APS News

Job Satisfaction High Among Recent Physics PhD’s

By Ernie Tretkoff

A recent American Institute of Physics study on the initial employment of physics degree recipients in 2001 and 2002 found that most were satisfied with their physics degree and their initial employment situation. The study surveyed bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree recipients six months after receiving their degrees in 2001 and 2002.

Those two years represented "the seventh and eighth straight year of declining physics doctorate production" in this country, the report says. In 2001, 1157 physics PhDs were produced, and in 2002, 1095 students earned a physics PhD. More recent data indicates that the number of first year graduate students has been going up in the past few years, so it is expected that the number of new PhDs will soon begin to turn around. In 2001 and 2002 about 50% of PhD degrees went to foreign students, and of those, only about 15% left the US after receiving their degrees.

In 2002 the proportion of new physics PhDs taking postdoctoral positions rose for the second consecutive year. Over half (53%) of the new physics PhDs who responded to the survey took postdocs. Another 6% accepted some other temporary position, and 39% were in a potentially permanent position six months after receiving their degree. Only 2% of these recent PhD recipients reported being unemployed.

Slightly less than 20% of the new PhDs with potentially permanent positions indicated that their employment was not directly related to physics. 40% said their employment was "somewhat" related to physics, and 41% said they were employed primarily in physics. Among the non-physics jobs, work in areas such as engineering, computer software, business or finance were the most common. Of those employed outside of physics, the most common reason cited was a change of interests, followed by pay and promotional opportunities; less than 10% indicated they couldn’t find employment in physics.

Most respondents, even those employed outside of physics, felt that their physics PhD was an appropriate background for their position. "While obtaining a PhD they gain analytical and problem- solving abilities, advanced math, software and laboratory skills, as well as a basic understanding of the fundamental principles of science. Thus PhD physicists are excellent candidates for a broad range of positions," says the report.

Overall, physics PhDs who responded were satisfied with their employment and training. 88% of respondents said they would still get a PhD in physics if they were given the opportunity to do it again. "This high satisfaction with their degree choice was true for respondents in temporary as well as permanent positions, and equally for women as well as men," the report states.

The AIP study also reported on bachelor’s and masters degree recipients from 2001 and 2002. Unlike PhDs, physics bachelor’s degree production increased significantly in these years and in fact continued to rise thereafter. In 2001, 4091 students earned bachelor’s degrees and in 2002, 4305 students earned bachelor’s degrees. About half of physics bachelors went directly to graduate school (30% in physics or astronomy, 20% in other fields), as had been the case for many years.

According to the report, the private sector "continues to be the dominant employer," but its share is shrinking, as fewer graduates took computer-related jobs in 2001 and 2002 than during the high-tech boom of the late 1990s, and more graduates accepted positions in government and high school teaching. "On the whole, people are moving away from the private sector," said Casey Langer, one of the report’s authors.

Most bachelor’s degree recipients were pleased with their decision to study physics. 85% of those surveyed said they would major in physics if they had to do it again, even though fewer people (59%) indicated satisfaction with the job market and their career options. This high satisfaction with their degree in physics is similar to what has been found in past years, said Langer. "I think it’s the nature of physics that people who go into it are likely to be happy," said Langer.

The report can be found at http://www.aip.org/statistics.


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff