HEP Theory Job Situation

Way back in the 1980s and 1990s I was, for obvious personal reasons, paying close attention to the job situation for young HEP theorists. They were not good at all: way more talented young theorists than jobs, many if not most Ph.D.s who wanted to continue in the field unhappily spending many years in various postdocs before giving up and doing something else. By the later part of the 1990s I had found a satisfying permanent position in math, so this problem seemed much less interesting. When I was writing “Not Even Wrong” I did spend quite a bit of time gathering numbers to try and quantify the problem, and wrote about them in the book.

Since then I haven’t paid a lot of attention to the HEP theory job situation, hoped that it might have gotten a bit better as the wave of physicists hired during the 1960s hit retirement age, opening up some permanent positions. Today someone sent me a link to a personal statement on Facebook (sorry, but you need to login to a Facebook account to see this) from a young theorist (Angnis Schmidt-May) who has recently decided to leave the field, for reasons that she explains. These include:

We are put in competition with each other from day one, and only very few of us will be given prestigious positions in the end. Most of us never see a permanent contract, keep jumping from place to place and eventually need to find a second career after having sacrificed our entire 20s and 30s to academia. After having made it through the worst part of this and more or less securing my career, it still made me sick to see young physicists entering this spiral. I felt terrible about encouraging them to continue on this path because it is impossible to tell who will make it in the end and who will end up miserable with regrets…

Science itself is severely suffering from the poor working conditions and lack of genuine career prospects. I personally found it extremely hard to focus on the science while constantly being worried about the duration and location of my next contract. #PublishOrPerish. Interactions with and among colleagues are often dominated by the drive to “show off”. Very few people focus on removing misunderstandings or ask honest questions in order to fill their knowledge gaps. The general atmosphere is dominated by doubt instead of trust. We constantly need to outshine our peers. Better to demonstrate superficial knowledge of broad subjects than to focus on the details of a deep problem. Your next result needs to be “groundbreaking”, otherwise you’re out of a job. But produce it and have it published at least one year before your contract ends because that’s when you need to apply for a new one. Science has become a show…

I see absolutely no chance that any of the above will change any time soon.

She also makes important points about the personal cost of this system:

During the last 10 years, I was forced to constantly move around, losing contact to people who meant a lot to me and not being able to establish new lasting relationships.

Sadly, it seems pretty much nothing at all has changed in the last 30-40 years, and I continue to believe this is one reason the subject has been intellectually stagnant during this period. About the only positive suggestion I can make for anyone who wants to try and do anything about this is to take a look at the analogous job situation in mathematics. My knowledge of this is mostly anecdotal, but my impression is that while, like most academic fields, the career path for a new math Ph.D. is not easy, the situation is not at all as bad as the one in HEP theory described above.

Completely Off-Topic: Xenon1T has reported new results today. This seems to me unlikely to be new physics (extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence), so if you want to follow this story, you should be consulting Jester, not me.

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30 Responses to HEP Theory Job Situation

  1. That’s show business.

  2. Mark says:

    Not really a hep theory problem is it? Pretty much every academic field suffers from this problem – too many talented PhD, hardly any permanent jobs.

  3. Very sad 🙁 I was on her PhD committee in Stockholm. Alas, I know exactly what she is talking about.

    And let me add that at the age of 43 I am still sitting on a temporary contract and am worried to run out of funding every other year or so.

  4. Peter Woit says:

    Mark,
    Yes, it’s a general problem in academia, but to different degrees in different fields. About 20 years ago I was looking very closely at whatever data there was, and the problem in HEP theory was worse than in almost any other subject. I haven’t looked at recent data, can just say that the situation in mathematics seems to me much better than in HEP theory. In particular the sad description here of the competitive environment doesn’t sound like what I’ve seen going on in mathematics.

  5. Small advice from someone who fought the gnawing doubt for decades, then took steps to adjust to reality and break free:

    > If you want to do mathematics, or mathematical/theoretical physics, then do it. An institution is not necessary in most cases – just time.
    > Find something other than science that you can be passionate about, and which has the potential to provide a living.

