The Worst Jobs in Science: Theoretical Physicist

After the recent news that being a mathematician is the best job in the US, next month’s Popular Science magazine has come out with a list of the worst jobs, not overall, but in the sciences. “Theoretical Physicist” makes the list, right in between “Monkey-Sex Observer” and “Vermin Handler”. Here’s the text about this:

For much of the past century, physics was an exciting, wide-ranging exploration. But to be a theoretical physicist today, you pretty much have to stake your career on one incredibly popular but pretty much unprovable notion: string theory. Since the idea that the universe is composed of small vibrating “strings” gained a following in the 1970s, the theory, which in some forms posits 10 dimensions and seeks a unifying “supersymmetry,” has captured the theoretical-physics community in the U.S. The easiest way to earn an appointment is to dive head-first into a branch of string theory, which dominates the top programs at Princeton, MIT and other influential institutions. The problem is, we simply have no idea if we’re on the right track, because the theory isn’t verifiable.

Lee Smolin, a physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, who investigates quantum gravity and string theory, believes that the physics monoculture is stifling. “Science has become too risk-averse, and its progress is being hurt as a result,” he says. When CERN’s Large Hadron Collider restarts later this year, however, it could end the waiting, helping to confirm parts of string theory — or dash it altogether. If supersymmetric particles called sparticles are bashed into existence: yay! But if the W boson particle does not react as hoped, that damages a central pillar of the theory. Across the U.S., whole careers are boiling down to the chance that a big box comes up with something.

It’s true that, for string theorists, a lot is hanging on the question of whether sparticles are found at the LHC. If none are seen, I suspect that will pretty conclusively finish off in most theorist’s minds the idea that string theory unification can be connected in any way with observations. The business about string theory and W-bosons is utter nonsense, presumably coming from this.

As mentioned here repeatedly, claims that hiring in particle theory is dominated by string theory are behind the times. String theorists are now yesterday’s fad, with terrible job prospects if they don’t have a permanent position. Today’s fads are LHC phenomenology and cosmology (news from the rumor mill about two new jobs is that UCSB wants “candidates with interests in phenomenological aspects of particle physics and related areas of astrophysics and cosmology”, Rutgers wants “a focus on LHC physics, broadly conceived.”) String theory is on its way out in American universities it seems, but the long-standing pattern of fad-driven hiring isn’t. Which is one thing that makes the idea of trying for a career in theoretical physics these days about as appealing to many smart young people as the idea of going into the vermin handling business…

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54 Responses to The Worst Jobs in Science: Theoretical Physicist

  1. This may be a stupid question, but from a non-academic who reads this blog, I’ve been dying to ask: what exactly IS a “phenomenologist”?

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Bourgeois Nerd,

    Phenomenology: theoretical work closely tied to experiment, e.g. computation from a given model of specific predictions about what a certain experiment will see.

    contrast to so-called “formal” theory, which is about trying to better understand theoretical ideas: investigation of toy models, unphysical examples, development of new calculational techniques, etc.

  3. steve newman says:

    String Theory R.I.P.
    Will Dark Energy and Dark Matter and Inflation be next?
    Why do dead ends have such a long life?
    Hoping for a re-birth of physics.

  4. csrster says:

    Humorous stuff, but obviously not quite accurate if you happen to be, for example, a theoretical condensed-matter physicist.

  5. chris says:

    @steve newman

    i think you will hear a lot about dark matter/energy in the years to come. main reason is that they are observable.

    “Why do dead ends have such a long life?”
    Some famous guy once said (i don’t remember who) that obsolete ideas only die with their supporters.

  6. Hmm… the implication of the excerpt is that if SUSY is seen at LHC, this is a victory for ST – this is not necessarily true, as you know.

    Conversely, Peter’s comments seems to imply that if SUSY is not seen at LHC, that rules out ST – but that doesn’t work either, as only low -energy SUSY can been ruled out at the LHC!!

  7. mr says:

    @chris

    “Some famous guy once said (i don’t remember who) that obsolete ideas only die with their supporters.”

    I think it was Max Planck, wasn’t he? (Not sure about the exact phrasing, though)

    regards.

