market survivor,
    I should have realized that, somehow was thinking of Hitler as a current postdoc, not a student…

  28. Peter Woit says:

    Please resist the temptation to use an interesting comment about the effect of the postdoc system on women’s careers as an excuse to start exactly the same argument about why women don’t go into science that one can see a million other places. Surely you don’t want to read those arguments again, so why do you think it is a good idea to start them?

  29. Anonyrat says:

    How is a healthy, sustainable particle physics community of active researchers possible in these circumstances? When the winnowing out of the field is this brutal, the formation of a monoculture becomes much more likely.

  30. Confused says:

    @AcademicLurker, @Peter, @a job market survivor,

    Thank you very much for your answers.
    So as I understand you, it is more difficult to find postdoc positions.
    But are teaching undergrads easily found in the US after one’s PhD is completed (like here in north africa)? I mean, can people who have not done any postdoc in HEP find a permanent undergraduate teaching position, so that one supports oneself while doing independent research without funding?

    Thank you very much again.

  31. AcademicLurker says:


    Low paying adjunct positions teaching undergraduates are reasonably easy to find post PhD. These have no job stability and are renewed each semester.

    Permanent teaching positions are much more difficult to get. Even bloodthirsty fascist dictators have trouble securing them.

  32. Anonymous says:

    “I recognize that this is a genre that is a bit tired…” Noooooooo! I will never tire of Hitler Downfall parodies.

    Now if someone would figure out how to combine it with Rickrolling…

  33. twistor says:

    @ RhoPhi:

    Rough computation: assume the number of jobs is constant. Assume each professor has about ~10 phds / academic lifetime on average. Then 10% of phds will get a permanent position…

    Certainly in Europe the # of jobs in t-HEP is a constant, perhaps slowly declining if any.

  34. Alex K says:

    Did anyone else notice that they replaced “Stalin” by “Nima”

    I don’t think he’s *that* bad 😛

  35. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:


    This particular Unterganger left me conflicted. The final comment about the pants was so poignant…the resulting wave of sympathy for the Führer was a tad unsettling.

  36. gadfly says:

    “How is a healthy, sustainable particle physics community of active researchers possible in these circumstances? When the winnowing out of the field is this brutal, the formation of a monoculture becomes much more likely.”

    Well, HEP stuff is not currently insightful to the rest of science, and evolved out of a hyper-reductionistic paradigm that is dead outside of physics. Moreover, it’s pretty obvious that without actual data to play with, you can’t learn more about how the world works. So why manufacture pointless, grandiose sounding philosophical questions when there are so many things that we don’t understand that we can research instead?

    The hiring situation is getting worse in CS/quantitative biology disciplines (biophysics, bioinformatics) where I moved after my physics B.S., but it’s nowhere near as bad as HEP or pure math. Engineering and C.S. PhD’s I meet get TT positions without even doing a post doc.

    When the fact that your field is antiquated and anachronistic has become obvious to everyone else, why not simply move on and work on other perfectly interesting problems for which there is plenty of good data and a will in the lay public to fund it?

    –Just a gadfly

  37. Shantanu says:

    Peter and others. OT to this, but the videos of the LMU workshop on why trust a theory are online

  38. Peter Woit says:

    Please, the HEP theory job market is on-topic, whether HEP theory is dead isn’t.

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