Over at Information Processing, the bit processor, Steve, has an interesting post up about your chances of getting a faculty job in high energy theoretical physics. (In between the best posts on the financial turmoil around 1, 2, 3.) If you’re a high energy theoretical physics graduate student, and don’t want to get depressed today, I would recommend avoiding the post so as to keep up your illusion of safety, but if you want a good dose of reality, check it out.
From the post you can see that the odds of getting a high energy theory job in physics are more close to none than even to slim. This is, in a certain respect, a depressing post, on the other hand, I think the post is great because it suggests solutions:
How many professors do you think are / were straight with their PhD students about the odds of survival?
How many professors do you think had / have a serious discussion with their students about alternative career paths? How many have even a vague understanding of what people who leave theoretical physics do in finance, silicon valley, …?
Both of these paragraphs offer great advice on what we should be telling our graduate students. But do they go far enough?
The interesting thing about physics departments is the disconnect between where the graduate students end up and the major concerns of the faculty. Of course this is true to a certain extent in all fields, but because physics really does produce people who should be able to think on their feet and are incredible problem solves, most of the physicists I know make great employees outside of the academic path. And of course it is true that there is a reason there is little connect between what the faculty are doing and what their graduates wind up doing. I mean being a theoretical faculty member already consume likes ten buttloads of a normal workload, and the incentives are to produce good physics, not necessarily good employees of D.E. Shaw. But I wonder if there is a way to bring the connection a bit closer to home.
- Should physics faculties considering hiring faculty who have spent time on Wall Street or Silicon Valley or industry, but who want to come back into the fold? The traditional line is that it is impossible to get back into the research, but there are certainly counterexamples.
- Should a portion of a physics departments colloquium (or graduate colloquium) be occupied by physicists who don’t end up in a traditional academic position? Among the alumni of the program there should be ample fodder for this.
- Should graduate students be given a document to sign when they accept attending a graduate program which says something like “You’re chances of getting a tenure track position are super super small. You should be doing this because you are totally aware of this fact.”
- Should graduate curriculum include a course related to where the physicists might end up? Right after the first year quantum mechanics/classical mechanics/E and M classes, I think? Or before?
- What about the crazy idea of sending graduate students to be summer interns at non-traditional institutions? In CS there is a huge tradition of internships during the summer and I think the community benefit greatly from this.
- Insert your crazy idea here…