  8. TheorPhys says:

    Theoretical physics is for sure beautiful, but the sad story is that (unless the LHC finds something radically new) we are almost at a saturation point in the knowledge that man can have about fundamental laws of Nature. Maybe I am too pessimistic, but at least in the last 30 years this seems to be the trend.

    But the real problem is that the education system does not easily provide young people alternative careers and easy ways to transfer from one subject to another one…once they get stuck in some dead end.
    After all physics is a very broad field and this would be definitely possible.
    Once upon a time science and knowledge were broad concepts. If you were a scholar you could study very different topics, with reasonable freedom.
    If you think of Enrico Fermi he has been working in almost all fields of physics, as a theoretician and an experimentalist too, for example.
    Today even a young Fermi could be probably stuck in some dead end, or following some fashion just to get a job.

    The reality is that nowadays competition and excessive specialization have introduced also in science an industrial logic….and this kills scientific creativity and flexibility and even the pleasure of doing science.

  9. Peter Woit says:

    Cormac,

    Logically, low energy supersymmetry is pretty much independent of string theory. But, sociologically, it’s a very different story, and my comment was more a sociological one.

    TheorPhys,

    The fact that it is hard for theorists to change fields is a huge problem. The effects of it may be worse for senior people than for junior people, with many senior people getting stuck in a failed dead-end research program. This leads to a seriously damaged field, as it affects the training and job prospects for young people. Anything that makes it easier for people to move on to something else when the field they are trained in stops being fruitful would be a good thing. But the danger of faddishness is that everyone will just move to the same new hot topic….

  10. TheorPhys says:

    Dear Peter,
    I completely agree with you.

    However, I would say faddishness is not such a big danger. If somebody is having the feeling of wasting time and energies and being in the wrong track , I can understand insisting just for a few years, but not too much. If instead, you feel ok in some field you would not even think of changing. After all physics should be driven by passion, and I have seen many theorists (even very bright people) being frustrated by the wild speculations that they have to do nowadays.

    I think everybody who is in charge of science policy and in the universities should be aware of this problem and think about solutions of this issue.
    Otherwise the only alternative for a theorist would just be finance, which is a bit sad.

  11. terry says:

    this is so ridiculous it’s not even wrong. the world of physics is huge compared to the small number of self-promoting, self-indulgent particle “theorists.” most theorists are happily solving problems in condensed matter, nuclear, fluid mechanics, lasers …, real problems with real applications and real jobs. the fact that some research universities have been parasitized by string theorists is only really relevant to a few competing clans.

    sadly, this type of coverage reflects badly on all physics, not just string theory. if you can do it, and you want to do it, there are few jobs that are better than being a physicist–even if you have to settle for being a theorist.

  12. TheorPhys says:

    Dear Terry, I disagree with you.
    Not all fields in physics have real problems with real applications and real jobs.

    There are many fields, apart from string theory, which do not meet these requirements. Mainly those related to theory, to mathematical physics, to experiments in fundamental physics (do experimental particle physics or experiments in astrophysics, gravitational waves… have always real applications?).

  13. David Katz says:

    This is what I’m hearing from fellow physicists in the UK too. A recent chat with a friend of mine lead to string theory being described as “going through a period of navel gazing”. Hopefully some of that wonderful string theory money can now be put towards condensed matter, or fields of particle physics such as lattice QCD that might actually stand a chance of telling us something about physics, rather than sometimes beautiful mathematical models that stand no chance of ever being proved.

  14. Bee says:

    Anybody looking for an LHC phenomenologist going cosmologist, here is one, and in addition I am looking for a job.

    So, Lee has now turned from a researcher into an “investigator”. That’s an interesting twist.

  15. D R Lunsford says:

    BN, this is a good question and shows you are paying attention.

    Phenomenology is not equivalent to “experimental” – for example, the original theory of electron spin proposed by Pauli was a phenomenological theory. Only when Dirac showed how it came from a basic idea could spin be said to have a firm theoretical basis. Essentially, phenomenological theories have terms in them that are only heuristically justified – this does not make them bad theories, but progress usually comes from giving a theoretical basis to what was formerly phenomenology.

