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Particle Physicists Facing Insane Competition For Work 226

Posted by Soulskill
from the poor-rewards-for-slave-labor dept.
Jim_Austin writes "Teams of hundreds of young scientists — including many grad students and postdocs — staffed the Large Hadron Collider and helped make one of the most important scientific discoveries in recent decades. Now they must compete for just a handful of jobs. Quoting: 'The numbers make the problem clear. In 2007, the year before CERN first powered up the LHC, the lab produced 142 master's and Ph.D. theses, according to the lab's document server. Last year it produced 327. (Fermilab chipped in 54.) The two largest particle detectors fed by the LHC, the A Toroidal LHC Apparatus (ATLAS) and the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS)—which both independently spotted the Higgs—boast teams of 3000 and 2700 physicists. By themselves, the CMS and ATLAS teams minted at least 174 Ph.D.s last year. That abundance seems unlikely to vanish anytime soon, as last year ATLAS had 1000 grad students and CMS had 900. In contrast, the INSPIRE Web site, a database for particle physics, currently lists 124 postdocs worldwide in experimental high-energy physics, the sort of work LHC grads have trained for. The situation is equally difficult for postdocs trying to make the jump to a junior faculty position or a permanent job at a national lab. The Snowmass Young Physicists survey received responses from 956 early-career researchers, including 343 postdocs. But INSPIRE currently lists just 152 "junior" positions, including 61 in North America.'"
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Particle Physicists Facing Insane Competition For Work

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  • by alen (225700) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @02:27PM (#44725753)

    they are always looking for quants from what i hear

    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @02:35PM (#44725805) Journal
      Their attempt to build a giant, destructive, black hole with the LHC didn't work out, and now most of them are too depressed to try again.
      • by Cyberax (705495)
        Hmmm.... That explains the fact that lots of particle physics grads switch to finance.
    • by nbauman (624611) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @02:38PM (#44725825) Homepage Journal

      No, we need a program to divert them from destroying society.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by gtall (79522)

        Excuse me, the 60's are calling you back. Advances in cancer therapy with radiation, physicists involved. Guessing since this is slashdot, you are a male and stand a significant chance of prostate cancer in your dotage. There are other cancers for which it works.

        And those naughty physicists who thought up quantum mechanics? Maybe you didn't get the memo, it's used in all the latest devices.

        Lasers? Those naughty physicists again. Damn, they're everywhere.

        GPS systems...damn, there they are again.

        Jesus, grow a

        • I take it your theory is that there were far more jobs for particle physicists back in the 60's?

          Got any evidence for that?

        • by nbauman (624611)

          I was talking about physicists working for Wall Street, as the parent suggested.

          A lot of physicists were working on bullshit investment theories which finally brought down the market and (since the financial industry is so well connected politically) a government bailout using your tax money.

      • by grcumb (781340)

        No, we need a program to divert them from destroying society.

        A program?!? Nuh-uh, just put them in the same room with Triangle Man. Everybody knows Triangle Man beats Particle Man.

        ... And, uh, let's keep Universe Man in the wings just in case Triangle Man gets outta hand....

    • by Longjmp (632577)
      Maybe some of the CERN scientists should aim for a different career [youtube.com] ;-)

      (from yesterday's event)
    • by amaurea (2900163)

      Finance is a huge brain-drain from science, and many young physicists do give up and turn to finance because there aren't enough permanent positions in physics. Personally, I would not have the counscience to work in a field as detrimental to society as finance, though, not matter how high the salary is.

  • Capacity (Score:5, Insightful)

    by girlintraining (1395911) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @02:30PM (#44725777)

    What this says is that every rich person in this country is lying through their teeth about needing immigrants. We have highly trained scientists and engineers. The percentages of people who have the right attitude and mental attributes to succeed in this line of work has remained constant for as far back as we've had standardized testing results. There has been no shift of the basic personality types from one to another; Each generation has had the same proportions as the previous.

