Issues Magazine

Jobs 2009: Who Wants Physicists?

By John Prescott

For 25 years John Prescott kept an eye on employment prospects for physicists, and his annual surveys were published in the The Australian Physicist by the Australian Institute of Physics. Five years on, he returns to the surveys.

I was prompted to start the employment surveys in 1978 by the comment of one of my Honours students that he was doing physics because he liked it although he knew that “there were no jobs available in physics”. This did not square with my own observation that our graduates had little trouble finding jobs, and it prompted me to read the pages of the newspapers to see what was actually on offer. This was duly reported for 1979 in The Australian Physicist and was then continued on an annual basis for 25 years. If you want to read about how things were in the year at the end of the surveys, and the way in which jobs for physicists changed over the years, you can find it in The Physicist (2003, vol. 41, p.44).

In 2008, to see how things had been going in the 5 years since the last survey, I went back to my scissors-and-paste reading of newspaper advertisements. The present piece reports on the results. All of the jobs reported were real jobs for which real people were being sought. They are not hearsay, they are hard data. My interpretation of their significance, on the other hand, is my own; it does not necessarily represent the views of the Australian Institute of Physics, which has had a close interest in the results.

In the present survey the data are taken from advertisements in The Weekend Australian and The Australian Higher Education Supplement on Wednesdays. Past experience has shown that this picks up almost all the positions for which an Honours degree or postgraduate qualifications are called for. Positions for which an ordinary degree or diploma in physics are suitable are mostly found in the capital city press. This is a long-established pattern. Most jobs for teachers of physics are found there. Over the years there have been about as many jobs in the capital city newspapers, taken together, as in The Australian.

A significant number of jobs now appear in various places on the internet, which also provides easy access to the international advertisements. Geophysics is commonly grouped with earth sciences and is not included in the job count, although it also qualifies as physics.

Figure 1 (click on it to zoom) shows the data for the various categories of positions advertised. For comparison, the corresponding data from the previous (2003) survey are included. It starts with government agencies, almost all in the Commonwealth sphere. Overall, Commonwealth appointments (in CSIRO, defence and “other”) account for about one-third of all advertised positions, as they have over many years. University positions of all sorts come next and are close to half of all positions. State government, commerce and industry and school teaching make up the balance.

Figure 1

Looking back over the past 30 years, a perhaps surprising feature of the demand for graduates in physics has been stability, at somewhere between 400 and 500 jobs. This remained true even in the recessions of 1983 and 1991–93. Within the overall total, however, the proportions in the various categories have varied and there have been some big changes in the pattern.

In 1989 the distinction among universities and colleges of advanced education was removed. This resulted in an inexorable fall in the number of new teaching staff being sought in the higher education sector. Although the redefinitions/mergers were not of themselves the cause of all of the fall, the financial changes that went with them were. By 1998 and 1999 fewer than a dozen teaching positions, permanent or temporary, were advertised in either of those years. Between 1995 and 1999 only one tenurable professorship was advertised in a physics department anywhere in Australia.

Things have improved since then. Since 2003 about 50 teaching appointments have been offered in universities each year, and this was maintained in 2008. This having been said, the opportunities for tenured university positions are necessarily limited. If you reckon that the average academic teaches for 30 years and that the students take 3 years for their first degree, then staff members teach 10 student generations and only 10% of those students are needed to replace them. Students with ambitions to teach in academia should value their chances accordingly. I am indebted to a controversial lateral thinker, the late Professor Tommy Gold, for this piece of mathematics.

The universities are, of course, the places where postgraduate students are trained to do research. About 60% of physics Honours students go on to postgraduate studies of some sort. It is good advice for job-seekers to add to their first qualification since it opens up a much broader prospect of opportunities. Students, not commercial gains, are the main product of the universities.

For quite some years now the number of research-only positions in universities has been significant in both absolute numbers and as a percentage of physics jobs on offer. In 2008 there were 120 research-only positions advertised: 27% of physics jobs. This includes jobs advertised by individual universities and 32 appointments identifiable as physics in the annual report of the Australian Research Council (ARC). The ARC offers a range of fellowships in competition to individuals, and these are almost all taken up in universities.

The ARC deserves credit for establishing and expanding their fellowship program. It retains PhDs in the workforce (but for limited terms), and it provides a career structure for some. Nevertheless, physicists on limited-term fellowships continue to be faced with insecurity and the question of where to go next, and a significant number are in their second or even third limited-term appointment. In their commentary on the science provisions in the most recent federal budget, the Australian Academy of Science points out that Australia differs from most other countries in this respect and that more could have been done in the budget to correct this. This has been a constant theme in my own previous job surveys.

Late in 2008 the ARC announced 200 Future Fellowships, at three salary levels, with support for the institution where they are held. Described as being for outstanding mid-career researchers, the intention is to attract applicants from overseas and retain Australians in the country. They can be held at any research organisation, not only at universities. Some of these will undoubtedly go to physicists. They are not included in the 2008 count. The current federal budget adds 100 Super Science Fellowships.

