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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Survivor: theoretical physics

Some very interesting data here on jobs in particle theory, cosmology, string theory and gravity over the last 15 years in the US (1994 -- present).

Based on these numbers and the quality of the talent pool I would guess theoretical physics is the most competitive field in academia, by a large margin. (Your luck will be much, much better in computer science, engineering, biology, ...)

The average number of years between completing the PhD and first faculty job is between 5-6. That would make the typical new assistant professor about 33, and almost 40 by the time they receive tenure.

Here are the top schools for producing professors in these fields:

1. Princeton 23 (string theory rules! or ruled... or something)
2. Harvard 18
3. Berkeley 16

This is over 15 years, so that means even at the top three schools only 1 or at most 2 PhDs from a typical year gets a job in the US. The US is by far the most competitive market. If you follow the link you will see that the list of PhD institutions of US faculty members is truly international, including Tokyo, Berlin, Moscow, etc. (Note I think the jobs data also includes positions at Canadian research universities, so I should have written N. America rather than US.)

The field is very much dominated by the top departments; the next most successful include MIT, Stanford, Caltech, Chicago, etc.

Here are some well-known schools that only produced 1 professor of theoretical physics over 15 years: UCLA, UC Davis, U Illinois, U Virginia, U Arizona, Boston University, U Penn, Northwestern, Moscow State University (top university in USSR), Insitute for Nuclear Research (INR) Moscow

Here are some well-known schools that only produced 2 professors over 15 years: Ohio State, U Minnesota, Michigan State, U Colorado, Brown

Here are some well-known schools that only produced 3 professors over 15 years: Columbia, CERN, Johns Hopkins, U Maryland, Yale, Pisa SNS (Scoula Normale Superiore; the most elite university in Italy), Novisibirsk (giant physics lab in USSR)

You can see that by the time we reach 3 professors produced over 15 years we are talking about very, very good physics departments. Even many of the schools in the 1 and 2 category are extremely good. These schools have all hired multiple professors over 15 years, but the people hired tend to have been produced by the very top departments. The flow is from the top down.

This dataset describes a very big talent pool -- I would guess that a top 50 department (in the world) produces 3-5 PhDs a year in theoretical physics. If most of them only place a student every 5 years or so, that means a huge number (the vast majority) of highly trained, even brilliant, physics students end up doing something else!

How many professors do you think are / were straight with their PhD students about the odds of survival?

I only knew one professor at Berkeley who had kept records and knew the odds. One day in the theory lounge at LBNL Mahiko Suzuki (PhD, University of Tokyo) told me and some other shocked grad students and postdocs that about 1 in 4 theory PhDs from Berkeley would get permanent positions. His estimate was remarkably accurate.

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 the vast majority of their former students do in finance, silicon valley, ...?

Related posts: A tale of two geeks , Out on the tail

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