Survivor

Steve Hsu has a recent posting Survivor: theoretical physics, which links to data about the theoretical particle physics job market compiled by Erich Poppitz from listings on the Theoretical Particle Physics Rumor Mill web-site.

Back in 2001-2 I also spent some time looking at this data, and estimated that in recent years there had been typically about 15 tenure-track hires each year in particle theory, of which roughly half were going to string theorists. Starting around 2000, the number of hires started to increase, as it has increased throughout academia during a period of reasonably healthy university budgets and an increasing number of retirements (of those hired during the 60s when many universities expanded dramatically). Since 2000 the number of hires has typically been more like 20, anomalously high at 28 in 2007. The anomalously low number of 15 for this past year’s hiring may be a fluctuation, but it also may be an indication of either university budget cutbacks or increasing unpopularity of particle physics in US physics departments. The fraction of string theory hires has gone down dramatically, to more like 25% over the last 5 years.

I don’t have any data at hand about the recent total number of people getting particle physics Ph.D.s, and whether this number has grown with the number of faculty hires. I did find at one point a number of 78 for particle theory Ph.D.s in 1997, but I don’t know if this included degrees in cosmology, which increasingly has become mixed with particle theory. Poppitz also lists numbers of hires by institution. Princeton comes out significantly ahead with 23 people getting jobs over 15 years. I’d guess there are typically about 3-4 people/year getting theory Ph.D.s there. So, traditionally, if you want to maximize your chance at a job, Princeton is the place to go. Not clear how this will work out in the future, given the very small number of string theorists getting hired.

To get some idea of the imbalance between Ph.D.s being produced and tenure-track jobs, in 2007 one institution, Harvard, produced 8 theory Ph.D.s. That’s more than half the total number of tenure-track hires this past year. In the past a large number of these Ph.D.s ended up working in finance, but prospects in that industry are not looking so good either.

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49 Responses to Survivor

  1. JC says:

    They should also look at the folks who did not get tenure and subsequently left particle physics, and also the folks who got a faculty job but later quit of their own volition (and left particle theory).

  2. MathPhys says:

    Are the tenure track prospects of math graduates better?

  3. big vlad says:

    anyone know roughly what fraction of postdocs in theoretical particle physics will find permanent positions? what’s the breakdown between ‘theory’ theory and phenomenology?

  4. Peter Woit says:

    MathPhys,

    I haven’t looked into the numbers for math, but the situation seems to me to be very different, with job prospects a lot better. I know many people with particle theory Ph.D.s who have left academia because they saw no prospects of any kind of job at all where they could do research. Of the math Ph.D.s I know who left academia, almost always it was not because they couldn’t get some kind of job if they wanted one, but they decided that the pay, working conditions, location, etc. were better outside academia.

    Big Vlad,

    There’s also a more recent postdocs rumor mill, you could gather data from there. Then you’d also have to figure out the question JC asks, how many people getting tenure track jobs stay on and get tenure.

    As a very, very rough guess, my impression is that in recent years maybe half of the new Ph.D.s in theory get postdocs, and of these, maybe 1/5 end up in a permanent academic job where they can do research. So, if you’re a new theory Ph.D., one chance in ten…

  5. Rien says:

    Remember that this is rather America-centered. Many people get their PhDs elsewhere and come to the US or Canada for postdocs and/or faculty positions. Europeans often do a couple of postdocs in the US and then go back to Europe for faculty positions, but Americans very rarely go outside of the US at all except maybe for CERN. The postdoc rumor mill has postdocs everywhere, so the comparison won’t be perfect.

  6. steve hsu says:

    It’s important to emphasize that your probability of getting a job varies dramatically as a function of where you do your PhD work. At best (Princeton, Harvard, Berkeley) it is 1 in 3 or 4. But at many departments in the top 10-20 range of traditional rankings the probability could be 1 in 10-15 (Yale, Columbia, Maryland each produced only 3 professors over 15 years), or even less than 1 in 40 (e.g., UCLA, BU, UIUC … produced 1 or fewer professors in the last 15 years!) Note these are positions in the US and Canada. If you include jobs in foreign countries the odds improve quite a bit, perhaps by a factor of 1.5 I would guess, but many Americans wouldn’t take a job in, e.g., China or Chile.

