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APS Junior Member Survey: Perceptions of the Job Market

By Sherrie Preische, APS Executive Office

There is presently a rumor among some physicists that the job crunch for recent physics PhD recipients, so much discussed in the first half of the'90s, is now a distant memory. It is said that there are now plenty of easily obtained jobs for physicists - the crisis is over. What support is there for this story and what do young physicists think of it?

To help us get some understanding of the present job climate and the mood of recent degree recipients, the APS, under the auspices of CAP/Committee on Careers and Professional Development (see In Brief article on page 3), did an email survey of 'junior members' in October 1997. Upon graduation, student members may become junior members (full membership, but half the regular dues rate) for three years. This is a group of young physicists starting their careers. There was a strong response to this survey - 43%. This includes 592 replies from recent PhD recipients.

Survey responses reinforce a supposition that our junior members remain more closely aligned with physics than the general population of recent physics PhD graduates. Assuming this is the case, these survey responses are given by people who are doing "better" (by the terms of what a physics career is typically expected to be) than the overall population of recent graduates. The major employment sectors for our PhD respondents are post-docs 53%, industry 17%, tenure-track 11%, and university or government research staff 9%.

Junior members are worried about their own future careers. The strength of this feeling varies by the type of job people hold. Post-docs are most concerned while those in industry or tenure-track positions feel more secure about their future. When asked,


Are you worried about career prospects for the future, such as finding a permanent job with opportunity for advancement?

Post docs are very concerned about career prospects for the future: 80% worried, 6% not worried.

To try to learn something about all recent PhD graduates, we asked the question:
In terms of career prospects, what do you think is the present mood of most physicists in your peer group (0 - 4 years after degree)?

70% of PhD respondents say the mood of their peer group is pessimistic with regard to career prospects.

When asked,
"Do you expect to remain in your present type of career path over the next 5 years or do you expect to make a major career change?",

60% of PhD respondents lean toward expecting to stay in their present career path over the next 5 years. 40% don't know or think they may have to make a major career change. Again, post-docs are slightly less secure, with 48% not sure that they can stay in their present type of career path over the next 5 years.

Why are people considering a major career change? The overwhelmingly highest reason given is "lack of opportunities for me in my present career path". This is the first or only reason for 40% of respondents and mentioned as a reason by 54%. The next highest reason is "family or other personal considerations", mentioned by 31% of respondents. These are followed by "developed new interests" and "job security".

With this degree of insecurity and pessimism about their career future, it seems that recent PhDs do not think that the job problem is over. But, do they really have cause for concern?

  • Few (less than 1%) are unemployed.
  • Only 11% of PhD respondents say they found it very difficult to secure their present job.
  • Only 7% of PhD respondents do not find their job professionally challenging.
  • When asked how their present job compares to their expectations when they started graduate school, few (6%) say their job is very different from what they expected and unfavorable; 21% say their job is very different from what they expected, but favorable; and 40% are doing what they thought they would be doing at this point in their careers.

3 years
A majority found it somewhat easy to secure their present job, with graduates in 1997 showing slightly more of a tendency to say it was easy to secure their job compared to previous classes.

When asked,

Compared to 3 years ago, do you think it is easier or more difficult to find a job in physics?
30% think that it is easier (included in this are 3% who think that it is much easier), 24% think that it is the same, and 20% think that it is more difficult. On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is much easier, 3 is the same, and 5 is much harder, the average response is 2.9.

While there is a slight tendency among recent PhDs to think that that job market is somewhat better than it was a few years ago, this feeling is not overwhelming.

Recent AIP statistics show that very recent graduates are less likely to take a post-doctoral position than in previous years and are more likely to take a job outside of physics for their first job (AIP Pub. R-282.20, to bp). Does this mean that recent PhDs are giving up on physics? Is this tendency to leave the field immediately relieving pressure on the system and making it slightly easier to find a job these days?

The response to the survey shows that physicists starting their careers think it has been relatively easy to find their first (usually temporary) job and yet they are still very concerned about their future career prospects. Based on this response and on the many comments received with the survey:

It may be easier to find a first job, but there is great concern about finding a long-term or permanent job.

Perhaps even more troubling is the depth of the pessimism of young PhDs shown in their response to the following question.

Do you agree with the following statement:
If I was asked to advise someone who was considering pursuing a PhD in physics, I would advise them to do it.

40% of respondents would not advise someone to pursue a PhD in physics.

Another surprise is that those who hold a PhD in physics from the12 "most distinguished" physics departments (as defined by the NRC 1995 ratings) do not feel any more secure about their own career prospects than other respondents to the survey. These respondents also have the same distribution by employment sector as other respondents to the survey. People with degrees from these prestigious departments are no more likely to be in tenure-track positions than other APS junior members. They are also equally likely to advise or not advise someone to pursue a PhD as other respondents.

Neither is there a significant difference in responses to the survey by people who hold a PhD in a field other than physics.

The results of this survey confirm the fact that the APS junior membership is very diverse, as is the general membership. Only 71% of junior member respondents hold a PhD in physics from a US university. The 1996 APS Membership Survey also showed that the APS membership is a diverse group. (For details, see APS News, October 1997 and survey results through the APS home page under the Membership button).

Students and physicists in the early stages of their careers represent a significant fraction of APS membership - a similar fraction to that of our members who are physicists working in academia or in industry. Do these physicists starting their careers think that the physics job crisis is over? This survey shows that they think it may be relatively easy to find a first job, but they are very concerned about their ability to establish long-term or permanent careers.

Contributions to this survey by Jim Egan, Judy Franz, and Barrie Ripin of the APS and Roman Czujko, Raymond Chu and Kristi Jentoft-Nilsen of the AIP are gratefully acknowledged.

EmploymentWho are the survey respondents?

  • Post-doctoral 53%
  • Other temp research 4%
  • Industry 17%
  • Research staff 9% (univ / govt)
  • Non-tenure track teaching 2%
  • Tenure track 11%
  • Other non-research 3%
  PhD year
  • 1997 14%
  • 1996 30%
  • 1995 31%
  • 1994 14%
Residency status
  • US Citizen 70%
  • Permanent US visa 11%
  • Temporary US visa 18%
  • Non-US resident 1%
Field of degree
  • Physics 71%
  • Engineering 10%
  • Chemistry 6%
  • Astronomy 2%
  • Materials Science 1%
  • Applied Math 1%
  • Degree from non-US univ 8%
There are 2,150 APS junior members. The survey was sent to 1449 US resident junior members with valid email addresses and 622 replies were received, 592 of these from junior members with PhDs. These replies include about 10% of all physics PhD recipients from US universities in the classes of 1995 and 1996. Because very few responses were received from members whose highest degree is a masters or bachelors degree, the results given here are based only on responses from PhD holders.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin