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Survivor: theoretical physics

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Some very interesting data here on jobs in particle theory, cosmology, string theory and gravity over the last 15 years in the US (1994 — present).

Based on these numbers and the quality of the talent pool I would guess theoretical physics is the most competitive field in academia, by a large margin. (Your luck will be much, much better in computer science, engineering, biology, …)

The average number of years between completing the PhD and first faculty job is between 5-6. That would make the typical new assistant professor about 33, and almost 40 by the time they receive tenure.

Here are the top schools for producing professors in these fields:

1. Princeton 23 (string theory rules! or ruled… or something)
2. Harvard 18
3. Berkeley 16

This is over 15 years, so that means even at the top three schools only 1 or at most 2 PhDs from a given year typically gets a job in the US. The US is by far the most competitive market. If you follow the link you will see that the list of PhD institutions of US faculty members is truly international, including Tokyo, Berlin, Moscow, etc. (Note I think the jobs data also includes positions at Canadian research universities.)

The field is very much dominated by the top departments; the next most successful include MIT, Stanford, Caltech, Chicago, etc.

Here are some well-known schools that only produced 1 professor of theoretical physics over 15 years: UCLA, UC Davis, U Illinois, U Virginia, U Arizona, Boston University, U Penn, Northwestern, Moscow State University (top university in USSR), Insitute for Nuclear Research (INR) Moscow

Here are some well-known schools that only produced 2 professors over 15 years: Ohio State, U Minnesota, Michigan State, U Colorado, Brown

Here are some well-known schools that only produced 3 professors over 15 years: Columbia, CERN, Johns Hopkins, U Maryland, Yale, Pisa SNS (Scoula Normale Superiore; the most elite university in Italy), Novisibirsk (giant physics lab in USSR)

You can see that by the time we reach 3 professors produced over 15 years we are talking about very, very good physics departments. Even many of the schools in the 1 and 2 category are extremely good. These schools have all hired multiple professors over 15 years, but the people hired tend to have been produced by the very top departments. The flow is from the top down.

This dataset describes a very big talent pool — I would guess that a top 50 department (in the world) produces 3-5 PhDs a year in theoretical physics. If most of them only place a student every 5 years or so, that means the majority of their students end up doing something else!

How many professors do you think are / were straight with their PhD students about the odds of survival?

I only knew one professor at Berkeley who had kept records and knew the odds. One day in the theory lounge at LBNL Mahiko Suzuki (PhD, University of Tokyo) told me and some other shocked grad students and postdocs that about 1 in 4 theory PhDs from Berkeley would get permanent positions. His estimate was remarkably accurate.

How many professors do you think had / have a serious discussion with their students about alternative career paths?

How many have even a vague understanding of what the vast majority of their former students do in finance, silicon valley, …?

Related posts: A tale of two geeks , Out on the tail

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Written by infoproc

September 24, 2008 at 4:17 pm

The tidal wave from PRC

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Will China’s Beijing Olympics performance match their dominance of international science competitions? A reader sends the following information.

Yes, yes, I know — but are they creative? 😉

China took the gold medal in 2008 the 49th International Mathematical Olympiad (July 10th to 22nd, 2008 – Madrid, Spain) link

Russians came in 2nd by very small margin. USA came in 3rd with the help of Asian students such as Alex Zhai who got a perfect score of 42, along with other two students from China. (Big surprise is where have the Indian students gone? Maybe in the SpellingBees? 🙂

China also took the gold medal in the 39th International Physics Olympiad (2008) – Hanoi, Vietnam (28/07). All of its participants got Gold medals. Canada and US team members are also mostly Chinese. Taiwan is in second place. link

At 2008 the 40th Chemistry Olympiads held in Budapest, Hungary on July 21, 2008, all 4 Chinese students got gold medals, again China in 1st place.
link

Written by infoproc

August 6, 2008 at 1:46 am

Angry Youth: Chinese nationalism

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The New Yorker has a great piece on the resurgent nationalism of young Chinese intellectuals.

A couple of weeks later, I met Tang Jie at the gate of Fudan University, a top Chinese school, situated on a modern campus that radiates from a pair of thirty-story steel-and-glass towers that could pass for a corporate headquarters. He wore a crisp powder-blue oxford shirt, khakis, and black dress shoes. He had bright hazel eyes and rounded features—a baby face, everyone tells him—and a dusting of goatee and mustache on his chin and upper lip. He bounded over to welcome me as I stepped out of a cab, and he tried to pay my fare.

