Jobs in Physics in 1999: A new equilibrium?
John R. Prescott
Department of Physics and Mathematical Physics
University of Adelaide SA 5005

This is the twenty-first in the series of annual surveys carried out by the author for the Australian Institute of Physics.

As it "recovered" from the recession of 1992, the employment picture over the past five years has been rather up and down (1996 was described as like the curate's egg--parts of it were excellent). With 470 jobs advertised in 1999, employment opportunities for physicists appear to have settled down to an average of around 470 per annum. It is now clear that we may not expect the trend to turn back upwards towards the level of around 700 that applied for the decade to 1990. The composition of the workforce has also settled down to a distribution which, while broadly similar to that of the years before 1990, is nevertheless different in detail. In the areas for which the Commonwealth Government has direct responsibility: CSIRO, Defence, Bureau of Meteorology, Ansto and the like, job advertisements continue firm. On the other side of the ledger, areas with which Universities are associated: teaching, research, technical positions and CRC's, improved marginally; limited term research positions in Universities continue to be the biggest single group at 27% of all positions. The demand for school physics teachers was up. Jobs in Industry and Commerce continue very low and Geophysics fell to its lowest level in twenty years.

The Surveys
The surveys have the intention of defining the job market for us in the profession. They have provided hard data where no data existed and have persisted in order to continue to provide that data. They have been useful for Careers and Employment Offices and for individual enquirers. From time to time they have provided a rebuttal to the claims of (often ignorant) politicians, several of whom have contended that employment statistics for physicists were invented to suit the inventor. Most times they have provided a basis for optimism; more recently it has been easy to mix in pessimism, as with tenured University posts and Industry. Nevertheless, there are real jobs for which real people are being sought.

The surveys are based on positions advertised in The Weekend Australian and in the Higher Education Section of The Australian on Wednesdays. In 1996, job advertisements became available on e-mail by courtesy of John O'Connor at the University of Newcastle and sponsored by the AIP. The latter are mostly overseas but some positions within Australia and New Zealand appear on this e-mail outlet without being advertised in the print media. In 1999 there were a dozen or so of these which I might have expected to see in The Australian; they are added to our list. In addition there are now many outlets for job-lists on the internet. Because of this, the pattern of advertising is changing and will undoubtedly change further. Already a large fraction of positions in the IT Industry are listed there for preference and so the DEET Skilled Vacancy Survey no longer includes IT jobs from the newspapers in its count.

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 a suitable qualification are mostly to be found in the "local" press. From time to time, to give an indication of the size and nature of the latter group, the weekend editions of The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Advertiser are sampled; figures for the other states can be estimated on a proportionate basis from the DEET Skilled Vacancy Surveys or the ANZ Bank Employment Advertisement Series. This shows that there were at least as many positions advertised in the local press as in The Australian. This has been a consistent pattern and agrees with the Employment Advertisement Service introduced by the AIP in 1993, although the coverage of the latter continues patchy. Many of these local advertisements are for jobs in local commerce or industry.

The general principles of the surveys were set out in detail in the first report in the series (Prescott 1980), the data for the first decade were summarised in Prescott (1988) and for the first two decades in Prescott (1998). These references can be consulted for the historical data and for detailed discussion of some of the groundwork which led to the ideas behind the surveys. The data for year 1998 are to be found in Prescott (1999).

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 advertisement. 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. The present survey, therefore, represents a lower limit to the opportunities 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. 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.

The Data
Until about 1991 the total number of jobs suitable for physicists was largely independent of the state of the economy, in that it avoided the extremes of boom and bust alike, and fluctuated about the long-term average of 650. It dropped in the recession years 1991-1993, and has fluctuated annually since. It now seems clear that it will not recover the 700 average of the decade before 1990 and has settled to a new average demand of about 470 per annum. Last year we noted the increased use of the terms "Modeller", "Analyst" and "Manager" to describe not just the function but the job title. These seem to have become established.

The statistics for 1999 are shown in table 1, which also includes those for the previous four years. It now appears that the 1997 figures were a statistical low. The twenty-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 Series, and with those for trades and (grouped) professionals from the DEET Skilled Vacancy Surveys. We turn now to some of the details:

Government Agencies In the Commonwealth Government area, the 1997-98 budget increases were maintained for the sector as whole. Some 40% of all jobs for physicists were in this sector. In the previous decade the proportion was about one third.

Defence (mostly in the various Laboratories of DSTO) advertised steadily throughout the year for a range of positions ranging from "graduates", for unspecified tasks, to a gaggle of "Heads of Group" in the $70k-80k salary bracket. There were many openings for image processing and systems analysis, which is good news for graduates with a background in theory. All positions with DSTO were potentially permanent. "Sources" in DSTO report that they are having "considerable difficulty" finding suitable appointees.

CSIRO reduced its recruiting somewhat with 40 positions on offer, 50% of them permanent, with about 25% for modelling or numerical analysis. The positions appear to be well spread over the physically oriented Divisions and, although it could hardly be regarded as a common theme, there seemed to be a solid demand for people to study flow: of air, water and even solids. While Telecommunications and Industrial Physics is a fairly obvious employer, with a range of projects from visco-elasticity to medical imaging, others such as Entomology are not obvious employers of physicists. There is a message here for job seekers: not to look only for the obvious.

Other Commonwealth Government were up, with the Meteorological Bureau and Ansto still the principal advertisers. Nine "executive" and other posts were advertised in the new Australian Greenhouse Office.

State and Territory Government organisations do not advertise much in the national press and offered only eight places in 1999, all but one for air quality monitoring and control. Most Hospital and Medical posts are in state hospitals with an occasional post in private practice. The demand has been traditionally small but steady and so it was last year. Nine positions were on offer, five specifically for Medical Physicists. With the metamorphosis of CAEs into universities, there are now degrees in medical imaging, and graduates from these programmes are often specified in advertisements. While such degrees have some component of physics, they would not qualify for Graduate Membership of the AIP. Such posts are not included in the present survey.

At the Universities, the table distinguishes between academic appointments that involve some element of Teaching and those that are mostly for Research. The former is further subdivided into permanent and limited-term appointments. Almost all posts in these three groups call for a PhD.

A National Innovation Summit, jointly sponsored by the Commonwealth Department of Industry, Science and Resources and The Business Council of Australia was held in Melbourne in February 2000. The Summit received cursory treatment in the media. The Australian ran rather an aggregate of less than a full page of text among upwards of thirty pages on Business over the same period. Indeed it seemed as if the reporters who covered the Summit did not believe it was to be taken seriously and largely wrote in cliches. This is unfortunate because a considerable amount of time and thought went into preparing for it. Some 500 quite senior representatives of business, research, education and government discussed the relationship between research and its development. A large fraction of the Vice Chancellors was present and the AIP was represented by our President, John Pilbrow. A fairly strong message went out to both Government and Business about the need for entrepreneurs and how to encourage them. It does appear that no-one, including the government, made any specific commitment. However a High Level Implementation Group was set up to report by the end of August 2000. It is easy to be cynical, or at least skeptical, about the eventual outcome. However, there is no doubt that if even a fraction of the proposals are implemented, it will be good for the employment of physicists.

A report on the Summit prepared by the participants is to be found at and a Science Journalist's view appears in Pockley (2000). With the blessing of the Institute, the author made a submission to the Summit on Physics Employment as an Indicator of National Innovative Health. It drew attention to the situation in University Teaching and in Industry, in both of which employment is at rock bottom levels.

I subsequently wrote to The Australian and the Federal Minister of Education in much the same terms, an edited version of which follows:

"At a time when there appears to be much euphoria over the best overall unemployment figures for years, spare a thought for a section of the work force for which the employment prospects are the worst for at least a quarter of a century.

I refer to permanent employment prospects for scientists as lecturers of all levels in the University system. While this is almost certainly true for all science, I comment specifically on the statistical data for physicists. These data are in the form of records of job advertisements for physicists and cover the past 22 years.

Over the past decade, particularly under persistent financial pressures, physics departments in Australian Universities have been allowed to run down. Already half a score have lost their individual identity and some have disappeared entirely. If I read the publications of the University of South Australia correctly, it is no longer possible to take a degree in physics there in 2000.

Twenty five years ago, Universities and Colleges of Higher Education were together recruiting physics lecturers (i.e. with a specifically teaching component) at a steady rate of about fifty per year, most of them being for permanent appointments. At the time of the merger of the Universities and CAEs in 1989, permanent positions in the now "combined" universities began to decline and the decreasing trend has been inexorable since. In the year before the merger, some 84 tenurable physics teaching positions of various types were advertised; in 1998 the number was seven and in 1999 it was fifteen. In the same period, temporary teaching positions at first increased and then decreased, so that 62 temporary positions in 1989 became three in 1998 and were twelve in 1999. Since 1995 there has been only one tenurable Chair advertised in a Physics department anywhere in Australia. The job prospects for physics technical staff have fallen in almost the same proportion.

