Particle Theory Job Market

Erich Poppitz has updated his statistics on the high energy theory job market to include data from 2009. He counts hirings to tenure-track faculty jobs, using data from the Theoretical Particle Physics Jobs Rumor Mill. For 2009, out of 12 hires listed on the Rumor Mill, he counts 9 as in high-energy theory, 3 as cosmologists. Of the 9 high energy theorists, he counts 7 as in phenomenology, 2 as in string theory. I’m not sure exactly who he is counting as a string theorist, probably Easson (string cosmology) and either Elvang (now working on QFT amplitudes) or Shih (supersymmetry breaking). It appears that it is now essentially impossible to get a permanent job in a physics department if you’re working on the more formal end of string theory (or string phenomenology, for that matter). You pretty much have to work in cosmology or phenomenology to have some sort of job prospects.

The academic job market in general in the US is in a terrible state, and this is reflected in the change from an average of around 20 hires per year in recent years to 9 in 2009. It looks like the situation won’t be any better for 2010. The imbalance between the large number of new PhDs and postdocs, and very few permanent jobs is quite remarkable. According to the postdoc rumor mill, this year already 8 people have accepted postdocs in Princeton, at the university and the IAS, making this small segment of the community large enough to fill almost all the available permanent jobs.

The US economy remains on its knees due to the economic crisis triggered by the blow-up of debt instruments, especially those designed by quants often coming from a physics background. Luckily for physics PhDs who now have no hope for a job in academia, what I hear from my financial industry friends is that, unlike the rest of the economy, their companies are doing quite well, embarking on new rounds of hiring.

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43 Responses to Particle Theory Job Market

  1. Tony Smith says:

    Peter, you said “… The US economy remains on its knees due to the economic crisis triggered by the blow-up of debt instruments …”
    and
    also that you “… hear from … financial industry friends is that, unlike the rest of the economy, their companies are doing quite well …”.

    Have your friends explained how it is that the financial industry, where “the blow-up of debt instruments” occurred,
    has avoided being “on its knees” and is instead “doing quite well”?

    Tony Smith

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Tony,

    This is one of the great mysteries of the modern world, but for informed discussion of it, I suggest you frequent one of any number of blogs devoted to the issue. I’d like to stick to math and physics here.

  3. Robert McNees says:

    A number of people who have worked on strings (or stringy topics) are responding to this by looking for jobs at Universities and Colleges that don’t show up on the Rumor Mill. These are positions at good schools, with reasonable teaching loads and lots of time for research. Yet many of us never hear about them in grad school.

    The last few years really have been bad if you go by the Rumor Mill, but the picture isn’t _as_ bad if you consider the full range of jobs that are out there. Though frankly, with the number of PhDs that are being produced, it’s hard to imagine a market that could produce enough jobs to keep everyone happy.

  4. neo says:

    Fascinating how these accelerative cycles work. In Economics, it was game theorists. Game theory was hot and every department was clamoring for game theorists. New PhDs responded accordingly and became game theory specialists. For a while it was good, but then departments became top heavy with game theorists, especially when the discipline turned more empirical. But the game theory train had too much momentum. The system kept churning out game theorists. Is the same thing now happening with string theorists in Physics?

  5. In response to the post and one of the comments: I treat particle theory, phenomenology, and cosmology as one group, and string theory and lattice as the other two. In cases such as those mentioned, I allow myself to assign fractions of a person to different groups (some subjectivity definitely creeps in then; also, I notice the 2009 percentages don’t add up to 100, my apologies, will fix). As for looking at jobs not on the rumor mill my only response is that these are very hard to track.

  6. Pingback: Physicists: As Bulletproof in the Economy as Government Employees « Mnemosyne's Notebook

  7. Mesa says:

    Well as someone involved in said industry, I can tell you that it wasn’t the design of the instruments that was particularly the problem, but the leverage with which they were applied. The decisions to lever up the exposure to these instruments were made by MBAs, not PhDs. IE bankers not quants.

  8. Did my PhD 15 years ago and it took me two years to find a job thereafter. There is life outside the academic world but it takes a while to make the shift. I have compassion with all those who finish their PhD in math or hep these days and cannot stay in research; it’s not fair. The commercial world does benefit from all these smart people but it’s sad for hep and there is much hidden (personal and/or psychological) pain underneath all this.
    Even without the economic factor, the whole publish or perish atmosphere is a destructive element on the long run. The current state is the result of an incorrect perception about what ‘research’ is, I think. Probably it’ll take a long time before the hep community has made a shift again.

  9. whaddyagonnado says:

    Not all phds apply to be postdocs. Many people start a phd with no intention of a career in academia. So it’s not such a great problem that there are so many phds being churned out.

    A bigger issue is the proportion of permanent/faculty jobs compared to postdoc positions, because once you’ve started a postdoc you’re committed to the academic path. You can still get out of course, but it’s more painful than when you’re fresh out of grad school.

  10. Michael says:

    Just a piece of information: there is a major decline in the number of jobs for experimentalists in particle physics, too, based on the data posted at http://www.freewebs.com/heprumor/index.html . There appear to be 9 openings in 2009-10 compared to 16 in 2008-9, 31 in 2007-8 and 24 in 2006-7.

  11. Bob Levine says:

    Several years ago a rather chilling essay appeared in PHYSICS TODAY, whose author laid out a number of quite reasonable (and deliberately optimistic) assumptions about the future demand for physicists in the U.S., based on retirement rates, expansion prospects for academic programs, employment patterns in the private and military/government lab sectors, and several other parameters, and then worked out what the rate of Ph.D. production would have to be just meet these requirements. It’s been a while, but as I recall, he concluded that if each senior faculty member currently employed in a university with a doctoral program in physics turned out, on average, *two* Ph.D.s over a whole career, that would be about right to meet all the need for physicists—academic, industrial, military—for the next generation at least. The obvious problem was, he noted, that no graduate program in physics in its right mind would throttle back its doctoral graduation rates to that level.

    And this was *way* before the current economic implosion we’re going through….

  12. Thomas Larsson says:

    In a steady-state situation, each advisor will on average give birth to one new advisor in the next generation. So if each advisor on average produces 10 PhDs over his career, 90% of them will not become advisors themselves.

    I don’t understand how that can be a surprise for anybody.

  13. Paul Wells says:

    Sorry -but regarding the comment ” I have compassion with all those who finish their PhD in math or hep these days and cannot stay in research; it’s not fair.” I don’t agree. I don’t think there is an entitlement to work in the fields of particle physics or any other area. The current funding “crunch” (= rationalization) in particle physics has been obvious for many years. Experiments cost too much and theorists have been delivering too little on their former promises. Nine sounds about right for particle physics theory new-hires.

    Physics is a fantastic field and great training for many fields. Just look at number of Physics grads working in electronics and computer areas.

    If particle physics is going through a lean period – change to solid-state ! Or even consider going into industry and help the U.S. economy.

    BTW I have a PhD in Physics. Left academia years ago and wish I had done it earlier.

  14. Frederik Denef says:

    Things are a little better than what the rumor mill suggests. Last year, three of our own string theory postdocs got faculty jobs: one in Alberta, one is Austin and one in Milan. All three are doing mathematically oriented string theory. There have been several fairly recent string hires in Europe, places like the Simons center will end up hiring quite a few too, and the hiring freezes at places in the US will not last forever.

  15. Robert McNees says:

    Frederik: At least one of those jobs was in a Math department, right? Was that job listed on the Rumor Mill? I’m curious about the number of jobs over the last few years that support stringy stuff, but weren’t on the Rumor Mill.

  16. Peter Shor says:

    Thomas Larsson says:

    In a steady-state situation, each advisor will on average give birth to one new advisor in the next generation. So if each advisor on average produces 10 PhDs over his career, 90% of them will not become advisors themselves.

    I don’t understand how that can be a surprise for anybody.

    This makes the quite unreasonable assumption that the only jobs that a PhD physicist is qualified for is tenured professorships in PhD granting institutions. If this is the case, it’s quite clear we’re teaching the wrong stuff in our PhD programs.
    For one thing there are lots of non-PhD granting colleges who need to hire faculty to teach physics to undergrads. The requirement for these faculty is generally that they be PhD physicists (and some of them at the better colleges are actually incredibly good PhD physicists). There are also lots of jobs for PhD physicists in industrial labs, which also don’t grant PhDs.

    So I would guess that the steady-state number is at least 3 or 4, and the distribution should be biased towards PhDs at top universities.

    On the other hand it seems quite likely that we are granting too many degrees in physics.

  17. Thomas Larsson says:

    What???
    I never claimed that PhD physicists were unfit for anything but professorships at PhD-granting instutions. On the contrary, 90% better be qualified for other jobs, in industry, government, education or academia. Note that I used the word “advisor” rather than “professor”, thus excluding professors at non-PhD granting institutions.

  18. Arun says:

    Some 40% or more of graduate students in physics in the US are(? – definitely used to be) from overseas. Assuming that Asian universities are staffing up, and economic growth continues there, some number will be taken up there.

  19. anonymous says:

    I can also vouch for the market being far better than this suggests. Three present/former postdocs I know from Stanford got faculty jobs last year: one at Heidelberg, one at DESY, and one at Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. (Not to double count the one who Frederik mentioned who is now in Milan). So if you’re out there thriving in your research and this message stream panics you, relax.

  20. anonymous says:

    Oops, I should have stressed: two of those can only be called string phenomenologists, and the third does very formal mathematical string theory. [The one now in Milan, who should not be double-counted, also does very formal mathematical string theory].

  21. Peter Woit says:

    It’s interesting to hear that the job situation is better in Europe (at least on the continent, one hears lots of bad news from Britain). At some point things presumably will pick up again in US physics departments, but in the meantime, it sounds like those looking for a job in this field need to learn a foreign language (German, French, Italian, or mathematics…).

  22. Garbage says:

    I think there are 2 points here. 1) Whether string theorists should be learning a new language/field (or returning home); 2) Whether we should tell PhD students (and postdocs) in universities other than Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, etc. (very short ‘etc.’ indeed according to Poppitz), they should seriously consider life outside academia.

    On the other hand, this year postdoc jobs was unusually good (although arguably bleak for string theorist.) Not sure whether this will be a trend or not, only the future will tell…

  23. ObsessiveMathsFreak says:

    There are probably lots of interesting jobs and research programs outside of theoretical particle physics which in fact result in things that are actually useful. Not to be too blunt about it, but the field of particle physics—and theoretical physics in general—has not made leaps and bounds in recent years.

    There are countless unsolved problems and phenomena in low temperature physics, astronomy, optics, fluid mechanics, etc. There were the bread and butter problems of physicists in days gone by and perhaps the world would be better served by young minds researching in these fields rather than adding yet more impenetrable papers to the hep-th heap?

  24. Trent says:

    I’m surprised to see that nobody mentioned the obvious: having lots of PhD’s and few jobs is good for competition. Only the best people will get hired and in order to end up with the best one needs to start from a large pool. Exactly how things are right now. Problem?

  25. Arun says:

    “…having lots of PhD’s and few jobs is good for competition. Only the best people will get hired and in order to end up with the best one needs to start from a large pool. Exactly how things are right now. Problem?”

    Yes, the field becomes much less attractive, and good people will do something else. Over time the field is impoverished.

  26. Christine says:

    Trent wrote:

    (…) Only the best people will get hired (…)

    Define “best”. Sometimes merit is undervalued against one’s social capital and other interests, as science is a social activity after all. With time, too strong a competition may probably “naturally select” not the honest-type of scientist but the more aggressively ambitious-type (namely, that who aims at success and power above all).

