Working in physics: Don't panic

The job market for new graduates and career-changers in 2009 is not great, but there are signs that physicists may be better equipped than most, as Margaret Harris explains.

Open your eyes

"Don't panic" is a simple piece of advice, one that usually applies equally well to job-hunting, avoiding pandemic flu or, like the hapless Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy stories, wandering the universe in search of a decent cup of tea. Yet some statistics emerging from the current job market are undeniably alarming. Postings on the recruitment website Milkround.com, which advertises jobs and internships for recent graduates, are down by about 20% compared with this time last year, while a survey earlier this year by High Fliers, a London-based research firm, found that top UK employers plan to recruit 17% fewer graduates this year than in 2008. In the same study, half of the 1017 final-year students surveyed believed they would have to take "any graduate job" they were offered, regardless of their interest in the company, and a whopping 91% thought competition for vacancies would be tougher than last year.

Yet these gloomy figures can be deceptive. Although most of the 100 companies in the High Fliers survey are household names like Airbus and Rolls-Royce, they employ only 3—4% of UK graduates. Headline-grabbing cuts at the likes of Corus and Royal Bank of Scotland, while certainly indicative of a general downturn, can overshadow modest good news from some of the less high-profile employers that, together, employ the other 96%. The raw data also hide considerable variation across different fields. Sure, 2009 looks like a bad year in which to graduate if your dream job is in investment banking, for example, but prospects are brighter for those who aspire to careers in energy, transport, defence or the public sector.

The bright side
This is good news for physicists, as organizations in these four areas have long been keen to recruit bright, numerate people. "We are hiring 24/7 right now, in part to replace a workforce whose members are retiring or moving up the ranks," says a spokesperson for the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston in the UK. AWE, which manages the UK's nuclear weapons and monitors compliance with international test bans, employs more than 600 scientists, including both graduate and PhD-level physicists.

Other employers, while not expecting major growth, remain cautiously upbeat. "Our sector is very stable, so we're seeing little change in recruitment despite the recession," says Emily Blacker, a recruiter for railway-maintenance firm Network Rail. Although some roles within the company require an engineering degree, many areas — including finance, operations and information management — are open to all graduates.

Even in firms planning to cut jobs, some departments may remain unscathed. For example, on 30 April, defence giant BAE Systems announced it would eliminate 500 jobs from its combat vehicles and weapons unit. But at the National Engineering and Construction Recruitment Exhibition held in Birmingham just a few days earlier, a banner above the BAE Submarine Solutions stall announced that it was recruiting new people to fill science and engineering-related posts. Claire Machin, a BAE engineer at the event, explained that the submarine division is taking on staff because business is "on the upturn globally", and its order book is secure until 2020. Asked if it hires physicists, Machin's answer was unequivocal: "If we don't, we should."

Unsurprisingly, the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, is keen to encourage such attitudes, especially among firms that do not do physics per se but are still interested in hiring physics graduates because they are bright, numerate, good at problem solving and have a proven work ethic. As part of this effort, this month the Institute's publishing arm, IOP Publishing, has launched a new website, brightrecruits, which will replace the old Physics Jobs site (see "brightrecruits: a new jobs website"). Along with a range of new features and job listings from universities, government research labs, the nuclear industry and other traditional physics employers, the new site will also advertise career opportunities from firms seeking physics graduates to work in areas that may have little to do with their degree — at least on the surface.

"The purpose of the name change is to reposition what we're offering from 'jobs in physics' to 'jobs done by physicists'," explains John Brindley, the Institute's director of membership and business. "It's a shift in emphasis, and a way to acknowledge the fact that a majority of people with physics degrees do not work in physics."

Make a change
Such a shift is important, because surveys by organizations like the UK Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) and the American Institute of Physics (AIP) show that less than 15% of physicists with just a Bachelor's degree end up working in research. In 2004, for example, HESA found that of the physicists who graduated in 2002 and were employed two years later (i.e. were not out of work or studying for higher degrees) just 10.4% had jobs in research, development or analysis; a similar number were working as managers in industry or the public sector. AIP data from the same year indicate that 31% of recent physics graduates working in the private sector were employed as engineers, while 32% had obtained posts outside science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Physics graduates, it seems, can do almost anything.

Still, the fact that their skills are generally in demand does not mean that physicists will have an easy time in a recession job market. Recent graduates looking for jobs in industry should expect stiff competition both from their peers and from experienced workers who have been made redundant — particularly from companies in the automotive, construction or financial sectors.

As these workers seek new employment, some fields perceived as more secure have seen a sharp increase in applications. "A lot of people will have gone into finance because they saw it as a way to earn a big salary, but they may now feel there's more security in working for the public sector," says Anne Fisher, a spokeswoman for Lincolnshire County Council's Highways and Traffic Service, which employs about 90 scientific and technical staff, mostly as engineers. In 2007, Fisher noted, the service received only six or seven responses for each job advertisement. Now it is seeing more than 100.

