APS News

AIP Issues Study on PhD Physicists in National Laboratories

A study released in December by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) found that 4,500 Ph.D. physicists are employed in 29 major federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs). Of these, about 3,450 have permenant positions and the remainder are postdoctoral, visiting, or temporaty. A total of 20,000 Ph.D. physicists were employed to do physics in 1995 in the FFRDCs and three other sectors: 10,000 in academe, 3,200 in industry, and 2,300 in government and other areas.

The study was produced by Jean M. Curtin and Christine Cassagnau of AIP's Education and Employment Statistics Division. The four-page report is the first released by the division on employment at the national laboratories, with another survey to be conducted in about two years. The FFRDCs surveyed included Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, -MITRE Corporation, and the Space Telescope Science Institute.

When asked what the short-term future might look like for their laboratories or units, many respondents were uncertain. However, the majority of contacts indicated that the most they could hope for was to maintain the "status quo." In assessing the future, respondents predicted a fairly stable economic outlook with continued inhibitions to growth. But one person responded: "Dismal_foresee a continual slow attrition unless policy change occurs."

Early retirement programs resulted in a retirement rate of 4.3 percent in 1993 and 1994. The report estimates the retirement rate will drop to 3.7 percent in 1995 and 1996. The estimated gross turnover rate of permanent, Ph.D.-level physicists in the national laboratories increased from 4.3 percent in 1994 to 4.6 percent in 1995. This translated to a projected 160 openings in 1995. The report estimated that in 1995 the labs had about 270 postdoctoral positions to fill. The postdoc turnover rate is approximately 45 percent per year.

The outlook for 1996 shows little, if any, growth in the estimated number of employees with physics Ph.D.s. Postdoctoral appointments may increase from 600 to 620. Visiting scientists and other temporary positions may go from 430 to 440. Utilization of Ph.D. physicists varies among employment sectors. More than 70 percent of Ph.D. physicists at the national laboratories work in physics. This compares to less than one-third of Ph.D. physicists similarly employed by industry.

The survey also found that 87 percent of the surveyed laboratories participate in one or more Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs). A free copy of the report may be obtained by contacting jcurtin@aip.acp.org or by calling (301) 209-3071.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin