HEPAP has had a Demographics Committee since about 1999, charged with gathering data on what happens to young people in the US who enter the field of High Energy Physics (both theory and experiment). The latest report from the committee is here, but it contains more questions than answers. The data gathered show that only 10-20% of HEP graduate students end up with permanent tenured positions at HEP institutions, and the other 80-90% in some sense “leave” the field.
The committee seems to have had very little success at finding out what happens to the “leavers”, perhaps because its data-gathering method is based on questionnaires filled out by one person at each institution. Very typically, once someone “leaves” academia for a different career track, within a few years their ex-colleagues no longer know where they are or what they are doing. On the other hand, in the age of Google and Facebook, tracking people down has become rather easy, so it’s unclear why an effort hasn’t been made to do this, if not for everyone in the database, than at least for a randomly chosen statistically significant sample.
I’d certainly be curious to see some real data, but based on my personal experience I’d guess that the 80-90% number sounds right, with “leavers” going into a wide variety of different careers. The financial industry may be the most popular, but I also know many who have gone into the computer or telecommunications industries, as well as other fields in academia.
By this count, I and others who have ended up in mathematics departments count among the “leavers”. I’m very happy with how my own rather unusual career path has worked out, but have generally advised others that it relied too much on good luck for anyone else to try and emulate it. A few days ago I heard from someone at the Perimeter Institute who told me about a new “hybrid research/IT position” that they are trying to fill. The job listing is here, with a detailed description of what they are looking for here. They seem to be a looking for a candidate with both a research Ph.D. and IT experience, which is a somewhat unusual combination. A Ph.D. with little IT experience but the right skills (quick learner with patience, common sense, enjoys working with technology and helping others with their technical problems) who is interested in the position might want to try and convince them that most of the IT skills get picked up on the job anyway…