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Unemployment among young Ph.D. physicists has hit its highest point ever and the situation isn't likely to improve in the next three years, according to Roman Czujko, director of the Education and Employment Statistics Division of the American Institute of Physics. Speaking at a Wednesday afternoon session at the March Meeting. He described the current job market as "volatile, flexible, and fragile," adding, "I'm often amazed at how the system does bend to try and accommodate oversupply or undersupply. Unfortunately, it's only so elastic before it breaks, and we seem to have reached that point in the cycle."
Last year, Czujko summarized the job market for physicists as "bleak" (see APS NEWS, June 1994). Since then his department has collected data indicating that the situation is now even worse, and unlikely to change in the near future. "The class of 1993 got clobbered harder than any Ph.D. class so far," he said. The unemployment rate around the time of graduation was 12 percent. Combined with the growing problem of underemployment--which Czujko defines as physicists in part-time positions looking for full-time work, or in jobs that could be done well by people with fewer credentials--the unemployment rate is now about 20 percent at the time of graduation.
Part of the problem lies in the shortage of job opportunities for physicists that arose in the wake of deteriorating federal support, industry cutbacks, and post-Cold War restructuring of the national weapons laboratories. In 1990, an estimated 850 positions were available for Ph.D. physicists in the traditional employment sectors, which Czujko defines as research positions in universities, industry, and government laboratories.
This number has decreased slightly since then to about 750 open positions, but Czujko emphasizes that a shortage of job opportunities is not the only culprit. Ph.D. production has increased by almost 60 percent since the last low point in 1982, with 1,450 new Ph.D.s being awarded in 1994 alone--twice the number of open positions. And while the number of first-year physics graduate students has declined by about 20 percent over the last three years, this won't impact Ph.D. production for another five years or so.
To make matters worse, new Ph.D.s are not the only applicants competing in this shrinking pool of available jobs. Czujko estimates that there at least 2,800 physicists currently holding postdoctoral positions in the U.S., all looking for permanent employment. In addition, corporate down-sizing has dumped many well-known, experienced physicists back into the pool, many of whom are opting to return to academia. "A young physicist doesn't stand much of a chance against a star from IBM," said Czujko. "And not only has this increased the competition, it has reduced the number of total openings, since in most cases the jobs vacated by these experienced physicists were phased out."
There has also been an increase in the flow of experienced international physicists into the U.S., who also compete for the finite number of available jobs. "As bad as the recession has been in the U.S., it's still the case that our economy is in better shape than virtually any other industrialized country in the world, with the exception of Japan and possibly Germany," said Czujko. "And once again, a young Ph.D. doesn't stand much of a chance against an internationally known physicist from France, Russia, or the Ukraine."
His conclusions are borne out by recent statistics. Of all the new hires in physics research departments in 1994, 22 percent had earned their Ph.D.s abroad. Approximately one out of every four new hires were experienced physicists from industry and the national laboratories. Only 27 percent were Ph.D.s who had earned their degrees less than five years ago. "Still, despite the discouraging numbers, some young Ph.D.s do end up in academia," said Czujko. "So physics and basic research are not dead."
Furthermore, there are indications that hiring in industry may be increasing slightly, and these, along with expected retirements, should add about 25 or 30 openings to the employment pool each year--not nearly enough to accommodate the more than 14,000 physics graduate students currently in the pipeline. "If we didn't let another student into the pipeline, and continued to maintain the same standards of quality, over 9,000 of those would earn a Ph.D. in physics," said Czujko, who projects that around 1,400 new Ph.D.s will be produced each year in the next three years. "That's another 4,200 Ph.D.s looking for work at a time when there are only 2,400 jobs."
Kevin Aylesworth, a self-employed Ph.D. physicist and APS general councillor who founded the Young Scientists Network, believes that there are three basic strategies for combatting the problem--only one of which he deems practically feasible. The first, and most popular, is increased federal funding for science. But given the current economic climate, "That's a pipe dream," said Aylesworth. "There's not going to be a large increase in funding for science, and even if there were, we would still have to change the way we do science, because we'll be facing the same problem five years from now. We all know about exponential growth. It can't last forever."
Another solution is to decrease the number of graduate students entering the pipeline; in fact, some universities are already beginning to practice "academic birth control." But this, too, is an imperfect solution, according to Aylesworth. "For one thing, it hits women and minorities harder than it does white males," he said. "Decreasing the numbers would create a lot of discord in the physics community, and we simply cannot afford that at a time when Congress is looking to drastically cut funding for science."
The third solution is to expand the job market, which Aylesworth believes can best be done by redirecting a large portion of the pool of physicists into more diverse careers. Czujko agreed. "Physicists can do a lot of different things," he said. "They were involved in the personal computer revolution of the 1980s, and in medical technology breakthroughs that have vastly improved the quality of care. The skills acquired in graduate school are not confined to the knowledge of physics, and there is a market for that broader set of skills."
Mildred Dresselhaus, a professor at MIT, has seen many former graduate students achieve success in careers outside the traditional sector, especially those who earned Ph.D.s during the last job shortage in the early 1970s. "I believe we're at a crossroads," she said. "Physics is more like it was when I entered the field some 40 years ago, with relatively few job opportunities. I went into physics because I loved it, and being a woman, I had absolutely no expectation of having a career."
Still, Aylesworth emphasizes that current attitudes among students, faculty, and potential employers will require some adjustment. Students need to start thinking about how long they're willing to wait for their ideal job, as well as possible alternate careers. Physics departments should allow graduate students to take courses in business or engineering as well as physics to broaden their horizons. And employers need to attain a broader understanding of what physicists can do.
"There are no more secure jobs for my generation. It's just a fantasy to think that you're going to be staying in one place at the same job for 30 years," Aylesworth concluded. "This is happening across the board, not just in physics, and we have to face up to that fact and figure out how to deal with the changing job market in this country."
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