In case you haven’t figured it out already from reading the US LHC blog or any of the others at Quantum Diaries, people who do research in particle physics feel passionate about their work. There is so much to be passionate about! There are challenging intellectual issues, tricky technical problems, and cutting-edge instrumentation to work with — all in pursuit of understanding the nature of the universe at its most fundamental level. Your work can lead to global attention and support Nobel Prizes. It’s a lot of effort put in over long days and nights, but there is also a lot of satisfaction to be gained from our accomplishments.
That being said, a fundamental truth about our field is that not everyone doing particle-physics research will be doing that for their entire career. There are fewer permanent jobs in the field than there are people who are qualified to hold them. It is certainly easy to do the math about university jobs in particular — each professor may supervise a large number of PhD students in his or her career, but only one could possibly inherit that job position in the end. Most of our researchers will end up working in other fields, quite likely in the for-profit sector, and as a field we do need to make sure that they are well-prepared for jobs in that part of the world.
I’ve always believed that we do a good job of this, but my belief was reinforced by a recent column by Tom Friedman in The New York Times. It was based around an interview with the Google staff member who oversees hiring for the company. The essay describes the attributes that Google looks for in new employees, and I couldn’t help but to think that people who work in the large experimental particle physics projects such as those at the LHC have all of those attributes. Google is not just looking for technical skills — it goes without saying that they are, and that particle physicists have those skills and great experience with digesting large amounts of computerized data. Google is also looking for social and personality traits that are also important for success in particle physics.
(Side note: I don’t support all of what Friedman writes in his essay; he is somewhat dismissive of the utility of a college education, and as a university professor I think that we are doing better than he suggests. But I will focus on some of his other points here. I also recognize that it is perhaps too easy for me to write about careers outside the field when I personally hold a permanent job in particle physics, but believe me that it just as easily could have wound up differently for me.)
For example, just reading from the Friedman column, one thing Google looks for is what is referred to as “emergent leadership”. This is not leadership in the form of holding a position with a particular title, but seeing when a group needs you to step forward to lead on something when the time is right, but also to step back and let someone else lead when needed. While the big particle-physics collaborations appear to be massive organizations, much of the day to day work, such as the development of a physics measurement, is done in smaller groups that function very organically. When they function well, people do step up to take on the most critical tasks, especially when they see that they are particularly positioned to do them. Everyone figures out how to interact in such a way that the job gets done. Another facet of this is ownership: everyone who is working together on a project feels personally responsible for it and will do what is right for the group, if not the entire experiment — even if it means putting aside your own ideas and efforts when someone else clearly has the better thing.
And related to that in turn is what is referred to in the column as “intellectual humility.” We are all very aggressive in making our arguments based on the facts that we have in hand. We look at the data and we draw conclusions, and we develop and promote research techniques that appear to be effective. But when presented with new information that demonstrates that the previous arguments are invalid, we happily drop what we had been pursuing and move on to the next thing. That’s how all of science works, really; all of your theories are only as good as the evidence that supports them, and are worthless in the face of contradictory evidence. Google wants people who take this kind of approach to their work.
I don’t think you have to be Google to be looking for the same qualities in your co-workers. If you are an employer who wants to have staff members who are smart, technically skilled, passionate about what they do, able to incorporate disparate pieces of information and generate new ideas, ready to take charge when they need to, feel responsible for the entire enterprise, and able to say they are wrong when they are wrong — you should be hiring particle physicists.