My blog began, almost eleven years ago, with the title “Four Gravitons and a Grad Student”. Since then, I finished my PhD. The “Grad Student” dropped from the title, and the mysterious word “postdoc” showed up on a few pages. For three years I worked as a postdoc at the Perimeter Institute in Canada, before hopping the pond and starting another three-year postdoc job in Denmark. With a grant from the EU, three years became four. More funding got me to five (with a fancier title), and now nearing on six. Each step, my contract has been temporary: at first three years at a time, then one-year extensions. Each year I applied, all over the world, looking for a permanent job: for a chance to settle down somewhere, to build my own research group without worrying about having to move the next year.
This year, things have finally worked out. In the Fall I will be moving to France, starting a junior permanent position with L’Institut de Physique Théorique (or IPhT) at CEA Paris-Saclay.
It’s been a long journey to get here, with a lot of soul-searching. This year in particular has been a year of reassessment: of digging deep and figuring out what matters to me, what I hope to accomplish and what clues I have to guide the way. Sometimes I feel like I’ve matured more as a physicist in the last year than in the last three put together.
The CEA (originally Commissariat à l’énergie atomique, now Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives, or Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, and yes that means they’re using the “A” for two things at the same time), is roughly a parallel organization to the USA’s Department of Energy. Both organizations began as a way to manage their nation’s nuclear program, but both branched out, both into other forms of energy and into scientific research. Both run a nationwide network of laboratories, lightly linked but independent from their nations’ universities, both with notable facilities for particle physics. The CEA’s flagship site is in Saclay, on the outskirts of Paris, and it’s their Institute for Theoretical Physics where I’ll be working.
My new position is genuinely permanent: unlike a tenure-track position in the US, I don’t go up for review after a fixed span of time, with the expectation that if I don’t get promoted I lose the job altogether. It’s also not a university, which in particular means I’m not required to teach. I’ll have the option of teaching, working with nearby universities. In the long run, I think I’ll pursue that option. I’ve found teaching helpful the past couple years: it’s helped me think about physics, and think about how to communicate physics. But it’s good not to have to rush into preparing a new course when I arrive, as new professors often do.
It’s also a really great group, with a lot of people who work on things I care about. IPhT has a long track record of research in scattering amplitudes, with many leading figures. They’ve played a key role in topics that frequent readers will have seen show up on this blog: on applying techniques from particle physics to gravitational waves, to the way Calabi-Yau manifolds show up in Feynman diagrams, and even recently to the relationship of machine learning to inference in particle physics.
Working temporary positions year after year, not knowing where I’ll be the next year, has been stressful. Others have had it worse, though. Some of you might have seen a recent post by Bret Deveraux, a military historian with a much more popular blog who has been in a series of adjunct positions. Deveraux describes the job market for the humanities in the US quite well. I’m in theoretical physics in Europe, so while my situation hasn’t been easy, it has been substantially better.
First, there’s the physics component. Physics has “adjunctified” much less than other fields. I don’t think I know a single physicist who has taken an adjunct teaching position, the kind of thing where you’re paid per course and only to teach. I know many who have left physics for other kinds of work, for Wall Street or Silicon Valley or to do data science for a bank or to teach high school. On the other side, I know people in other fields who do work as adjuncts, particularly in mathematics.
Deveraux blames the culture of his field, but I think funding also must have an important role. Physicists, and scientists in many other areas, rarely get professor positions right after their PhDs, but that doesn’t mean they leave the field entirely because most can find postdoc positions. Those postdocs are focused on research, and are often paid for by government grants: in my field in the US, that usually means the Department of Energy. People can go through two or sometimes even three such positions before finding something permanent, if they don’t leave the field before that. Without something like the Department of Energy or National Institutes of Health providing funding, I don’t know if the humanities could imitate that structure even if they wanted to.
Europe, in turn, has a different situation than the US. Most European countries don’t have a tenure-track: just permanent positions and fixed-term positions. Funding also works quite differently. Department of Energy funding in the US is spread widely and lightly: grants are shared by groups of theorists at a given university, each getting funding for a few postdocs and PhDs across the group. In Europe, a lot of the funding is much more concentrated: big grants from the European Research Council going to individual professors, with various national and private grants supplementing or mirroring that structure. That kind of funding, and the rarity of tenure, in turn leads to a different kind of temporary position: one not hired to teach a course but hired for research as long as the funding lasts. The Danish word for my current title is Adjunkt, but that’s as one says in France a faux ami: the official English translation is Assistant Professor, and it’s nothing like a US adjunct. I know people in a variety of forms of that kind of position in a variety of countries, people who landed a five-year grant where they could act like a professor, hire people and so on, but who in the end were expected to move when the grant was over. It’s a stressful situation, but at least it lets us further our research and make progress, unlike a US adjunct in the humanities or math who needs to spend much of their time on teaching.
I do hope Deveraux finds a permanent position, he’s got a great blog. And to return to the theme of the post, I am extremely grateful and happy that I have managed to find a permanent position. I’m looking forward to joining the group at Saclay: to learning more about physics from them, but also, to having a place where I can start to build something, and make a lasting impact on the world around me.