    While it’s widely known that the job prospects overall are poor in particle theory, I doubt people are familiar with this rapid drop off in the odds as a function of department ranking.

  7. ninguem says:

    MathPhys,

    The Notices of the AMS publishes very detailed statistics about the job market in Math every year.
    http://www.ams.org/notices/

  8. Peter Woit says:

    Steve,

    Thanks, that’s right, the dependence on department is dramatic. The rough “1 in 10″ I had in mind is an average.

    As Rien points out, this is just about the US market, but increasingly this is a globalized profession. Many of our students in recent years have come from China or other places outside the US, and there are now starting to be attractive job possibilities for them if they want to go back. The story of the next decade may be a rather weak US academic job market, but all sorts of opportunities in places like China and India. If you’re a string theorist, a job in the US may be hopeless, but many possibilities in Beijing (actually I have no idea what the situation is with Chinese universities and string theorists…).

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  10. Well, well. I did not get any royalties yet from Hsu’s site. I wonder if they got lost in the mail.

    The thing is, besides the name of my blog, which is there since January 2006, I am really looking more and more like a survivor myself. At the young age of 42 years and a half, I still have a temporary position as a INFN researcher.

    True, when I won the 5-year researcher position I have now, in December 2005, the INFN was clear in explaining that winners would gradually get a permanent position.

    True, in 2007 a procedure of stabilization of personnel with at least three years of employment was started. I received a letter which assured me that the INFN had no power to fire me after the expiration of the five-year contract. That meant I could only be hired permanently, at some point. But when ?

    Then, early this year those who had won the position in 2005 were asked to pass a new selection. This new selection was presented as the way by which INFN could bypass some budget restrictions and finally hire us permanently without further ado. Needless to say, we all complied to the new request. Then, only a contract was going to have to be signed, and we would all be happy…

    Six more months have passed, Berlusconi’s government is ruling, and a law is being passed which stops all the stabilization procedures, preventing the hiring of people with temporary postions, regardless of whatever had been promised before.

    I think there is still a chance that we do not fall in the category which is cut or fired. I worry not – I would continue doing my job even if I was fired. However, I cannot but smile at my sorry country and its contorsions.

    So, here it is, from a true survivor.

    Cheers,
    T.

  11. JC says:

    steve hsu,

    How much is the Princeton/Harvard/Berkeley factor a function of self-selection? (ie. The better folks prefer to attend the better graduate schools).

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  13. steve hsu says:

    T: your check is in the mail ;-) Can I visit Trieste soon?

    JC: It’s certainly true that the quality of theory grad students at each school roughly correlates with the placement probabilities. But there are other effects, like having a powerful supervisor pushing for you in letters and phone calls. It also helps to learn from other smart students, and it helps to be part of a big bandwagon / fad like string theory.

    But let’s take the example of a less elite but still very strong physics department like UCLA. It’s a big department with a large high quality theory group. During the last 15 years they probably produced 50 or so PhDs in particle theory and related fields. But only 1 of their PhDs got a faculty job at a research university in the US or Canada. Shocking, no? I bet those 50 people are all very smart. They’re probably producing a lot of value and innovation on Wall St., in Silicon Valley, etc. I doubt they knew what odds they were facing when they started graduate school.

    At U Oregon the typical student who ends up doing theory is either a Chinese / Indian kid with perfect physics GRE who graduated at the top of his class from a leading university, or an American kid who was at or near the top of his undergraduate class at a big public university or liberal arts college. At that stage in their lives all options are still open to them. Little do they know what they are getting into.

  14. postthis says:

    It’s not so clear that the job market in, for example, math is any better. One would have to compare physics (all fields) versus math (all fields) or else particle theory versus some comparably theoretical area of math.

    If you count research labs whose employees publish their work in some of the same places as research professors, then there would seem to also be more places for physicists than mathematicians (who tend to be crowded out by those with more domain-specific knowledge such as computer science PhD’s).

