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Permanent Jobs Elusive for Recent Physics PhDs

Recent physics graduates with PhDs have had a hard time finding potentially permanent jobs, and have been increasingly likely to take a post-doc position during the recession.

This is the conclusion of two studies released in July by the statistical research center at the American Institute of Physics. Taken together, the reports painted a gloomy picture of the job market for the classes of 2009 and 2010.

The studies found that fewer than 30 percent of newly minted PhDs are accepting potentially permanent positions, down from an eight-year high of 34 percent in 2008, while more than 60 percent are taking post-doc positions, up from a low in 2008 of about 55 percent.

According to this most recent survey, 13 percent took post-doc positions because they “could not obtain a suitable permanent position,” up from 7 percent for the graduating classes of 2007 and 2008.

The unemployment rate for graduates with a physics PhD has hovered at around 2 percent since as far back as 1979, well below the national average, even in economic boom times. The reports, however, caution that the unemployment rate tends not to reflect the overall job market.

“Because the unemployment rate of new physics PhDs is consistently low, it is not a particularly useful indicator of job market demand,” the report reads. “Instead, trends in the proportions of new PhDs accepting post-docs versus potentially permanent positions better reflect job market strength.”

The majority of these potentially permanent positions were in the private sector, about 57 percent, while academic institutions took in about 23 percent of newly minted PhDs, and government positions (mostly in national labs) got 16 percent. For post-docs the order is flipped, with 73 percent of post-docs taking positions with academic institutions, 22 percent in the government and only 1 percent in the private sector.

About 7 percent of new PhDs took some other kind of temporary position, the majority of which, 60 percent, are as visiting professors or lecturers at colleges and universities. This number has been about the same since 1991, when the annual survey, first started asking about “other temporary” positions. All together, 82 percent of other temporary positions are in some way connected to an academic institution.

Physicists who took a post-doc position were much more likely to remain in the physics subfield of their dissertation, 72 percent as compared to 16 percent who went into another subfield of physics and 12 percent who went into another discipline all together, including engineering, business or finance, education and other sciences. On the flip side, graduates who took a potentially permanent position tended to change fields, with 42 percent going into a new discipline and 27 percent pursuing a different subfield of physics. Only 31 percent remained in the same subfield as their dissertation. Where a graduate ends up also has a big impact on remuneration. Private sector potentially permanent positions had the highest median starting salary at $90,000, while potentially permanent government workers earned a median of $85,000. Perhaps surprisingly, the starting salary for a potentially permanent spot at a university is only marginally better than for a post-doc, about $50,000 per year compared with $45,000 per year. Post-docs at government institutions took in a median starting salary of about $63,400 per year.

"Because of the economic downturn, it’s not that surprising to see more students go into post-doc positions,” said Crystal Bailey, APS’s education and careers program manager. “My guess is that students want to find permanent positions and there are lots of resources to help them do that.”

APS’s Physics Jobs Center, run in conjunction with Physics Today, AAPT, AAPM, IEEE Computing and SPS, has hundreds of listings for positions in both academia and industry. In addition, APS has an archive of dozens of recorded career webinars on subjects ranging from networking tips at meetings to alternative careers for physics graduates. A webinar on how to get a post-doc position is planned for early October. 
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The two AIP studies looked at data for more than 1,500 PhD recipients from every physics and astronomy degree granting college and university in the country. The American Institute of Physics conducts its surveys every fall to monitor the careers of physics students and graduates. 

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Editor: Alan Chodos