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REPORT: First Job for Doctorate Physicists Tends to Set Course for Career

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WASHINGTON, D.C., June 8, 2018 -- When doctorate physicists search for a first job, they may not be expecting to stay within whichever sector they end up in, but according to a new report from the Statistical Research Center at the American Institute of Physics, most do.

The report, titled “Physics PhDs 10 Years Later: Movement Across Job Sectors,” reveals that physicists with doctorates rarely move from one broad employment sector to another. Read the report at

Why is this? “We don’t have the data to answer the ‘why?’ question, but we can now say that the first job after any postdoc does set the course for their career paths,” said Susan White, assistant director of AIP's Statistical Research Center and the lead author of the report.

The new report is part of a larger study that examined what mid-career Ph.D. physicists are doing in industry, but wanted to capture a longer-term picture of their careers.

To explore this, SRC contacted people who received doctorates in physics from the classes of 1996, 1997, 2000 and 2001 and who were also in the U.S. during 2011.

SRC routinely tracks how many people earn a doctorate each year by collecting data from individuals earning degrees in physics from U.S. universities and also gathering data from all degree-granting physics departments in the United States.

“We knew that 5,194 physics Ph.Ds were awarded in the U.S. in 1996, 1997, 2000 and 2001 combined, but wanted to study only those who remained in the U.S.,” White said. There were 4,402 names remaining after deleting those known to be outside the U.S., deceased, or not within the target degree years. Of those 4,420, they received 1,544 responses to the survey -- a 45 percent response rate. Academics are easier to find, so they’re slightly overrepresented among the respondents, White said.

Our overarching goal was to examine the longer-term career outcomes of those with physics doctorates,” White said. “From our degree follow-up survey, we already have a wealth of data about what degree recipients are doing one year after earning their degrees, so this study seeks to provide a longer-term view.”

The one-year follow-up survey shows that about 40 percent of doctorate recipients in these classes accepted postdoctoral appointments and about 45 percent accepted potentially permanent positions. Among those accepting these potentially permanent positions, most were working in industry with about one in six accepting a job in academics and about one in 11 working in government jobs.

One of the questions the Ph.D. plus Ten study set out to answer is whether there were differences among those who had initially accepted a postdoctoral appointment versus those who had not.

The answer is yes, there was a difference. They found that postdocs are more likely to be working in academia and less likely to end up working in industry. While that aspect wasn’t at all surprising, the survey revealed a facet that is: 20 percent of the survey’s respondents at four-year colleges and universities were working in departments outside physics and astronomy.

The study finds that the first job a doctorate physicist accepts will very likely affect their employment sector 10 to 15 years out.



AIP’s Statistical Research Center collects, analyzes and disseminates data on education and employment in physics and related fields.


The American Institute of Physics is a federation of scientific societies in the physical sciences, representing scientists, engineers, educators, and students. AIP offers authoritative information, services, and expertise in physics education and student programs, science communication, government relations, career services, statistical research in physics employment and education, industrial outreach, and history of the physical sciences. AIP publishes Physics Today, the most closely followed magazine of the physical sciences community, and is also home to the Society of Physics Students and the Niels Bohr Library and Archives. AIP owns AIP Publishing LLC, a scholarly publisher in the physical and related sciences.​


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