    -drl

  16. Peter: Yes, apologies, I see you what you mean.
    Bee: What’s this about a new job? Wanna come to Ireland? Have a look at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies..

  17. mathematician says:

    As a mathematician, I sometimes get physics envy.

    And physicists sometimes get mathematics envy.

    Of course, string theorists get both.

  18. Aaron Bergman says:

    These days, string theorists get job envy.

  19. Ari Heikkinen says:

    Just tell young people to get an engineering degree, that way they’ll be solving practical problems in the real world. Or even better, tell them to acquire good software engineering skills and they won’t ever be unemployed for long.

  20. JC says:

    Ari Heikkinen,

    Engineering jobs vary significantly between different areas. It can also be trend driven to some extent too, just like physics.

    Also many engineering majors don’t even get the opportunity to ever work as an engineer. No big surprise as to why many engineering majors ended up in computer programming jobs over the last 25-30 years. Though with that being said, outsourcing has been eating away at salaries and jobs for many years.

  21. banerjee says:

    Many tenure-track positions in engineering are going to physics graduates these days. If a string theorist (or any other type of physics theorist) feels the need to be in academia can can’t get a physics position, one path is to get some post-doctoral experience in a good engineering department and then switch to that field.

    We in engineering are always looking for people with good skills and ideas in subjects that are not well understood by engineers.

  22. Troublemaker says:

    Humorous stuff, but obviously not quite accurate if you happen to be, for example, a theoretical condensed-matter physicist.

    Well, you have to bear in mind that on this blog, and every other string theory or anti-string theory blog, “physics” = “high-energy theory.” I like this blog and I like Peter, but he, his friends, and his enemies are all very high-energy-theory-centric in their conception of what it means to do physics.

  23. Shantanu says:

    Peter or others, anyone know about the job prospects for those doing neutrino physics or neutrino phenomenology.
    Also are there many papers connecting string theory
    with neutrino physics for which we have lots of data and will soon have more?

  24. bob says:

    what fraction of physicists are theorists? what fraction of physicists are string theorists?

    i don’t think string theorist is a bad job, and even if so, i don’t think “theoretical physicist” should be branded a bad job even if string theorist is a bad job.

  25. Terry: “the world of physics is huge compared to the small number of self-promoting, self-indulgent particle “theorists.” Most theorists are happily solving problems in condensed matter, nuclear, fluid mechanics, lasers …, real problems with real applications and real jobs”

    I don’t think that’s fair. First of all, particle physics is a fundamental field that bears close examination, in the sense that everything is made up of atoms, but atoms are not made up of semiconductors (say). Secondly, it turns out to be a very difficult field, accessible by only the very best students – the maths of gauge theory is way beyond most physicists, and therefore commands a certain respect. Thirdly, how do you know what the future applications will be? There have been many stunning applications of discoveries in particle physics, from nuclear power to the use of accelerators in medicine

    If the public show a disproportionate interest in subjects like quarks or strings, I think it’s for the same reason that they find cosmology so interesting… human curiosity concerning ‘fundamental’ questions..

  26. Peter Woit says:

    Shantanu,

    String theory has nothing to say about neutrino physics.

    As for job prospects for theorists working on neutrinos, I think it’s a small group of people and a small number of possible jobs. Prospects should be better than if you’re a string theorist, but beyond that I don’t know.

  27. somebody says:

    A few pointers –

    1. Jobs are overall bad in particle theory, and if anyone here is implying that phenomenologists have a cakewalk, they are delusional.

    2. About the increased focus on phenomenology (much of it string-inspired, incidentally) being a “fad”. It makes perfect sense to me that on the eve of the LHC, people care more about the TeV scale than the Planck scale. Choosing the word “fad” to describe this, is again, another way in which a perfectly valid SCIENTIFIC judgement is being (consciously?) misinterpreted as a sociological issue.

    3. A significant fraction of the current HEP faculty in big universities is composed of string theorists and string-inspired people. To claim that the focus in recent years on phenomenology is an indication that they are done with strings, is beyond ridiculous. As I said, there is a very real reason why we all should be concerned about phenomenology/cosmology: the LHC and WMAP.

