A survey by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) has found that US physicists with PhDs who go on to work in industry do not suffer a loss of earnings or intellectual satisfaction. Those who find jobs in the private sector, the survey finds, typically have careers that are rewarding both professionally and financially, even though they do not necessarily use the specific training they acquired in their doctoral and – for some – postdoctoral training.

The survey – Common Careers of Physicists in the Private Sector – focuses on 503 US-based physicists employed in the US private sector who were awarded their PhDs in 1996, 1997, 2000 or 2001. Those years were chosen because they were either side of the 2000 "dot-com" bubble, to provide a balance to the survey because Internet firms often hire physicists.

Carried out by Roman Czujko, recently retired head of the AIP's Statistical Research Center, together with his colleague Garrett Anderson, the survey identifies eight main career paths outside academic and government work for physicists with PhDs. These are identified as self-employment; finance; government contracting; engineering; computer science; physics; other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields; and non-STEM fields.

Broad knowledge

In nearly all cases, those with PhDs were working in areas that require the frequent use of scientific and technical knowledge, with many finding their jobs "intellectually stimulating and challenging". Czujko, who claims that the survey is the "first systematic study of what physicists do in the private sector", adds that even physics PhD graduates who do not work in science or engineering "are making significant amounts of money and seem quite happy".

Indeed, the survey found that more than 75% of physicists in the private sector in 2011 reported annual salaries of more than $100,000 – higher than many academic positions. Around 85% of respondents were working in STEM fields, even if not specifically in physics. Czujko and Anderson also discovered that physicists who were self-employed did not fit the stereotype of a solitary worker. Rather, they often ran their own businesses.

Michael Idelchik, vice-president for advanced technologies at GE Global Research, says that the survey's findings agree with his own observations. "When you study physics, you learn how to deal with complexities, noise and uncertainties," he says. "It really positions you to enter private companies and the corporate world. A degree in physics makes you very broad and very adaptable."