Highly Qualified Personnel Study

Bev Robertson, Department of Physics, University of Regina

Michael Steinitz, Department of Physics, St. Francis Xavier University

The Highly Qualified Personnel study attempts to determine: (i) background information on the nature of the Highly Qualified Personnel who have graduated in physics from Canadian universities over the last twelve years; (ii) the nature of the employment found by those individuals; and (iii) the nature of any relationships between that employment and their university experience.

Physics graduates who had received a B.Sc. from a Canadian university through the years 1985 to 1996 inclusive were asked to participate in this study. Respondents were then divided into those for whom the latest degree was the B.Sc., the M.Sc., and the Ph.D. Individuals who had been awarded a B.Sc. within the designated 12-year period, but who had received an M.Sc. or Ph.D. in the spring of 1997 were also included. The response rates have been estimated to be 12% for the B.Sc., 18% for the M.Sc. and 40% for the Ph.D.

Of the 945 graduates who provided valid responses, 166 (18%) were female. For comparison, of those who graduated with a physics or astronomy B.Sc. in 1996 from universities in the U.S. 18% were also female. The distribution of graduates who are female in this study by degree is 18%, 20% and 15% for the B. Sc., M.Sc. and Ph.D. respectively. A follow-up study of 1995 graduates from U.S. universities showed that the fractions of B.Sc., M.Sc., and Ph.D. graduates who w ere women were 17%, 17% and 12%. These numbers probably reflect the tendency of women to be less likely to continue their physics education into graduate school than are men (the so-called leaky pipeline effect). It may also reflect the slow but continued growth over time of the fraction of physics students who are women, as shown by AIP studies. For instance, the number of physics graduate students who are women has increased in the U.S. from 6% in 1975 to 16% in 1995. For those with a graduate degree, 6.8% and might be best associated with GSC 17 (Space and Atmospheric Physics). Biophysics and medical physics make up 1.4 and 4.9% of the sample respectively. Some of these individuals may be associated with research funds from other granting agencies as well as from NSERC. We will include them here as being associated with GSC 29 (General Physics). The other category of graduate degrees from our study who should be included as part of GSC 29 is obviously ``general physics'', with 18% of the total, giving GSC 29 thirty-one percent of the respondents with graduate degrees. GSC 28 (Condensed Matter Physics) forms the largest group with 36% and GSC 19 (Sub-atomic Physics) accou nts for 12%. Twenty-one percent of those with graduate degrees listed the area of their degree as ``other''.

In order to compare our unemployment numbers with others based on the usual meaning of ``percent unemployed'', we should remove those still in the educational stream from the sample population. They total 28%, leaving a real unemployment rate for Canadian physicists who responded to this survey of 2.5%. The 1994 NSERC survey of all Postgraduate Scholarship and 1967 Science and Engineering Scholarship winners in all disciplines who received their scholarship in 1985 found an unemployment rate for this group between 2.2 and 2.8%. Our results show an unemployment rate for physicists with graduate degrees not measurably different from zero. Further, the unemployed are mostly female, in which case even this extremely low unemployment level may be the simple consequence of the biological imperatives of child rearing.

Of those employed (excluding students, postdoctorals), 45% worked in an educational institution, 32% in industry and 14% in government, leaving 9% giving responses as ``other''. When broken down according to degree, the major differences in employment locations between degree levels is that 41% of those with the B.Sc. as their last degree work in industry while only 26 of M.Sc. recipients and 23% of Ph.D. recipients work in industry, and that 37% of B.Sc.'s work in education, while 54% of M.Sc.'s and 53% of Ph.D.'s work in education.

Table 1 shows the salary averaged over the M.Sc. and the Ph.D. for individuals associated with the four physics related GSC's. Using the number of responses from each, the correctly weighted average for the combination is $42,500.

Table 1: Average salary according to physics GSC.

Grant Selection Committee

Average Salary

Subatomic Physics (GSC 19)


Condensed Matter Physics (GSC 28)


General Physics (GSC 29)


Space and Atmospheric Physics (GSC 17)


Seventy-eight percent of those physics graduates who responded to the survey reside in Canada. Of those who live and work outside Canada, the United States is the home of 45%, with 9% living in the United Kingdom and the remaining 41% scattered over the globe. As suggested earlier, the real percentage living abroad may be somewhat higher than indicated by this study because of possible sample bias arising from the difficulty in reaching those graduates outside Canada. Fully 70% of those living abroad would prefer to return to Canada if the opportunity presented itself.

Respondents were asked to identify themselves as belonging to one of the following categories (a) they use their physics background directly in their employment, (b) they are not employed in a physics related job, but the skills and/or modes of thought provided by their physics background are useful in their employment , or (c) their physics education is neither directly nor indirectly related to their employment.

The results, according to degree, are given in Table 2.

Table 2: Physics Relevance (%)






(a) Use physics background directly





(b) Use skills and/or modes of thought





(c) Not relevant to employment





Our results confirm that physicists experience very low levels of unemployment. One reason appears to be that they find many paths to a fulfilling career available to them, and not just those paths to the traditional physics related workplace. An AIP study focused on M.Sc. recipients has reached a similar conclusion. Regardless of where physicists find themselves working, they value their educ ational experience highly, as has been shown by both this study and the aforemen tioned AIP study. Several authors have argued convincingly that physicists are able to contribute the skills and/or modes of thought provided by their physics education to areas not normally associated with physics. Our own results show that physicists are also well paid, but we are not able to make comparisons between the salaries of physicists and that of those associated with related scientific disciplines in Canada. However, American data show that physicists in the United States are the best paid among those in the physical and natural sciences in that country which provides objective confirmation of the high value placed on their education by physicists themselves.

However, similar trends have been identified elsewhere, and they have been the subject of much discussion. ``Physicists tend to ....approach an application in terms of a few physical principles that can integrate and synthesize what often appear as unrelated aspects of a problem.'' (John Rigden in the Industrial Physicist.) ``.....physicists have a universal goal of understanding deeply whatever they are studying......Professionals from other disciplines, by contrast, do not share this goal...'' (Joseph Pimbley in Physics Today.) ``Employers are willing to pay premium salaries to gain the problem-solving skills physicists are able to apply to their companies' needs.'' (Brian Schwartz in APS News.) These are clearly subjective opinions but they invite further study into the role of physicists in non-physics related places of employment.

Our findings have implications for the education of physicists. If 40% of physics graduates find themselves using their physics background, but not in a physics related job environment, perhaps more attention should be given in their education to the application of the reasoning processes of physics to non-physics applications. Perhaps physicists could be even better prepared to integrate themselves into those non-science environments to which they bring their unique perspectives.

Although physics undoubtedly attracts individuals who enjoy problem solving and who seek deep understanding not only of nature but of any problem to which they wish to apply themselves, the value of such individuals to society is nurtured by their exposure to the rigour of a traditional post-secondary physics education at both the graduate and undergraduate level. Joseph Pimbley summarizes ``Four decades ago, a liberal arts education was thought to prepare one well for any professional endeavour.....Physics is the liberal arts education for a technological society''. We strongly recommend physics as a choice for post-secondary education to any student.