APS News

Physicists Find Fulfillment Outside of Academia

By Emily Conover

AIP industrial physics career chart
Image: AIP Statistical Resource Center

Physics students who contemplate private sector jobs are often at a loss; their academia-immersed advisors may know little about the opportunities available outside of the ivory tower, and data on physicists in private sector careers has been sorely lacking. But a new report from the American Institute of Physics (AIP) provides good news — most private-sector Ph.D. physicists find their careers rewarding and intellectually stimulating.

“We were really pleased to find out that the vast majority of the Ph.D.s we could track down who were working in the private sector in the U.S. were really happy with their careers,” says Roman Czujko, director emeritus of AIP’s Statistical Research Center, and first author of the report.

AIP’s Statistical Research Center surveyed more than 500 physicists who had completed their Ph.D.s 10 to 15 years earlier, and who had since entered the private sector. The study cataloged information about the physicists’ salaries, job satisfaction, and the fields in which they were employed in 2011.

Most survey participants worked in science-technology-engineering-mathematics (STEM) fields, which tapped the scientific and technical knowledge they had gained through their physics training. And even for those who did not work in a STEM field, problem-solving and math skills were essential, the report indicates.

In written comments, physicists described the perks of their jobs, which included intellectually stimulating work, collaboration with smart colleagues, and being on the cutting edge of their fields. And 71 percent of physicists in all private sector jobs reported that their jobs were intellectually challenging, rising to 87 percent for those working directly in industrial physics (see graphic on page 4).

“The report clearly shows that physicists in the private sector enjoy diverse and stimulating careers,” said APS Industrial Physics Fellow Steven Lambert. “I’d especially encourage students to read the comments from the respondents about their most rewarding experiences and job duties.”

Unsurprisingly, those employed in physics-related industry jobs found their degrees most relevant, but physicists working in finance also felt their work was well suited to their level of education, due to the importance of mathematical modeling and development of algorithms in their field. In fact, many physicists working in finance noted that they regularly worked with other physicists.

Another private sector bonus? Better pay. Many of the surveyed physicists raked in higher earnings than those that went the academic route, and more than three-quarters pocketed six-figure salaries in 2011.

Nonacademic career data have been in short supply, as physicists who have left academia usually aren’t included in physics career studies. Private-sector physicists also tend to be more difficult to track down than their academic peers.

The report bolsters the availability of data on alternative career paths, which should help graduate students and postdocs identify their best options. And those options look promising, Czujko says. “There’s life after a Ph.D. outside of academe.”

For more information, see the AIP Statistical Research Center page.

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Emily Conover
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Art Director and Special Publications Manager: Kerry G. Johnson
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik