Status Report on Physics: Trends, Opportunities and Threats

By Roman Czujko, AIP Employment and Education Statistics Division

Over the last few years, the US economy has been very strong. Much of that strength has been driven by technological innovation, and the career opportunities for individuals with physics training have improved markedly.

The following report is an overview of some of the trends and issues facing the physics community. There are both positive and negative aspects to each stage of both the education and employment systems.

Precollege Physics Education. Over the past decade, the proportion of high school graduates who took a physics course rose from 20% to 27%. This is doubly encouraging, since the total number of high school graduates also increased over that time. In short, about 812,000 students took high school physics during academic year 1996-1997, compared to only 624,000 in 1986-1987.

Both the proportion and the number of women taking high school physics has also improved markedly over the last decade. The percentage of female high school physics students climbed from 38% to 47% from 1987 to 1997. During academic year 1996- 1997, about 380,000 girls took physics in US high schools.

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), however, casts doubt on the effectiveness of physics education specifically, and the precollege science curriculum in general. US students came in last from among 15 countries that participated in the high school physics portion of the TIMSS studies. This finding is especially troubling in light of the efforts of the NSF and other groups to improve high school physics and provide in-service training to teachers.

Two-Year College Physics. Two-year colleges play an important role in physics education. The AIP Statistics Division finds that 10-12% of physics bachelor's degree recipients report that they started their college education in two-year institutions. We will publish the first nationwide study of physics in two-year colleges in September 1998. This study finds that about 120,000 students take physics each year in two-year institutions, that physics is offered at about 1,100 different campuses, and that physics is taught by approximately 1,800 full-time and 900 part-time faculty. We published a Directory of Physics and Faculty Programs in Two-Year Colleges last fall.

Undergraduate Physics Education in Four-Year Institutions. Enrollment in introductory physics courses remain strong at about 375,000 students per year. About 40% of these students take the calculus-based course, 37% the algebra-based course, and 23% take an introductory physics course that requires no college math. The majority of the students taking the calculus-based course are engineering majors. Thus, the relationship between physics and engineering departments is of considerable concern. There is talk about some engineering departments taking over physics teaching. At those institutions that pursue this strategy, the impact on the physics department will, in many cases, be severe, because many departments are evaluated, in part, on the total number of undergraduate credit hours taught.

The number of bachelor's degrees awarded in physics has been declining steadily since 1991. During the late 1980s, bachelor production hovered around 4900-5000 per year. The physics class of 1997 fell to about 3,850. Based on junior enrollments, we anticipate that the class of 1998 will be smaller still. There are approximately 760 physics degree-granting departments, 500 of which offer the bachelors as their highest physics degree. Over three-quarters of physics bachelor-granting departments award five or fewer degrees per year. Increasingly, smaller departments are having to justify their degree-granting status.

Physics Graduate Education. The number of students admitted into physics graduate programs has been declining since 1992. First-year graduate student enrollments for 1996-1997 were 27% lower than in 1992. U.S. citizens have been declining faster than foreign citizens. During the late 1980s, foreign citizens made up about 42% of first year students; they now account for 48%. In addition, the countries of origin have changed. There are now fewer Chinese students entering physics; they are being replaced by students from the former Soviet Union.

Recently, attention has focused on master's programs in physics as a means of making students more marketable in the industrial work force. However, surprisingly few physics master's programs offer such curriculum options as co-ops, internships, or interdisciplinary degrees.

PhD production is starting to show signs of the impending decline that is inevitable given the drop in first-year graduate student enrollments. In 1993-1994, about 1,480 physics PhDs were conferred. The class of 1997 was down to about 1,345. We anticipate that the total will drop below 1,100 new physics PhDs by 2002, and for the first time, the majority of those PhDs will be earned by foreign citizens.

Initial Employment. About half of all physics bachelors enter the work force, 30% study physics at the graduate level, and the remaining 20% go on to advanced education in a broad variety of fields. Of the physics bachelors who enter the work force, about 60% are employed in the private sector. The average starting salary for the physics bachelors class of 1996 in industry was $31,000. We expect that the physics graduates of 1997 and 1998 entering industrial employment will earn significantly higher salaries than those of the class of 1996.

Over the last few years, there have been significant changes in the initial employment that new physics PhDs accepted. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, about 60% of new physics PhDs took a postdoctoral appointment. This trend changed for the classes of 1995 and 1996, dropping to about 40%. Preliminary analysis of the employment of the class of 1997 indicates that this trend has bounced back up somewhat, and about half of physics PhDs took a postdoctoral position. Part of this bounce may have to do with salaries. Preliminary results indicate that postdoc salaries for physicists in universities have increased to about $33,500 for the class of 1997. For the PhD classes of 1996 and 1997, there is also a major shift towards industrial employment outside the field of physics. The dominant employment areas in the latter case are engineering, software development, and modeling within finance and business.

Career Issues. One of the strengths and weaknesses of physics is that people with a physics education work throughout the economy in a broad range of common careers. On the positive side, this reflects the value of a physics education as a foundation for responding to changes in the demand for technically trained workers. However, during recessions and difficult job markets, physics degree recipients are often at a disadvantage, in part because so few jobs are specifically labeled as physicist.

The retirement patterns of physics faculty is an important but not well understood issue. The change in the law has certainly added to the complexity of this phenomenon. Up until 1990, it was possible to project academic retirements with considerable accuracy. However, this is no longer true, given the increase in deferred retirements, early retirements, and concern about whether institutions will allow physics departments to replace retired faculty. The age structure of physics faculty in research departments has become increasingly distorted and there are now more faculty who are over the age of 60 than under the age of 40. Within the next six months, the AIP Statistics Division will publish a report describing the complexities and parameters of academic retirement.

Based on a study of a sample of Sigma Pi Sigma members carried out in 1994, it is clear that the majority of physics graduates at all degree levels believe that their physics training was a solid foundation for their current careers, regardless of whether those positions were primarily in physics or in other fields. With support from the NSF, the AIP Statistics Division has recently initiated a new study entitled Bachelors Plus Five, which will develop detailed data on the subsequent educational and employment experiences of the physics bachelors classes of 1991, 1992 and 1993. It will provide students with information about the rich diversity of careers commonly pursued by physics alumni, and will provide faculty with information that they can use to assess the effectiveness of their undergraduate curriculum.

Postdocs continue to be an area of concern for physicists. We estimate that there are about 1700-1800 physicists holding postdocs in PhD-granting departments and university-affiliated research institutes. More than one quarter of them earned their PhDs abroad. We estimate that there are another 900 postdocs in other sectors, mostly at 30 Federally Funded Research & Development Centers. Two questions that are asked frequently about postdocs are (1) What proportion of postdocs eventually get faculty positions in research universities, and (2) Of postdocs who do not (the majority), where do they get jobs and was their postdoc experience valuable to them in their subsequent careers?

Unfortunately, we do not know the precise answers to these questions. What is more, the system is presently so volatile that whatever may have been true two years ago need not be two years hence. The Statistics Division will develop a grant proposal to look at the early careers of PhD physicists during the 1990s, both those who began in postdocs and those who entered permanent positions.

Then there are the so-called "hidden physicists." Only about one in seven physics bachelors go on to earn a PhD in physics, and only about 55% of those report that their primary field of employment is physics. The question is, what can and should the APS do for the vast majority of physics bachelors degree recipients, i.e., those who use significant portions of their physics knowledge and training in their careers, but are not specifically employed as physicists. Among the areas that are projected to have continued strong demand are management within a technical environment, computer software and hardware, semiconductor technology, and computer simulations and modeling.

Women and Minorities. Women continue to slowly increase their representation among recent physics degree recipients, 19% of the bachelors and 12% at the PhD level. It should be noted, however, that compared to all other sciences, physics continues to have the lowest representation of women; only engineering has proportionately fewer women. In 1994, women were hired as assistant professors at the same rate as their availability among recent PhDs (12%). Women also represent 12% of all physics postdocs.

The representation of African Americans is low among all the physical sciences, and physics is no exception. We estimate that fewer than 200 African Americans earned physics PhDs between 1973 and 1996, representing less than 1% of the total pool of physics PhDs conferred over that time. About 4% of new physics bachelors degrees are earned by African Americans. This is up slightly over the past decade. However, about 60% of African Americans who earn physics bachelors degrees come from the 30 Historically Black Colleges and Universities that have physics degree-granting departments. It is estimated that about 60 African Americans earn bachelors degrees each year from the 730 majority institutions with physics departments. Hispanic Americans account for only 2% of physics bachelors, and physics PhD recipients.

More detailed information on employment and education in physics can be found on-line at

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin

August/September 1998 (Volume 7, Number 8)

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Physical Review Online Archive
APS Views
Plenary Speakers Selected for APS Centennial
Letters to the Editor
Inside the Beltway
The Back Page
1998 Fall Meeting Madness
APS Congressional Fellowship Awarded
APS Sponsors Mass Media Fellows
Coulomb Interactions, "Transistor-less Computing" Highlight 1998 DAMOP Meeting
A Century of Physics
100 Years: The International Dimension
Zero Gravity
DAMOP Thesis Award
Outstanding Undergraduate AMO Researchers
Commission on Women in Science
APS Statement on Federal R&D Presented to Senate Committee
APS Task Force Suggests "Physics Today" Changes
Acrivos Dissertation Award Established