Yesterday about a dozen or so people from our university research group were asked to sit down in a room here at CERN and talk with a professor who is the DOE reviewer for our main grant.
This fall our 3-year grant is up for review, and he’ll help decide our fate, basically.
Our group had about 9 graduate students there and he asked questions to figure out what problems we were experiencing either within our group, within particle physics, or living in Europe.
Towards the end he also asked us about what we all wanted to do after we graduate. He then led us through a somewhat sad “back of the envelope” calculation:
“Lets say the average professor’s tenure at a university is 30
years, roughly. That typical professor has about 2 graduate students
at any time, and the average time for completion is 6 years.
So, the typical professor produces a total of about 10 PhD’s.
Well, they only need 1 to replicate themselves, and 1 more to
replicate positions available at national labs. And that’s it, that’s
all there is room for in academia, typically, 2 out of 10.”
It’s an over-simplified example, but I think not too far off the mark. About 1,000-some physics PhD’s are awarded in the US every year(AIP), but the number of vacant positions at universities each year is only a fraction of that(AIP Chart).
Update June 13: I began searching for the names of my advisor’s former students and happened upon an on-topic article from the American Physical Society, Sean Mattingly, PhD High-Energy Particle Physics, Dedicated Client Support, Bank of America. Sean is quoted as saying “I think every student should be thinking about a job outside physics.” And that “in grad school we all think that we’re on the academic path, but you’re not – there’s a lot of competition for the few jobs available and most of you are going to have to leave the field.”