Report on Initial Employment in Physics and Astronomy

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Publication date: 
10 May 2005

Over half of the new physics PhDs in 2002 accepted postdoctoral positions, and about half of the new physics bachelors started graduate school, according to a recent survey by the American Institute of Physics' Statistical Research Center. The report looks at the initial employment of graduates from the physics and astronomy classes of 2001 and 2002 at U.S. colleges and universities.

In the U.S., 1157 physics PhDs were produced in the class of 2001, and 1095 in 2002. This represents "the seventh and eight year of declining physics doctorate production" in this country, according to the report. The survey received information on 63% of the degree recipients from these classes. Respondents reported "a median of 6 full-time equivalent years of study to complete their degree." According to the survey, 50% of those PhDs were foreign citizens and 14% were women. Responses indicated that approximately 15% of the foreign students left the U.S. after receiving their degrees.

Only two percent of the combined classes reported being unemployed in the winter after receiving their degree. The survey finds that "the proportion of new physics PhDs taking postdocs has risen for the second consecutive year," largely due to "a sharp increase in the proportion of foreign citizens" from the 2002 class accepting postdoctoral positions.

According to the report, the highest starting salaries were received by PhDs accepting potentially permanent positions in the private sector and at national laboratories, with salaries at colleges and universities "strikingly lower than in other potentially permanent positions." Survey responses also indicated that, "overall, physics PhDs are quite satisfied with their initial employment circumstances."

Undergraduate physics degree production "has increased significantly" in the U.S. in recent years, the report says. In 2001, 4091 physics bachelor's degrees were conferred, and 4305 were conferred in 2002, representing "an 18% increase over the recent low of the class of 1999." The combined classes of 2001 and 2002 included 23% women and 6% foreign citizens. Of those graduates, 59% of the respondents indicated satisfaction with the job market and available career prospects, and 85% of respondents "indicated that they would still major in physics."

"As has been the case for many years," the survey says, "about half of the new physics bachelors go directly to graduate school." Of those going into the job market, the survey finds that the private sector "continues to be the dominant employer," but "now employs less than half of all physics bachelors" in the combined 2001 and 2002 classes. "The government sector and high school teaching have seen the greatest growth in recent years," the survey finds.

In 2001, 701 physics master's degrees were conferred, declining to 657 in 2002. The combined classes for the two years included 20% women and 39% foreign citizens. Responses indicated that almost a third of those graduating with a master's degree "continued with physics graduate study at another institution." The survey reports that "a little over half of the masters, made up of predominantly U.S. citizens, indicated that they had entered directly into the workforce," where the private sector continues to be the largest employer of new physics masters. The survey also finds that, "for the most part, physics masters felt good about their choice of major (85%), but not as positive about the job market and career options, with 40% expressing dissatisfaction."

In astronomy, the PhD classes of 2001 and 2002 included "101 and 102 students, respectively," with 24% women and 27% foreign citizens in the combined classes. Almost three quarters of the combined PhD classes reported accepting postdoctoral appointments. The survey finds that "astronomy PhDs felt very positive about their degree and employment situation."

Bachelor's degree production in astronomy has seen a "dramatic rise that began with the class of 2001," according to the report, which finds that "much of this increase coincided with a sharp rise in the number of women receiving astronomy bachelor's degrees." The class of 2001 produced 274 astronomy bachelors, and the class of 2002 produced 325, with 42% women and 6% foreign citizens in the combined classes. Of the respondents in these classes, about half began graduate school, and the other half entered the workforce, with the private sector as the largest employer. While 81% indicated that they would choose an astronomy major again, the report notes that "astronomy bachelors were less positive about the job market they encountered."

"The population of exiting master's degrees in astronomy is very small," the report says, "too few to allow detailed analysis of outcomes. Most of this group entered directly into the workforce."

The March 2005 report, entitled "Initial Employment Report: Physics and Astronomy Degree Recipients of 2001 and 2002," (AIP Pub. No. R-282.24), can be found at

AIP's Statistical Research Center collects and maintains data, and produces reports, on a broad range of education, workforce and demographic issues within the physics and astronomy communities. Highlights and the full text of reports can be found on the AIP web site at