APS News

Initial Employment is Focus of AIP Report

Where do new recipients of physics degrees find their first jobs? In a February report, the statistical research center of the American Institute of Physics surveys physics bachelors, masters, and PhD recipients about their initial employment. The report covers those who received their degrees in 2003 and 2004.

The economy and other factors influence the initial employment choices of physics degree recipients, the report notes. “The US economy has changed significantly from the strong, technology-propelled successes of the late 1990s,” the report says. “Echoes of these broad economic changes can be seen in the initial post-degree status of physics and astronomy degree recipients of all levels.”

There has been a significant increase in physics bachelor’s degree production in recent years, and more of them are entering the job market, the survey found. After three years of decline, the proportion of new physics bachelor’s degree recipients entering directly into the job market has stabilized in 2004. About 41% entered the job market directly, down from a high of about 52% in 2000. In 2003 and 2004, 37% of physics bachelors enrolled in graduate school in physics, and 22% continued their education in other fields.

Those who enter the job market are employed in a variety of employment sectors: 14% are high school teachers, 12% are working in a college or university, 7% enter active military service, and 56% are employed in the private sector. Over two-thirds of those employed in the private sector are working in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) positions. 

“Recent physics bachelor’s who have entered the job market have seen difficulties paralleling the strains in the US economy. However, increasing starting salaries, along with the apparent shift toward more new bachelor’s accepting STEM-related positions, may reflect a change to a more positive initial employment outlook for physics bachelor’s,” the report says. Over three-quarters of new physics bachelor’s were pleased with the career prospects available to them, and 86% said they would still study physics if they had to do it over again.

The proportion of new physics PhDs accepting postdocs has risen for the fourth straight year, to 66%. Another 5% accept some other temporary position, and 26% take potentially permanent positions. The remaining 3% were unemployed.

The proportion accepting postdocs generally rises when potentially permanent positions are scarce and falls when conditions improve. Physics PhDs usually have a low unemployment rate, even in difficult economic times, the report says.

Foreign citizens, who make up about half of new PhD recipients, are more likely than US citizens to take postdocs, the survey found. New PhDs in more applied subfields are more likely to accept potentially permanent positions.

Most of those who accepted postdocs are working in physics or astronomy, most often in a field closely related to the area in which they received their degree, while only about one-quarter of those in potentially permanent positions are working in physics or astronomy.

Engineering is the largest field of employment for physics PhDs in potentially permanent positions. Others are working in a variety of areas, including business, finance, and computer software and hardware. About half of those in potentially permanent positions said physics was an appropriate background for their job.

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