To some extent, if one wants to understand some of the recent history of physics, one should take into account important demographic trends in the subject. For particle physics in the U.S., in recent years the Particle Data Group has been conducting an annual Census of U.S. Particle Physics. The American Institute of Physics has a collection of reports available on-line. The NSF and other various other organizations periodically issue hysterical reports about there being too few physics students getting Ph.D.s. For some perspective on this, in 2003 there were a bit more than 1100 physics Ph.D.s awarded in the U.S., and during 2001-2002, about 230 retirements per year of permanent faculty. Due to large recent increases in graduate student enrollment, the number of Ph.D.s is expected to increase significantly during the next few years. There doesn’t seem to be much danger that anytime soon U.S. universities will see any change in the current situation of having vastly more qualified candidates for academic jobs than actual permanent jobs available.
In the specific case of particle theory, the Particle Data Group figures show roughly 450-500 tenured faculty, and 400-450 graduate students. So, the entire U.S. tenured particle theory professoriate could be just about replaced by one 4-5 year cohort of graduate students. The theoretical particle physics job market will remain extremely competitive for the forseeable future.
Unfortunately, the main hope for young physicists who want an academic job is that current tenured faculty are getting old and have to retire or die sooner or later. The latest data I’ve seen (from a 2000 AIP membership survey) indicated that the average age of tenured physics faculty had reached nearly 60. If anyone knows of more recent data I’d be interested to hear about it. I don’t know of any good on-line sources for historical data, but the December 1995 issue of Physics Today had an interesting article about demographic trends in physics entitled “What future will we choose for physics?”. The authors of that article claimed that before 1970 the median age of physics professors in the U.S. was relatively stable and under 40. In 1970, the number of physics Ph.D.s awarded hit an all time high of nearly 1600, and faculty hiring essentially fell off a cliff. According to the Physics Today article, from 1970 on the median age of tenured faculty increased linearly at the rate of about 8 months/year.
One effect of the aging of the physics community is that Physics Today has been running an increasing number of obituaries, since it has a long-running policy of printing a picture and several paragraphs about each of their members for whom obituaries are submitted. As of this month, facing the prospect of having to devote an increasing fraction of space to this purpose, they have abandoned this policy, announcing that from now on they will only publish obituaries in special cases, setting up a separate web-site for on-line obituaries, since these won’t be appearing in the magazine itself.
Update: Andre Brown wrote in to point out that the 1995 Physics Today article is available on-line.