    For me it was animation, then interactive animation, and finally a job I enjoyed creating interactive online apps that required a mathematical background. During all that time I continued working on mathematics and physics, albeit with less time. I gave talks at conferences. I retired with not too many worries.

    I was lucky, maybe, but being able to apply mathematics and physics to the real world will never not be needed.

    Can your ego take the surrender? Is it surrender? Is academia what you grew up thinking it would be? Angnis discovered it is not, and she is correct.

  6. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    This isn’t at all unique to HEP theory, though the problem may be more/most acute in that field. The process of recruitment is fundamentally dishonest. The incentive to maintain a steady supply of cheap labor is irresistible. Research U.’s accept and produce far too many PhD’s, indoctrinated and trained only for academia, with few provisions for those who can’t hack it, for whatever reason. If there were any motivation to train talented people adequately for the more diversified needs of a real-world workforce, things could be much better, but there simply isn’t. The needs of the institution (i.e. the grant and publications numbers game) are overriding. One needs to at least be made aware of the reality going in, but the system is far from self-policing.

  7. Peter Woit says:

    LMMI,
    Yes it’s a general problem, but I do think it is much worse in HEP theory, and the damage the problem has done to the subject is unusual.

    I did do a few minutes research to see if I could get info about other fields. One thing that quickly turned up is detailed data on Philosophy Ph.D.s maintained here:
    http://placementdata.com:8182/phd-programs-running-tally
    One might think of a philosophy Ph.D. as the quintessential useless humanities degree that would make one unemployable, but the top programs often have 60-70% of their graduates getting academic positions of some sort, 25-40% getting academic positions in departments with Ph.D. programs. I’d be curious to see similar numbers for HEP theory, suspect they would be quite a bit lower.

    The humanities model is different than that in the sciences, in that they tend to not have postdocs, you can get a tenure-track job when you get your degree. Arguably this is a much better system than the HEP physics one, avoiding the brutal personal cost to many of having to spend years moving around and not putting down roots.

    The mathematics model is again different, somewhere in between, with both fewer research postdocs and fewer tenure-track jobs available to new Ph.Ds. A typical career path would be a single “postdoc” involving teaching, then a tenure-track job. I’d be very curious to know if there are numbers available comparable to the philosophy ones.

  8. Art says:

    She’s leaving after “more or less securing” her career? I don’t get it. Why not stay in place and work to improve things? (I refuse to open a Facebook account.)

  9. GM says:

    It is the same situation in pretty much all other disciplines, but in some of them it is even more messed up because many people would actually be perfectly OK with not being a tenured professor while in the same time the progress of science would greatly benefit from their accumulated expertise (experimental fields in the life sciences and chemistry immediately come to mind). Those people now just get thrown out of the system, and it is not even the case that they can just go to industry, R&D in biotech, pharma and the chemical industry has been increasingly either outsourced or just shut down altogether.

    But if there were permanent positions in which such people could just keep doing their research even if there is no tenure and teaching involved, that would first, keep them happy doing what they love to do, and second, help move science forward. What was all that specialized training for, after all?

    Sounds like a win-win, doesn’t it?

    Except that in that sort of system proper wages would have to be paid and that people in such positions would probably not be working 14-hour days if they have families and kids.

    It is much better for the selfish short-term interest of research institutions, and, let’s face it, also for the senior scientists who did manage to win the rat race, to have the current system, in which junior scientists spend two decades in a state of constant uncertainty that forces them to work those 14-hour days while being paid between a third and a half of what they would be otherwise, indefinitely delaying starting a family, etc.

    Sounds exploitative? It is.

    It is also a very good mechanism of control on a broader level, because it means that nobody in their right mind will rock the boat until they get tenure, but by that point they have been thoroughly vetted and domesticated and will likely never do so after that either.

