Life After Academia - Pacific Standard

Life After Academia

The majority of physicists who leave the academic world are well-paid and happy with their jobs, according to a new report.
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(Photo: 360b/Shutterstock)

(Photo: 360b/Shutterstock)

For a young scientist, it can be nearly impossible to imagine what life would be like outside of the ivory tower. The wider world just seems so much more limiting, and so much less fulfilling. But a new report challenges that view—at least for physicists. Turns out private-sector employees with a Ph.D. in physics are generally pretty happy and well paid.

Academia can be an isolating place where established researchers rarely think about the "real world," and physics departments are no exception. Because of their field’s grand scope and technical sophistication, physicists have a reputation for thinking that their work is superior to other sciences, mathematics, and, most certainly, the private sector. As in many fields of study, physics professors have little experience outside academia, and are less than sanguine—sometimes even hostile—to students thinking about giving the "real world" a shot.

Seventy-one percent of those surveyed said their new careers were intellectually challenging, likely because their careers "involved solving complex problems, managing projects, and writing for a technical audience."

But for Roman Czujko, a former director of the American Institute of Physics's Statistical Research Center, and his colleague Garrett Anderson, this lack of "accurate, reliable or detailed data about the work that Ph.D. physicists do in the private sector" was a source of frustration, they write in a new American Institute of Physics report. The pair surveyed 503 people who'd earned doctorates in physics about their new careers, salaries, and job satisfaction. Their findings: the private sector actually employs just as many Ph.D. physicists in the United States as academe and government combined.

Physicists' careers in the private sector included everything from engineering to law, though 85 percent worked in a field related to science, technology, engineering, or math. Most reported much higher salaries than the average physics professor; more than three-quarters had six-figure incomes, and median incomes exceeded $100,000 a year across a range of career categories.

Perhaps more importantly, 71 percent of those surveyed said their new careers were intellectually challenging, likely because their careers "involved solving complex problems, managing projects, and writing for a technical audience," Czujko and Anderson write—in other words, the sorts of things they likely enjoyed about physics, but without many of the less-appealing aspects of academic life.

But the question remains: In a profession that looks down on abandonment, why are half of physics Ph.D. holders working in the private sector? For one, academic physics is a harsh place, where even the best and brightest earn comparatively low salaries. Others have major projects get canceled, research go unfunded, or find themselves unable to find a good academic job. (That was the case in the 1990s and early 2000s in physics, leading many theoretical and experimental physicists to jump ship for jobs in engineering and finance. Those Wall Street quants making headlines in the last few years? Many of them used to be physicists.)

Now somebody go tell those physicists' grad school advisors: There's life outside, out there in the real world.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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