    What it means is that nobody wants to invest. And scientific progress is an investment. It doesn't give you the immediate payoff of, say, a sequel to the Fast and the Furious (what are they up to now, seven of those infernal movies?). Science isn't formulaic. There's no spreadsheet that says "And after you spend $100 million developing a drug for cancer, you'll get this as a reward. Spend $200 million, and you'll get a free t-shirt too." Science growth mirrors our own; We grow in spurts, with long periods where nothing seems to be happening, periods where change is slow, and occasional paradigm shifts.

    This isn't very amiable to the current "get rich quick" culture the Boomers are espousing as they approach their retirement. They're sucking every corner of society dry looking for a quick way to monetize, any incremental way to earn a profit without much risk. And science... well, it's too risky for them. They don't care about future generations, or a cure for cancer, or putting men on the moon again. They want botox and comfortable retirements.

    This is society reaching back and giving people who love science the middle finger. It's saying "We don't need you, because your contributions aren't immediate. You live in the future and we're trying to recapture our past." So unless science comes up with a cure for aging, or a time machine, it's not getting funding. And that's really all there is to this story. It's about greed, pure and simple. Nobody gives a damn about tomorrow, because for the people holding all the cash... their tomorrows are running out.

    • by pjt33 (739471)

      Unless by "this country" you mean Switzerland, I fail to see the relevance of your rant.

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        Unless by "this country" you mean Switzerland, I fail to see the relevance of your rant.

        Well, my rants have a marmalade quality. If you like them at all, you're gonna love them and there will be nothing better. If you don't though, I have some good news: There's plenty of alternatives.

      • by the gnat (153162)

        Unless by "this country" you mean Switzerland, I fail to see the relevance of your rant.

        The LHC is an international collaboration - there are significant numbers of scientists in the US contributing to the design and analysis, including grad students.

    • by Jmc23 (2353706)
      Maybe.

      However, this is being seen in pretty much every single sector. Lots of people with degrees and an order of magnitude less jobs.

  • by msobkow (48369) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @02:33PM (#44725791) Homepage Journal

    Doing what you love rarely puts bread on the table and a car in the garage. Just ask a musician.

    • My GF is a musician and makes six figures playing full time in an orchestra, so it does happen, even outside of popular music.

    • by tftp (111690)

      You just need to learn to love work that puts bread on the table. Electrical engineering is good at that. Analog RF is super good at that.

      But if you a historian who specializes in Neanderthals... sorry, but your work does not put any products into stores, and doesn't make anyone's life better. It's a useful thing to do, but the overall value of your work, so far, is very low - on par with a drunken ditch digger. Even then, at the end of the day the digger will make a ditch that will be used to lay cable

      • I dunno, there are lots of live Neanderthals out there, especially in politics.
      • by Prune (557140) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @04:19PM (#44726383)
        General knowledge has value beyond mere practical applications. It is part of the generation and maintenance of human culture. Once society rises above the level of mere subsistence, culture is pretty much the entire point of human existence. And I say this as an engineer.
      • by timeOday (582209)

        You just need to learn to love work that puts bread on the table. Electrical engineering is good at that.

        It was, but is becoming less so. Would you feel entirely comfortable steering your kids towards a shrinking field? Read the following: [computerworld.com]

        Computerworld - The number of electrical engineers in the workforce has declined over the last decade. It's not a steady decline, and it moves up and down, but the overall trend is not positive.

        In 2002 the U.S. had 385,000 employed electrical engineers; in 2004, pos

        • by tftp (111690)

          It was, but is becoming less so. Would you feel entirely comfortable steering your kids towards a shrinking field?

          Automation reduces the need in workers across the board. However there are only few key areas, such as engineering and medicine, that are directly contributing to survival. They are also hard to learn, as opposed to basic agriculture and animal husbandry. None of that applies to less study-intensive and less IQ-demanding jobs. Some jobs are equally hard (a trader?) but they have no future. Ev

    • Doing what you love rarely puts bread on the table and a car in the garage. Just ask a musician.

