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.