  27. From an evolutionary point of view the idea that natural selection picks out the best, Trent is right. In the same fashion, World Wars also help nature in selecting (according to some dictators) the ‘better’ ones. So, the key issue in all this is the criteria you handle in this process. What is ‘better’ or ‘best’? What is the norm? I think often criteria are used (to pick out PhD’s) which are very subjective and politically loaded. The criterium ‘creativity’ or ‘deep/visionary’ is usually irrelevant.
    Most of all, perceiving this (selection) process in this way disposes the fact that science is a human activity and PhD’s have feelings, families, responsibilities, dreams… Discarding this dimension of life (and doing research is part of life, no?) is ignoble as far as I’m concerned.

  28. Paul Wells says:

    U.S. PhD takes too long. In U.K PhD takes 3 years. IMHO this is better for society and makes it easier to transition to non-academic career.The issue might be that U.S. PhD is too long and too narrow. Being cynical PhD students are just being exploited as cheap labour.

  29. babel says:

    “The criterium ‘creativity’ or ‘deep/visionary’ is usually irrelevant.”

    True, because you can’t quantify it. How would you select people based on creativity, or vision? You’d just create more opportunity for corruption and bias.

    Do you think the great Renaissance artists were hired based on some vague criteria like the above? No, they were hired based on previous works. And at the sole discretion of the employer. It was a free market of art. That’s how you get masterpieces.

    Not by imposing or saying hey more jobs should be available or whatever. Or that this and that should be the criteria. If a university wants to be competitive, it will be in its own interest to hire the most capable. Eventually natural selection will provide the best criteria. No one forced anyone to get a PhD, so no one should be issuing any sort of demands or expectations. If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s the fault of everyone who encouraged students to get a phd in the first place.

    I do agree however that getting a phd should be harder, as should getting an undergrad degree. Giving them out is bad for everyone. If you pick a random bum of the street and give him a phd, he’ll still be unqualified for advanced work, but he won’t lower himself to flipping burgers anymore either. Since he has a phd and all.

    Yet people complain that too few people have access to higher education. Make up your mind.

    Best,
    A future phd student in mathematical string theory.

  30. Me says:

    “Eventually natural selection will provide the best criteria.”

    natural selection doesn’t provide best criteria, only sufficient ones for survival. That’s all.

  31. Trent says:

    Christine and others,

    Imagine you are sitting on a hiring committee. You need to decide who to hire from 50 applicants and you have 3 jobs to fill. You will surely rank the candidates according to some criteria that you think is the most reasonable. Naturally you will pick the 3 best candidates. So, naturally, you will have the definition of ‘best’. It will the definition that you think is the most appropriate.

    Would you prefer to have the criteria given — or dictated — by somebody? Would you be happier if somebody told you who to hire?

    I’m sure the answer to both questions is no. If *you* are on a hiring committee *you* will define ‘best’.

    This is exactly the current system, there are no uniform guidelines dictated or suggested by somebody outside the decision makers, each university, each department, each hiring committee and each member of the hiring committee makes up his/her mind and defines what is ‘best’.

    Christine, you wrote,


    With time, too strong a competition may probably “naturally select” not the honest-type of scientist but the more aggressively ambitious-type (namely, that who aims at success and power above all).

    Do you have any facts to back this claim up? Factual, quantifiable facts I mean.

    Trent

  32. martibal says:

    To Trent

    “I’m sure the answer to both questions is no. If *you* are on a hiring committee *you* will define ‘best’.”
    So don’t call it “the best”, call it “the one that at instant t and place x best serves my interest”. And it could be the one who seems to produce the most interesting papers, or the cutest one with whom I am sleeping and is supposed to marry me (but will left me as soon as he/she is hired), or the one that will help me in my administrative task, without challenging my scientific ideas.

    “Would you prefer to have the criteria given — or dictated — by somebody? Would you be happier if somebody told you who to hire?”
    Yes, I would be happy that the committee makes its decision on clear and public criteria. “the best” is an empty word. Clear criteria need not to be dictated from the outside.

