Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Most US Physics PhD's Don't Go On To a Post-Doc

When those of us crazy enough to pass-up more lucrative, less demanding career paths entered graduate school most of thought we'd get our PhD's, do a post-doc or two, and then become a tenure-track professor somewhere.  At some point most of us realized that most of us were not going to end up as professors at large research universities, but for me at least a post-doc seemed like a necessary step in the whatever career path I envisioned.  It turns out that piece of the Physics Career Path™ isn't as ironclad as I once thought.  From the excellent folks at the Statistical Research Center at the American Institute of Physics, below is the break-down of what those who earned PhD's in 2007 and 2008 were doing one year later.
Note that for Americans only 49% go on to a Post-Doc, meaning that there is something to do with a doctorate other than take a low-paying temporary research position in the hopes of getting a long-term research position with moderate pay.

Here's the trends over the past 30 years for all physics PhD's. 

And here is the breakdown by sub-field. 
Note that over 60% of astrophysicists end up in post-docs, so maybe the Physics Career Path™ is my destiny after all.


  1. Very interesting Nick. It's especially nice to see how this varies across different subfields. Only time will tell what happens. :)

  2. On the variation by subfield, I was surprised by two fields - relativity and biological physics. Relativity seems like it should be down on the high-end for post-docs and biophysics seems like it should send more than the average portion of it's PhD's to industry.

  3. Nick, I would agree except it may be a reflection of how many postdocs there are. People doing relativity probably want to stay in academics but the funding a positions are harder to come by.

  4. You make a good point - there are pressures from both the academic and industrial job markets. However any way you look at it we astrophysicists are still on a fast train to post-doc-ville.

  5. I'm interested in the differences in fields here. In engineering (at least of the variety I'm involved in) post-docs aren't really that common at all. I know several professors (including my advisor) who went straight from the PhD to an academic position. My former advisor at BYU did the same thing.

    I don't know why people don't do post-docs in this field, but it seems to not be the norm.

  6. jmb275,

    I think it is an economics problem. In engineering there are enough academic jobs, versus the demand, that one can go from PhD to professor. In physics two things are happening:

    1. The demand for physicists to stay in academics is much higher than the number of faculty positions.

    2. Physics is funded well enough by the government that there are many many post-doc positions available where people can go and wait for a faculty position to open up.

    Compare this also to the humanities where there aren't many faculty jobs verses demand *and* no government funding for post-docs. These people don't have the option to sit in post-doc land as there is no money for post-docs so people in the humanities have to quickly start fighting for high school teacher or similar positions.

  7. To add to what Joe said, in fields like engineering and economics the ratio of (# of new PhDs seeking faculty positions)/(# of open faculty positions) is close to 1. In physics that ratio is closer to 2 or 3, so in order to bolster an application one can do a post-doc (or two in some cases), which serves to provide the university with a longer baseline over which to evaluate candidates. Post-docs are also extremely productive in terms of research output and are paid much less than faculty, so universities want them. Basically it's great for everyone except the post-doc.

  8. I can't speak to engineering, but in economics the reason there are no (or very few) post-docs is simply that the demand (and therefore salaries) for PhDs in the private sector is much higher than in academia or government, so universities are able to demand far less from their new hires in terms of post-grad school experience than in physics.

  9. Yeah, I can see that those are pretty good explanations.

  10. One more interesting side note, academic salaries for professors in business and engineering are generally significantly higher than those in the physics or math. At CU, which has a very strong engineering program, the engineering faculty average starting salary is almost 20% higher than the starting salary for a professor in physics or astrophysics.


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