    In the USSR a lot of the dissidents came exactly from the ranks of scientists.

    There was certainly a lot to oppose about what unfolded in the US over the last five decades but it has not in fact been meaningfully opposed. Much of the general population was driven to destitution, through mechanisms quite analogous to those in place to exploit junior scientists in academia. And now with the coronavirus we see that for the people on top, the general population is physically expendable too, in numbers in the millions, as long as this serves their selfish economic interests.

    The truth is that scientists not only did not say much to oppose that process, they in fact often supported it. Because when you constantly have to worry about the future and you can be thrown out at any moment, you, first, don’t have the time to think about larger issues, and second, it is just not advisable to stick your neck out.

  10. Peter Woit says:

    Art,
    She does address this at some length, note the
    “I see absolutely no chance that any of the above will change any time soon.”
    She has found a rewarding opportunity to work in a much better environment outside HEP theory. Why should she continue to work in a toxic environment, where everyone takes the attitude “this is how it always has been, nothing can be done”?

    The problem with this kind of environment is not just that good people can’t find a permanent place in it, but that many of the best of those who can have other opportunities and leave.

  11. Chris Oakley says:

    Sabine,

    Just in case you are not aware of this, rubbishing most of what is going on in theoretical physics is not the best strategy for getting a permanent job in academia.

    But you do it so well that if I was rich enough to have my own institute, you’d be hired straight away.

  12. Peter Woit says:

    GM (and others),
    I’d like to insist that people stick to discussing the problems of HEP theory, rather than the inexhaustible question of the more general problems of other fields and the sad state of our society in general. For other fields, which ones provide a model for HEP theory to look to for something better?

    I’d love to see some relevant data, but at least for those parts of academic mathematics I’m most aware of, the situation is much better, with full-time junior positions paid fairly well, with some hopes for finding a good permanent job (the adjunct teaching business is where people are mistreated).

  13. LK2 says:

    I got a permanent position with a lot of luck. I find very hard to advise a young scientist to pursue this career. Moreover, I see a lot of bright phds leaving academia straight away nowadays. Why? Because industry is hiring physicists and giving them very interesting problems (mainly datascience). We are living in times where some industry problems are more exciting and advanced wrt what we do in a physics dept (quantum computing, machine learning, …). My take on hep theory or phds in general? Reduce the phd positions drastically or state clearly at the beginning what to expect if after graduation one wants to try to pursue a research career. Honestly, after many years in academia, I wish I had abandoned after the phd. Today’s fundamental physics research is show-off and fake-grants writing just to “do stuff”. Good luck to all the academia job seekers, K.

  14. zzz says:

    >rubbishing most of what is going on in theoretical physics is not the best strategy for getting a permanent job in academia.

    “most” is not HEP

  15. Maciej says:

    Although I sympathise with the HEP community because I used to work in the field (not anymore) I don’t really see where the problem is. HEP community hasn’t produced any new (i.e. beyond the Standard Model) meaningful, testable theory for decades now. Most research papers are still about Susy, Strings, Loops – which are either ruled out already, provide no predictions or are not testable.
    Even layman politicians will notice that there is no point in investing much in that area. Clearly many bright researchers will not secure jobs, little of them will. This was always the case, maybe now even more than ever. But I think it is adequate to the fact that there has been literally nothing new for decades.

    If someone is complaining about not securing the job due to extreme competition, maybe it is time to change the field. There are plenty of topics that are well funded and equally challenging: quantum computing, artificial intelligence/machine learning, quantitative biology, quantitative finance et.c.

  16. Peter Woit says:

    Maciej,
    My impression is that the job situation is somewhat better now than it was back in the 70s, the time of huge breakthroughs in the field as the Standard Model came together. There’s no evidence that bad intellectual health in HEP theory causes a bad job situation, but I think it’s quite possible that a bad job situation has helped contribute to bad intellectual health.

  17. Does it make sense to control the number of PhD’s awarded? The number of Postdocs? Or are these cures worse than the disease?