    When you are in hiring committe, do you take the time to really study the applicants’ papers ? I guess no because you are very busy and it would take several days/weeks to fully study the work of 50 candidates. And of course one week of a hiring committe member (who, by the way, has been at some time pointed out as “the best”, hence considers himself that his opinion needs not to be justified) is worth more than the work-lifetime of 50 candidates.
    The most honnest thing I have heard on hiring committe is from a professor explaining that, once a short list is made, all the candidates would fit the position. The process is then totally random, and it would not be less fair to just throw a dice.

  33. Thomas Larsson says:

    Natural evolution selects the fittest. Fittest is the person that was selected.

  34. Peter Woit says:

    Please, enough mounting of hobbyhorses about the fairness/unfairness of how hiring decisions get made.

  35. sourgrape says:

    If Peter Woit can get a job, why can’t I get one?

  36. Peter Woit says:

    sourgrape,

    I suspect you have a job. And, life is unfair…

  37. Alexey Petrov says:

    Very strange study — looks to me that the data is not accurate — even if we consider Particle Rumor Mill as a source (note that some particle jobs were also listed on the Nuclear Rumor Mill).

    For example, in 2001, when I got my job, there were 31 openings in the US with 21 first-time hires — that is according to the Rumor Mill. Erich lists only 19 — why? Not to mention that my job does not exist according to page 2 of his study…

  38. To add to my post above — there were 6 new hires advertised on the Nuclear Rumor page that went to particle theorists (if you consider QCD theorist as particle theorist). And there is also Astro rumor page that aslo lists cosmology jobs. So the studies are at least not accurate… yet it is clear that the number of faculty jobs in particle theory went down quite a bit compared to some years ago…

  39. In response to Alexey’s comments: yes, there is an inherent inaccuracy stemming from use of Theory Rumor Mill data only. I have now put the disclaimer on top of the page. On his concrete questions about the memorable 2001: yes, indeed there was an omission, and the correct number is 20, so we split the difference (as for his job, it was listed on p.2, which I have made clearer now).

  40. I can’t comment on high energy hiring in particular, but having served on and chaired search committees, I can talk about hiring in more general terms. Regarding martibal’s comment above…. If the search committee has done its job well, then yes, you would hope that everyone on the short list is “above the bar”, so to speak. By that, I mean that everyone on the short list would (a) stand a reasonable chance of research success (as much as anyone does; there is some luck involved, after all); (b) not be an embarrassment in the classroom (and ideally would be an excellent teacher and clear communicator); (c) not have major problems getting along with colleagues; and (d) be able to interact well with students; not necessarily in that order.

    That doesn’t mean that choosing among the short-listed people is random. After a visit (with individual conversations w/ faculty members) and (in our department’s case) two talks (one to the whole department and one about research plans to the search committee), it becomes clear that the different short-listed candidates bring different strengths to the table. One might be a more dynamic, interactive person; one might be more creative or visionary in terms of research; one might fit very well into the perceived research needs of the department. At this point, it’s a matter of the search committee really refining what they want and need, having seen the choices before them.

    For what it’s worth, in my limited experience I think in general that hiring practices in academia are certainly no worse than in other professions. Committees may tend not to be bold or adventurous, but at least there’s a process, as opposed to the whims of a HR department + keyword search of resumes. The ratio of applicants to academic positions makes the process painful from the applicant side far more than the hiring process itself.

  41. Chris Oakley says:

    Here is one possible job opportunity: teaching string theory to Anne Hathaway.

  42. martibal says:

    Is this a tenure track, or just a 1+1 year postdoc ?

  43. Chris Oakley says:

    Martibal,

    You would have to check with her agent.
    Another female celebrity who might be into it is Courtney Love.
    She apparently likes “watching quantum physics videos on YouTube”.
    I must admit that I did not know there were any, but now I will check it out.

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