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Employment prospects of a physicist

  1. Apr 30, 2013 #1
    In the US, roughly 1500 PhDs are granted in Physics every year. The goal of this thread is to ascertain, by your best estimates, how many of those 1500 will be able to achieve some sort of advancement in the field.

    Of the 1500, how many will be accepted to a postdoctoral position (Whether it be at a university, national lab, or private lab)?

    Of those who are granted a postdoc, how many will be able to secure a research position (once again, whether it be at a university, national lab, or private lab)?

    Of those granted a research position, how many will be granted tenure and a permanent position?

    Thank you in advance for your input.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 30, 2013 #2


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    If you look around, you'll find that this question has come up rather often around here in various forms.

    I would guess somewhere between 1000-750. I think it really depends on the sub-field that you're in, but there seem to be lots of opportunities for post-docs. The condition is that you have to be free to move about and perhaps willing to work in some less-than-desirable locations. Unfortunately, once you've finished a PhD and you're in your thirties your life-priorities start to confront you with a little more urgency. A well-paying, stable, non-academic job in the city you want to live in can be quite attractive. Also, at about this stage a lot of people look down the line and realize what an academic career will look like, and just want to get out. You also have a pool of people who have managed to get through the PhD successfully, but have realized that research or academia is not for them. With all of these factors, I wouldn't be surprised if the fraction of PhD graduates going into post-doctoral work is about 2/3 - 1/2 of the graduating class.

    I would guess somewhere between 750 and 500. This is a harder number to guess at, but there's still more attrition going on, largely from the same factors as above.

    Somewhere around 150. The thinking here is that if the average tenured professor graduates 10 PhD candidates over his or her career only one of those will end up as a replacement. Growth, over that period (i.e. new universities springing up) is likely a higher-order correction.

    Thank you in advance for your input.
  4. May 1, 2013 #3


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    Keep in mind that while there are about 4,000 colleges and universities in the US, most with at least one physicist on staff, ~2,400 of which expect some research (4-year college or university), maybe only 150 of them have physics PhD programs. Not everyone is going to try to replace their adviser. Many get jobs at smaller colleges teaching and doing research. So far more than 150 per year will end up with tenure in a research/teaching position.
  5. May 1, 2013 #4
    The APS employment numbers suggest its still true that the majority of physics phds employed as faculty are employed at schools with physics phd programs. This is because of the disparity in the size of physics departments at phd granting institutions. So this might move the numbers from 1/10 to 1/5 BUT- Choppy neglected the fact that most advisers aren't being replaced- more faculty retire than are hired, with adjuncts picking up the slack.

    For my cohort its been much worse than 1/10 (if every current postdoc eventually gets a tenure track position it'll be something like 1/20), but we finished grad school during this economic mess.
  6. May 1, 2013 #5


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    True; small colleges employer fewer physicists, but there are more of them out there. Most of my friends from grad school who wanted to teach college got a job doing that (a few contract, mostly tenure track - we all graduated from schools ranked over 100 for physics), but only 2 of about the 15 I can think of are at universities with PhD programs.
  7. May 1, 2013 #6
    How much research is really done at these 4 year institutions? Two of my lab mates went on to teach at 4 year institutions. I dont think they are putting publications out, but I could be wrong. Their research is more about training undergrads to be grad students.
  8. May 1, 2013 #7
    If you look at the APS numbers, it scales such that there are roughly as many jobs at liberal arts colleges as at universities with phd programs, a bit skewed toward the phd granting programs. So at best, including all those liberal arts colleges only pushes you up to 1/5 odds (still not true because more people retire than are replaced).

    And how many have full time employment at liberal arts colleges? In my cohort, of the 40 or so phds I have contact with (mostly things like linkedin), 2 are still postdocs and everyone else left academia all together.
    Last edited: May 1, 2013
  9. May 8, 2013 #8
    According to this article, NSF survey data suggests about 600 will work at a postdoc, 450 will work in private industry, and 450 will be unemployed. That's for all physical science PhDs, not just physics. The survey is taken at graduation, so it doesn't count people who only received job offers after graduation. The postdoc numbers do not include people who turned down a postdoc for a private industry job - though I'd be surprised if that number is significant.

    This only partially answers your first question, but it's a start. The article also has links to several other reports on similar questions.
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