      Also, what percentage of Screen Actors Guild members make a living at acting?

      Frankly, my gut response to this non-story is "cry me a river".

      • by cduffy (652)

        Also, what percentage of Screen Actors Guild members make a living at acting?

        A much larger percentage than that of actors as a whole. It used to be possible to buy your way into SAG -- but these days, you only get in my being credited on enough SAG-eligible pictures. Except that the big-budget movies won't bring you on unless you're already in the guild, so you need to fight for every bit piece in a low-budget SAG picture (allowing non-member talent) you can get.

        But really... a lot of it varies depending on

    • by fermion (181285)
      Doing what you love, if you are good at it, does put bread on the table. I know plenty of musicians that make a living. The problem is when you make things sound too exciting. Particle physics is cool, but when I was in school everyone knew it was a very competitive environment. It was not what very many physics students would do. In fact, if you were willing to go into the rat race of post docs, you just got your masters and went to work for an oil company or whatever. Every saw the number of students
    • by thegarbz (1787294)

      Doing what you love rarely puts bread on the table and a car in the garage. Just ask a musician.

      No. Doing what you love usually puts bread on the table and a car in the garage. The exception is many musicians.

    • by slick7 (1703596)

      Doing what you love ...

      Yeah right, insane competition, those mad scientist types always get the cool stuff, the money and the chance to rule the world.

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @02:33PM (#44725793) Journal
    When the resonance cascade occurs, we'll be able to just zerg-rush the bastards with PhD-and-crowbar equipped theoretical physicists. Aliens won't stand a chance.
    • When the resonance cascade occurs, we'll be able to just zerg-rush the bastards with PhD-and-crowbar equipped theoretical physicists. Aliens won't stand a chance.

      True, but I'd rather they discover practical interstellar travel instead of being thrown in a meat grinder and set to puree. But hey, to each evil overlord, their own.

      • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @03:20PM (#44726043) Journal
        It's hardly 'throwing them into a meatgrinder'. Nobody seems to know why a degree in theoretical physics gives you the power to single handedly cut your way through alien swarms, military black-ops teams, and some of the most horrifying violations of OSHA guidelines ever built; but it does.
        • by Kaenneth (82978)

          In my mind, Gordon Freeman now has the voice of Sheldon Cooper

        • It's hardly 'throwing them into a meatgrinder'. Nobody seems to know why a degree in theoretical physics gives you the power to single handedly cut your way through alien swarms, military black-ops teams, and some of the most horrifying violations of OSHA guidelines ever built; but it does.

          Maybe if you're old school. If you've been watching the latest Trek movies, you know that all a degree in theoretical physics causes is nakedness [ignimgs.com].

        • The game made that clear: Freeman wasn't the hero, his hazmat suit was. The thing shrugged off bullets, had a self-contained underwater air supply, ammunition monitoring system (Why?), augment movement rate, allow superhuman jumping range, even provides some level of radiation shielding.

          Just what kind of hazardous material was that lab handling?

          I suspect if you look closely you'll find the Stark Industries logo on there somewhere.

    • I'm in the rare position of owning equipment that actually can suffer a resonance cascade. Co-own, anyway - friend and I build it.

      The real effects of one happening are rather less dramatic though. Worst-case, it just blows up a very expensive high-voltage capacitor.

    • by mysidia (191772)

      But can they survive the reopening of the Medusa Cascade [wikia.com]; coinciding with the Earth for unknown reasons, suddenly appearing right by it, and suddenly unknown alien radio transmissions being received repeating the word "EX-TERM-INATE" over and over?

  • by Kohath (38547) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @02:58PM (#44725929)

    This should be no surprise, since these positions are for pure scientific research with no way to calculate the ROI for the money spent. Countries have debt problems caused by borrowing and their budgets are already stretched to pay benefits for retirees and other non-workers. Add a long recession, a weak recovery, and very little prospect for robust future economic growth, and ultimately you don't end up with the sort of fiscal environment that can support lots of pure research.