    4. Since the departments that hire phenomenologists contain a significant fraction of senior string theorists, can we at least have a consensus now that not all senior string theorists are blinded ideologues who try to “suppress” everything else?

    5. Cormac’s previous message was excellent.

  28. Thomas Larsson says:

    Secondly, it turns out to be a very difficult field, accessible by only the very best students – the maths of gauge theory is way beyond most physicists, and therefore commands a certain respect.

    Come on, gauge theory is not that hard. And remember that it was a squalid state physicist who invented the Higgs mechanism.

    Thirdly, how do you know what the future applications will be?

    This can be answered be a simple energy argument. The original fields to which QM was applied – atoms and molecules, solid state, chemistry – typically deal with energy scales of order eV, i.e. scales found on earth, and the practical applications at terrestial energy scales are too numerous to list. Nuclear physics is at the keV scale, i.e. typical energies of the sun. Solar scales have far fewer applications than terrestial scales, but since the sun is rather close to us there are still a few important ones – nuclear power and weapons, NMR, and maybe something more. In contrast, 45 years after the quark model, HEP has very few practical applications. Off the top of my head, the only one that I can name is the use of synchroton radiation in medicine (muon catalyzed fusion didn’t work out, did it?), and this is very low high energy – MeV physics rather than GeV or TeV physics. The energy scales that will be probed at the LHC are typical of supernovae and the big bang, and will remain irrelevant for terrestial phenomena in the forseeable future.

    Any good physicist who makes such an energy considerations will realize that applications of GeV physics will remain in the very distant future. There might of course be spin-off effects, like CERN inventing the WWW, space science inventing cool materials, and military science inventing the internet. But such spin-offs do not have anything to do with the core science.

    There have been many stunning applications of discoveries in particle physics, from nuclear power to the use of accelerators in medicine

    Since when did particle physicists adopt nuclear physics? I remember a rather controversial talk 20 years ago, when a local string guru (let’s just call him “Veneziano’s advisor”) argued that nuclear physics was unmodern and its funding should be redistributed to more modern physics.

    Medical applications remain at the MeV scale.

  29. Peter Woit says:

    somebody,

    You really like to argue against statements that no one has made…

    No one claims that “phenomenologists have a cakewalk”, just that there are more jobs out there per person for phenomenologists than for others kinds of particle theorist.

    No one claims that string theorists “are done with strings”. They’re not. I suppose many of them will keep working on string theory until retirement, no matter what happens.

    No one claims that “all senior string theorists are blinded ideologues who try to “suppress” everything else.” Sure, many of them are now the ones agreeing to try to hire phenomenologists and cosmologists. Besides their openness to difference though, another consideration might be that other people in their department (who have a lot to say about tenure-track hiring) would not put up with hiring another string theorist, for various reasons, including perception that a phenomenologist is more likely to get grant funding these days.

    WMAP data came out 6 years ago, the LHC was initially supposed to be producing data a couple years ago. These two experiments have a lot to do with the general trend that started quite a few years ago in the direction of cosmology/phenomenology, but nothing much to do with the dramatic acceleration of this trend (to proportions that I think make accurate the description of “faddish”) during the last couple years.

  30. Bee says:

    Hi Cormac,

    Thanks. I checked the website, it says deadline was in December. Too bad, I would have sent my docs had I known. Best,

    B.

  31. Thomas:
    Re ‘Gauge theory is not that hard’, rather than get in too a silly argument about what constitutes ‘hard’, allow me to point out that in physics departments the world over, only the very best and mathematically able students are pointed in the direction of particle physics, and there are good reasons for this..
    Re applications, it is the spin-off effects that I’m talking about. It’s always a mistake to consider only the direct applications of new science as it is in the getting of the results that the technical breakthroughs occur..
    Re nuclear power, how quickly we all forget the history of particle physics. The splitting of the nucleus using the Walton linear accelerator was the first hint of a new source of energy, as you know. More recently, I believe Carlo Rubbia published an innovative design for a modern reactor based on work he did at CERN…

  32. Sumar Ongi says:

    >HEP has very few practical applications.

    To add one more application to “terrestrial” phenomena (not necessarily very practical, though): the theory of weak decays in nuclear physics. And, since about 10 years ago, the theory of few-body nuclear interactions has been based on QCD.

