The Academic Physics Job Market

In the neverending debates about the current state of physics– see, for example, Bee’s thoughtful post about The trouble With Physics, you will frequently hear it said that the academic job market in physics sucks. But what, exactly, does that mean in quantitative terms?

It’s job hunting season in academia now– still a little early in the season, maybe, but most places that are looking to make a tenure-track hire are probably accepting applications already. So I did a little poking around the Physics Today job listings to see what the numbers look like. This is the central clearing house for jobs in physics, so it ought to give a reasonable sense of what the market is like at the moment.

Looking at job ads posted between September 1, 2007 and September 20, 2007 (the September 1 cut-off chosen because that’s where I got sick of scrolling back through job ads), I see 105 potentially permanent positions listed in the US and Canada in the “College/ University, Physics” and “Faculty, Physics” categories. This does not include post-doc positions, but does include things like “Research associate” and “Laboratory Manager.”

We can break these down a little further, by whether they’re looking for experimentalists or theorists. Any job ad listing a “preference” for one or the other, I counted as a position in that speciality, whether or not they were willing to accept applications from the other group. The market is such that if you prefer an experimentalist, you will be able to find one, and not have to settle for a theorist.

Of the ads I looked at, 32 positions were specifically designated as experimentalist jobs, with only 12 theory positions. 53 did not express a preference (this includes most of the astrophysics and astronomy positions). I didn’t attempt to compile statistics on research field, but my qualitative impression was that biophysics is really hot right now, and probably accounted for a large plurality of the jobs.

The vast majority of these jobs were at universities– I counted 11 at schools that I recognize as small colleges. Only eight of those jobs were non-tenure-track positions, which is a low-ball estimate because there’s some category filtering. Seven positions were aimed at senior faculty– either associate or full professor positions.

So, if you’re a young Ph.D. in physics, doing experimental research, there are probably fifty-ish jobs you can apply for, if you’re willing to stretch the definition of research fields a little (a total of 85 positions that are potentially for experimentalists, but many of those specify a research area that would rule out a lot of candidates). If you’re a theorist, you’re looking at less than half of that.

Now, this is really just a lower limit on the jobs available for this year. Many ads won’t be posted until October 1, or even later. The AIP’s Statistical Research Center reports something like 350 tenured or tenure-track hires in 2002 and 2004, so that seems like a reasonable estmate for the final number. This post would probably be more accurate about three weeks from now, but I thought of it now, so take what you can get.

Of course, the real measure of the suckitude of a job market is not the absolute number of available jobs, but the comparison between the jobs available and the number of job seekers. Turning again to the AIP, we find that there were something like 1,200 Ph.D.’s in Physics awarded in 2005, plus another hundred or so in Astronomy. So there’s your lower bound for the number of people potentially looking for academic jobs– not all of those 1,300 will be looking, but there will be people from other Ph.D. years on the market as well, so 1,300 is probably the minimum number of job seekers.

So, that’s what we means when we say that the job market in academic physics sucks. Enjoy your Friday!


  1. #1 Stuart Coleman
    September 21, 2007

    This is great news for us Physics undergrads considering graduate school! But we more or less already know these problems, and what really matters is whether or not you love the job, not if the job market is cushy.

  2. #2 Brian Hamilton
    September 21, 2007

    As a theory grad student, you have ruined my friday.

    Just kidding, my friday is still cool. It’s sad that there are so few jobs out there for a group which is highly capable, skilled and passionate for their field, but it’s just the way things are at the moment. I think that the situation is made pretty clear to everyone choosing to do graduate studies in physics, and while the magnitude of the suckery might not have sunk into everyone, I don’t think anyones going to be terribly surprised when they have difficulty finding permanent positions.

  3. #3 agm
    September 21, 2007

    That’s an order of magnitude disparity. And physicists need to eat, house themselves, follow whatever variation of engaging in, practicing, and/or avoiding procreation and families they want just as much as anyone outside the field. You know, as one prominent blogger says, not just brains on sticks. So Stuart’s attitude, while common, is entirely divorced from either the reality of grad school and the academic life and the recognition that normal people don’t want to sacrifice all elements (perhaps permanently) the set of all activities that are not part of research.

    And frankly, the sooner that the field as a whole recognizes that life exists beyond research, the better. I’ll check in on how that’s progressing, right after I’ve paid the taxes on my powerball winnings…

  4. #4 CCPhysicist
    September 21, 2007

    One of the details I discovered while doing my theorist thing with the AIP data is that you have to discount the total number of jobs significantly to account for overseas and “senior” hires (some out of industry) if you are going to look at the market for “new” PhD grads. The other is that most of the jobs are not at an R1 school like the one where you got your PhD. Chad is a perfect example of this.

    I’ll also point out that his undergrad education at a small, private college probably helped him find his niche.

    Stuart, I could not agree more about “love the job”. That is why I persisted in a process that generated a lot of research publications and now generates a lot of good fodder for a nearby engineering school. But you need to be realistic about “the job” and realize that the odds for an R1 faculty job are probably something like 1 in 20 in the *good* job market we have today. You don’t want to know what a bad job market looks like. Imagine one third or more of all graduate students dropping out with an MS despite being ABD, just because of a lack of jobs.

    Brian, hope springs eternal. But I want to tell you that this is not something about “for the moment”. Theory students are cheap, and thus easily overproduced. But theory grants are small, with theorists rarely useful beyond teaching E+M or QM, so universities prefer to hire a big budget experimentalist who supports the machine shop and generates a lot of overhead. The job statistics are clear on this point. Similarly, small schools who want an undergrad research program probably look at theory as “hard”, and thus unlikely to suit their student’s interests or skills. DAMOP experimental research is likely to remain hot at the 4-year schools, if that is what you like.

    I wrote a somewhat detailed analysis of the AIP data this past summer. The section on “Demand” is in the second part of a four (five when I get a Round Tuit) part series motivated by some things Chad wrote last spring. You need to be in the top 5% nationally (and internationally) to fight for those t-t jobs at an R1, and even then you might not get tenure. Research faculty jobs are nice, but they are not tenured and they will end. The largest market for your job hunt is at schools ranked well below where you are getting your PhD. Keep that in mind as you start preparing now, years before you finish, for that job search.

    If you read part 1 of my series, you will see what I was told when I started. But it was true even then that some people did get faculty jobs, when the market only had one for every hundred or so qualified candidates. The market today is excellent, but you should never expect more than 30% (the historic average) as being likely to end up in academia. Jobs will be there, but I suspect there will be more for a PhD in Engineering than a PhD in Physics even if both do materials science.

    Your mileage may vary, but forewarned is forearmed.