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Physics Concerning particle physics and job availability

  1. Apr 28, 2012 #1
    Why hello there,

    Before I state the question I would just like to give a short background tour:
    I'm 17 years old, live in Iceland and have wanted to be a physicist for many years and for some quite some time I've wanted to be a particle physicist in particular. I've always gotten 9's and 10's in both physics and maths (with the occasional 8's slipping in >.>) so I do believe I will be able to handle the academic part of physics quite well. My question, on the other hand, pertains to practicality.

    I live in a small town so the only physicists I know are my teachers, two of which have been teachers most of their careers and not actively been researching on the frontiers of science and one who has retired from researching but he is an astrophysicist. So I didn't really have anyone close to ask questions concerning the work environment of particle physicists and I didn't find anything about it online (although I must admit I did not put a lot of effort into searching, as this question is mainly due to interest, rather than concern).
    So that is why I ask here, if anyone know:

    Concerning the job availability for particle physics, is it difficult to get the position of a particle physicist. Are most of those who get degrees in particle physics doomed to use there degree for something else unless they are either lucky, have good connections or are that more brilliant? Or is there more of a market for particle physicists then I know of/realize?

    Thanks in advance,

    p.s. first post!
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 28, 2012 #2
    Firstly, welcome to the forums!

    Secondly, I'm not a particle physicist so I really can't do more than cite a few websites that offer data about the job market which I'll refrain from doing. However, I will say that if you study particle physics and end up doing research in another field I personally would not say you've been doomed to study something else :)

    What I have picked up from reading these forums and many posts similar to this is that a common recommendation is to be versed in programming and take a few classess related but not required for your specific degree so as to ensure you have more to offer because it might be hard to find a job doing specifically what you want.
  4. Apr 28, 2012 #3
    Thanks :)

    I admit that I used "doomed" loosely, as just about any job in physics would make me happy, I just have a particular soft spot for particle physics.

    I have also thought about this and probably I will end up doing this not only because it's practical but also because I like a whole bunch of physics, not only particle physics, which I also want to study. In particular astrophysics. But thanks for the reply :)
  5. Apr 28, 2012 #4
    By the way, in your search that I hope does not end with this forum post, if you find a site that provides job data on specific specializations within physics I would be interested in seeing it. I can only find bls.gov which has 'physicists and astronomers' as a category but does not break it down.

    There was one that I remember that had a ton of information about different specific fields and even a break down within that based on what degrees they had but I can't find it! Anyways, that might be something worth looking for as it will give you a good idea as to how competitive the market is.

    Bls.gov cites a projected 14% growth over the next year for physicists/astronomy in general but what that means for particle physics I don't know.
  6. Apr 28, 2012 #5
    I got my phd in theoretical high energy (particle physics). I currently work for an insurance company, and most of the other particle physics phds I know work for banks, insurance companies, or in management consulting. I also know a few programmers and IT people. In my experience, most theoretical particle physics phds don't get jobs doing scientific research of any kind.

    I don't dislike my job, but I would much prefer to be doing scientific research for a living. If I could do it again, I'd get my phd in something like optics. I'd focus on maximizing my ability to get any sort of research job, instead of studying the subject I enjoy most.

    But what about all those particle physics phds who don't get jobs doing scientific research? Many of them probably had a utility order of something like particle physics research > other scientific research > other work. By getting a phd in particle physics, they may well have lowered their overall expected utility.
  7. Apr 28, 2012 #6
    ParticleGirl, you mention an optics focus would give some one more opportunity to do research? Any reason?

    In your opinion, is there any other fields that could give a physicist a better opportunity to do research?
  8. Apr 28, 2012 #7
    That is a great point which is precisely why I followed with advice (read: borrowed) about taking unrelated classes, noting that studying something else might be good (implied here is a suggestion that the reader analyze the utility of their specialization), and also be versed in other useful technical skills.

    Keep in mind, now that you're here I will stand back and let the professionals give the real advice. However, the uninitiated like myself often make useful organizers of information so hopefully I can still be helpful :)
  9. Apr 29, 2012 #8
    I will, but, as I said, this matter is just a little interest so I won't spend a lot of time searching, tbh.

    Thanks for the reply and here's hoping you'll eventually get a job doing scientific research. And I also see myself as more of an experimentalist rather than a theorist, though you never know. :)
  10. Apr 29, 2012 #9
    I did high energy experiment for my PhD, and the job I got after is a programming job that in no way involves any physics (not even non-particle physics) or any kind of research. I didn't find any realistic path for staying in any kind of non-physics research either.

