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AIP Report Finds Academic Jobs for Physicists Are On the Rise

The academic job market over the last two years is characterized by increases in the number of vacancies and retirements, with corresponding increases in the number of new hires and recruitments, according to the 2000 Academic Workforce Report, released recently by the American Institute of Physics (AIP). AIP's Division of Employment and Education Statistics has been tracking the academic workforce every two years since 1986. "A sizeable percentage of PhD physicists work in academia, and hence this sector is a good indicator of the health of the entire discipline," says Roman Czujko, who heads the AIP division and co-authored the 2000 report.

Among the report's most notable findings is that the turnover and retirement rates for physics faculty are on the rise; in fact, the retirement rate is currently higher than 3% for the first time (it never rose above 2.6% throughout the 1990s), and is expected to continue to increase slowly due to the increasing age of the physics faculty. Degree-granting physics departments in the US employed an estimated 8375 full-time equivalent physicists during the spring of 2000, but even with the higher retirement rate, there are fewer than 250 physics positions vacated due to retirement each year. Czujko speculates that part of the reason for this may be that faculty retirement "is often a multi-step process, with many members reducing their status to part-time for several years before finally retiring completely."

Turnover rates were also higher among tenured and tenure-track faculty during the 1999 academic year than in previous years. The report found that 388 faculty members left their tenure or tenure-track positions, for a total turnover rate of 7.3%. "To the extent that increases in turnover rates are caused by aging faculty, we may continue to see increasing turnover rates for several years," says Czujko.

As a result of higher retirement rates and job turnovers, the numbers of new hires and recruitments have also increased, the report concludes. In 2000, US physics departments hired an estimated 329 tenured and tenure-track faculty members, a substantial increase from the 1998 estimate of 264 tenured or tenure-track positions. The overall percentage of physics departments hiring for such positions increased as well, from about one-fourth in 1996 and 1998 to 35% in 2000. All departments showed an increase in the percentage of hires who earned PhDs outside the US.

For 2001, the departments have an estimated 509 tenured and tenure-track faculty openings, not all of which will be filled. This is also a large increase from the previous survey, which showed 34% of departments recruiting for an estimated 373 tenured or tenure-track positions for 1999. And most of the 2001 recruitments (roughly three quarters) were for PhD granting physics departments. Physics departments also hired an additional estimated 329 faculty on a part-time or temporary full-time basis, for an estimated overall total of 658 new faculty, including tenure and tenure-track positions.

This increased demand for physics faculty is occurring at a time when the pool of potential faculty (among US PhD recipients) is decreasing. PhD production has been declining since 1994, dropping to 1262 for the class of 1999, according to AIP's most recent survey of enrollments and degrees. In addition, the number of incoming graduate students declined during the early 1990s and was still low in 1999, and thus the workforce survey report predicts that production will continue to be low, perhaps declining to around 1050 by 2003.

Czujko describes this trend as "disquieting," particularly when combined with the fact that the number of US citizens entering graduate school is in a free fall. "Over the last three years, the number of first-year students in graduate physics programs has stabilized, but this is due entirely to a continued increase among foreign students," he says. The number of US citizens entering graduate physics programs is the lowest in the 30 years that AIP has conducted such studies.

However, Czujko points out that the academic job market is influenced by many factors, all of which must be considered when predicting its future. "The pool of potential physics faculty is indeed getting smaller and it is tempting to compare the increasing number of openings to the decreasing number of new PhDs awarded each year," he says. "But such a comparison does not take into account the complexities of the academic job market for physicists. It is true that there are fewer applicants and more jobs than there have been in the last several years, and we do not foresee this situation changing for the next several years."

On the negative side, the report found that very few academically employed physicists are African-American or Hispanic, and two-thirds of African-American physics faculty work at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Out of the 38 African-Americans who are on faculties at PhD-granting physics departments, fourteen belong to just two departments: Hampton University and Howard University.