Tang spends most of his time working on his dissertation, which is on Western philosophy. He specializes in phenomenology; specifically, in the concept of “intersubjectivity,” as theorized by Edmund Husserl, the German philosopher who influenced Sartre, among others. In addition to Chinese, Tang reads English and German easily, but he speaks them infrequently, so at times he swerves, apologetically, among languages. He is working on his Latin and Ancient Greek. He is so self-effacing and soft-spoken that his voice may drop to a whisper. He laughs sparingly, as if he were conserving energy. For fun, he listens to classical Chinese music, though he also enjoys screwball comedies by the Hong Kong star Stephen Chow. He is proudly unhip. The screen name CTGZ is an adaptation of two obscure terms from classical poetry: changting and gongzi, which together translate as “the noble son of the pavilion.” Unlike some élite Chinese students, Tang has never joined the Communist Party, for fear that it would impugn his objectivity as a scholar.

Tang had invited some friends to join us for lunch, at Fat Brothers Sichuan Restaurant, and afterward we all climbed the stairs to his room. He lives alone in a sixth-floor walkup, a studio of less than seventy-five square feet, which could be mistaken for a library storage room occupied by a fastidious squatter. Books cover every surface, and great mounds list from the shelves above his desk. His collections encompass, more or less, the span of human thought: Plato leans against Lao-tzu, Wittgenstein, Bacon, Fustel de Coulanges, Heidegger, the Koran. When Tang wanted to widen his bed by a few inches, he laid plywood across the frame and propped up the edges with piles of books. Eventually, volumes overflowed the room, and they now stand outside his front door in a wall of cardboard boxes.

Tang slumped into his desk chair. We talked for a while, and I asked if he had any idea that his video would be so popular. He smiled. “It appears I have expressed a common feeling, a shared view,” he said.

Next to him sat Liu Chengguang, a cheerful, broad-faced Ph.D. student in political science who recently translated into Chinese a lecture on the subject of “Manliness” by the conservative Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield. Sprawled on the bed, wearing a gray sweatshirt, was Xiong Wenchi, who earned a Ph.D. in political science before taking a teaching job last year. And to Tang’s left sat Zeng Kewei, a lean and stylish banker, who picked up a master’s degree in Western philosophy before going into finance. Like Tang, each of his friends was in his twenties, was the first in his family to go to college, and had been drawn to the study of Western thought.

“China was backward throughout its modern history, so we were always seeking the reasons for why the West grew strong,” Liu said. “We learned from the West. All of us who are educated have this dream: Grow strong by learning from the West.”

Tang and his friends were so gracious, so thankful that I’d come to listen to them, that I began to wonder if China’s anger of last spring should be viewed as an aberration. They implored me not to make that mistake.

“We’ve been studying Western history for so long, we understand it well,” Zeng said. “We think our love for China, our support for the government and the benefits of this country, is not a spontaneous reaction. It has developed after giving the matter much thought.”

In fact, their view of China’s direction, if not their vitriol, is consistent with the Chinese mainstream. Almost nine out of ten Chinese approve of the way things are going in the country—the highest share of any of the twenty-four countries surveyed this spring by the Pew Research Center. (In the United States, by comparison, just two out of ten voiced approval.) As for the more assertive strain of patriotism, scholars point to a Chinese petition against Japan’s membership in the U.N. Security Council. At last count, it had attracted more than forty million signatures, roughly the population of Spain. …

When people began rioting in Lhasa in March, Tang followed the news closely. As usual, he was receiving his information from American and European news sites, in addition to China’s official media. Like others his age, he has no hesitation about tunnelling under the government firewall, a vast infrastructure of digital filters and human censors which blocks politically objectionable content from reaching computers in China. Younger Chinese friends of mine regard the firewall as they would an officious lifeguard at a swimming pool—an occasional, largely irrelevant, intrusion.

To get around it, Tang detours through a proxy server—a digital way station overseas that connects a user with a blocked Web site. He watches television exclusively online, because he doesn’t have a TV in his room. Tang also receives foreign news clips from Chinese students abroad. (According to the Institute of International Education, the number of Chinese students in the United States—some sixty-seven thousand—has grown by nearly two-thirds in the past decade.) He’s baffled that foreigners might imagine that people of his generation are somehow unwise to the distortions of censorship.

“Because we are in such a system, we are always asking ourselves whether we are brainwashed,” he said. “We are always eager to get other information from different channels.” Then he added, “But when you are in a so-called free system you never think about whether you are brainwashed.”

Also, see this Times profile of 110m hurdler Liu Xiang, and this discussion of the Chinese drive for medal dominance. Note, despite a population base of 1.3 billion, a Soviet-style sports system with a budget of billions of dollars, and an acute hunger for success, I predict that the Chinese will be surpassed by Jamaica (3M people with rudimentary training facilities) on the track.

And this: Orville Schell, writing in the New York Review of Books, China: Humiliation & the Olympics.

Written by infoproc

August 2, 2008 at 4:30 am

Posted in China, globalization

Beijing ballers

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[I’m delayed at EUG waiting for my flight to SFO. Thank god for wifi…]

Check out this awesome video about a Nike 3 on 3 basketball tournament held in the Forbidden City, called Bejing Young Masters.