    Right now there are excellent job opportunities for physicists, including those with just a BS, in software engineering and data science. For less stress and more job security, they can, if skilled, make 3 or more times as much as they would as a tenure track assistant prof. And the problems might be more interesting.

  18. > We are put in competition with each other from day one, and only very few of us will be given prestigious positions in the end… We constantly need to outshine our peers.

    Whilst this is obviously stressful for individuals, it isn’t clear it is a problem for the field. Putting people in competition and rewarding only the best sounds like a plausible strategy. I’m not saying it is nice, or fair, or even deliberate, I’m only talking about the overall good of scientific progress. You could perhaps argue that the lack of progress disproves this idea, but then again maybe the work is just very hard. On the other hand, ASM addresses this by saying that the stress makes it hard to do science; I’m not sure that’s fully convincing. And of course there’s short-term pressure for flashy results, but you get that most everywhere.

  19. Angnis says:

    Dear Peter,

    thank you so much for drawing attention to my FB post. I would like to emphasize that, originally, this post was intended only for my family and friends but then some people asked me to make it public so they could share it. I honestly did not expect that it would reach this far but now I am really glad that it did.

    From the comments above, I understand that some of your followers are wondering about why I did not stay in academia in order to improve the situation. In fact, this was the hardest part in making the decision to leave. In my last years as a group leader I did my very best to improve the work environment for my team. Unfortunately, I constantly had to justify my actions and decisions to other colleagues. Paying attention to the well-being of my employees, I witnessed severe difficulties to handle family emergencies due to institutional restrictions, mental breakdowns due to stress and even harrassment in the work place. There was no system in place to help me handle these situations and when I tried to talk about this to other professors they always defended the status quo of academia. The only people who shared my point of view were younger and not in influential positions. Most of them were afraid to drive a change because they feared that this would affect their career prospects. In the end it felt too hard to deal with this on my own.

    I truly loved physics and my research topic. I never wanted to do anything else and I am sure I would still be there if the environment had been different.

    I decided to leave when I got offered a challenging role in a tech startup that tries to truly make a change, not only in its industry but in all of society. (Since some people asked me on FB: you can see what I do now on http://www.ceretai.com) My new team has a mission, we care for each other and for society as a whole. We reflect on our well-being at work on an every-day basis. And, in case your followers are wondering, we get things done without unhealthy pressure and are pioneering a new business area within artificial intelligence.

    All the best,

    Angnis

  20. Peter Woit says:

    Angnis,
    Thanks for your comments. Good luck with the new career path!

    My own experience with the work environment for young theorists is from long ago and far away from that of Angnis, but maybe things are not that different now. What struck me most about the environment was not any pressure from senior people, but their general lack of any interest in the lives or activities of their younger colleagues. My impression was that for most senior people, having a lot of grad students and postdocs around was important in order to have a viable research operation going and they had generalized goodwill towards them, but the fact of the matter was that these were people who weren’t going to be around the field for long, so not worth paying much attention to. This was very different than the attitude in experiments, where the young were the ones getting the work done, so close attention to them needed to be paid.

  21. Peter Woit says:

    Edward M. Measure,
    The reason nothing has changed in 40 years is that no one is going to fund a large increase in the number of permanent positions, so the only way to get to a healthier ratio of young theorists to permanent jobs would be to reduce the number of postdocs and grad students. No theory group wants to reduce the size of its grad student population: for one thing, if the did they university would likely cut permanent positions for theorists. There is a good case to be made for moving resources from postdoc positions to longer-term ones, I’ve never understood why that possibility hasn’t gotten more consideration.

    Non-academic job opportunities are pretty good now, but it’s always been the case that theorists could generally find such work. I think a lot of senior people in the field take the attitude that it’s fine to train lots of young people to do HEP theory, even though there are no jobs for them, because they can find other work. To the extent young people enter the field with the attitude “I know this won’t lead to a permanent career, but I’ll enjoy learning about his and working on it for a few years”, that wouldn’t be so unhealthy, but that mostly is not what is going on.