  15. Jabotinsky says:

    The odds in math are a lot better. There’s been an increase in the number of jobs to go along with the increase in number of PhDs. Generally, if you have a good thesis at a good university, you’ll get some postdoc. Americans are favored to some extent due to VIGRE etc. Tenure-track is substantially harder, but it’s not like in physics. People who publish interesting stuff generally can get a tenure-track job at some research place somewhere… but you might have to move to Undesirable State University. It’s the trade-off to get paid to do your hobby, I suppose. There are of course a few who for some reason or another strike out on the job market, due to interviewing issues or just bad luck. And there are more than a few who end out teaching math in the myriads of liberal arts places. But I think at a Harvard or similar at least 1/2 of the PhDs would be able to continue a research career if they really want to, based on my knowledge of this.

  16. Steve, I am in Padova, no connections to Trieste. You are welcome to visit Padova however.

    As a comment from somebody living and working outside US, I must say the situation in particle theory is not perceived to be so bad there from here. Probably we have a slow response and old inputs. In experimental particle physics the situation is so different that it probably also help confuse matters – more than a few of my colleagues have found a job in US universities after hitting a wall here. But of course, I am talking about Italy.

    Cheers,
    T.

  17. John Baez says:

    What about tenure-track physics positions that aren’t specifically “in particle theory”? That is, positions where they just want someone with a PhD who can teach undergraduate physics. How many string theorists (or more generally, particle physics) take jobs like this? I wouldn’t count this as the equivalent of academic death.

  18. postthis says:

    at most institutions whose math faculty have a chance to survive intellectually, there are similar faculty positions for physics. An Undesirable State University where a math professor has a chance to at least survive intellectually also has physics courses and a physics departments. If they have anything with labs or grad students the physics faculty size grows accordingly.

    The observations about VIGRE and Harvard just illustrate that the math and physics job markets have different cycles. There was a time when Harvard math PhD’s (in all fields) were in exactly the situation of particle theory today, with postdocs, even for North American graduates, being easier to find on other continents.

  19. anonmath says:

    Well, as a faculty member of Undesirable State University, I would note that most of our faculty have PhD’s from Ivy League, Oxbridge, etc type universities, whereas our graduate students tend to get jobs at “four year colleges” which in turn have no graduate students.

    So the numbers game works out when most people settle for stepping down a rung.

  20. 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 advises ten students during his/her career, only one out of ten PhD’s can become advisors themselves. Assuming that the days of exponential growth are gone forever, I don’t see how this can be avoided.

  21. AGeek says:

    I am reminded of Wilczek’s marriage optimization algorithm. Just substitute “prospective Ph.D. student” for “suitor”, “academia” for “courtship” etc.:

    You have to estimate the number N of suitors that you can expect to deal with over your career in courtship. We’ll assume that you evaluate them one at a time, and that once you’ve broken up with one, then that one is gone forever. Then what you should do is this. Evaluate, but do not accept, each of the first N/e suitors. Here e is a number, the base of natural logarithms, approximately 2.7. Then accept the first subsequent suitor who is better than all the earlier ones. That is how to maximize your chance of getting the best possible mate.

    For example, if N is 10, then you should evaluate but reject each of the first 4 suitors, and accept to first one after that who is better than them. In my own case, I estimated N=3. I dutifully broke up with my first serious girlfriend, but the second was better, and I married her. It worked out fine.

  22. JC says:

    steve hsu,

    In the case of Princeton folks getting particle theory jobs over the last 15 years, it would be interesting to see how many were grad students of Edward Witten and/or had Witten writing their reference letters.

    In the case of Harvard and Berkeley folks, were there any particular “superstar” advisors who had a significantly large number of students who got particle theory jobs?

    In contrast, do the “non-superstar” advisors at Princeton/Harvard/Berkeley have zero (or one) students who actually got a particle theory job?

    It would be interesting to trace the lineage of physics professors from earlier time periods. For example, how many folks who got theoretical physics professors jobs during the 1920′s and 1930′s, were grad students of Niels Bohr, Arnold Sommerfeld, Max Born, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, etc …? Did having a physics phd from Goettingen, Munich, Leipzig, etc … from the 1920′s and 1930′s, have a significant correlation to one getting a theoretical physics professor job?

