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The Employment Landscape for New Physics Degree Recipients by Patrick J. Mulvey, director of research, and Anne Marie Porter, survey scientist, Center for Statistical Research, American Institute of Physics
Job Opportunities For Physics Graduates
Career paths for physics degree recipients vary widely, influenced by personal circumstances, interests, degrees, and the economy. This article reviews preliminary results for physics degree holders at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. The data comes from surveys of 2017 and 2018 physics graduates by the Statistical Research Center (SRC) of the American Institute of Physics (AIP). Data were collected from recent graduates in the winter following their graduation year.
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The number of students earning bachelor's degrees in physics at US institutions has increased over the past two decades, reaching almost 9,200 in 2019.
New physics undergraduates follow one of two primary graduate paths: entering the workforce or entering graduate school. For the classes of 2017 and 2018, almost half (48%) reported enrolling in a graduate program the winter after earning a degree. Most of them studied physics or astronomy (Figure 1).
Another half (52%) of recent physics undergraduates were in the workforce or looking for work. They held positions in various economic sectors, with by far the largest percentage (67%) working in the private sector. In the private sector, undergraduate physics graduates were more likely to work in engineering (38%) and computer or information systems (26%). About a fifth of these worked in non-STEM positions, but many were regularly called upon to solve technical problems. Very few participants (3%) reported working in physics or astronomy. About one-third of working physics undergraduates said they planned to enter a graduate program in the future.
Figure 1. One-year post-degree status of physics bachelor's degree recipients for the classes of 2017 and 2018. Two percent of respondents reported leaving the US for employment or graduate study and were not included in the data. All figures courtesy of the Statistical Research Center, American Institute of Physics.
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Emerging masters refer to individuals who have earned a master's degree in a US physics department and have left that department to enter the workforce or pursue another master's degree elsewhere. In 2019, physics faculties in the United States awarded about 900 master's degrees in physics.
Survey data for the classes of 2017 and 2018 showed that U.S. citizens who graduated with a master's degree were generally more likely than non-U.S. citizens to follow a post-baccalaureate path (figure 2). Many of those with US citizenship entered the workforce or held positions before earning their degrees. For non-US citizens, the most common outcome was graduate study at another department or institution.
Regardless of nationality, most graduate students enrolled in a physics or astronomy program at another US institution. The most frequently cited “other field” of graduate study was engineering.
Figure 2. Distribution of physics graduate students by nationality one year after graduation. Data is for the combined classes of 2016, 2017 and 2018. *Continuous Employment means working with the same employer for more than two years; that is, employment began more than a year before earning a master's degree. **Graduate Education – means enrolling at a different institution than the institution where the Physics or Astronomy master's degree was obtained.
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As with physics undergraduates, more than half (57%) of employed graduates worked in the private sector. The next largest employment sector is two- and four-year colleges and universities (20%). Eight percent of physics teachers worked as middle school teachers, and almost all reported teaching STEM subjects.
Physicists were employed in a variety of fields, supporting the idea that physicists have the skills and training to work in many areas of the economy (Figure 3). A roughly equal proportion of current physics majors worked in "physics or astronomy" or "engineering," accounting for more than half of the workforce. Six percent said they worked in a non-STEM field, most in finance. The majority of new physics majors entering the workforce (12%) hoped to return to graduate school in the future.
Figure 3. Fields of study of new physics graduates one year after the degree. Data is from the combined classes of 2016, 2017 and 2018. This figure includes physics majors working in the US, including those working part-time in the US (7%) and those continuing in their current positions while pursuing their degree (16%).
In the 2018-19 academic year, US physics departments awarded approximately 1,900 PhDs in physics. While that number remained relatively unchanged from the previous year, the total number is up 75% since its lowest point in 2004. New physics PhD recipients often enter a postdoctoral fellowship (postdoc), potentially hold a tenure-track position, or accept a non-postdoctoral fellowship. temporary location (Fig. 4).
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Postdoctoral fellowships are temporary, directed research positions that allow new doctoral students to develop their research skills and publish their results. They are usually two-year positions and are often renewable. The majority of postdoctoral training (historically ~75%) is in university settings, with the remainder in government laboratories. Although these positions provide valuable experience and are almost a prerequisite for PhDs seeking academic positions, they are not a necessary step for many career paths.
For most of the past two decades, the most common employment outcome for new PhDs has been postdoctoral, but this is no longer true. In the physics PhD class of 2018, an almost equal proportion of PhDs accepted a potentially permanent position.
Again, the results for the classes of 2017 and 2018 reflect differences between US citizens and non-US citizens. A significantly larger proportion of non-US citizens than US citizens accepted postdocs, 51% vs. 40%, respectively. The opposite was true for potentially permanent positions, with 47% of US citizens and 35% of non-US citizens accepting such a position.
The majority of potential permanent position acceptors (74%) worked in the private sector at companies ranging from the smallest start-ups to the largest companies. Those in potentially permanent positions worked in a variety of fields, with physics, computer software, engineering, and information science accounting for two-thirds of employment fields (figure 5).
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Less than 10% of positions held by new doctoral students were in non-doctoral temporary positions. They were mainly in academia (70%) and came as visiting professors, visiting professors or research scientists.
Figure 4. Initial employment of physics PhD recipients from 1980 to 2018. The data includes only doctoral students who received their degrees at a US university and remained in the US.
Figure 5. Field of employment of physics PhD recipients in potential permanent positions. Data is from the combined classes of 2017 and 2018.
The information in this article discusses the preliminary results after the degree. Most people change jobs throughout their careers—some many times. A source from the National Science Foundation reports the proportion of mid-career physicists working in various employment sectors, using data from the Survey of Doctoral Recipients. In 2013, about half of physics PhD students who received their degrees 10-14 years ago worked in the private sector (51%), and fewer worked in academia (43%) or government (6%).1
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Today's economic realities are a little different as the graduates of 2017 and 2018 enter a strong and growing economy. Recessions in the US are nothing new and usually occur at least once every 10 years. Data shows that new degree holders entering the workforce during the recession face a tough job market, regardless of degree field or degree level.
Whenever the economy recovers, there are some things we know to be true now and will be in the future. Private sector employers will need to fill positions, public research labs will continue to need workers, and schools and universities will continue to hire teachers. Physics degree holders 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.
Check out these additional reports and resources from the American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center.
A list by field of employers hiring new physics PhDs for potential permanent positions; including job titles, salaries and skills used.
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A collection of resources providing starting salary ranges for new physics degree earners by employment sector.
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