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Debunking Some Myths of Physics Departments, Students and Employment

By Brian Schwartz

brianschwartz Physics has been one of the most exciting sciences of the 20th century. Many of the revolutions in science, technology, and modes of thought have been led and influenced by developments in physics: relativity, quantum mechanics, the Big Bang theory of the universe, and quarks, the new building blocks of matter, just to name a few. Physicists have paved the way for the invention of transistors, lasers, nuclear power, electro-optical communications, magnetic resonance imaging, and much more. Since the end of World War II, after the success of American scientists in aiding the defense of the nation with the atomic bomb, the government and industry have placed a high value on physics and generously supported basic and applied research.

In the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War and fierce global competition in all aspects of high technology, the nation finds itself developing new modes and justification for science funding. It is clear that the knowledge provided by physics is in great demand and that research challenges are backed with a substantial base of government and industrial support. However, employment patterns for Ph.D. scientists and engineers are changing. There are fewer opportunities for academic positions due to budget limitations, but there are documented growing needs for flexible and broadly trained physicists in many aspects of the world of high technology and business.

There has been much written about the changing paradigms in science funding. My focus is on some of the myths surrounding physics departments, physics majors and the employment of physicists.

Myth #1: The fact that there are very few undergraduate physics majors - relative to many other undergraduate disciplines - at most universities is a clear indication that physics department faculties are too large.


The American Institute of Physics (AIP) has collected data indicating that there are approximately 800 colleges and universities offering undergraduate degrees in physics, with about 5,000 baccalaureate degrees awarded annually - an average of six per institution. Thus, most physics departments across the nation have few physics majors. To within +/- 15% this has been the situation for over 30 years. While it would be worthwhile for physics departments to make their undergraduate curricula more attractive and broadly based, it seems unlikely that, on a national level, the numbers of physics majors could be increased significantly. Even a factor increase of two would still leave physics with a small number of majors.

A much fairer yardstick for the size of the physics department faculty and necessary support should include a weighted matrix of the following factors:

1. The enrollment in introductory non-science major courses. Considerable faculty support can be generated by first-rate physics courses in astronomy, contemporary physics topics, or such specialized topics as the physics of music, physics of sports, or the physics of how things work.

2. The physics service courses for engineering, math, and computer science majors, as well as the pre-med, pre-dental and nursing majors.

3. The number of graduate students and yearly Ph.D. production.

4. The amount of externally funded grants and support it provides for undergraduate and graduate education, and the resulting quality of the research on campus.

5. The efforts of the department in education reform, research and outreach to local teachers and schools, as well as efforts to nurture and increase the numbers of physics majors who are women and minorities.

6. The involvement of the department in cooperative industrial research and the impact it has on local, as well as national, economic development.

7. The level of national recognition of the quality of the program and faculty.

8. The number of physics majors.

If such a matrix were to be applied, most physics departments would fare quite well, in spite of the relatively low number of physics majors. However, it would be important for department leaders and the faculty to develop strategies to improve their standing in each of the eight categories listed above. Each department should develop a strategic plan, in cooperation with the local administration, focusing on a matrix approach to determine appropriate size and the degree of support needed.

Myth #2: Physics majors at all levels have poorer employ-ment opportunities than those majoring in other sciences, math, engineering or computer science.


This myth is a partial result of the excellent and continuous data collection, interpretation and wide dissemination by AIP's Educational Employment Statistics Division. As a result, potential physics majors, as well as students in general, are aware of up-to-date and accurate information on employment prospects for physicists. Unfortunately, similar information, especially the dissemination of "hard data," is not equalled for many of the other scientifically based professions. Thus, many students have gotten the impression that the difficult employment situation for physicists is unique. This is not the case. A more accurate statement would be that demand for science and engineering talent in all fields remains tight, inasmuch as it relates to basic research in industry, government and academia.

In comparing median annual earning of bachelor degree graduates between the ages of 35 and 44 by major field of study, the December 1995 Monthly Labor Review found that among 29 professions, physics was rated fifth (the highest among all the physical and natural sciences), and was one of only five fields of study showing mean earnings over $50,000. Other degree majors from the arts or social sciences have average salaries 20 to 30% below that of physics majors. This is solid evidence that employers place a high value and premium on the physics degree.

Myth #3: There is little demand (or salary) for graduate students in physics, and thus physics graduates do not get good jobs that make use of their physics degree or advanced training.

The oft-declared oversupply of Ph.D. physicists does not truly describe the situation. More accurately, there is an initial mismatch between the expectations of recent physics Ph.D.s for traditional jobs and the strong marketplace demands for their talents. While quality data disseminated by the physics community indicates it is more difficult to get traditional faculty or basic research industrial jobs, there is a vast marketplace for Ph.D.s in the general area of high technology, engineering, computers, business and finance. Employers are willing to pay premium salaries to gain the problem-solving skills physicists are able to apply to their companies' needs.

In past decades, there was a relative balance between the number of Ph.D. physicists produced and the traditional jobs for them in such sectors as academia, basic research laboratories, and government and national laboratories. Currently, employment opportunities for Ph.D. physicists (as well as all of science and engineering) in all three above sectors has tightened and decreased. Thus more physics students than in the past must consider - and be prepared for - nontraditional careers. It is true that some Ph.D.s who would have liked jobs in academia may have to adjust their plans, as Ph.D.s in the arts, humanities and social science have done for decades. However, with the right mindset and job search skills, Ph.D. physicists are getting excellent offers at salary levels and positions of responsibility well beyond their colleagues entering the more traditional employment sectors.

According to data collected by AIP, 96% of physics Ph.D.s are employed within six months after receiving their degree, with 53% in postdoctoral positions to further their training in research and education and 37% in potentially permanent positions. However, a detailed analysis of the types of positions secured reveals that 91% of the postdocs are employed in physics positions, compared to only 55% of those in potentially permanent positions.

If one were to present the data for mean salaries of professionals with Ph.D. degrees, the market premium for physics would be similar to that of the undergraduate physics majors discussed above. During the past few years, the world of business, finance and management consulting have discovered the talents of Ph.D. physicists, and as a result many firms are specifically recruiting them to make use of their problem-solving skills, their work ethic, their ability to stick with a complex problems, and their analytical and computer skills. Unlike many other Ph.D. fields of study, when a physicist is "forced" to take a job in business or finance, for example, instead of traditional academia, the starting salary approaches $100,000 per year and involves no typing. [See Physics Today, January 1997, pg. 42-46]

Myth #4: Most public universities have a relatively large number of foreign graduate students, who don't speak English well, don't get good job offers, don't remain employed in the region or nation, and return in large numbers to their native countries.


There is presently a strong xenophobic undercurrent in the U.S. There has not been such a large influx of ethnic minorities in physics since before World War II, when many scientifically capable Jewish and European refugees fled Hitler and came to the U.S., with many making important contributions to such major projects as radar and the atomic bomb. Currently the U.S. is benefitting from the large numbers of the best students from China, India, the former Soviet Union and other nations around the world studying and contributing to science and engineering research and development. Data indicates that foreign physics students admitted score high on the TOEFL exam for English proficiency and score very well on the GRE physics exam. The data on post- Ph.D. employment indicates that foreign graduate students get good jobs at attractive salaries in both traditional and non- traditional employment sectors, and that few of them return to their country of origin.

Each of the myths discussed above has some slight "ring" of substance, but not of truth. They are not presented in context, nor are they informed with data to determine their reality. Yet these myths continue to be propagated and believed by administrators, and in some cases, are having a deleterious effect on faculty morale and on-campus support for physics. At many universities, the situation for maintaining the quality of physics programs is quite fragile. It would be worthwhile if all relevant parties would become informed and work with physics program leadership to develop a realistic strategic plan to maintain the excellence of physics departments nationwide.

Brian B. Schwartz is a professor of physics at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and former Associate Executive Secretary of the APS. He operates an NSF- supported program at CUNY to enhance the employment prospects for Ph.D. physicists.


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