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How Many Physicists are Enough?

By Barrett Ripin, APS Associate Executive Officer

factOur colleges and universities are currently experiencing dramatic drops in the number of students enrolled in physics degree programs. While this appears to be a normal reaction to the well publicized difficulties young physicists have had gaining traditional physics employment, some fear that we may be experiencing an overreaction that may ultimately do a disservice to individuals, the academic infrastructure, and society.

According to surveys conducted by the AIP, physics bachelor degree production declined by more than 9% from 1994 to 1996. [See APS News, October 1996, pg. 5] Estimates, based on last year's junior physics major enrollments, are that the number of graduates this year will be smaller still, or about two-thirds of the peak production year, 1969. First-year physics graduate students, both of U.S. and non-U.S. origin, are also in steep decline, as can be seen in the figure below. The number of new PhDs awarded in the U.S. peaked in 1994 after a quarter century of steady rise. A further decline of new PhD production (greater than 25%) is projected over the next six years. Physicists are getting older, collectively as well as individually. The average age of full-time employed physicists is 46, up slightly from 44 in 1990.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist (pardon the expression) to identify forces driving this. Prospective physics students are now well aware of lengthening times-to-PhD-degree and postdoctoral terms as well as the difficulties obtaining potentially permanent physics jobs in recent years. Competition from other exciting emerging areas, such as biological sciences, engineering, and information technology, etc., may also draw some talent away from physics. Many think that these declines are a natural and necessary drop to a lower, more sustainable, level - a supply/demand thing. Others argue that we are vastly overreacting and are in danger of the pendulum swinging too far. They fear that overly publicizing past employment trends may cause unnecessary hysteria that will lead to a shortage of physicists, even in academia, in the near future. So, who is right?

There is no question that there has been a gross mismatch between career hopes of those entering physics programs and real world jobs. But, most physicists are not employed in academia, do not do basic research, and have a very diverse array of careers (applied or interdisciplinary research, technology and product development, engineering, management, government, law, finance, to name a few). This includes many of our best and brightest. Surveys show that physics degree holders at all levels typically express high satisfaction with their careers and that they become successful. This is true even when their jobs rarely call for their specific technical training. A recent Sigma Pi Sigma survey shows that BS physics recipients are in a particularly wide range of fields, perhaps due to their broad technical 'liberal-arts' training.

Should we counsel students to embark on a physics degree? Certainly those with a strong desire and capability to learn and do physics should be encouraged. At the same time, each needs to be made fully aware of employment/career trends and helped to develop a broad outlook on how they might ultimately use their physics training.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin