Jobs in Physics in 2003: an unusual year
John R. Prescott
Department of Physics
University of Adelaide SA 5005

Back in 1978, one of my Honours students commented that he was doing physics because he liked it, and then added that he was doing it even though he knew "there were no jobs available". This did not correspond to my own observation that our graduates having little trouble finding jobs and it prompted me to read the employment pages of the newspapers to see what was actually on offer. This was duly reported for 1979 and part of 1978 at the AIP Congress in Perth and subsequently in the Australian Physicist, and then on an annual basis. Twenty five years later, we come to the Jubilee report on employment possibilities in Australia for graduates in Physics and Applied Physics. While this report applies primarily to the year 2003, there are some things to be learned from an occasional dip into that past quarter century. The original raison d'etre of the surveys is to be found in Prescott (1980), the data for the first decade were summarised in Prescott (1988) and for the first two decades in Prescott (1998). The data for year 2002 are to be found in Prescott (2003).

The Surveys
The surveys are based on positions advertised in The Weekend Australian and in the Higher Education Section of The Australian on Wednesdays. If they are not also advertised in the print media, positions within Australia and New Zealand are included from John O'Connor's email address at: Increasingly, advertised positions omit details and refer applicants to a web site. There is a variety of consolidated employment advertisements available on the internet. One example is CareerOne, covering all the advertisements in the News Limited stable of newspapers. CareerOne presents a challenge if one is trying to use it to compile the present listings for the AIP, because it is difficult to instruct search engines just what a physics job looks like. One should not be surprised by this: one of the themes of the present series has been to encourage job seekers to look widely.

Most of the advertisements in The Australian call for an honours degree or a post-graduate qualification. Positions for which an ordinary degree or diploma in physics would be suitable are mostly to be found in the capital city press. From time to time time, we sampled the Age and Sydney Morning Herald and, less frequently, the West Australian and Brisbane Courier Mail. The Adelaide Advertiser was sampled for the full year. About half the advertisements in these "local" papers were for positions already noted in the Australian. School teaching accounted for a large fraction of the others. Pro rata, based on the sampling of capital city newspapers, as reported in the the ANZ Bank Employment Advertisement Series, it is estimated that there were at least as many positions advertised in the local press Australia-wide, as in the Australian. This continues a long-established pattern.

It is disturbing to find that positions in Commerce and Industry have become less and less frequent over the years. In the eighties, a hundred or so firms would advertise at least one post over the year. This used to include Telstra (or its predecessors), BHP and mining companies. No longer! In the 2000s this has fallen to the order of ten. We return to this below.

In general, the positions are those for which a degree or diploma in physics or applied physics is a suitable training, even though this may not be explicitly stated in the advertise-ment. In many cases further training would be expected, e.g. for teaching in secondary schools or where a higher degree qualification is stated or implied in the advertisement. In any case, it is good, timely advice to physics graduates to add such further training.

Some firms recruit on campus and do not advertise. For example, this has been said to be true for Geophysics. The present survey, therefore, repre-sents a lower limit to the oppor-tunities for employment for physics graduates, although it probably accounts for most of the positions which would be regarded as for "professional" physicists, in the sense that the A.I.P. would recognise.

No positions are included that call for membership of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, even when it is clear that a physicist would make a suitable appointee. It is now common for an advertisement to state alternative qualifications, such as "physicist/engineer", engineer/scientist, or the like. Often, qualifications in "physics" per se are stated in the body of the advertisement but not in the heading. In one case, the heading stated "Chemist" while the body of the advertisement called for a "radiation physicist". While a statement of alternative qualifications means that there is competition for the positions, they are nevertheless positions suitable for physicists. At the risk of stating the obvious, in presenting themselves as applicants for such jobs, physicists should give prior thought as to why their particular physics training makes them more suitable than some other possible applicant.

One hundred and sixty ARC Fellowships at various levels were offered in 2003. These are not advertised in the press. Twenty one of these were awarded for projects identifiable as physics or astronomy and are included in the present count.

The Data
The statistics for 2003 are shown in table 1, which also includes those for the previous four years and a selection of earlier years. These are 1984 and 1993, which were recovery years after recessions and 1988 the year before the amalgamation of Universities and CAEs.

The 25-year trends are shown in figure 1 where annual physics jobs are compared with weekly advertisements for all positions as recorded by the ANZ Bank Employment Advertisement Series, and with those for trades and (grouped) professionals from the DEET Skilled Vacancy Surveys. This graph shows that there was a relative stability of the rate of jobs for physicists on both sides of the "time divide" at about 1991. Whether the general job market goes up or down, physics jobs have stayed relatively steady, as contrasted, say, with "all professionals". It is disappointing that physics has not shared the post-1993 surge of jobs in general and professionals in particular, although the trend is upwards.

Over the first twelve years of the surveys, the average job count was 670 per year and varied little about that average. Over the past five years, it looked as if employment opportunities for physicists had settled down to something over 500 per annum. Last year I speculated that a new equilibrium had been established.

The year 2003 exposed the questionable nature of speculation. The number of positions fell to 460, which is almost as low as it has ever been. Further, within this reduced total, the data for the year proved to be atypical and this clearly affected the total.

We turn now to some of the details:
In the areas for which the Commonwealth Government has direct responsibility: CSIRO, Defence, Bureau of Meteorology, Ansto and the like, there was a dramatic change in pattern. For many years about one third of all jobs were in this group. By 2002 the proportion had slowly climbed to 42%; then it dropped to 30% in 2003. This was because DSTO and CSIRO cut their job advertising drastically.

From 60 positions in 2002, CSIRO, dropped to 31: all but five were of limited term. CSIRO has acquired a revised mission under its relatively new leader, Garrett. It was difficult to discern any pattern in the appointments that would fit this mission, which is presumably being implemented from within.

Defence, comprising DSTO, Defence Intelligence and Defence Signals, advertised but fourteen positions. Among these, DSTO had already stopped advertising in mid-2002 and has not resumed, except for 3 senior positions which included that of Chief Scientist. It needs little imagination to speculate that Defence needed money elsewhere. Would it be regarded as provocative to remark that, at a time when national security is on the agenda, to reduce the effort on defence science seems bizarre.

In the not CSIRO/not DEFENCE group, opportunities continued firm with a continued emphasis on environmental monitoring. The Meteorological Bureau and Ansto were recruiting consistently. The latter was seeking a new Chief Executive.

This fall in direct Commonwealth Government employment is unexpected. A very high proportion of such employment is in research. In fact, in 2003 Australia stood equal third in the the OECD table for government expenditure on research. Industry is a different matter. For overall expenditure on R&D in Industry, (described as "Business" in official language) Australia stood 15th of 21. We return to this below.

State and Territory Governments were mostly seeking staff for their programmes in environmental monitoring. Victoria advertised for more staff for the Synchrotron Project and for the "Innovation" office: the latter was readvertised.

Most Hospital and Medical posts are in state hospitals with an occasional post in private practice. When the present surveys began, demand was small but steady but it has been growing, as imaging and the demand for more precise dosimetry have developed. Almost all these positions are now advertised only on email by the Australasian College of Physical Scientists and Engineers in Medicine. These are included in our count. New Zealand medical physics job opportunities are found on the same email circulation. In November, NSW Hospitals advertised eleven "trainee" positions for medical physicists. The word is that other states are likely to follow suit. The increased demand for graduates is reflected in a call for six academic appointments to teach medical and/or related physics.

Twenty years ago such positions were commonly filled by first degree physics graduates. More recently, postgraduate specialist qualifications are called for. It is noted that the new, named, Bachelor's degrees in medical imaging, upgraded from Diploma status, do not qualify for corporate membership of the AIP.

The areas with which Universities are associated: teaching, research and supporting staff more than held their own. It is a long time since over fifty academic teaching posts were advertised. Seven Deans of Science were included although this does not necessarily mean that a physicist was appointed. A few appointments in Applied Mathematics were included where the field embraced physics, e.g. solar physics or relativity. Sixty percent were tenurable and about 20% called for theory or modelling. The most active areas were medical physics, photonics and astrophysics, with nanotechnology showing itself occasionally.

In historic terms, the dominating event was the "Dawkins Revolution" of 1989, when all CAEs were redefined and became Universities or parts thereof. Not necessarily as a direct result, the number of tenurable physics teaching appointments in Higher Education fell steadily from about 60 in the year preceding Dawkins to three in 1997. A similar number of non-tenurable teaching positions fell to fifteen in the same period. In 1997 no one offered a Chair of any sort, physics or quasi-physics; it was the only year of the present surveys in which this happened. At least, things have now improved. Nevertheless, the demise of a number of physics departments and the shrinkage of staff in those that remain is too painfully obvious. Table 1 records these changes over the years.

There are two obvious reasons for this: the loss of service courses to other departments, who count the EFTSUs that accrue when they teach the subject themselves; and a perception by prospective students that other fields are more attractive intrinsically and/or as employment prospects. Of these, the former is the more serious. In my view it represent a failure of Vice-Chancellors to safeguard the integrity of core disciplines, commonly called "the enabling sciences". Chemistry shares the same problem as do some subjects in the Humanities. In the matter of perception, it has been one of the aims of the present surveys to present a dispassionate view of employment prospects so that students and their advisors can make informed choices.

Limited term Research positions in Universities continue to be the biggest single group of all positions, now at 33%. Including 21 ARC Fellows of all sorts, the number was a record-equaling 155 positions. They were spread over the whole of the University sector although most were in the so-called "Group of Eight". Four Deputy V-Cs (Research) were included. The ARC is to be commended for a major policy, designed to retain PhDs in the research work-force (albeit of limited term) and for creating a prospect of a career structure for some.

As mentioned above, Government research expenditure places Australia near the top of the OECD table for governments. Expenditure by Industry and Commerce places us near the bottom. For physics, the year 2003 did nothing to improve the situation. In an extraordinary state of affairs, there were but twelve jobs advertised in Industry and Commerce for the entire year, or sixteen if we include CRCs.

At the start of the surveys in 1978, some hundred firms advertised a position or two. I wrote to all of them to see if they had employed or would have employed a physicist. There was an 80% response and it showed a favourable attitude towards physics graduates. In the decade 1980-1990, the annual average for jobs in industry was 104. Telecom and BHP advertised about one a month. Leaving out the recession years, 1991-92 (see figure 1) the average from 1993-2003 has been 55, which includes those CRCs which have an essential industrial component. The statistics for Industry are shown in figure 1 as a heavy dashed line (note the expanded scale). It is clear that physics jobs in industry did not recover from the 1991-92 recession and have continued to fall. Therein lies a paradox.

As did its predecessors, the present Federal Government has expressed concern about the lack of commitment by industry. In 2001 the Government announced its response to the National Innovation Summit, and the report Chance to change, by the Chief Scientist. Further changes were announced during 2002. To quote, "The R&D Tax concession is the Government's principal support mechanism to increase the amount of R&D performed by businesses in Australia". The programme, Backing Australia's ability, is a modification to the unevenly successful New Start programme. It may be recalled that this replaced the former 150% tax rebate for R&D. It may be that this reduced the number of "rorts" of the former system but, causally or not, in 1996 it coincided with a fall by more than half of the physics jobs in industry--and they have not returned.