The implications for leadership and the consequent quality of training for graduates in the Physical Sciences and the professional faculties which they serve are very serious. They are no less serious for Australia's technological advancement. There is absolutely no possibility that new technologies based on the physical sciences will cease. Who, then, is going to train the skilled people needed to profit from them or, heaven save us, actually contribute to innovative R&D? "

In brief, there are two main reasons for the decline in numbers of university staff:

1) Physics has lost much of its "service" function as the professional faculties decide that current financial pressures dictate that "physics" should be taught "in house" with accrual of the corresponding EFTSUs. Both the professional faculties and Physics departments suffer. This will continue just so long as university administrations reward EFTSU raiding.

2) A more profound problem lies in a disinclination for students to study Physics, either for its own sake or because they believe it will not provide a secure economic future for them. This is a world wide problem but it is more extreme in Australia than in almost all other OECD countries.

The universities employ a large number of temporary Research positions. This number has been close to 25% of all jobs advertised for the past decade although it has had a couple of blips. This is the largest employment group for physicists. It is encouraging to see a steady number of "Re-entry Fellowships" on offer. Nevertheless, the physicists in this pool are again released into the workforce at the rate of about forty per year and must find new jobs.

The ARC Research Fellowships (which are not advertised) comprised 55 Post Doctoral Fellowships in all disciplines, 30 ARC/QEII Fellowships in all disciplines and 15 ARC Senior Research Fellowships. Over the years about fifteen of the new appointments have been in physics; we have assumed that ten were awarded in 1999 and they have been added into the totals.

Universities appoint a small number of Technical staff each year to managerial and support positions, only six in 1999; only one was a continuing appointment.

Industry and Commerce
In this area, a disturbing observation had begun to emerge in mid 1996. Employment opportunities for physicists fell dramatically; this continued through 1997 and 1998 (and is marginally better in 1999).

The effect was clearly seen in numbers of positions advertised. For the financial year (to which it seems to be linked) only 22 positions were advertised in 1996-97. The period 1997-98 was not much better with 29; in 1998-99 it was 42. This is to be compared with an average of 56.8 +_ 7.9 for the preceding five financial years, which included the recession years.

By any statistical test, the recent figures show a major fall in advertised positions and, as a barometer of the state of industrial R & D, these data are disquieting.

It is likely that the drop in advertising is due to the Government's decision to change the tax break on R & D from 150% to 125%, coinciding as it did with the Government's Budget announcement. However, it is too harsh a judgment to blame it on Governments alone. On the broad scale it is arguable that it is an indictment of the attitude of Australian industry and investors. It has been argued, as the Government did, that a significant fraction of the tax break was going to fund "constructive accounting".

I have sometimes, although rather rarely, been accused of being politically one-eyed. I have had ample opportunity to comment on the policies of Australian Governments of both persuasions over the past two decades. The author remains skeptical that Industry will become much involved in innovation unless pushed fairly hard by the Government.

Commonwealth governments of differing flavours are not unaware of the need to stimulate, if not drive, industrial R & D. Among the strategies proposed and implemented have been the Teaching Company Scheme, which evolved into the Cooperative Research Centres. These were retained by the present government after review. They were set up to encourage the participation of industry, government and university groups in applications-oriented scientific and engineering research and education. They appear to have been generally successful, and a number of them have employed physicists, about one hundred overall but the annual intake is small.

The Present Government's "Plan for Australian Industry" in their Investing for Growth [7], document can be commended. That paper confirms that Business spending on R & D does Australia little credit and seeks to increase it by a number of new initiatives. Among these, the competitive and assessed R & D Start Programme provides incentives and graded tax breaks for targeted programmes, depending on the particular programme concerned. Press reports and ministerial statements suggest that it has not borne sufficient fruit and not all of the allocated funds were spent in the last two financial years.

My criticism of this programme is that it is appropriate for "development" but not necessarily for "research" because of the need to reveal what may be commercially sensitive material in the process of applying for funds. We have seen evidence for this in the optics industry. Further, whatever may have been the objective of the present government in reducing the tax rebate from 150% to 125% it has had the effect of reducing the actual number of physicists in industry and that concerns us, because it has not been replaced by an adequate substitute. It was apparently made clear at the Innovation Summit that the government was not about to change its mind on this particular issue.

The Innovation Summit was initiated by the government to mark a way forward and perhaps a blueprint for the development of R & D. Speaking charitably, it may be too early to say, but as already indicated, it does not seem to have set Oz on fire.

Of the positions in Industry, most were for instrumentation for medicine or mining, with a few positions in photonics.

Other Areas
The entry for physics school Teaching has been rising in recent years and rose again in 1999, which is welcome. This covers only the independent schools but some State and Territory school systems are now advertising general and specific appointments.

