Where Do They Go? Career Trajectories of Physics Majors
Patrick Mulvey and Susan White, Statistical Research Center, American Institute of Physics
There is no such thing as a typical physics major. Although physics majors share a common interest in physics subject matter, they come from a variety of backgrounds and have diverse academic and career aspirations. With record numbers of physics bachelor’s degrees being conferred in recent years (8,431 in the class of 2016), it is important that both future and current physics students understand the variety of potential career paths that lie before them.
The career paths of physics bachelors start developing while they are still students. Undergraduates may pursue a particular track or concentration of study within a department’s degree program. These tracks help shape and influence their future career trajectory. About a quarter of physics bachelors receive a physics bachelor’s degree that has a specific focus such as applied physics, biophysics, or high school teaching. Additionally, two thirds of physics bachelors graduate with a double major or minor, providing students with exposure to a broader range of disciplines.1
A student’s post-degree career trajectory may also be influenced by his or her involvement in an undergraduate research project. Such experiences could include a thesis project or an NSF-funded research experience. Typically about three-quarters of physics bachelors have had at least one undergraduate research experience by the time they graduate.2 These experiences help inform students about whether they may want to pursue graduate study or immediately enter the workforce. Physics bachelors frequently comment about the importance of their research experiences. Many cite that it provided them with relevant work experience and valuable references, both of which help with applying to graduate programs or securing employment.
The initial divergence in the career trajectory physics bachelors pursue happens after graduation. About half of physics bachelor’s degree recipients enter the workforce. An additional third pursue graduate-level studies in physics, and the remaining fifth pursue graduate studies in other fields. (See Figure 1.)
Those who choose to purse graduate studies in a PhD program, regardless of field, are typically well supported. Almost all of these students secure teaching assistantships, research assistantships, or fellowships. Physics bachelors enrolling in a master’s programs are not as well supported as those enrolled in PhD programs with 43% relying on their own funds.3
The fields of “computer or information systems” and “engineering” comprise the majority (59%) of the STEM positions new physics bachelors working in the private sector accept.4 A quarter of the physics bachelors employed in the private sector indicated they were working in a non-STEM field. The types of non-STEM jobs bachelors accept span a wide range from banking and finance to management positions in the food service industry. Only a small fraction (~5%), of the new physics bachelors who secured employment in the private sector indicate they are working in the field of physics. New physics bachelors that work for the civilian government were more likely to be working in the field of physics, with about a quarter indicating that it was their primary field of employment.
To get a better understanding of the variety of employers that hire new physics bachelors, students can visit the SRC resource Who's Hiring Physics Bachelors? where they will find the names of employers that have hired new physics bachelors in the past to fill science and engineering positions. The page also has a link to the common job tiles of new bachelors and links to other career resources.
A major part of what makes a physics degree marketable to such a wide variety of employers are the skills that undergraduates gain while earning their degree. (See Figure 3.) These skills are transferrable to both technical and non-technical positions. Some of the skills that physics bachelors acquire (e.g. advanced math, physics knowledge, use of specialized equipment, modeling) are a core part of any physics curriculum. Other important and marketable skills students develop are frequently acquired as a byproduct of studying physics and include problem solving, team work, project management, programming, and technical writing. These life skills are equally, and in some cases more important to an employer than those explicitly taught by a department. Programming skills are regularly used by the majority of employed physics bachelors in STEM positions and new graduates frequently indicate they wish they had stronger programming skills.
Among new physics bachelors, those accepting private sector positions in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) had the highest starting salary range, with a median of $55,000. (See Figure 4.) The salary range for bachelors accepting private sector non-STEM positions is much wider, reflecting the variety of positions included in the category. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, physics bachelors in the class of 2016 are expected to receive the highest starting salaries among all math and science majors.5
As mentioned earlier, about half of the students who earn a bachelor’s degree in physics go on to graduate school — some in physics and some in other disciplines. The focus so far has been on what bachelor’s degree recipients do immediately after graduation and especially about the types of positions they secured. Now we will shift to what students who earn PhDs in physics do after earning their degrees.
Since physics students are taught by PhD physicists, one might assume that all PhD physicists work in academics. In fact, just over one-third of PhD physicists are employed in higher education. Half of the people who earn Ph.D.s in physics are employed in the private sector — either with a for-profit firm, a non-profit firm, or self-employed. Most of the rest work for the federal government with a few working in state or local governments.6
In 2011, we surveyed people who had earned a PhD in physics from a U.S. institution in 1996, 1997, 2000, or 2001 (we call this our PhD+10 study). We received responses from 1,544 PhD physicists who were working in the US in 2011. We found PhD physicists working in a variety of fields. Some respondents were industrial physicists; others were employed in engineering, computer science, and other STEM fields. Some worked for government contractors, and others worked in non-STEM disciplines. A non-trivial portion worked in finance — mostly doing advanced computer modeling. Some were self-employed, and some worked for government labs. Some had earned law degrees and were practicing attorneys. Of course, some worked at universities and four-year colleges. Typical salaries earned by respondents to our study are shown in Figure 5. In addition to these salaries, some respondents reported earning significant commissions and bonuses.
As was true for the physics bachelors, PhD+10 respondents working in the private sector told us that their jobs typically involved solving complex problems, managing projects, and writing for a technical audience. Most work with people; virtually all respondents were members of teams with people from diverse professional backgrounds. They replied that they found their jobs intellectually stimulating and challenging and that they enjoyed regularly working with smart and interesting people.
One in five (20%) of the respondents working in higher education were not in physics or astronomy departments. They were in math departments, computer science departments, materials science departments, engineering, and more. The university salaries in Figure 5 are lower as most of these positions are for nine or ten months. The 20% of physicists working outside physics and astronomy departments typically had higher salaries than those in physics and astronomy departments.
We found very little movement from one employment sector to another. That is, most respondents whose first job was in industry were still employed in industry ten to fifteen years later. The same is true for those whose first job was in higher education and those whose first job was in the government sector. This does not mean they had not changed jobs; most had. However, very few left a job in one sector for a job in another. One year after they graduated, we asked our PhD+10 respondents where they hoped to be working in ten years. About 70% were working in the sector they hoped to be working in industry, government, or higher education. Even those who were not working in their desired sector still found rewarding aspects in their current jobs.
Susan White is the Assistant Director and Patrick Mulvey is the Senior Survey Scientist of the Statistical Research Center at the American Institute of Physics
- P. J. Mulvey and S. Nicholson, “focus on: Physics Bachelor’s Degrees”, 2015, Table 2, https://www.aip.org/statistics/reports/physics-bachelors-degrees
- Physics Trends, Fall 2009, https://www.aip.org/statistics/physics-trends/research-experiences-physics-undergraduates
- J. Pold and P. J. Mulvey, “focus on: One Year After Degree” (2016), Figures 5 & 6, https://www.aip.org/statistics/reports/physics-bachelorsone-year-after-degree
- P. J. Mulvey and J. Pold, “focus on: Physics Bachelors Initial Employment” (2017), Figure 4, https://www.aip.org/statistics/reports/physics-bachelors-initial-employment2014
- National Association of Colleges and Employers (April, 20, 2016) https://www.naceweb.org/job-market/compensation/physics-projected-as-top-paid-class-of-2016-math-and-sciences-major/
- Survey of Doctorate Recipients 2013, National Science Foundation, Table 12, https://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/doctoratework/2013/html/SDR2013_DST12.html, last accessed May 11, 2017.