Backing Australia's Ability is a commendable attempt to address most of the issues needed to improve Australia's record in R&D. It runs the gamut from teacher training to the commercialisation of ideas. While it is hard to argue with the Australian Bureau of Statitics that Business Expenditure on R&D went up in 2001-2002 (2002-2003 is not available at time of writing) and the claim of the Government that the Backing Australia's Ability programme has been oversubscribed, little if any of it has ended up in the physical sciences; and the OECD comparison remains a reproach.

Of course, the reproach lies not with the government alone: and so long as companies of all sizes do not recognise the need to put money into being innovative, and the sources of venture capital share that view, the problem will remain. Perhaps the community at large also needs educating. I have made similar comments throughout these surveys.

In June 2003, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Science and Innovation published, Riding the Innovation Wave. The Case for Increasing Business Investment in R&D. It comprehensively addresses the issues just discussed, with 48 recommendations. While some of them point at a goal without exactly showing how to get there, I have no doubt that Australia would be much better off if they were to be implemented. I am grateful to Minister Nelson for drawing my attention to this report.

Co-operative Research Centres (CRC) are now overwhelmingly in the biological sciences as witnessed by the fact that only three physicists were sought in 2003: two modellers and a CEO. The CRC programme has recently been reviewed again with recommendations for an increased commercial emphasis.

The demand for school physics teachers was well down, although it continued strong in the capital city newspapers. The posts in the present surveys were nearly all in the independent schools. NSW did not repeat its offer to retrain existing teachers to teach mathematics and physics. There is no doubt of a severe shortage of qualified Science and Mathematics teachers. Overseas positions are, of course, only those advertised in Australia. They were almost all academic posts in our immediate Pacific neighbours with a smattering from the Persian Gulf states.

Geophysics is commonly grouped with Earth Sciences in Australia but is included here, although not added to the formal count. It sank further, to its lowest level of the surveys. It seems that the mining firms are not out there looking for new prospects at the moment. Colleagues in the earth sciences confirm this view.

Across the board, a PhD was a stated or preferred requirement for more than half the positions advertised. About half of all posts were permanent. About one in five was for theory or modelling.

Sources of further Information
A record was kept of the salary range for each position, in those cases where it was given. These are summarised in table 2 where the numbers are for the second half-year.

A list of all positions surveyed, classified by fields, and giving the employer, the job classification, the salary range (if stated), a brief job description, whe-ther a PhD is specified, whether the position is indefinite or limited-term, and the month of the advertisement, will be sent to all Australian physics departments, to careers officers in tertiary institutions and to employment agencies. Copies are available to interested persons from the author.

There are now many outlets for job-lists on the internet. The pattern of advertising is changing and will undoubtedly change further. Already a large fraction of positions in the IT Industry is listed there for preference.

Employment information is available on e-mail, sponsored by the AIP. Employers can advertise their vacancies directly to physicists looking for employment. It carries both Australian and overseas vacancies. To receive this information send an e-mail message to:
and include in the body of the text the line:
subscribe physics-employment
Do not sign your name in the body of the text since it will be misinterpreted.

Annual and monthly summaries at the end of 2003 are available on the internet at
where other web-site addresses can be also be found.

With the completion of 25 years, the author is proposing to retire from compiling the present surveys. The basis on which they may be continued is not yet established. He recalls that, early in the series, an Editor (no names, no pack drill) demurred about publishing the report on the grounds that, "it is much the same as the report last year". Well, so it is and yet it isn't. We think it has been useful.

Over the years many people have helped with the surveys. It is a pleasure to acknowledge the special contributions of Gillian Robertson, Miles Kerby and Riaz Akber. Help from members of the SA branch of the AIP has been much appreciated. Derek Leinweber created and maintains the Web site. References
ANZ Bank Employment Advertisement Series. (monthly, on the internet) Prescott, J.R. (1980) Aust. Physicist, 17, 56
Prescott, J.R. (1988) Aust. Physicist, 25, 204
Prescott J.R. (1998) Aust. and N.Z. Physicist, 34, 116
Prescott J.R. (2002) The Physicist, 39, 46
Skilled Vacancy Survey. Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (monthly, on the internet).

