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The Future of High Energy Physics

The High Energy Physics (HEP) landscape has changed significantly over the past few years. Fermilab's Tevatron — once the king of particle accelerators — ceased operations two years ago as LHC scientists cranked up the energy at the world's highest-energy particle accelerator. Months later, scientists there announced conclusive evidence that they'd seen an elusive Higgs-like boson for the first time.

Much of HEP research now revolves around the LHC, and young particle physicists face different research priorities, career prospects and opportunities compared to what their older advisers faced years ago.

Consequently, at a recent annual meeting of HEP physicists, organizers polled their peers on where HEP research is headed and what will happen to physics jobs in this field. In particular, they focused on the views of young physicists facing a nebulous funding environment with shifting priorities.

A computer simulation of particle collisions leading to the emergence of a Higgs Boson.
Image Credit: Lucas Taylor/CERN

The organizers from a variety of universities divided their survey into four categories: demographics, career outlook, physics outlook, and non-academic career paths. Over 1100 physicists weighed in (including a high percentage of young postdocs, non-tenured faculty, and graduate students) for the online survey, including about 75 particle physicists who had abandoned an academic career for other lines of work. Let's take a look at some of the results.


78 percent of respondents were male while only 22 percent were female. Nearly 80 percent of the respondents had no children and about 40 percent of the physicists were married.

For their research, most respondents were working on the "energy" frontier of HEP, followed by the "intensity", "theory", and "cosmic" frontiers. Energy research in HEP.

The energy frontier includes the high-energy particle accelerators that you've probably heard about before, like the LHC.

Physicists working on the intensity frontier focus powerful beams in a small area (the definition of high-intensity in physics), often with super-intense lasers.

On the cosmic front, physicists look toward the heavens for clues about the nature of fundamental particles, dark matter, and dark energy. The IceCube neutrino observatory in Antarctica, for instance, would fall under this category.

Below, you can see which areas physicists are researching the most according to the survey.

Image Credit: Anderson et. al via arxiv

Career Outlook

A strong majority of the physicists (60 percent) thought that funding was likely to dwindle for HEP in the next few years. Nonetheless, about the same percentage of job seekers still intended to pursue academic careers in HEP.

When it comes to HEP jobs, many graduate students and postdocs wanted to stay within the United States, but nearly as many were willing to travel wherever the jobs were.

Image Credit: Anderson et. al via arxiv

Physics Outlook

The energy frontier currently dominates most positions in the field, and most respondents felt that it would continue to have the greatest impact in the near future.

Image Credit: Anderson et. al via arxiv

Respondents also listed which experiments they were most excited about for the various research frontiers: energy, cosmic, and intensity.

The Antarctic IceCube observatory topped the list for the cosmic frontier; the proposed Very Large Hadron Collider won in the energy category; and Fermilab's upcoming Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment ranked highest within the intensity frontier.

Non-Academic Careers

Finally, the physicist pollsters asked their peers outside of academia about their career choics. Here's some interesting statistics:

  • 57 percent of respondents never sought an academic career after receiving their training in HEP.
  • Those working outside of academia put in about the same amount of hours per week as those in the ivory tower.
  • Programming, data analysis, statistical analysis, and oral communication were among the most applicable skills to the job market that were originally developed during HEP training.

So there's a general picture of the future of high energy physics from the eyes of high energy physicists themselves. Although most respondents expected funding cuts in the future, most young high energy physicists appeared eager and optimistic about careers in academia and research.

In the wake of the LHC's public heyday, physicists must look ahead to the other exciting HEP experiments coming online in the upcoming decade. Hopefully, these new experiments can capture the public's eye as well.


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