    >Since when did particle physicists adopt nuclear physics?

    There was an article in Physics Today some months ago about the new theoretical approaches to nucleon-nucleon interactions and the impact they have had on experimental nuclear physics. Very interesting stuff, I’m sorry I can’t give the exact reference now.

    That whole business started with a couple of papers by Weinberg from the early 90s, showing how low-energy QCD effective theories could be applied to the nucleon-nucleon problem. The field has matured a lot since then. Besides, since some years ago, lattice computations are also being applied to those systems.

    In fact, the field of low-energy hadron physics has been more or less merged with high-energy (or “relativistic”) nuclear physics since a couple of decades ago. Many particle physicists in those areas routinely publish in nuclear physics journals like PRC, NPA, EPA, etc.

    On top of that, AdS/CFT – inspired models are also being applied to some nuclear physics problems, though I’m not sure how much has been done in that direction. Finally, let’s not forget that string theorists have adopted nuclear/quark matter as their favorite application of N=4 SQCD…

  33. Thomas Larsson says:

    Indirect spin-off effects can just as well be used to argue for increased military spending – after all, military science led gave us arpanet turned internet. This is very different from direct applications of low-energy physics such as transistors, lasers or nuclear power, where it is the physics itself that has applications.

    Fair enough. I don’t see a problem with HEP (at least high energy HEP) lacking practical applications; knowledge can be valuable without increasing GNP. However, I see a problem with the statement that we cannot know whether HEP will lead to practical applications, when it hasn’t happened for 45 years and there are simple arguments why this has to be the case.

  34. Dan M says:

    >allow me to point out that in physics departments the world
    >over, only the very best and mathematically able students are
    >pointed in the direction of particle physics, and there are good >reasons for this..

    This statement is false. The very best and mathematically able students of whom I am aware are directed to choose their own fields, since they are the ones who are presumably most qualified to do so. In my experience, they usually choose something other than particle physics. And there are good reasons for this…

  35. “In my experience”
    It would be interesting to know your position and experience. (Mine are on the link). Here in Europe, we generally try to give students the best advice, cognisant of individual inclination and talent, but also of which fields tend to be difficult to make an impact in..perhaps a different approach is employed in the US

  36. somebody says:

    Peter, the primary effect contributing to the recent interest in phenomenology is LHC. You suppressed that in your original post, but after I pointed it out, you now claim that you were talking about a secondary effect. You also claim that I “really like to argue against statements that no one has made.” I don’t have the power of hindsight that you have, Peter. If you keep qualifying your previous statements when a new point is made, I will always be chasing a moving target.

    Sorry about the sarcasm, but the last paragraph of your original post was the worst propaganda-driven drivel I have read here in a while. It is a pity because there are so many things about the sociology and the public relations aspects of string theory community which I find appalling …

    Unparticles would qualify for a “fad”, but not phenomenology in general.

    The whole issue you raise is pretty much vacuous, because it is only you who see such easy boundaries between phenomenology and fundamental theory. Considering the fact that Seiberg and Vafa are both working on ways to connect with TeV scale physics these days, I would say that your straightjackets are designed for mediocrity.

  37. Ari Heikkinen says:

    JC: “Though with that being said, outsourcing has been eating away at salaries and jobs for many years.”

    Here in Europe firms don’t generally outsource their best engineers. Is the situation in the US really that bad that they oursource even their best employees to save money?

  38. JC says:

    Ari Heikkinen,

    It depends on the particular firm, and who is calling the shots in these firms. In firms run by management consisting of mainly folks who only have an accounting and/or finance background, they tend to be more into the outsourcing thing.

  39. Regarding outsourcing… (for those contemplating trading a “high-stress” job in theoretical physics for a “lucrative” employment in industry)

    My company (USA, software for microelectronics industry) hired quite a few engineers in Shanghai last year. Mostly for quality assurance and for programming of peripheral features. When (if) economics goes south this year, the management will have a choice: either layoff their core developers in the US, or cut fat overseas. Although 1 engineer in the US costs as much as 3-5 engineers in China, something tells me that my bosses would prefer the latter option. (In similar circumstances a few years back, they decided to shut down a division in France, rather than touch their US employees). So, it may sound paradoxical, but I think that outsourcing, actually, increased my job security.

