Young particle physicists face a job crunch that some older physicists have predicted for years. In 2010, researchers at the European particle physics laboratory, CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland, started taking data with the world's largest atom smasher, the 27-kilometer-long Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Last year, to great fanfare, the LHC blasted into existence the long-sought Higgs boson, the last piece in physicists' theory of the known particles, the standard model. But the huge teams working on the LHC have also cranked out hundreds of Ph.D.s, and with particle physics budgets in the United States and Europe stagnating, there aren't enough academic positions to accommodate them all.
Within the particle physics community, young researchers themselves are drawing attention to the problem. Over the past 10 months, particle physicists in the United States have conducted a planning exercise that culminated recently in a 9-day retreat at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, called "Snowmass on the Mississippi"—after the ski resort in Colorado where physicists used to gather. The grassroots Snowmass Young Physicist Movement (YPM) conducted an online poll and held more than a dozen town hall meetings to find out what graduate students, postdocs, and untenured faculty members are thinking. "For young particle physicists the issues are jobs, jobs, jobs," says Bjoern Penning, 34, a postdoc at the University of Chicago and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, and a co-convener of the Snowmass YPM.
Young particle physicists say their older colleagues are generally supportive, but don't always fully appreciate their predicament. "I think the senior people, they actually think that if you work very hard, you'll make it, because they made it," says Marcelle Soares-Santos, 31, a postdoc at Fermilab who works on a cosmology project known as the Dark Energy Survey. But that's hardly the case, she says: "We don't control all the variables."What I found interesting about the article was the seeming understanding amongst young physicists that they would be relatively unlikely to find a position within academic or government laboratory physics. The numerical odds are slim:
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.Yikes! At least younger Ph.D. chemists have postdocs to keep a roof over their head... but is that just delaying the transition?