Where Do They Go?

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…

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11 Responses to Where Do They Go?

  1. tracking people down has become rather easy, so it’s unclear why an effort hasn’t been made to do this

    It’s perfectly clear: people like me who have been cast out of the academy are apostate.

  2. Kea says:

    And the job sites are still full of ads begging for exploitees students.

  3. Tim van Beek says:

    a new “hybrid research/IT position”

    That sounds familiar, the software company that I work for offers similar jobs, where you have to combine some familiarity with a field that uses IT heavily (finance, telecommunication, car producers), with some IT knowledge. You evaluate new technologies and create solutions for standard problems. In this case this could be something like “we need a programming language for a multithreading Monte Carlo simulation of lattice gauge theories”…and you would have to be able to recommend a programming language, an integrated development environment, a visualization and evaluation framework, a set of trusted pseudo random generators etc.
    (Preferably as a single download self explaining package 🙂
    It does not make any sense if everyone who needs to do a Monte-Carlo simulation looks for and evaluates pseudo random generators all by himself, and it is impossible to do that for every component you need anyway.
    Same goes for all the other IT-topics of interest to the research community.

  4. Anon says:

    Can someone clarify the Departure Table (page 7) for me? In the first column, we have HEP, Other Physics, blah blah blah. What does the HEP row mean? Does the HEP row mean that they were initially 115 students? But then how can one lose 118 students to Unknown (last row of the first table on page 7)?

  5. Anon says:

    Oops! Ignore the previous post. I just found out that departure just means change of institution or rank. So HEP is just change of institution to another one.

  6. Thomas R Love says:

    peter wrote:
    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.

    Writing an excellent book didn’t hurt your career

  7. Peter Woit says:


    I only was able to write the book because I had a permanent academic job that gave me the time, energy and people to talk to necessary to learn about, then write about, the topics of the book. Finding such a position required a certain amount of luck.

  8. D R Lunsford says:

    Well I never had a ghost of a chance to “stay” vs “go”, for many reasons – but I don’t feel as if I myself went anywhere – I’m still doing physics the way I learned it – but I strongly feel that academic life left me, and not the other way.

    I feel much worse for engineers than I do for us physicists.


  9. Belizean says:

    The thing that irks me is that NSF, DoD, etc. are still funding efforts to increase the number of graduates in fields of Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). I’m forced to mention this in just about every grant application that I write.

    They should instead fund efforts to decrease education in STEM fields, as there is very obviously a glut.

  10. naezileb says:

    “Science” includes also things like biology and biotechnology. There may be a glut of graduates in HEP theory, but is there a glut across all of STEM?

    As for the 80-90% “leavers” if the statistics reveal that the leavers earn three times as much as the stayers (D R Lunsford?), there may not be great incentive to advertise the fact.

  11. D. says:

    Compare the guy on his third postdoc to the same guy joining a hedge fund soon after his thesis defense and the multiple is more like 8, unfortunately. This doesn’t address opportunity cost etc.

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