APS News

Physicists Find Fulfillment Outside of Academia

A new survey shows high job satisfaction among private-sector physicists

July 9, 2015  |  Emily Conover

Intellectual Challenge of Current Job bar graph
Image: AIP Statistical Research Center

“Challenging” combines responses of “definitely challenging” and “challenging” from a 4‐point scale to the question “Is your current job intellectually stimulating?” Data include US‐educated physicists who earned their PhDs 10‐15 years earlier and who were working in the US in 2011.

Physics students who contemplate private sector jobs are often at a loss; their academia-immersed advisors may know little about the opportunities available outside of the Ivory Tower, and data on physicists in private sector careers has been sorely lacking. But a new report from the American Institute of Physics (AIP) provides good news — rather than considering their exit from academia a failure, most private sector Ph.D. physicists find their careers rewarding and intellectually stimulating.

AIP's Statistical Research Center surveyed more than 500 physicists who had completed their Ph.D.s 10 to 15 years earlier, and who had since entered the private sector. The study cataloged information about the physicists' salaries, job satisfaction, and the fields in which they were employed in 2011.

Most survey participants worked in STEM fields, which tapped the scientific and technical knowledge they had gained through their physics training. And even for those who did not work in a STEM field, problem-solving and math skills were essential, the report indicates.

In written comments, physicists described the perks of their jobs, which included intellectually stimulating work, collaboration with smart colleagues, and being on the cutting edge of their fields. And 71 percent of physicists in all private sector jobs reported that their jobs were intellectually challenging, rising to 87 percent for those working directly in industrial physics.

"The report clearly shows that physicists in the private sector enjoy diverse and stimulating careers," said Steven Lambert, APS Industrial Physics Fellow.  "I'd especially encourage students to read the comments from the respondents about their most rewarding experiences and job duties."

Unsurprisingly, those employed in physics-related industry jobs found their degrees most relevant, but physicists working in finance also felt their work was well suited to their level of education, due to the importance of mathematical modeling and development of algorithms in their field. In fact, many physicists working in finance noted that they regularly worked with other physicists.

Another private sector bonus? Better pay. Many of the surveyed physicists raked in higher earnings than those that went the academic route, and more than three-quarters pocketed six-figure salaries in 2011.

Nonacademic career data have been in short supply, as physicists who have left academia usually aren't included in physics career studies. Private sector physicists also tend to be more difficult to track down than their academic peers. The report bolsters the availability of data on alternative career paths, which should help graduate students and postdocs identify their best options.