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The Physics Job Market: Finding Bright Spots Between the Clouds

If you are prepared to study it closely, you should be able to find the bright spots in an otherwise cloudy job market for physicists and astronomers. First the clouds: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which has been accurately reporting and forecasting employment trends for many years, predicts only a 2.2% growth in the total number of physics jobs (for all degree levels) between 1998 and 2008.

A net gain of ~400 new jobs might not sound very encouraging, particularly in comparison to the BLS prediction of a 14% overall increase in U.S. employment. But BLS experts note--and here's the bright spot--that the actual number of physics job openings will be considerably greater. Some of the additional jobs will come from openings created as physicists retire, move into management, or leave the field altogether. Many others, predicts the BLS, will open up as employment patterns for physicists and astronomers continue to change.

Regardless of the underlying reasons, the small net increase in physics/astronomy jobs and the changing patterns of employment mean that you will have to navigate the job market carefully--perhaps plotting your course with the help of some informational interviewing (see sidebar below)--to obtain a physics/astronomy job that fits your needs and wants.

Informational Interviews: Help in Finding the Bright Spots

An informational interview--simply a conversation with a professional working in a particular industry or for a particular company--can help you decide if you would enjoy working for a given organization. As such, they should help you to focus your job search in those areas that you would find most rewarding.

You should approach your informational interviews with two major goals: to learn enough about an industry to figure out whether or not you would enjoy the jobs it offers physicists, and to determine how your skills and experience fit the needs of that industry.

Finding qualified individuals to talk with is often the most difficult part of informational interviewing. Your professors and college alumni office can probably provide some names. Contact authors of interesting technical papers and trade magazine articles. Look for contacts during professional conferences. Local and national officers of professional societies can also be useful sources of information.

You should read about a particular career field, industry, or company before scheduling any informational interviews. This will help you ask good questions. Make a list of these questions and be prepared to take notes during your interview.

You'll probably find you enjoy your informational interviews. They can also help you polish your interview skills for the even more important employment interviews that will hopefully follow. Good luck!

Your best bets lie in two directions: You could head for the sectors that currently employ large numbers of physicists--although few if any new jobs will be opening in these areas, the numbers of attrition-related vacancies are expected to be highest here. Or you could focus your efforts on the emerging industries--like computer and data services--that are snapping up physicists (and many others).

Looking first at the current situation, Figure 1 depicts industries employing more than 300 physicists and the number of physicists they employed in 1998. If you are interested in working in this sector, then you should make one or more of the three major current employers of physicists/astronomers--research and testing services, the federal government, and education (high schools as well as colleges and universities)--your primary target. And because of attrition, these areas--with a few caveats--are likely to remain promising bets throughout the coming decade ( Figure 2).

Indeed, one of the current big three--the research and testing services industry--has already surpassed the federal government as the largest employer of BS, MS, and Ph.D. physicists ( Figure 1). Clearly, the ongoing industrial trend to outsource R&D will fuel further growth in this industry and in its employment of physicists/astronomers ( Figure 2). This industry will also take up some of the slack left by the anticipated cut backs in in-house basic research noted in the National Science Foundation's Science and Engineering Indicators Report 2000 . Moreover, the BLS suggests that a shift in emphasis to applied R&D could mean that "opportunities may be more numerous for those with a master's degree, particularly graduates from programs preparing students for applied research and development, product design, and manufacturing positions in industry."

Historically, many physicists and astronomers have worked for the federal government in defense-related research, and the government as a whole is likely to remain a reasonable target for a job hunt. However, the federal job market will not be as good in the future as it has been in the past, because not all the physicists/astronomers who leave will be replaced. This is largely due to defense R&D cutbacks. Defense cutbacks are also forecast to significantly reduce physicist/astronomer employment in the guided missiles, space vehicles, and parts industry. Despite its allure, this industry probably will make a poor job hunt target.

Conversely, public and private education, including secondary schools, is forecast to significantly increase employment of physicists and astronomers. This increase is largely due to changing demographics that are resulting in a growing number of students. So the education field is likely to remain a winning job hunt target.

An even better bet is the computer and data processing services industry, which is forecast to increase employment of physicists (and many others) substantially ( Figure 2). Indeed, the BLS forecasts that the five fastest growing professions over the next 8 years will be in the computer field. And the NSF report cites the BLS forecast in noting "approximately four-fifths of the total increase in S&E [Science & Engineering] jobs will occur in computer-related occupations." So, following the maxim that high growth areas make the best job hunt targets, focusing on the computer and data processing industries looks likely to be a winning strategy.

Many other industries, however, will decrease their employment of physicists and astronomers between 1998 and 2008 ( Figure 2). This includes electric services, which will slip from being the fourth largest employer of physicists/astronomers to the seventh. So although attrition will still provide a number of job openings, the electrical services industry is unlikely to make a good primary target for your job hunt.

BLS experts conclude, "Despite competition for traditional physicists and astronomy research jobs, individuals with a physics degree at any level will find their skills useful for entry to many other professions." So, despite an overall growth forecast of only 2.2% in "traditional" jobs, physics and astronomy graduates can still look forward to rewarding careers if they study the job market carefully and focus their job search appropriately. The largest employers of physicists will make the best target for current job hunts because of the relatively large number of attrition-related job openings. But for those who will be hunting for physics and astronomy jobs in the future, emerging industries such as research and testing services and the computer software industry are good targets because they are growing so much faster than average.

The next BLS study is in progress, and the corresponding report is scheduled for release in November 2001. So stay tuned!

Additional Reading

The News and Employment Projections portions of the Bureau of Labor Statistics Web site has helpful information on the job market and employment trends. Although often somewhat dated, the Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System portion of the National Science Foundation Web site also offers helpful information on employment of scientists and engineers. The American Institute of Physics offers a series of valuable reports including:

  • "Physics and Astronomy Senior Report: Class of 1998," AIP Pub. No. R-211.30, December 1999.

  • "1998 Initial Employment Report: Follow-Up of 1997 Physics and Astronomy Degree Recipients," AIP Pub. No. R-282.21, December 1999.

  • "The Physics Bachelors as a Passport to the Workplace: Recent Workplace Results." This report is based on 1994 data but is still of interest.

  • "What Are Masters Doing?" This report is also based on 1994 data but is still of interest.

  • "Society Membership Survey: Salaries 1998."

  • "Enrollments and Degrees Report," AIP Pub. No. R-151.36, March 2000.