Particle Theory Job Market 2011

By now the hiring season for tenure-track jobs is pretty much over, and for the field of particle theory some idea of the results is available at the Theoretical Particle Physics Jobs Rumor Mill. As has been usual for the last few years, most jobs are going to phenomenologists. Remarkably, it seems that no jobs at all are going to string theorists so far this year. The final number of jobs is yet to be determined, with ten people so far getting job offers. It looks like the total number of jobs in the field will remain at the low level typical of the last three years since the recession hit in 2008.

Erich Poppitz has been compiling statistics based on the Rumor Mill data, and has the results through 2010 here. Job numbers rose to a level of 20-25 jobs/year from 2000-2007, from a low level of 10 jobs/year back in the 1990s. This phenomenon is generally attributed to jobs becoming available as the generation that was tenured during the huge expansion of universities in the 1960s finally started to retire. The recession has brought those numbers down to 15 (2008), 9 (2009) and 14 (2010). In recent years (since about 2004) he counts about a fifth of the jobs as going to string theorists. If that number does go to zero this year, that would be the first time this has happened since the numbers became available, and I would guess all the way back to shortly after string theory first became popular in 1984-5.

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21 Responses to Particle Theory Job Market 2011

  1. bonk says:

    Is it just my institution? Graduate students here are dying to do string theory rather than phenomenology. I hope the trends are not as misrepresented in other places.

  2. Peter Woit says:


    String theory has always been much more popular than phenomenology. Given the choice of working on the theory that unifies all physics and explains the big bang or computing grungy things about parton distribution functions, it’s easy to see why this is. At least for the moment though, those willing to work on phenomenology have much brighter job prospects than the string theorists.

  3. phenom says:

    Actually almost *anything* (not only ST) is more exciting than phenomenology. Back in the days when I was looking for a PhD thesis topic, the exciting stuff was the magnetic monopole (which is NOT string theory). Phenomenology is (widely perceived, falsely or not) as bread-and-butter work. It’s not the path to choose, to stick one’s nose in the air and show the world that one is “exploring the unknown” on a “search and discovery” voyage.

    Even if ST is indeed all bunk. All that glitters may not be gold, but at least it glitters.

    FWIW I did not do a thesis on the monopole.

  4. Peter Woit says:


    Yes, Bringoltz is a lattice gauge theorist.

  5. piscator says:

    A lot of ‘phenomenology’ hiring is model building hiring. Proposing sexed-up models of new weak scale physics is not remotely the same as studing PDFs or calculating NNLO processes. Physics where you get to invent the rules ain’t grungy. Most of the recent hiring, at least in the US, seems to be in the former than the latter.

  6. nbutsomebody says:


    Let me thank you heartily for the job you are doing. Physics in general, high energy in particular, badly needed somebody like you who will expose, explain and highlight various soci-policitc-economic-al dynamics of the field. That’s helpful to both physicists and lay people/tax payers equally. Regular journalism is not of much help, as somebody with a fine understanding of scientific issues is needed.

    Sorry for a very general comment !

  7. Wow. I’m so glad I didn’t go to grad school. TEN jobs?! It seems like every other person I know is trying to go to grad school. Because you can just do quantitative finance or something if you don’t get an academic job. Except that’s not really true (according to the people who know either. It seems the only truth worth knowing for a twenty-something as far as this Big Decision is concerned is that grad school is a treadmill you run to benefit someone else.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I have to say, I agree (more, not completely) with piscator and disagree with nbutsomebody. Almost all of the hires in the last 10 years in the area of “phenomenology” have been “beyond-the-standard model general phenomenology”, meaning that the BSM is the common denominator, but the actual expertise in phenomena ranges from collider to astroparticle/dark matter. Sure, Erich’s data aren’t sorted this way, but if you just peruse the archives of the rumor mill, it is evident.

    Piscator is absolutely right that there is nothing very grungy, and certainly nothing bread and butter about the BSM enterprise. I think for many students, catching the LHC wave and being the bright young theorist who “figured out the LHC discoveries” is pretty sexy. Now if we would just make some of those…

  9. else where says:

    You are only looking at the US rumor mill..
    if you look at the UK rumor mill, you’ll find at least two people who are string theorists with jobs: franco and wecht.

  10. Shantanu says:

    Here is a very nice talk which every particle physicist grad student/postdoc must watch. This is heared towards astrophysics/cosmology, but same advice applies to particle physics

  11. bonk says:

    For a flavor about how current BSM research works, look at this recent comprehensive paper:
    Just look at the table of contents. 46 models, mostly highly speculative, are awaiting the verdict from the LHC.

  12. surikata says:

    Phenomenology is (widely perceived, falsely or not) as bread-and-butter work. It’s not the path to choose, to stick one’s nose in the air and show the world that one is “exploring the unknown” on a “search and discovery” voyage.

    And who says string theory is not bread-and-butter work? Especially after three decades of furious activity on it.

    These days working in ST is more or less the same thing as working in any other well-established branch of physics: doing small variations on results already available in the literature.

  13. Physicsphile says:

    Shantanu, thanks for that link to Loeb’s talk. It one of the best talks I have ever seen.

  14. Anon says:

    A word in support of what is being called here ‘grungy physics’ – i.e. Standard Model phenomenology.

    It has been commented that

    “…. catching the LHC wave and being the bright young theorist who “figured out the LHC discoveries” is pretty sexy. Now if we would just make some of those…”

    Quite how anyone thinks we make any of those discoveries without relying on the PDFs and NNLO processes that people seem to find so boring is beyond me.

    Look at it another way – as a ‘grungy’ phenomenologist you get to see your work used by and quoted in all the major experimental papers developing our understanding of the Standard Model and possibly discovering New Physics. BSM model builders however have to develop increasingly exotic models to get noticed, with a vanishingly small probability of being observed. They also have to become expert self-publicists.

    Of course they can try the scatter gun approach (publicise lots of models in the hope that one will bear some relation to reality) or they can start ambulance-chasing the experimentalists – either way its not what I would call the makings of a satisfying or useful career. So you have to balance a guarantee of making a big impact on the field as a whole, against a tiny probability of winning a Nobel Prize. Of course if you have sufficient arrogance you will probably make the wrong choice ….

  15. grungy says:

    BSM, phenomenology, grungy, sexy etc ~ these are holdovers from the 70’s and 80’s. (Approx ~ one can make a case that the attitudes go back much further.) But back when the SM was brand-new, when it had just been put together and shown to be renormalizable, etc, and spectacular experimental confirmation of weak neutral currents, quarkonium, W and Z bosons etc were pouring in, there was tremendous optimism that high-energy physicists knew the way forward. The buzzword was ‘unification’ (the ‘Theory of Everything’). For a graduate student searching for a thesis topic, BSM ideas abounded, and it was sexy to work on any one of them, and there was optimism and respect that one of those ideas might lead to the TOE. Phenomenology, by contrast, was verification of a model (SM) that was already accepted as correct in all its essentials. Not a glamorous path to follow for a thesis. And HEP was basking in (well-earned) glory in those days. There really was a feeling that the ‘big breakthrough’ (whatever it might be) was just around the corner. So SWH gave his famous inaugural lecture as Lucasian Professor “Is the End in Sight for Theoretical Physics?” ST was part of that wave of enthusiasm. Today, 30 or so years later, the attitudes or prejudices persist, even if the justification wears increasingly thin.

  16. Shantanu says:

    Peter or anyone else,
    are there good blogs which discuss most interesting hep-th or hep-ph papers?
    Most of the blogs linked on Peter ‘s blog (by high energy theorists) hardly discuss hep papers anymore. cosmicvariance once upon a time was good. but there are almost no paper discussions.

  17. Peter Woit says:


    It does seem odd to me that some of the blogs that used to discuss hep theory papers now rarely do (e.g. Distler, Cosmic Variance). The best that I know of is Resonaances. One suspects that the lack of anything very interesting happening to talk about may have something to do with this.

    One blog specifically devoted to arXiv papers is here:

    but I have no idea who is writing it (they hide behind the name “KentuckyFC”), and the coverage of hep-th does things like take seriously Bousso-Susskind, see

  18. Tim van Beek says:

    Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a post about hep-th is a hoax, a satire, or not. For example, having Peter Woit recommending a blog where people write this about the BS-paper:

    Still, what this new approach does have is a satisfying simplicity– it’s neat and elegant that the many worlds and the multiverse are equivalent. William of Ockham would certainly be pleased and no doubt, many modern physicists will be too.

  19. Peter Woit says:

    Tim van Beek,

    My comment wasn’t really a recommendation, since I don’t know anything about the blog author, and their taste in hep-th papers is pretty dubious. I found that blog and the posting I linked to from an arXiv trackback, so the blog is approved by the arXiv moderators, for what that’s worth…

  20. rrtucci says:

    I think Susskind is also interested in complexity theory. It’s only a matter of time before he extends his theorem from
    multiverse=many worlds
    (a)multiverse = many worlds
    (b)(multiverse = many world) iff P!=NP

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