  22. Dmitrii says:

    Peter,

    I know corona-virus is a once-in-a-lifetime event, but this year conveys an absolutely horrible impression for the job market situation in Math too.

    My advisor told me early on that there would be a hiring freeze for 20-21 applications, so no postdocs for me (and he was right!). He suggested that I might consider deferring till 21-22, but he expects a surge in job market candidates during that year (precisely because of those people who decide to defer).

    It is hard to tell at this point, but I expect that the effect of the pandemic on the financing of STEM-fields will be felt for a long-long time, so the market will further squeeze.

  23. Peter Woit says:

    Dimitrii,
    You’re quite right, the COVID disaster has caused a huge problem for grad students and postdocs who need to go on the job market, in math, physics and most fields. Columbia, like many places, has a hiring freeze in place. I know there is some effort, here and elsewhere, to extend funding for some graduate students because of the situation. This would be an excellent time for foundations like the Simons Foundation to step up and provide funding for students and postdocs who are victims of bad timing.

    It’s also true that the future is highly uncertain, with the long-term effects of this on university finances and hiring worrisome. Good luck and much sympathy to you and others facing this.

  24. Dmitrii says:

    Peter,

    Thank you for the kind words.

    Let me mention one more thing with regards to your claims about the relatively healthy situation in math compared to HEP: I heard from multiple senior people that to get a tenure-track from an R1 university a postdoc needs to be publishing about 1 paper every 6 month (of course, this is just an average not taking into account the quality of the paper, which might vary drastically). Given my level of talent, that would likely force me to spend my postdoc years on relatively shallow projects. Such incentives certainly lead to a deterioration of the field, much along the lines of what you describe about HEP.

    One some level that is fair that only the most-talented (who can publish big results in a relatively short span of time) stay in the academia. On the other hand, I recall that Peter Higgs said in his interview that he wouldn’t have done what he had done in the current publish or perish atmosphere.

    I obviously do not have any solutions to offer, I am just sharing my frustration. It makes me sad that I will most likely have to abandon my dream of working as a scientist in favor of a less-stressful and more fulfilling job. It is not even the issue that theorists can get much higher salary in tech, as I am sure most academics do not work on their craft for the money. It is indeed the constant feeling that there is an impenetrable barrier between a young scientist and a tenured faculty member and that they control your fate to a ridiculously high degree (with a wide variety of malpractices coming with this control, such as nepotism, cronyism, discrimination, etc.).

    Somebody made a remark above that probably one cannot work in science under such amounts of stress. I have certainly experienced that during this year, where my health (both mental and physical) just started giving up from the increased teaching load because of classes moving on-line, news about the job market, news about the plans of bringing back on-line teaching in the fall, your mentors worrying about their own problems and a general feeling of helplessness. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect these problems do not manifest themselves to the same degree in other jobs available to people with such level of skill and education.

  25. On the note of a hiring freeze, my department (mathematics, covering pure/applied/stats) was advertising positions that were empty when the university implemented a blanket hiring freeze. We have permanent people retiring/moving on this year, and we still can’t fill their positions, even though it’s cost-neutral (or even will save money). We are cutting subjects we would normally teach to even just maintain a sensible workload. Hiring ECRs is a looong way down the list.

  26. Peter Woit says:

    (All: after some Googling, I figured out that the “ECR” David Roberts is referring to is an “Early Career Researcher”).

    Dmitrii,
    My comments about math being in better shape than physics shouldn’t be taken as implying that the situation of academic jobs for young math researchers is an easy one, just that the situation in theoretical physics is significantly worse. And, in both fields, even those who end up successfully with a permanent position are put through years of stressful uncertainty and difficult relocations, of a sort those in non-academic positions generally don’t have to put up with. Of course this is much worse than normal this year.