  40. mike says:

    The vermin handling business sounds like a safer profession. Although there are some vermin that can bite (ouch!) – the fangs that some string theorists exhibit towards scientists of differing opinions makes the theoretical physics field much more dangerous!

  41. Cormac – I would agree that many of the most mathematically skilled students tend toward theory, often high energy theory. Still, I think it’s borderline pejorative to assert that these students are, because of their mathematical sophistication, “the best”. Your taste and bias are influencing your choice of words. Frankly, the implication that high energy theorists are inherently superior to other physicists (let alone other scientists) is an example of what many perceive as arrogance.

  42. That is not what I said and I am not a particle physicist. What I actually said is that here ‘only the best students the best and most mathematically able students are encouraged in the direction of particle physics’ – not just because it is a difficult field but because it is very difficult to make an impact in this field as it has attracted a great many physicists over the years (this is also true experimentally).
    I absolutely agree that there are many other important and rewarding fields – that’s the point!

  43. Re main topic of this thread, I keep meaning to say there is a very nice interview with Peter Higgs in the September issue of New Scientist at http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19926732.100-the-man-behind-the-god-particle.html

    On the difficulty of the theory, he states “…there was a problem for me when the bandwagon started to roll in 1972. Because I’d written an influential paper, people tended to assume I understood far more about the subsequent theory than I did and I found it increasingly hard to keep up”.
    He describes then taking an interest in supersymmetry, but again found that tough going too. “I realised the only people who were producing anything that was worth doing was the generation that had just got their PhDs. After some years, I gave up”..
    Of course, Higgs is a famously modest man, but it makes you think all the same..

  44. Shantanu says:

    Peter, any interesting or newsworthy from last week’s PI conference on black holes and quantum physics http://www.pirsa.org/C09002 and from the string
    theory related talks in this meeting?
    Getting the correct value of black hole entropy and information loss paradox
    is supposed to be a triumph of string theory.

  45. anon. says:

    “Theoretical Physicist” makes the list, right in between “Monkey-Sex Observer” and “Vermin Handler”.

    That’s because theoretical physics has lost glamour. It used to be dominated by interesting personalities and rapid progress. Now things have slowed down and you have the boring geniuses left.

    “Men of genius are often dull and inert in society; as the blazing meteor, when it descends to earth, is only a stone.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

  46. King Ray: I think the only sentence we need bother with is:

    “We conclude that … the growth of black holes to catastrophic size does not seem possible”.
    What a clear example of a journalist paying no attention to what the scientists actually said. Hopefully, Obama will declare a fatwah on FOX news…

  47. Bruce says:

    Peter,

    In your post you point out that the claim that hiring in particle physics is dominated by string theory is behind the times. I don’t dispute this, but I wonder if you can quantify this statement or is it simply obvious to folks like you who wander widely in the field?

  48. Peter Woit says:

    Bruce,

    Up to the minute data on particle theory hiring into tenure-track jobs is available here:

    http://particle.physics.ucdavis.edu/rumor/doku.php

    You’ll find that job descriptions this year often explicitly ask for LHC phenomenologists or cosmologists, whereas a few years ago string theory was often specifically mentioned. You’ll also find very few string theorists on the short lists for jobs this year.

    I think if you talk to any young string theorist who is on the job market, you’ll get more confirmation of the problem

  49. Just Asking says:

    So Regge and Veneziano weren’t doing phenomenology? And we haven’t all been waiting with baited breath for almost 30 years now to probe the TeV scale?

    You know, Boltzmann committed suicide shortly after his contemporaries reclassified him from “physicist” to “applied mathematician.” His theory did, after all, rely on the reality of unobserved “atoms” and “molecules.”

    Hey, I have a great idea, let’s further encumber the minds of young people in an already anti-intellectual cultural climate with a pop science “debate” which reduces untold billions of man-hours of careful thought into the credo of some “parasitic” cult.

    That will surely prevent the Boltzmann’s of today from hanging themselves while on Summer vacation.

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