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April 29, 2002
Volume 80, Number 17
CENEAR 80 17 p. 46
ISSN 0009-2347


NEW PHYSICISTS FARE WELL IN JOBS, DOLLARS

MICHAEL HEYLIN

A newly released survey of 1999 and 2000 doctoral physics graduates by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) indicates they are doing quite well in their early careers. Only 2% of respondents were unemployed, and an unusually high 49% had what the survey report identifies as "potentially permanent" jobs, mostly in industry.

The study is based on information from 59% of the 1999 class of 1,262 graduates and 62% of the 2000 class of 1,214. Data were gathered about six months after the end of each academic year--in January 2000 and January 2001. The 2% jobless rate is significantly down from 6% seen as recently as 1994.

The proportion of new physics Ph.D.s with full-time jobs has held close to the 50% mark since 1996. This follows a rapid three-year advance from a low of just over 20% in 1993. Prior to that, there had been 10 years of erosion from about 50% in the mid-'80s.

Not surprisingly, the trends in the proportion of new physics Ph.D.s on postdocs have moved in the opposite direction--drifting down from a high of 65% in the early '90s to a steady 45% since 1996.

About half of the physics postdocs responding to the survey indicated they were in such positions because no suitable potentially permanent positions were available. However, 58% of those who so indicated also said that they aspired to a university faculty position--something for which a postdoc is, in most cases, a prerequisite.

Although the AIP survey is not strictly parallel to the American Chemical Society's annual starting salary survey of new chemistry graduates, the data from both reveal many similarities. For instance, the ACS survey of 1999–2000 chemistry graduates indicates that 2.6% of the Ph.D.s were unemployed as of the week of Oct. 9, 2000 (C&EN, Sept. 3, 2001, page 48).

Also, much like their colleagues in physics, a historically relatively high 50% of 2000 chemistry doctoral graduates had a full-time job, and a relatively low 41% were on postdocs.

The median salaries of new physics and chemistry Ph.D.s are also reasonably comparable, as is the pattern of salary gains. The median salary of $71,400 for 1999 and 2000 physics doctorates with industry jobs is close to the approximately $69,000 figure for chemists. For both chemistry and physics graduates, the median salary of those taking entry-level full-time academic positions was close to $40,000.

But 1996, the third year of the biggest and longest economic expansion in U.S. history, was a bad salary year for graduates in both sciences. That year, the median salary for physicists with industry jobs was $56,000, down from $60,000 for the previous year. Similarly, the 1996 median for all new chemistry Ph.D.s was $45,000, down from $50,000.

Overall, median salaries for new chemistry Ph.D.s rose about 1% per year from 1990 to 1996. Since then, annual gains have averaged 9%. For physics Ph.D. graduates, according to the AIP data, they rose at about 7% per year from 1996 to 2000 for those with a job in industry.

Although physics graduates individually have apparently been doing quite well lately, the past decade has not been a good one for physics overall as a profession. The number of new bachelor's graduates has slipped, according to AIP statistics, from 4,898 in 1989–90 to 3,646 in 1998–99. For master's graduates, the dip has been from 918 to 671. Ph.D.s have done better, with a slight increase from 1,183 in 1989–90 to 1,214 in 1999–2000. But this 1999–2000 total is down from 1,481 in 1993–94.

There are a few rays of hope, however. In 2001–02, first-year graduate physics enrollments moved up to 2,713 from a year-earlier 2,510. And undergraduate junior physics enrollments were also up--to 5,428 from 5,227.

The chemical profession has generally done better. According to estimates based on ACS and National Science Foundation data (C&EN, Nov. 12, 2001, page 42), the number of bachelor's graduates rose from 8,132 in 1989–90 to 10,500 in 1998–99. For master's, the corresponding gain was from 1,682 to 2,100. However, there has been a slight dip for Ph.D.s--from 2,183 in 1989–90 to 1,990 in 1999–2000.



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Related Stories
[C&EN, November 12, 2001]

2000 Starting Salary Survey
[C&EN, September 3, 2001]

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