However, this response is far from universal. A predicted boom in applications to teacher-training programmes, for example, has so far failed to materialize except in a few subjects — such as business studies — with strong connections to struggling industries. True, 452 people have already applied to teach physics in the UK this year, an increase of 36% compared with 2008 according to figures from the Graduate Teacher Training Registry. However, the 2008 figure of 291 applicants was abnormally low, so this year's spike merely returns numbers to 2007 levels. Similarly, the 25% increase in numbers training as maths teachers this year will still leave 11% of teaching posts vacant — the same percentage as in 2006.

Another well-trodden path for both recent physics graduates and the newly redundant is, of course, to re-enter the academic world as Master's or PhD students. With many governments pouring funding into the technology sector and (particularly in the US) trumpeting "shovel-ready" engineering projects as a form of economic stimulus, academia may seem like an oasis of calm in this economic storm. However, anyone pondering a Master's or PhD course as a means of avoiding the job market for a few years should keep at least three things in mind.

First, you will not be alone: a recession almost always produces an increase in applications for graduate courses. This may not be true for every university — one contributor to the Cosmic Variance blog noted that as of January 2009, applications to her astronomy department were actually down by 15%. But it will be true for enough of them to make getting into a graduate programme more competitive, on average, than it was last year.

Second, although employers have long treated a Master's degree or a PhD as a prominent feather in an applicant's cap, this may be changing as higher degrees become more common. A 2009 survey by the Association of Graduate Recruiters found that only 18% of their members were willing to offer higher salaries to employees with higher degrees. Among employers that did offer financial incentives, the average bonus for a PhD has fallen from £6540 in 2008 to £3500.

Finally, the long-term prospects for jobs within academia are mixed. Most of the lecturers hired in the 1960s and early 1970s to teach the "baby-boom" generation are now retired, and their replacements are already teaching those boomers' children and grandchildren. Fresh government funding will boost morale and prevent large-scale job losses in university research, but the demographics needed for the sector to grow significantly are simply not there.

The bottom line is that those who are keen to learn more about their subject, and who would not mind postponing their job hunt for a few years, may find that a graduate programme is a smart move. Others, however, are probably better off looking for a job outside academia, even if it means broadening their search to include options other than their ideal career.

Valuable skills
So will the credit crunch mean lean times for physicists? The short, honest answer is that it will probably mean lean times for almost everybody. However, it is important to remember that physicists have strengths that will always serve them well, regardless of the economy's health. Physics is a relatively uncommon degree, held by only 4% of UK graduates in 2008, so recruiters have an automatic reason to remember physicists' applications. And although mathematically inclined graduates may not be able to make instant fortunes in the City or on Wall Street anymore, fundamentally the skills learned in a physics degree — logical thinking, numeracy, problem-solving ability, analytical skills and the ability to pare a problem back to its fundamentals — are still valued, and still in short supply. There is no need to panic.


brightrecruits: a new jobs website
The new brightrecruits site from IOP Publishing offers a wide variety of job advertisements for physicists interested in fields from academia and education to defence, manufacturing, finance and telecommunications. However, it is more than just a list of jobs. Unlike the Physics Jobs site it replaces, would-be employees can use brightrecruits to refine their search by sector, salary and geographic location, and to specify whether they are looking for permanent, part- or full-time posts. Job-seekers can also upload CVs and sign up for e-mails that will alert them when recruiters post vacancies that meet their desired criteria. Those at the beginning of their job search can also browse all current job listings within specific sectors, and find links to information about the Institute's careers-related services, including an online mentor-matching service and advice on how to become a chartered physicist, engineer or scientist.

 

Job-hunting tips and tricks
The biggest crowds at the National Engineering and Construction Recruitment Exhibition in Birmingham in April were not gathered at the stalls advertising the most jobs or handing out the niftiest free gadgets, but at a special session on "Finding jobs in the credit crunch" run by Chris Morrall of the career-management firm Winchester Consulting. Here are a few tips gleaned from that seminar, university careers officers and other experts.

  • Be serious about researching prospective employers before applying. Recruiters can spot ill-informed candidates from a great distance; moreover, once you find a job, you will be spending a lot of your time there, so it pays to make sure that you really want to work for the organization.
  • Do not bother with generic applications. In a boom period, having "one size fits all" answers for common questions like how you became interested in the job or what you can offer the company might have earned you a second look if your qualifications were good enough. Now, many of these applications will go straight to the bin.
  • Be flexible. If the recession has hit your preferred company or industry, think of related areas that might provide valuable experience and give you an edge when the economy picks up again.
  • Consider volunteer work, unpaid internships or job-shadowing if you are unable to find a post after a few months. Some of these activities could lead to a permanent job, and all of them will help stave off the anxiety that can accompany an extended period of unemployment.
  • Stand up during telephone interviews. Being vertical can give you a psychological boost, and also improves breathing so that your voice sounds more confident.
  • Finally, make full use of the Internet, which has a wealth of careers-related information. The Institute of Physics is a good place to start (see careers.iop.org).

 

About the author
Margaret Harris is reviews and careers editor of Physics World.


This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of Physics World

Image credit: Photolibrary

last edited: December 04, 2014



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