    In math like in all of academia, hiring can involve a lot of unfairness and not necessarily reward the best work. I should say though that in all my years in the math department at Columbia, I’ve seen a lot of hiring decisions being made, and almost always felt that they were being made honestly and as fairly as possible. Especially in recent years, this has been very competitive. Like most places, the main in some sense unfair criterion is that people want to hire others working in areas close to their own, doing things they recognize and understand. Within this constraint, I haven’t seen much emphasis on counting papers or citations, rather people want to see that a candidate has done some piece of work that impresses them. It is true that everyone’s own expertise is limited, so there’s a lot of reliance on letters from experts in the candidate’s field.

  27. Robert says:

    Of course, I would love it, if people knew well before their 40’s birthday what their long term job perspective would be (and for myself it luckily worked out, I have a permanent non-professor position in a strong physics department, so maybe my view is biased).

    But that said and as I have already commented on FB, I don’t think it’s a fair portrait of the post doc years to paint them as only suffering to secure a tenured position. That would be horrible and everybody who perceives it like this should better leave today and find something more rewarding (luckily enough such positions exist for many HEP people). When I was a grad student and later a post-doc, I went to the office not because it was required of me for my career path, but because I enjoyed so much what I was doing! I could do what I liked most and was even paid for it. So I don’t think it is a waste of time, even if you leave academia/physics/maths eventually. Even with the slightest quantitative understanding, you should realise that the number of PhD supervised by one professor means that not everybody will end up being a professor if the system is at least somewhat stationary. So that should not be your (only) motivation. You should do it for yourself and while doing it acquire quite a few skills that will also help you later in your non-academic career (which most people do since the jobs they end up in were mostly not available to them right after graduation).

    Yes, moving to another country every two years building up a new social environment is really tough (and not well compatible with forming a family for example) but for a few years, it can still be worthwhile as long as you get enough out of it (in the present and not only in a hypothetical future).

  28. Robert says:

    Ah, and what I forgot: Choosing research topics (in plural hopefully) your of course should do what you are really interested in and where you can contribute. But you should be aware that if you mainly focus on niche problems that’s quite a bet as you will later need to convince people that are supposed to hire you that what you achieved is interesting (taking into account their own reference frame for “interesting”). I am not saying, don’t do it an only follow the stampede, but your results in your area should be well visible from without that area if your peer group in you area is not so big.

  29. theoreticalminimum says:

    Robert,
    I see that you are the manager of a masters degree programme (the TMP) in Munich. The TMP website features a page of all those (~300) who have written a thesis in the programme. Maybe you could create a sort of wiki and invite all those who have graduated from the programme to share a brief of their timeline since graduating from the programme, I think this could help those students considering joining the programme have an idea what those who’ve graduated from it have gone on to do (e.g. TMP ‘xx (advisor: ) -> PhD (year completed: … ; advisor: … ; institution: … ) -> n Postdoc’s (institutions) -> etc. ). I can see how such a huge database can be helpful to those condering applying to the programme, and later thinking of where they could go after completing the programme.

  30. Robert says:

    theoreticalminimum I agree that this would be something nice to have. Unfortunately, Organization of this program is essentially a one man (me) show and tracking everybody over the years is a considerable amount of work (I try to have a current email address of the alumni and even that is difficult over longer periods of time as those are often tied to institutions and this is what the original post is about; I decided to get my own domain exactly at the point when I started my first postdoc and I had to email everybody in my address book that mail email address was about to change once more from being hosted at my graduate school to my new university). What I can say is that after graduating from this master program (Americans: here in Europe, MSc is really a separate degree before you start your PhD research and not part of grad school or even the drop out of grad school option) almost everybody who intends to do a PhD — the vast majority — finds a good position to do so and the other usually don’t because they have found something “better” in industry. On the other end, roughly 10 years after we had the first graduates from our program (we started with 7 students in 2007 who graduated two years later) we start seeing the first ones in permanent or tenure track (type) positions.

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