    Wealthy societies have discretionary funds for things like pure scientific research. Poor societies have to struggle just to get by. If you want more pure research, you need more people in your society to be employed productively. And you need them to generate lots of wealth -- far beyond "the amount they need" or "their fair share" -- so there will be a lot extra left over for things like pure research.

    • The labor markets are saturated, and wealth is concentrating on the top. There just isn't a market for lots of labor anymore, manufacturing is increasingly automated, services like retail is becoming more automated (thanks Amazon!), so why not soak the rich and use the money to support more research instead of letting all that capital idle at the top?

      Because that's EXACTLY what is happening now. All that capital is idling at the top, the middle/lower classes are underpaid and underemployed and not generat

    • Most retirees worked for their benefits. They may be non-workers now, but while they worked they paid taxes into a retirement system and often accumulated their own capital in addition.

      The fact that the government frittered away their contribution is not their fault.

      The capital they accumulated should be and even sometimes is an important source of accumulated wealth that is invested into the economy. When it isn't, it's another government screw-up.

      • by Kohath (38547)

        My post wasn't about whose fault anything is. Saying "it's not my fault" doesn't make problems go away, nor does it make money appear. We have problems. Retirees are part of "we". Retirees should try to help solve the problems we have.

        To bring the discussion back on topic: retirees should try to help make their society wealthier if they want their society to be able to fund pure research. Retirees might want to try producing more or using up less.

    • by Shavano (2541114)

      This should be no surprise, since these positions are for pure scientific research with no way to calculate the ROI for the money spent. Countries have debt problems caused by borrowing and their budgets are already stretched to pay benefits for retirees and other non-workers. Add a long recession, a weak recovery, and very little prospect for robust future economic growth, and ultimately you don't end up with the sort of fiscal environment that can support lots of pure research.

      Wealthy societies have discretionary funds for things like pure scientific research. Poor societies have to struggle just to get by. If you want more pure research, you need more people in your society to be employed productively. And you need them to generate lots of wealth -- far beyond "the amount they need" or "their fair share" -- so there will be a lot extra left over for things like pure research.

      When you're doing basic research, you must figure on the ROI of your research being possibly zero. There's always a chance that what you're doing will pay off for society at some point in a big way, but the fact is most basic research doesn't. Most of it is exploring blind alleys and some of it has negative impacts so devastating that they may offset the value of a great deal of research. So yes, it's the province of wealthy countries who can afford to spend a good deal of effort on something that may no

  • They were unable to calculate their future job prospects. Whoops.
  • Put them to work on the polywell fusion reactor concept. Actually get the damn thing proven already.
  • by Animats (122034) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @03:31PM (#44726095) Homepage

    This isn't new. It's been that way in high-energy physics since A-bombs stopped being cool. After WWII, there was a huge interest in getting into physics, and large numbers of PhD physicists were produced. The U.S. Government hired a lot of them. Nuclear weapon design became excessively fancy, much to the annoyance of today's workers who have to maintain the old bombs.

    Then, after the US had produced enough bombs for the next few world wars, the nuclear establishment wound down. Los Alamos got into all sorts of strange non-nuclear stuff like chaos theory. Lawrence Livermore became a senior activity center for aging physicists. The average age of the membership in the American Physical Society went up by six months each year. That was back in the 1990s. It hasn't gotten better.

    When the USSR wound down, there was a US effort to find jobs for old Soviet nuclear experts. The worry was that they'd go to work for somebody who still wanted to build a bomb or two. Some came to the US.

  • by RDW (41497) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @03:47PM (#44726199)

    "Same as you, Arthur. I hitched a ride. After all, with a degree in maths and another in astrophysics it was either that or back to the dole queue on Monday."

  • by yesterdaystomorrow (1766850) on Saturday August 31, 2013 @04:00PM (#44726275)

    Young people should not go into physics expecting to become tenured professors. It might happen, but it's unlikely. And besides, why would you want to? Because your professor thinks you should aspire to it? It's actually not that great a job.