  23. Jeff McGowan says:

    I’ve been on a bunch of hiring committees here at “Undesirable State University” in math, and the job market for math is certainly much better than for physics, but it is far from good. Last year we hired two new tenure track people, both with interesting research, one very new, one with a bunch of publications already. We had a couple of hundred overqualified applicants. For most of the 90′s, the market in math was worse than it is now – people from good schools with good theses ended up in places they would not have thought of considering when they started grad school. At that time, math was much more tenure track oriented, unlike physics which had always from what I know been very postdoc driven. Vigre changed things a lot, and since those started most good people in math can graduate and get a postdoc, but the tenure track situation isn’t great. Not to say you can’t get a job, but getting a job at a Ph.D granting institution is really hard. I’m guessing it’s going to get worse, since there was a bunch of hiring tenure track since many people retired in the early oughts, and I think that has mostly worked it’s way through. In my department I am now basically the senior pure mathematician, and I think it is unlikely given the financial stuff going on that we will be adding any more lines anytime soon (we have added a few in the past 5 years). In any case I’m not going to complain on a physics blog, since I don’t think math has ever been nearly as bad as physics. I would think Peter would know about this, as a physics grad. who ended up in a math dept. When I met Peter (what, 7 years after you got your Ph.D?) it was at a math conference and I assumed his doctorate was in math, as I remember he was trying to get me interested in Dirac operators in addition to the Laplacian.

  24. JC says:

    steve hsu,

    In your example of UCLA, a keyword search at SPIRES

    FIND AFF UCLA AND K THESIS AND DATE AFTER 1993

    shows that there were around 20-25 folks who did a particle theory PhD there over the last 15 years. (You are off by a factor of 2).

    Your estimate of around 50 particle theory PhDs over the last 15 years, is more consistent with Berkeley

    FIND AFF ‘UC, BERKELEY’ AND K THESIS AND DATE AFTER 1993

    In the case of Princeton, there’s around 65-70 folks who did a particle theory PhD there over the last 15 years.

    FIND AFF ‘PRINCETON U.’ AND K THESIS AND DATE AFTER 1993

    In the case of Harvard, there’s around 30-35 folks who did a particle theory PhD there over the last 15 years.

    FIND AFF ‘HARVARD U.’ AND K THESIS AND DATE AFTER 1993

    In contrast, a lesser known place like UC San Diego had around 10 folks who did a particle theory PhD there over the last 15 years.

    FIND AFF ‘UC, SAN DIEGO’ AND K THESIS AND DATE AFTER 1993

    (All these counts exclude the PhD theses in experimental particle and astrophysics areas).

    If you poke around further with similar types of SPIRES keyword searches, you will notice many particle theory PhD folks who did not publish a single paper (besides their thesis).

  25. steve hsu says:

    Comments:

    1) re: physics vs math, keep in mind that many smaller schools don’t have *any* particle theorists, but all have math departments. Some liberal arts colleges don’t have any theoretical physicists, only experimenters.

    2) those SPIRES numbers do not sound correct to me. For example, I don’t think there have been twice as many Princeton as Harvard PhDs in the last 15 years. I also doubt UCLA produced < 2 PhDs per year over the last 15 years, but I could be wrong. Are you sure everyone’s dissertation ends up on SPIRES?

  26. JC says:

    If you want to check the Harvard numbers through a source independent of SPIRES, there’s a list of Harvard physics PhD’s sorted by year at

    http://www.physics.harvard.edu/academics/phds.html

    No idea offhand where similar lists (independent of SPIRES) can be found for other universities, short of going through the online library databases of particular universities.

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  28. ninguem says:

    Steve Hsu

    I don’t doubt you, but why do liberal arts colleges prefer experimentalists? Wouldn’t they save lab costs hiring theoreticians?