Figure 1

The heavy solid line shows annual physics employment advertisements (right hand scale). The thick dashed line shows data for physics jobs in Industry and Commerce (modified right-hand scale). The thin solid line shows seasonally corrected average weekly employment advertisements for all classes of employment (left hand scale). The thin dashed line and dot-dash line are the DEET figures for "Trades" and "All Professionals" respectively. The two latter are index figures and have been normalised to the other data at 1985.

Table 1 Employment statistics

#1984 +1988 @1993 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003
TOTAL positions

690 810 430 470 540 655 550 460
Commonwealth CSIRO Permanent 6.4 5.4 5.4 4.3 2.9 4.0 4.4 1.3
Temporary 7.1 5.8 4.1 4.3 2.5 5.8 7.3 5.6
Not CSIRO or defence Permanent 11.9 4.8 5.3 13.6 11.9 11.2 9.9 11.8
Temporary 2.8 1.4 2.2 2.8 3.7 4.1 4.0 7.4
7.4 11.7 5.5 14.5 12.4 16.3 17.2 3.1

4.8 3.9 2.1 1.7 5.6 2.1 2.4 4.2

2.8 4.3 4.2 1.9 2.2 5.8 7.8 5.5
University Teaching Permanent 4.1 6.9 2.8 3.2 3.9 6.4 4.2 6.7
Temporary 4.5 7.0 6.5 2.6 3.0 3.7 4.9 4.4
11.3 11.0 22.7 27.2 28.0 23.2 21.5 23.2
Technical and Other
4.5 6.6 1.6 1.3 1.7 0.8 1.5 3.0
Cooperative Research
Centres (CRC)

- - 12.6 3.2 2.0 1.5 0.4 1.3
Private Industry
and Commerce
non sales
13.0 14.0 11.7 6.3 9.0 3.8 0.7 2.8
Management and sales
2.6 2.0 1.4 2.2 2.5 0.8 1.4 0.1
School teaching,
mostly independent
(physics stipulated)

10.7 9.4 4.7 7.3 5.2 5.8 4.6 2.4
Overseas, various

6.1 5.8 7.2 3.9 3.5 4.7 7.7 7.7

100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100
Geophysics (not included
above) Totals

99 78 63 20 25 30 20 14

* CAE added to University before 1989
# 1984 was the year of recovery after the 1983 recession
+ 1988 was the year before the CAE University amalgamations
@ 1993 was the year of recovery after the 1991-92 recession

Table 2
Salary ranges for advertised positions as of late 2003.
Most of the positions advertised had salaries lying in the range quoted, occasionally smaller or larger.

Teacher $30k-52k (small sample)
Professional Officer, Technical Officer,
Research Officer, Research Assistant
Analyst $40k-60k
PDF $45k-55k
ARC PDF $52k
ARC Research Fellow/QEII Fellow $65k-77k
Research Fellow/Research Associate $50k-65k
Senior Research Fellow $66k-76k
Tutor/Associate Lecturer $35k-53k
Lecturer $53k-65k
Senior Lecturer $66k-78k
Reader, Associate Professor $89k-96k
Professor/Director $102k-140k
Senior/Research Scientist DSTO no data for 2003
Experimental Scientist CSIRO $42k-54k small sample
Senior/Research Scientist CSIRO $53k-58k; 66k-80k
Other Commonwealth similar
Medical Physicist $61-68k-74k
Engineer/Scientist $39k-65k-75k
Modeller $40k-50k-60k
Science-based Managers $60k-90k

In round figures, first degree graduates start at about $37k,
first post-doctoral appointments at about $47k,
professionals with some experience at about $55k,
leaders of groups at about $100k.


Page Created: 3rd November 2004, most recent update 3rd November 2004
by Dr. Sundance Bilson-Thompson.

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