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The Employment Landscape for New Physics Degree Recipients
The Employment Landscape for New Physics Degree Recipients
Patrick J. Mulvey, Research Manager, and Anne Marie Porter, Survey Scientist, Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics
The career paths of physics degree recipients vary greatly, influenced by personal circumstances, interests, degree(s), and economics. This article explores the initial postdegree outcomes of physics degree recipients at the bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD levels. The data come from surveys of physics graduates from the classes of 2017 and 2018 conducted by the Statistical Research Center (SRC) of the American Institute of Physics (AIP). The data was collected from new graduates in the winter following the academic year in which they received their degree.
The number of students receiving physics bachelor’s degrees from US institutions has been increasing for over two decades, reaching almost 9,200 in 2019.
New physics bachelors follow one of two initial postdegree paths: they enter the workforce or enroll in graduate school. For the classes of 2017 and 2018, about half (48%) indicated they were enrolled in a graduate program in the winter following the year they received their degree. Of these, the majority were studying physics or astronomy (Fig. 1).
The other half (52%) of new physics bachelors were employed in the workforce or seeking employment. They held positions in a variety of economic sectors, with the private sector employing by far the largest proportion (67%). Within the private sector, physics bachelors were most commonly working in engineering (38%) and computer or information systems (26%). About a fifth were working in non-STEM positions, although the majority were regularly called upon to solve technical problems. Very few respondents (3%) indicated that they were working in physics or astronomy. About a third of the employed physics bachelors indicated they were planning to enroll in a graduate program in the future.
EXITING PHYSICS MASTERS
Exiting masters refers to those who earn a master’s degree from a US physics department and leave that department to enter the workforce or pursue another graduate degree elsewhere. Physics departments in the US conferred about 900 physics master’s degrees in 2019.
Class of 2017 and 2018 survey data showed that US citizens with exiting master’s degrees generally tended to follow a different postdegree path than non-US citizens (Fig. 2). The majority of those with US citizenship entered the workforce or remained in positions they held prior to receiving their degrees. The most common outcome for non-US citizens was continuing graduate study at another department or institution.
Regardless of citizenship, the majority of those continuing their graduate studies were enrolled in a physics or astronomy program at another US institution. The most commonly cited “Other Field” of graduate study was engineering.
Similar to the physics bachelors, over half (57%) of the employed exiting masters were working in the private sector. The next largest employment sector was two- and four-year colleges and universities (20%). Eight percent of the physics masters were working as high school teachers, of whom almost all indicated that they were teaching STEM subjects.
Physics masters secured employment in a diverse set of fields, confirming the notion that physicists have the skills and training to work in many areas of the economy (Fig. 3). Almost equal proportions of exiting physics masters were employed in the fields of “physics or astronomy” or “engineering,” comprising over half of those in the workforce. Six percent indicated they were working in a non-STEM field, most commonly finance. Many (12%) of the new physics masters in the workforce hoped to return to graduate school in the future.
During the 2018–19 academic year, US physics departments conferred about 1,900 physics PhDs. Although this number is relatively unchanged from the previous year, the number has risen 75% since a recent low in 2004. New physics PhD recipients generally enter a postdoctoral fellowship (postdoc), work in a potentially permanent position, or accept a nonpostdoctoral temporary position (Fig. 4). For most of the last two decades, the most prevalent employment outcome has been a postdoc, but this is no longer true. In the physics PhD class of 2018, an almost equal portion of PhDs accepted a postdoc as accepted a potentially permanent position.
Again, the class of 2017 and 2018 results reflect differences between US citizens and non-US citizens. A considerably greater proportion of non-US citizens than US citizens accepted postdocs, 51% vs. 40%, respectively. The reverse is true for potentially permanent positions, with 47% of the US citizens and 35% of the non-US citizens accepting such a position.
Of those who accepted a potentially permanent position, the majority (74%) were employed in the private sector by companies ranging from the smallest startups to the largest corporations. Those in potentially permanent positions were working in a variety of fields, with physics, computer software, engineering, and data science comprising two-thirds of the fields of employment (Fig. 5).
Less than 10% of the positions new PhDs held were in non-postdoc temporary positions. These were primarily (70%) in academia and came with titles of visiting professor, guest lecturer, or research scientist.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
While the graduates of 2017 and 2018 entered a strong and growing economy, the economic realities of today are somewhat different. Recessions in the US are nothing new and typically occur at least every 10 years or so. Data show that new degree recipients who enter the work force during a recession, regardless of degree field or degree level, encounter a challenging job market.
Regardless of when the economy recovers, there are some things we know are true now and will be in the future. Private sector employers will need to fill positions, government research labs will continue to need staff, and schools and universities will need to continue to hire faculty. Physics degree recipients are adept at learning and problem solving and have strong mathematical and analytical skills, making them attractive to a variety of employers even in the midst of a recession.
A Note about Postdocs
Postdoctoral fellowships are temporary, mentored research positions that provide new PhDs with an opportunity to improve their research skills and publish findings. They are typically two-year positions and are frequently renewable. The majority of postdocs (~75% historically) are in a university setting, with most of the remaining positions at government labs. Although these positions provide valuable experience and are almost a prerequisite for PhDs seeking an academic position, they are not a necessary step for many career paths.
Because so many new PhDs accept a postdoc that ultimately do not work in a faculty position, the SRC asked mid-career physicists whether they would again take a postdoc if they had an opportunity to do it over.1 Not surprisingly, 91% of the physicists working in academia indicated that they would repeat taking a postdoc. The majority of PhDs working in the government or the private sector indicated the same—88% and 72%, respectively.
A Note about Mid-Career Outcomes for Physics PhDs
The data in this article addresses initial postdegree outcomes. Most people change jobs over the course of their careers—some many times. A resource from the National Science Foundation using data from its Doctorate Recipients Survey provides information on the proportion of mid-career physicists working in different employment sectors. In 2013, about half of physics PhDs who had earned their degree 10–14 years earlier were working in the private sector (51%), with fewer PhDs working in academia (43%) or government (6%).2
Who’s Hiring Physics Bachelors?
Employers that recently hired physics bachelors to fill science and engineering positions are listed by state.
Who’s Hiring Physics PhDs?
This resource lists employers that hired new physics PhDs into potentially permanent positions by field. It includes job titles, salaries, and skills used.
Data on Starting Salaries
This section of the SRC website provides the starting salary ranges for new physics degree recipients by sector of employment.
PhD Plus 10 Study
This series of reports explores the employment of mid-career physics PhDs.
Physics Faculty Salary Calculator
Explore faculty salaries for physicists by institution type, degree, job title, tenure status, gender, and location.
1. R. Czuko and G. Anderson, Common Careers of Physicists in the Private Sector (College Park, MD: American Institute of Physics, 2015), Table 2.2.
2. “Science, Engineering, and Health Doctorates in the Workforce, 1993–2013,” National Science Board. https://www.nsf.gov/nsb/sei/infographic2/#main.