Written by infoproc

July 11, 2008 at 5:28 pm

To have, and have not

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This NYTimes article starkly illustrates the gap between rich and poor in India. It depicts a gated high-rise community with its own water, power, security and health systems, surrounded by slums from which are drawn the 2.2 servants per affluent occupant family. The high-rise is visible in the background of the picture above (slideshow).

Many of the relatively few Indians who enjoy first-world living standards, including the family in the article, do so as a consequence of globalization.

…“Things have gotten better for the lucky class,” Mrs. Chand, 36, said one day, as she fixed lunch in full view of Chakkarpur, the shantytown where one of her two maids, Shefali Das, lives. “Otherwise, it is still a fight.”

When the power goes out, the lights of Hamilton Court bathe Chakkarpur in a dusky glow. Under the open sky, across the street from the tower, Mrs. Das’s sons take cold bucket baths each day. The slum is as much a product of the new India as Hamilton Court, the opportunities of this new city drawing hundreds of thousands from the hungry hinterlands.

…For those with the right skills, the good times have been very good. Mr. Chand, 34, a business school graduate who runs the regional operations for an American manufacturing firm, has seen his salary grow eightfold in the last five years, which is not unusual for upper class Indians like him.

The Chands are typical of Hamilton Court residents: Well-traveled young professionals, some returnees to India after years abroad, grateful for the conveniences. Some of them are also the first in their families to live so comfortably.

…Mrs. Chand, a doctor who decided to stay home to raise her children, trained in a government hospital. Her other maid told her recently that her own daughter had given birth at home, down there in the slum.

Sometimes, Mrs. Chand said, she thinks of opening a clinic there. But she also said she understood that there was little that she, or anyone, could do. “Two worlds,” she observed, “just across the street.”

The following Bloomberg article describes a recent World Bank study. The results are amazingly consistent with an estimate I mentioned in a previous post, that the “effective” first-world population of India in human capital terms might be around 100 million (4 high performers for every 10 in the US).

The study links the results of a test given to 6,000 teenagers in two states — Rajasthan in western India and Orissa in the east — to students’ performance on the same exam in 51 other countries.

The researchers conclude that mathematical abilities of India’s 14-year-olds vary widely between the worst and the best students.

If other states are similar to the ones studied then it would mean that 17 million Indian students don’t meet the lowest international benchmark of “some basic mathematical knowledge.” That’s 22 times the corresponding figure for the U.S.

At the same time, the depth of India’s math talent — those whose test scores are considered to be of an advanced level — is also significant. “For every 10 top performers in the U.S., there are four in India,” the World Bank economists say. That’s 100,000 students, or more than any European country.

This latter group is supplying the bulk of India’s scientific, technical, managerial and entrepreneurial talent and is responsible for the country’s growing clout in the global knowledge economy.

Written by infoproc

June 10, 2008 at 2:49 am

IIT uber alles?

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I recently came across this interesting web site maintained by Kamal Sinha, an IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Bombay alum who has worked at Mitsubishi in Japan and in Silicon Valley.

It has been widely claimed (e.g., CBS Sixty Minutes) that IITs are the most selective universities in the world — each year about 300k applicants compete for about 4000 spots. To enter the most competitive (e.g., EECS) departments, applicants must score amongst the top few hundred! I know several theoretical physicists in the US who were “toppers” on the IIT-JEE (Joint Entrance Exam), including one who placed first in all of India his year (“first ranker”)! Perhaps ironically, the first ranker didn’t attend IIT — he chose Caltech instead.

Despite the hype (see below) Sinha seems to think IIT is roughly comparable to other elite national universities like University of Tokyo, Seoul National University or Taiwan National University. Note he estimates the effective population base (the number of people who have access to first world educational resources in K-12) of India as only comparable to that of Japan (about 125 million; see here for a similar estimate by a well-known physicist). The estimates that lead to the conclusion that IIT is the most competitive in the world usually normalize to the entire Indian population of nearly 1 billion. I would say that China’s effective population (in this sense) is around 200-300 million people (and growing rapidly), so perhaps Beida (Beijing University) and Tsinghua are the most competitive universities in the world.

I’d be interested in the opinions of other IIT graduates! Here is some detailed discussion of the JEE exam by an IIT-Kanpur professor (link provided by a commenter). The professor suggests that the test is too hard: beyond the first few hundred or thousand rankers, noise dominates signal (i.e., even many admitted students have very low absolute scores, in which luck may have played a role).