Geophysics is included in the survey, notwithstanding that it is usually classed with the Earth Sciences in Australia. These positions are listed separately and are not included in the formal count unless "physics" was specifically listed as a qualification. Geophysics numbers dropped abruptly in 1999 and, at 20 for the year, are lower than at any time in the present surveys. Colleagues in the earth science community confirm that both mineral and petroleum exploration are not burgeoning. The low world price of gold has deterred the search for this mineral in Australia. Overseas positions are, of course, only those advertised in Australia; they were steady at about twenty. They were all in New Zealand or our other immediate Pacific neighbours. The academic scene in New Zealand seems to be low, like ours, with but a single position on offer.

Across the board, a PhD was a stated or preferred requirement for more than half the positions advertised. About half of these were permanent. Sometimes DSTO included the PhD requirement and sometime did not, for very similar positions.

Sources of further Information
A record was kept of the salary range for each position, in those cases where it was given. This is shown in table 2. There was a slight upward trend over the year; the numbers in the table are for the second half-year. Universities negotiate their own salary scales but they do not differ very much.

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, whether 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, although the privatisation of employment has made it almost impossible to find out where to send this information. Copies are available to interested persons from the author.

Monthly summaries are available on the internet at where other web-site addresses can be also be found. The Australian Institute of Physics maintains an Employment Advertisement service. A list of advertisements cut from The Australian and many of the metropolitan dailies is issued at approximately fortnightly intervals. Members of the A.I.P. can arrange to receive it, free of charge, by writing to: AIP Employment Advertisements 1/21 Vale Street North Melbourne Vic 3051 Institutions and non-members of the A.I.P. can receive it for a nominal charge.

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 probably be misinterpreted.

Gillian Robertson provided valuable help. Derek Leinweber created and maintains the Web site.

ANZ Bank Employment Advertisement Series (monthly, on the internet))
Investing for growth (1997) Commonwealth of Australia
Pockley, P. (2000) Australasian Science 21/2, 18
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. (1999) The Physicist 36, 67-71.
Skilled Vacancy Survey. Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs. (monthly)

Figure 1
The heavy solid line shows annual physics employment advertisements (right hand scale). The thin solid line shows seasonally corrected average weekly employment advertisements for all classes of employment (left hand scale). The 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
All jobs advertised in The Australian for which a degree or diploma in Physics or Applied Physics provides a suitable starting point.
All subdivision figures are percentages.

1995 1996 1997 1998 1999
TOTAL positions

510 420 370 500+ 470
Government Commonwealth CSIRO Permanent 5.1 2.4 3.8 4.6 4.3
Temporary 2.2 2.2 5.0 8.3 4.3
Not CSIRO or defence Permanent 5.3 3.7 4.6 8.0 13.6
Temporary 2.7 3.2 8.6 3.0 2.8
11.8 8.4 15.0 17.0 14.5

3.7 1.7 3.0 4.6 1.7

4.3 3.4 1.6 3.4 1.9
Teaching Permanent 3.7 2.2 0.8 2.4 3.2
Temporary 3.5 3.9 4.0 2.0 2.6
27.5 34.1 26.1 24.8 27.0
Technical and Other
3.7 3.7 2.7 2.2 1.3
Cooperative Research
Centres (CRC)

6.5 6.8 4.0 2.0 3.2
Private Industry
and Commerce
non sales

12.4 10.0 5.1 7.2 6.3
Management and sales

1.0 1.0 2.2 1.8 2.2
School teaching,
mostly independent
(physics stipulated)

3.3 6.6 5.4 5.0 7.3
Overseas, various

4.3 6.7 7.5 3.8 3.9

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

54 66 90 81 20

Table 2
Salary ranges for advertised positions as of late 1999.
Most of the positions advertised had salaries lying in the range quoted, occasionally smaller or larger.

Teacher $34k-50k (small sample)
Professional Officer, Technical Officer,
Research Officer, Research Assistant
Analyst $45k-75k
PDF $43k-47k
ARC PDF $39k-42k
ARC Research Fellow/QEII Fellow $44k-47k-53k
Research Fellow/Research Associate $43k-47k
Senior Research Fellow $64k-83k
Tutor/Associate Lecturer $34k-46k
Lecturer $48k-58k
Senior Lecturer $57k-70k
Reader, Associate Professor $70k-80k
Professor ca$90k
Senior/Research Scientist DSTO $45k-61k-80k
Experimental Scientist CSIRO $33k-58k
Senior/Research Scientist CSIRO $44k-58k-80k
Other Commonwealth similar
Engineer/Scientist $44k-60k
Modeller $36k-$47k
Science-based Managers $56k-73k

In round figures, first degree graduates start at about $30k,
first post-doctoral appointments at about $44k,
professionals with some experience at about $50k.

AIPJOB99 20/02/00

Page Created: 25th October 2000, most recent update 27th October 2000
by Sundance Bilson-Thompson.

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