One does not normally associate the high-brow world of particle physics with rumors and gossip-mongering, but the tight academic job market has lead to several web sites that provide rumors of job openings, short lists, offers, and actual hirings. These web sites have adopted the nickname of “rumor mills” and have spread from the original site that focused on particle physics in the U.S and Canada to cover the U.K., Austria, Germany, Greece, New Zealand, Portugal, and Switzerland; there are also sites that deal with nuclear theory and astrophysics. At the start of the academic year, advertisements appear for new faculty positions, and as the searches progress hopeful applicants can monitor the progress of each search by seeing when short lists are compiled and eventually when offers are made and accepted or declined.
The first physics rumor page had its origin in 1995 in Boston. Michael Dugan and I were theoretical particle physics post-docs at Boston University and actively seeking academic jobs. Being a subway ride away from Harvard and MIT we could actively compare notes with our neighboring post-docs before and after seminars. We also had information coming in through e-mail with our more remote friends. Through our combined networks, the Boston-area post-docs had a fairly complete picture of not only what positions were available, but also who was being considered for them, and who was being hired. Being among the many applicants who were not receiving job offers at the time, we noticed that there seemed to be factors other than the quality of research that played an important role in hiring. (Of course a search that results in you personally receiving an offer demonstrates that the hiring procedure was a model of a fairly administered meritocracy!) In addition to the faddishness (for example whether string theory is currently in or out of favor) that seems inevitable in academic hiring, the “old-boys-network” seemed to play a large role (in one case Nobel Laureate X claimed that his student was better than Nobel Laureate Y, and one department actually fell for this story). Another subtler factor was the requirement of having the “right personality”. Unlike the popular stereotype of the shy, bookish nerd that is associated with scientists, hiring committees wanted outgoing, aggressive, confident (to the point of arrogant) people to liven up their ranks. As is now more widely appreciated, this puts women at a disadvantage since they are culturally taught to be accommodating rather than aggressive, and self-questioning rather than self-aggrandizing. More generally it made it very difficult for some great researchers to get permanent jobs if they happened to have the wrong personality type, even though this did not bear directly on their ability to perform their work.
The mid 90s was a period of some upheaval for scientific post-docs (at least in North America). It had long been predicted that there would be a great hiring boom to replace the professors hired during the boom of the 60s (at the height of the Cold War) who would be reaching retirement. As it turned out, however, there was a glut of scientific Ph.D.s. Many professors postponed their retirements, and those who did retire were not always replaced because the US was going “through a fit of feeling poor” (as Stephen Hawking put it). Additionally there was an influx of highly accomplished Eastern-bloc scientists after the fall of the Soviet Union. As a result many young scientists who had been told they had great prospects in academia found out after many years of study that the prospects were actually quite poor. There was much discussion at the time of what could be done to reform the field of physics and cure the situation, for example there was talk of limiting the number of Ph.D. students in physics.
For our part, following the maxim that “knowledge is power,” we took the much simpler and practical step of setting up the “Theoretical Particle Physics Jobs Rumor Mill”. Our motivation was threefold: first, younger people entering the field would have an accurate picture of the job situation and be able to make an informed career decision at an earlier stage; second, people outside of the Boston-area would have access to the same information we had and not have to endure as much mental and emotional anguish waiting months to hear about a job that had already been given to someone else; third, by openly publishing the list of people who were invited for interviews (the short lists) we would be exposing the departments that did a sloppy job of hiring.
The initial reaction from post-docs was generally one of delight, while the reaction of the tenured crowd leaned to the more hostile. Senior scientists tended to have reactions based on the tired refrain of “that's not how it was when I was young,” followed by comparisons to less-than-reputable journalists and comments like “Aren't you afraid of being sued?” (Such hostility kept me from openly associating my name with the project until I got my own permanent position.) Now seven years later, rather than being part of a rebellious counter-culture, the rumor mill has become part of the establishment. Physics departments often send job advertisements directly to the rumor mill, and some even send in their short lists in order to avoid any misunderstandings. Hiring practices have changed as well, although whether this has anything to do with the rumor mill is impossible to say. Faddishness remains unchecked, but the “old-boys-network” seems to play a smaller role, and some of the “old-boys” are now women.
In North America the job prospects for physicists are looking up, since the long postponed retirements are actually happening and undergraduate enrollments are up, so the retirees are being replaced. In the UK there was a mini hiring boom leading up to the Research Assessment Exercise in the spring 2001; what will happen next is unclear. It usually takes more than being highly qualified to land a position, so prospective faculty members should probably take a cue from their friends in the business world. In addition to polishing up job talks they should also be polishing up interpersonal skills. Even naturally shy people will need to try to sell their personality as well as their research. Hiring committees want to find someone who will interact with other members of the department, attract students, and above all find someone they will enjoy having around for the next 30 years.
John Terning is a Professor at UC Davis.
This article originally appeared in “Physics World”, Oct. 2002.