Hype:

“This is IIT Bombay. Put Harvard, MIT and Princeton together, and you begin to get an idea of the status of this school in India.” (Lesley Stahl, co-anchor on CBS 60 Minutes)

“And it’s hard to think of anything like IIT anywhere in the world. It is a very unique institution.” (Bill Gates, Microsoft)

“Per capita, IIT has produced more millionaires than any other undergraduate institution.” (Salon Magazine)

Sinha on IIT acceptance rate:

Admission to IITs is extremely difficult. Only the top 2 percent of the applicants are admitted and to get into a decent department, about half a percent is a reasonable corresponding figure. Here I will explore whether IITs are the hardest school to get into and later I will check if high selectivity results in higher quality. “Hard” facts will be supplied when they become available.

Extremely low Acceptance Rate?

Having results of a single entrance examination determine whether one would be accepted or not is a common feature among the educational institutions in East Asian countries. I worked in Japan for six years and therefore being somewhat familiar with them will compare Japanese figures with that of IITs. All figures ae based on certain assumptions.

Selective Admissions in Japan

While it might not make the CBS news, Tokyo University, or Todai, an abbreviated form of Tokyo Daigaku is the place Japanese moms start thinking of to send their children for undergraduate studies before they are even born. There are 8 national universities like the Tokyo university, Todai being the most coveted one, and a few prestigious private schools like the Keio and Waseda, and these are the schools where almost every graduating school senior hopes to get into. Among technical schools Tokyo Institute of Technology (part of those 8 national universities) leads the pack. Each year news of a few students committing suicide on failing to secure admission into one of these schools is not uncommon.

Tokyo University admits fewer than 1500. My guess is that all the top private universities and the eight national universities combined admit fewer than 15000 applicants. How many students applied for these seats? About one and a half million which is about the total number of graduating seniors. Means about one percent!

Applicant Pool Size

‘Wait a minute’ I can hear you saying. Unlike in Japan where almost everyone takes the test to get into an an university, in India not everybody applies to IITs. Most of the applicants who take the JEE are quite good, there being a self-selection process. In response I will point out that if we compare the potential applicant pools, the following factors stand out:

IIT JEE is taken mostly by middle class applicants from urban areas with total population about 125 million. Japan has about same population with lower percentage of test-takers compared to that of India because of lower birth rates. There almost all eligible seniors take the test to get into these prestigious universities, meaning the potential applicant pools are almost equal.

Engineering schools like Tokyo Institute of Technlogy and various engineering departments in other universities are more selective than the average department. Assume those to be twice as selective.

IITs accept about 3500 of applicants. Given the above assumptions it is about (15000/2)/3500 = two times more selective than the average engineering department in these Japanese universities.

Take Tokyo University for comparision. An overwhelming majority of the grduating seniors choose Todai as their first choice. This means that Tokyo University is about twice (3500/1500) as selective as the IITs and more likely at least four times as selective than the IITs when engineering departments are compared.

Quality of Potential Applicant Pools

Japanese seniors in schools perform near the top in international tests in sciences and mathematics. (Seniors from Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore perform equally well.) Indians are not included in most comparison studies but there seems to be some evidence that the average Indian students would have performed near the average, probably somewhat below it. Moreover, after graduation many Japanese students take time off to study for the entrance exam and their dedication has to be seen to be believed. It leads me to believe that their potential applicant pool of of higher quality.

Other Asian Countries like Korea, Singapore, Hongkong, China?

It may be assumed that the student quality and the selection rates are similar to that in Japan, if not better. Means it appears that IITs, however difficult they are to get into, could be overshadowed by institutions in neighboring countries with more difficult admission standards.

There is a difference though. While graduates of universities like Tokyo are quietly working hard to bring their countries up to top and compete with the West, India with its population of a billion or so, through its IIT and other engineering college graduates, seems destined to become a country where the developed world can chooose its low-cost subcontractors to do the jobs they don’t want to do or have a shortage of workers.

Admissions in the USA

While it seems true that admission rate at IITs is less than even the most selective US school like the CalTech, it does not mean IIT recruits students of higher caliber. In a country like the USA, educational resources were well developed and the enrollment capacity for engineering majors is kept about the same as the number of seniors intending to enter those programs, if not more. It means less desparation. Moreover, there are lot of top-notch schools schools of about equal caliber which decreases their selectivity figures. My guess is that the top 50 engineering schools in the USA exceed IITs in almost all respect and another 100 or so other schools are not far behind.

Written by infoproc

June 3, 2008 at 2:00 am

The big dog

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This picture (via Barry Ritholtz) illustrates that the US is still the dominant economy in the world.

Note, though, that the growth rate differential between the US and China is currently around 7 percent per year (e.g., 10 vs 3). If that persists for another decade, China’s PPP GDP will exceed that of the US.

See here for a list of PPP adjusted GDPs by country.

70% of US GDP is consumer-related. One can expect significant consequences abroad from any slowdown here — for example due to freezing of home equity lines of credit 😉

Written by infoproc

May 16, 2008 at 3:22 pm