  29. steve hsu says:

    I don’t understand the policy, although perhaps they think it is easier to get students involved in exptl projects than in theoretical projects. But of course the easiest projects for students are numerical simulations or writing code :-)

  30. Matt says:

    Hi

    I’m a new graduate student in cosmology-high energy physics, in a Canadian university. When I first met my supervisor, he was very clear about my job prospects; I should be ready not to work in academia and be willing to work in the industry. I was and I’m still fine with that (I’m not even sure I would accept a faculty position if I got offered one … I’m ok with working 70 hours per week, but I don’t think I could do that all my life), but I got to admit that I didn’t expect my odd to be so low.

    Anybody know what most of the phd students who left academia end up doing ? How hard is it to get a teacher job in a small college (non-research) ?

  31. ninguem says:

    Matt,

    Who the hell works 70 hours a week? Tenured faculty certainly not.

  32. Peter Shor says:

    Don’t small liberal arts colleges need people to run the lab courses students take? While there are some theoreticians I would trust to do that, there are quite a few more that I wouldn’t.

    Also, in reply to Jeff McGowan, I can definitely say that the wave of retirements in math departments is still in progress at some schools, so the current grad students aren’t completely out of luck. But I wouldn’t expect it to last much longer.

  33. Matt says:

    Hi ninguem,

    I think my current supervisor works about that much, and from what I have seen it’s not a unique case (one of my undergraduate research supervisor worked during the weekends and on week evenings too, he basically lived in his office). It seems hard to really go home and stop thinking about your research, and I don’t think it’s a problem that applies only to students …

    Not to mention, I don’t know if that applies to every department, but in mine the professors are in competion with each other regarding their salary (based on the number of publications, the quality of teaching, outreach …). So that really encourages to do a lot of overtime.

    Plus, everyone knows that what drives physicists is prestige, not money, and in order to be the best I doubt that 40 hours a week is enough.

  34. David says:

    This thread leads to my big gripe. A lot of people seem to equate theoretical physics with string theory. There’s a lot more out there.

  35. chris says:

    somehow i don’t get the point of this constant whining of hep theory people about the job market. somehow it reminds me of my days as a student, when fellow students would talk about which professor has the hardest exams etc. these students were not among the best…

    when i got into the phd program (or even more generally into studying physics) i was perfectly aware that not everyone and her neighbor could be a physics professor. but hey, that’s a challenge! if you would have told me at the beginning of grad school that the chances of finding a faculty position were about 10% after phd, i would probably have rejoiced that the chance is somewhat realistic. it should be made perfectly clear to all grad students that it won’t be a safe and easy ride but honestly, who does not know that? you have to close your eyes really hard.

    and finally, if you think that hep-theory is the most competitive field there is i suggest you to think again. i know a bit how things look like in liberal arts and humanities – specifically in linguistics. basically the situation there is that there is no job. period. a 10% chance for phds to get a faculty position would probably be considered paradise in these fields. and their backup options typicall are not as good either (at least here in europe i know that taxi driver is not an unrealistic option).

  36. Chris, who said the competion was fair ? With odds so low as 1/10, this is bound to be quite the contrary. Let me illustrate this. You see 3 people drowning : your child, Albert Einstein, and someone you don’t know. If you are given 2 lifebelts, you’ll probably save your child and Albert, but if you have only 1, so much for Albert… This is perfectly reasonable from your point of view, but the loss for the society is immense.

  37. Thomas Larsson says:

    Note AE had to take a job as a patent clerk, which is the academic equivalent of drowning. The real anomaly is that Max Planck hired an amateur as his assistent in 1910.

  38. Matt says:

    Chirs said :

    ” if you would have told me at the beginning of grad school that the chances of finding a faculty position were about 10% after phd, i would probably have rejoiced that the chance is somewhat realistic. it should be made perfectly clear to all grad students that it won’t be a safe and easy ride but honestly, who does not know that? you have to close your eyes really hard. ”

    I’m sure it’s easy to say that once you have your own faculty position, or if your confidence and ego was so big that you were already sure you would end up with a faculty position. But the truth is when you’re not that confident, you do care about all those issues, and you also care about which teachers give the hardest exams (I did care about that and I graduated first of my promotion).

    If for you it was just a big challenge, well good for you, but what if you would have end up spending 10 years at University with no job in the end, was the challenge worth it ? Perhaps then you should have considered your option from the beginning, and this is precisely what this post is for, it’s a warning !