    However. physics is still a great field of study because you can take it so many places. You can do engineering that engineers can't do because while they know the shortcuts while you know the fundamentals. I know a number of physicists who work in medical imaging, for example. The best RF engineer I know has a physics degree. A physicist needs great math skills, and unlike mathematicians, needs to be able to apply them in the real world. A smart physics student will take some classes outside of physics, and make mental connections between fields. If you're at a university, you should exploit the situation (and avoid being exploited).

  • Getting a PhD is nothing like it used to be. The whole process has become industrialised since I was young, and - while it's excellent that there *is* so much support - it doesn't represent the independent intellectual achievement that it once did.

    So, while I'm very happy that there are so many people training at this level, they shouldn't think they're that great.

  • NASA should hire all of them. We need something far far better than rockets.
  • I'd be interested to see how these figures compare to other sciences. I am a mid-career biologist (did eight years as a post-doc and have had a permanent research position for the last seven years). I've always felt that we lose about half of PhD graduates to other areas, partly because they don't want and to partly because there aren't enough jobs, and then about half of post-docs don't continue in science for the same reasons. Doesn't seem that different. I do remember that, when I was a post-doc, an emin

  • So, the short version is particle physics is exactly like every other profession in today economy?

  • Twenty years ago it was pretty clear that very few physics graduates would have a career in the field so little has changed in this regard.

    You study it because it is fascinating stuff, not necessarily because you'd expect to make a living of it. Other work is financially much more rewarding, and it is fairly easy to branch out with a physics degree under your belt.

  • Instead of spending billions on Wall Street, the government should be supporting the sciences, by providing patronage for things like physics Phds and the like.

    Much higher return methinks.

    “Science is like sex: sometimes something useful comes out, but that is not the reason we are doing it. ” Richard P. Feynman

    The rest of society benefits when government and society puts money into the sciences instead of financial hustles.

  • I'm kind of at a loss - there is nothing new here. HEP has always been a case of large numbers of grad students and post docs working on the cheap at the accelerator labs. There might be a bit of surplus from a rush in the years leading up to the LHC startup after a lull while it was built - and certainly the more complex detectors require more staff. And the Tevatron is now closed, though that was wound down over a number of years. But I think if one could get the figures, the employment in HEP at both

  • I wish I knew where all of these out of work physicists are. I need one to design a klystron or gyrotron for me.

    • Oh? What're your requirements exactly?
      There are several US companies/gov't labs/universities/foreign companies that can do this.
      To name a few:
      1) Radio Science
      2) L3 (communications?)
      3) CPI (communications and power industries, i think)
      (on to labs.)
      4) Navy Research Lab
      5) Air Force Research Lab
      6) Possibly some DOE labs have people who could (Sandia, Los Alamos, not sure about Livermore)
      6a) Stanford Linear Accelerator lab (SLAC)
      (on to universities)
      7) MIT
      8) University of Michigan
      9) University of Mary

  • .. is that they can end up being successful, at which point they end.

    In the decades leading up to the Napoleonic wars, Great Brittian had a continously growing navy, They built ships at a crazy rate, and were very successful capturing enemy ships and re-flagging them as Brittish war ships. They took in huge numbers of young educated gentlemen as midshipmen, (at age 12 or so) who later became lieutenants, and the leading edge of that Ponzi scheme made it to Commander and Captain. Once made captain, they we

  • Wait, so you're saying that if I go into the rarified field of theoretical particle physics, it's going to be hard to find a job? Crazy! I'm going to change my degree to Historical Russian Literature, that's much more market-attractive in an everyday sense.

    • by mysidia (191772)

      Wait, so you're saying that if I go into the rarified field of theoretical particle physics, it's going to be hard to find a job? Crazy! I'm going to change my degree to Historical Russian Literature, that's much more market-attractive in an everyday sense.

      I think your earnings would be higher if you learned six or seven languages, and offered your services as a professional translator. This despite Google translate threatening to knock such folks out of a job.

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