    The paragraph I wrote above definitely sounds pessimistic (and it sort of is), but I want to emphasize that I didn't have any real trouble finding a job. It just has nothing to do with my degrees. I personally don't have any sort of problem with that, but I can definitely see how someone who just wants to do science could be extremely frustrated with such an outcome from a multi-decade educational investment.

    If doing some sort of physics is what is most important to you, then I'd say that particle physics is probably one of the least secure paths to that end. That actually isn't all that surprising. Particle experiment consists mainly of analyzing some big set of data to draw conclusions from it. I'd say 95% of what I did involved writing code and scripts to get out the relevant numbers, plugging those numbers into a stats package, and then writing a paper on the results. The jobs you get afterwards with titles like 'analyst' are not really all that different...
  11. Apr 29, 2012 #10
    That is what I was afraid of, which is why I started looking in to it. But, as I said earlier in the thread, I wouldn't hate being an astrophysicist or some other kind of physicist. And thanks, again, for replying. :)
  12. Apr 29, 2012 #11
    Having escaped from HEP experimental, I have to agree that HEP really is a bad field if you want to stay in physics or even science. One observation is, this field requires huge amounts of grunt work in building, running, fixing and analyzing. There's correspondingly huge numbers of temporary workers in the form of students and postdocs who actually do the grunt work.

    Now if you and all these grunts want to stay in science, you will likely be disappointed, unless you have a non-traditional, non-drilled-in-by-professors definition of "physics" or "science", "success" or "failure".... which is very important! In my opinion, having your own definition of things, and not letting professors define them for you, is more important than the precise field you go into.
  13. Apr 29, 2012 #12
    Yes. A lot depends on funding.

    Doomed is a strong word. Rather large numbers of particle physicists end up working for investment banks. It turns out that the math for particles resembles high level financial mathematics.

    Yes there is. Just not in particle physics.
  14. Apr 29, 2012 #13
    I've found that with regard to science careers, BLS projections really are meaningless.

    One thing that you have to realize is how small the community is. One can keep track of the job situation with "rumor mills"

    Here is the web page with all of the current academic jobs in HEP


    Here is the web page with all of the current jobs openings in astronomy


    And the rumor mill


    Now one thing that you should notice is that the fact that all of the jobs fit on a web page, should tell you something.

    The fact that when they have a job opening, people know the five people in the world who are qualified for the job by name, should also tell you something.

    The job market for particle physics and astrophysics is more like the job market for professional baseball and basketball players than it is for engineers. One thing that's funny is that job market for major league baseball players is larger (and in fact much larger) than that of particle physicists.

    Something that I think would be sort of cool would be to have astrophysicist/particle physicist trading cards.
  15. Apr 30, 2012 #14


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    twofish-quant, it's interesting that you compare the job market for particle physicists and astrophysicists with the job market for professional athletes (somehow, I find it hard to imagine for particle physics that you have first draft picks or free agency, but I digress).

    To your knowledge, how different is the job market for other areas of physics, especially those with an experimental background -- say, for example, experimental condensed matter physics or optics?

    What about areas considered "non-traditional" physics, such as nonlinear physics or complex systems research? (I know of one person with a PhD in that background now employed as an assistant prof in the statistics department at CMU).
  16. Apr 30, 2012 #15


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    Just in case you missed it, I mentioned a field of physics that continues to have very high employment rate:


    In experimental condensed matter physics, you have a greater degree of "emloyability" to continue working in roughly similar field as your field of study, mainly because you are also desirable in many high-tech industries.

  17. Apr 30, 2012 #16
    The rumor mill for HEP experiment is nearly as bad as theory: http://www.freewebs.com/heprumor/index.html [Broken]. High energy physics is just bad in terms of employment within the field. From friends I get the impression that condensed matter is no where near as bad.

    It's also funny to notice the large number of multiple appearances in the HEP short lists. Since the field is so small, I am actually familiar with the work of a large portion of these people. This was helpful to me deciding what to do after my PhD, since it gave me a nice reference point for what it takes to get a permanent job in the field. I realized that I had no realistic chance of succeeding at all, which contributed to my decision to cut my losses and get out now.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  18. Apr 30, 2012 #17
    Thanks for all your replies, they've been most helpful. It is as I suspected, getting a job as a particle physicist is anything but easy and getting a job as an astrophysicist also seems more difficult than I thought. But oh well, what is life with out a little challenge.

    But thanks anyways and I'll be sure to mention you guys in my Nobel prize in physics award acceptance speech ;) (I wish >.>).
  19. May 2, 2012 #18
    If you are shooting for the Nobel, it's worth noting that only one out of the last ten Nobel's in physics has anything to do with particle physics.
  20. May 2, 2012 #19
    And most of the work for which it was awarded was done in the 70's.
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