  39. Peter Orland says:

    I went into particle theory with my eyes open, fully aware of what the job prospects were (I finished in 1982, when it was just as bad or worse as today). I had help from a few friends, and wrote some possibly decent papers, but the main reason I got a job at a Ph.D. granting institution was determination. During this period, I kept trying to introduce myself to colleagues, despite doors being shut in my face (literally, in one instance).

    My case is not very unusual. I know other people who applied every year for faculty jobs, spending their own savings to visit institutions and go to meetings, some being unemployed for a year.

    Though luck is certainly a factor, one can improve the odds by persistence. That being said, I don’t encourage students to do particle theory unless they can’t be dissuaded.

  40. srp says:

    If we had more physicists working in the patent office, maybe we would have fewer stupid patents granted. I’d even pay for time off to do research–the gains in social welfare would be huge.

  41. estraven says:

    The job perspectives in mathematics are better than in physics, and have been for at least two decades as far as I know. Also faster: mathematicians have a nontrivial chance of landing a tenure-track position two or three years after PhD.

    I wouldn’t be a scientist now if I hadn’t gotten tenure before my ovaries were ready for the trashcan.

  42. These numbers are positively bleak, but what can one expect I guess. Physics is such an interesting subject but even with the LHC in operation, society doesn’t really value theoretical physics if there are such small numbers of jobs available. However, something students should realize is there are some related positions in DOE laboratories. I have worked at Sandia labs where I was able to do some quantum theory related to quantum computing. There are people doing particle physics at Los Alamos. There are not many positions like this either, but the point is you don’t have to go into academia to do physics. And the pay in DOE labs is very good. But despite this it almost seems like going into theoretical physics is like trying out for the NBA. I cannot honestly encourage a young person to consider an advanced degree in physics. The reality is you have to take care of yourself in life and getting a job happens to be central to that mission. I would guess that math is better. People need to learn math for all sorts of reasons so you probably face better prospects with a PhD in applied math.

  43. nbutsomebody says:

    Excellent article, a real eye opener. Is the situation same for other branches of theoretical physics like bio-physics or cond-mat?

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  45. Thomas R Love says:

    ninguem asked: “why do liberal arts colleges prefer experimentalists? ”

    If the local situation (Cal State Dominguez Hills) is any indication, the experimentalists get more grant money. Two are with Super-K and one spends summers at the Jefferson Nat’l Lab. The only one without a grant is a theorist. I’m just a parttime lecturer and not included in the above data.

  46. I think the data is incomplete — it’s probably more relevant to look at
    where the person did a postdoc before he/she was hired into that permanent position, not at the place where he/she got his/her PhD. In this case the situation would be even more startling… speaking as one of the “points” making up that study (as well as someone who’s been on several search committees).

    Also, liberal colleges take both experimentalists and theorists (and this is not reflected in that study too), it depends on a person and on college — last year a person I made an offer to for a postdoc position took a permanent job at a liberal arts college instead. What I mean is that colleges like to have their students to be involved in research. It’s much harder to argue that a string theorist would work with sophomores on cutting-edge research problems…

  47. nbutsomebody says:

    In recent years we see another dangerous trend. Within string theory the people who are getting faculties are people who has topcited papers. That is well and good ( although what is the relevance and scientific worth of citation in string theory is a big question itself, but lets not ask this at the moment.) However the well-cited papers are with already established names in the field and that helped the lesser known then postdoc/student collaborators to get a job.

    Now if one sees the output of junior faculties after they get a job and what they are doing on their own (assuming he/she has not got in job in ivy leagues and not in the same place with his/her previous mentor), it comes out to be really pathetic! Off course there are few “noble” exceptions. But this seems to be a general rule., at least in string theory.

  48. JC says:

    nbutsomebody,

    For these “pathetic” string theorists who had previously high citation counts and who later subsequently produced mediocre to dreadful work as junior faculty, what percentage were later denied tenure?

  49. nbutsomebody says:

    JC,
    Surprisingly almost nobody !!!! and they seem to have a lot of clout too !!