Another feature of the statistics for universities is the relatively large number of positions for technical and administrative staff. More than half of them are to manage scientific laboratories or specialised equipment. The new Melbourne node of the Australian National Fabrication Facility, located at Monash University, was offering both managerial and technical officer posts. The Anglo-Australian Observatory was seeking an operations manager. Several positions were on offer in various places to run atomic beam lithography. These are at the professional officer level, and it is encouraging to see increased opportunities in this type of appointment.

In passing, it should be remarked that university physics departments are having increasing difficulty in persuading deans to provide enough money to maintain workshops staffed at the level of toolmaker or electronic technician. These are not appointments requiring physics qualifications per se but, in my view, no physics department can function effectively without strong supporting workshops. At least there is now some evidence of opportunities at the middle level.

A major change in the employment patterns in industry and commerce (commonly referred to as “business”) set in about 1990. From year to year, a smaller and smaller number of positions suitable for physicists has been offered in this area. In the 1980s about 100 firms advertised at least one post for which a physicist would be suitable. I checked this: I wrote to them all in 1980. Eighty per cent replied and said that physics qualifications were either what they had in mind or were satisfactory.

But in 2003 the number of jobs had fallen to 12, and it is not much better in 2008 – at 14. For two decades, successive federal governments have recognised this as a problem and devised a variety of encouragements to business to expand their research and development. For whatever reason they have been unsuccessful. This is recognised in Powering Ideas, the White Paper of the present government, but the details of what is to be done about it have yet to be worked out.

Over the years tax incentive schemes have clearly not been effective in encouraging innovation. One of my cynical colleagues, with an ear to the commercial world, commented that the reaction of industry to these incentives was to say: “Ask the accountants what we are doing now that looks like R&D”. A large fraction of the money actually claimed as R&D has gone to the motor vehicle industry. This is a legitimate claim but it underlines the relatively poor performance of other parts of the sector.

If I read the OECD publications correctly, in 2006–07 Australia stood 10th of 29 countries in its expenditure by government on R&D but 18th of 29 in expenditure by business. Allowing for new additions to the OECD, this is pretty much where Australia has stood for a couple of decades.

The previous government made it clear that it expected university research groups to devote significant effort to commercialising their work. It could arguably be interpreted as an attempt to make up for the shortcomings of business. When you are contemplating how to maintain your student services and equip the undergraduate laboratories, it is difficult to resist the pressure of this thrust. To be effective, more money needs to be allocated to universities for research infrastructure and operational costs. There is some indication that the present government knows this and will do something about it.

As far as employment is concerned, Commonwealth government agencies contribute 39% of all advertisements. This is much the same as it has been for many years, although the breakdown within government agencies has varied over fairly wide limits. After a period when CSIRO was not looking for many physics graduates, they advertised for 68 in 2008. Most of these were continuing appointments, including a quite unusual advertisement in September for no fewer than 23 scientists or engineers in the division of materials science and engineering. Every one of these could be filled by a physicist! This not to say that every post would be filled in this way, and applicants would have to compete. Nevertheless these are positions for a physicist to aspire to.

Defence includes the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), which, among other things, was looking for a new chief scientist (a physicist was appointed); Defence Signals Directorate; Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation (DIGO), and a few other small groups. DIGO is a young organisation that describes itself as “safeguarding Australia’s interests through geospatial intelligence products”. It was recruiting fairly vigorously throughout the year and accounts for more than half the positions advertised in defence.

Leaving out CSIRO and defence, a wide range of Commonwealth organisations make up 17.9% of jobs. Among them, the Commonwealth Bureau of Meteorology (which was also advertising for a director), the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, the Department of the Environment (also advertising for a chief scientist) and the Department of Climate Change were the most active. Some dozen other departments or divisions also advertised a position or two. It is clearly possible to see a growth in activity in environment and security among the more recent additions to the Commonwealth payroll.

State and territory governments are also active in the environmental field, for what might be described as bread-and-butter tasks: clean air, radiation monitoring and so on. As the Commonwealth government does, at least three states have programs on climate change, expressed in those words. These direct activities are government programs.

One feature of state government activity that does not appear directly in the advertisements for positions is their support for specific research projects on topics likely to lead to commercial activities in the state. This is a relatively recent development. In my own university, for example, the South Australian Government has given support to university-based research programs on fibre optics and photonics. In Victoria the Australian Synchrotron received substantial financial support from the State Government. There are similar examples in other states.

School teaching is included if “physics” appeared explicitly in the advertisement. All the 15 positions were in independent schools. As noted earlier, the state school system advertises in the local papers for preference. It is generally recognised that there is a serious shortage of teachers of mathematics, physics and chemistry and that this is reflected, at least in part, in a fall in demand for places in science degree programs.

This is a world-wide phenomenon, and such demand has been much reduced for a decade at least. Some would say that part of the problem lies in the perception that physics (like languages) is difficult and that there are easier ways to make one’s fortune. In the absence of mentors who are able to incite their interest, students will therefore look elsewhere.

This having been said, the situation has turned around and enrolments in physics degrees have been increasing. In Australia, data published by the Australian Institute of Physics (Australian Physics 2008, vol. 45, p.166) shows that enrolments in Honours physics and postgraduate degrees have now recovered to about where they were 10 years ago.

I started this piece with the comment of one of my students that “he knew there were no jobs in physics but he was doing it anyway”. That was not true then and it is not true now.