As you may have seen from our live-blogging of the CERN seminars on Wednesday morning, after having told Sean and John I would be asleep, I woke up anyway and watched the announcement live at 3am my time. I don’t regret it for a moment – you don’t get to watch historic events like that every day! But the reason I’d originally intended to stay asleep was that I had a very long day ahead of me, since Wednesday evening I flew out to Melbourne to take part in the 36th International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP). This is the major high-energy physics conference every two years; and this year, given the Higgs announcement, it is particularly exciting.
I landed in Melbourne on Friday morning (local time), but couldn’t attend a lot of the conference that day because I had to deal with a lost bag (thanks United!) and then shop for a shirt, underwear, etc. Enough about that though. For the last year or so the University of Melbourne has been the primary institution in a new Australian Center of Excellence in Particle Physics (CoEPP) at the Terascale, and I am fortunate to be one of their international partner investigators and on the International Advisory Committee. Friday evening there was a small reception and dinner for members of the Center and the IAC. Geoff Taylor (head of CoEpp), my friend Ray Volkas, Rolf Heuer (Director General of CERN and Chair of the IAC), and others were all there, dressed nicely in their suits. And I was there in the jeans I’d worn continually (and slept in on the plane) for two and a half days (thanks United! OK, I’ll stop mentioning it now). In any case, this was a lovely start to what I”m hoping will be one of the more exciting conferences of my career.
Here’s a short video, courtesy of NOVA, that we made on our trip to Geneva. Hopefully the excitement of the moment comes through… (Note: might be hard/impossible to view the video outside the US, sorry.)
Recent reports and articles have generated a lot of buzz about the difficulty of finding employment in the sciences. These articles mirror the anxieties of the young astronomy community with whom I am most familiar. Scientists are not stupid and are pretty good with data, so they can look at the number of graduate students, the number of postdoctoral positions, and the number of faculty ads, and correctly assess that the odds of winding up with a long-term academic position are not good.
However, difficulty finding a “long term academic position” is not the same thing as difficulty finding a job. Buried in those same articles is the fact that the unemployment rate for physicists (which likely mirrors that of astronomers) is between 1-2%. In contrast, the lab-based biologists and chemists (which are the focus of the articles) are not finding employment at all, or if they do, it’s frequently in a position that makes no use of their technical skills.
To me, what this implies is that most of the skills mastered by PhD-level lab-based scientists are not readily transferable to other jobs, and are not easily generalized (or at least, are not perceived as generalizable by employers). The ability to work well in a lab setting is only valuable if the economy supports large numbers of labs. Industry used to host these, but the era of corporate research is largely over.
In contrast, a typical astronomy postdoc has experience with software development, image processing, filtering, large data volumes, experimental design, data visualization, project management, proposal preparation, and technical writing — all of which are generic skills that can be applied to a wide variety of technical positions outside of astronomy. Jobs that use these skills do not require large infrastructure overheads, and thus can be found in start-ups, and in almost any region of the country. Moreover, the typical astronomy or physics postdoc has had much more autonomy and freedom to lead projects, whereas lab-based biology appears to be far more pyramidal, giving postdocs far fewer venues in which to demonstrate their initiative and leadership.
In short, while few astronomy and physics PhD’s are explicitly educated for positions outside of academia, their training actually transfers quite well.
The problem in astronomy and physics is therefore not employment, but expectations. The fact remains that many PhD students do not fully understand that they are unlikely to ever have the equivalent of their advisor’s job, and leading to (completely understandable) fear and frustration when discovering that one’s goal is not likely to ever be achieved. This misconception is primarily a failure of mentoring and education. First, astronomy and physics have never had a 1-to-1 ratio between people earning PhDs and the number of faculty jobs, so while the ratio may be particularly unfavorable now, there was never a golden era. Second, there is no reason that the routine business of being a faculty member should be an appealing job description to every single person who is interested in astrophysics. As such, students should never be made to feel that they’re failures for not getting a particular flavor of academic position, and should instead always be encouraged to explore other avenues that could use their talents while bringing them greater day-to-day satisfaction. And based on the studies, I’m grateful that those options appear to exist for the physicists and astronomers who change their direction.