Physics Job Market: Same As It Ever Was

The American Institute of Physics has a statistics division that produces lots of interesting analyses of issues relevant to the discipline. A couple of them were released just recently, including one on the job status of new Ph.D.’s (PDF). The key graph from the report is this one:


The text of the report talks up the recent decrease in the number of post-doc jobs and increase in potentially permanent positions, but the long term trend looks pretty flat to me– averaged over the thirty years of data, it looks like a bit more than half of new Ph.D.’s have always taken post-doc positions, and the current post-doc fraction is more or less in line with that average.

A couple of other notes on this report:

— The idea that the post-doc fraction is decreasing might seem surprising given the recent spate of horror stories about the job market in academia, but this isn’t really the stat you want to measure if you want to know about jobs in academia. A post-doc has been a key step in the academic career track for a long time, so the fact that a large proportion of new Ph.D.’s elect to do a post-doc is no big deal. The real measure of the suckitude of the job market is the fraction of post-docs who have to do a second or even third post-doc, rather than moving to a potentially permanent position.

— It’s not clear from this report what the increasing fraction of new Ph.D. physicists with potentially permanent jobs are doing. This will presumably be in the forthcoming report on initial employment of Ph.D.’s. If it reflects an increasing acceptance that the pursuit of a tenured professorship is not the only acceptable career for a physicist, that’s probably to the good.

— Unless, of course, they’re going into finance. Interestingly, the only period in the dataset where permanent positions outnumbered postdocs lines up pretty well with the years of the dotcom boom, when anybody with technical skills could get wheelbarrows full of cash on Wall St.. Which led directly to the breaking of the world economy when the finance industry went nuts on complicated ways of hiding insanely risky investments. This was not a positive development, to put it mildly.

That’s about all I’ve got on this, but given the importance of job-market issues, I’m sure some readers will have opinions on this, so fire away in the comments.

11 thoughts on “Physics Job Market: Same As It Ever Was

  1. Hi,

    My guess is that the cycle seen between permanent and post-doc will be dependent upon the relative ease of getting these positions. If science budgets are currently under strain (numbers of positions are cut), then the proportions will swing even if getting a ‘permanent’ position gets to be really hard. In which case the only relevant statistic here is the number unemployed, and that is going up…

  2. 1) It would be good to have data on what those ‘potentially permanent’ jobs are. While postdocs aren’t usually all that different from each other, there is a big difference between going to Wall Street to work on finance, taking a tenure-track position at a liberal arts college, and working the cash register at Walmart! Note that they did mention some finer data for temporary jobs.

    2) Is there reliable data on people doing second and third postdocs?

  3. It would be a HUGE mistake to interpret “potentially permanent position” as reflecting people who took a tenure-track job right after finishing the PhD. For example, the large fraction taking “potentially permanent” jobs in the late 70s were ALL taking jobs outside academia. The small fraction taking post docs reflected that total dearth of academic jobs that started circa 1970.

    For details, see part 1 of my “jobs” series.

    In contrast, the inversion in the late 90s probably does reflect academic jobs resulting from retirement of the WWII generation, but also includes the increasing number “research scientist” positions on soft money that can be identified in other areas of the AIP data sets.

  4. I didn’t mean to imply that I think “potentially permanent position” means “tenure-track job.” Quite the contrary– my assumption was that those are all (or mostly all) non-academic positions, in whatever year.

  5. For those who don’t look at my long article about the ancient history of academic jobs in physics, a drop in post docs is exactly what you would expect when academic jobs dry up.

    Historically, enrollment peaks well after hiring ends. There was a glut of post docs circa 1970, but that fell off as it became clear that that path led nowhere and people went straight into private business or national labs.

  6. Oops, our followup posts crossed in the ether.

    Nor did I mean to imply that you think they mean the same thing. I was aiming that at the many readers — unaware that historically only 1/3 of physics PhDs end up with jobs in academia — who might think the blue curve represents the academic job market, let alone the market at major research universities.

    And I should add that the peak in the 1990s also reflects the tech bubble as well as the early retirement of the glut of people who were hired into faculty positions in the early to mid 1960s.

  7. “Unless, of course, they’re going into finance.”

    Please, stop repeating such bullcrap. Physics PhDs on Wall St. did not cause the crisis. Read up on it.

  8. It is very telling that the item of interest is PhDs. When filling out the AIP survey for “graduation plus one year,” I made the point that physics is a terrible choice if one is not planning on continuing past the bachelor’s degree.

    Potential students should be warned that, where the graduating engineering major will be choosing between good offers, the graduating physics major will be hoping for that Red Lobster gig to come through.

    Also, why is it that a person with a B.S. in engineering is an engineer, but one needs a PhD to be a physicist (at least in the common parlance)?

  9. I once got into an interesting discussion with a clerk at Suncoast Video. He seemed to have a strangely advanced knowledge of science, which I discovered was due to his masters in Astronomy.

    I found that very depressing…

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