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Professional physicists: intellectual all-rounders

by Bärbel Broer

They can explain rainbows, understand the technology of the iPhone and know a lot about "black holes": physicists are absolute all-rounders. Approximately 93,000 physicists work in Germany. Physics students have excellent prospects on the labour market: graduates in this field are employable across disciplines in a wide range of occupations. After graduating, there are two main career paths: one group goes into industry, the other stays in academia at universities or research institutions.

Professional physicists: intellectual all-rounders© alphaspirit - fotolia.comBecause physicists are suited to such a wide range of occupations, academia is having to compete with industry
Dr. Achim Hofmann chose industry. "Simply generating and publishing knowledge - that alone was not enough for me." Today, he is head of development at Hanau-based company Heraeus Quarzglas GmbH, and is happy with his choice: "I want to hold a product in my hand at the end of the day that I can see and feel." He offers an example from his everyday work: at Heraeus he is responsible for developing quartz glass, special glass that is needed for example in fibre-optic communications. Over 20% of the glass used for these telephone lines worldwide is manufactured by his employer. "If, for example, I call the USA, my phone call is carried by approximately 10 different fibre-optic lines", explains the industrial physicist. "That means there's a high probability that I am also speaking via our glass. That's a great motivation, not just for me, but for all our employees", the board member responsible for industry, economics and careers at the German physical society Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft (DPG) explains enthusiastically.

Dr. René Matzdorf on the other hand is driven by an entirely different motivation. "I'm particularly interested in fundamental research and in gaining knowledge", says the professor, who is responsible for education and junior researchers at DPG. "I also enormously enjoy explaining physics, teaching students and working with them", says the holder of the chair for experimental physics at the University of Kassel.

"Physics does not have its own industry"

On average, around 3,000 physicists leave university each year - approximately half of them with a doctorate. Only a small proportion will later be permanently employed at a university. Most physicists begin their non-university careers in research and development departments, but many later switch to other functions within the company. "That means that only approximately 50% of physicists work in research and development, and then perhaps no longer apply for jobs as physicists", says Hofmann, who examined the labour market for physicists in 2012 and published the results in the DPG's members' journal Physik Journal. "Physics does not have its own industry", explains Matzdorf, "but there are many jobs that can only be done by physicists."

Meanwhile, more and more young people appear to be interested in physics. "In the winter semester 2012/2013 we had more new students than ever before", says Matzdorf happily. For the first time ever, over 10,000 students had enrolled in physics degree courses. He admits that approximately 20% of them are being held on a waiting list. But he doesn't think that's much of an issue: "Most students on waiting lists are waiting to be accepted to study medicine or another subject. All of those benefit from a basic knowledge of physics."

Professional physicists: intellectual all-rounders Dr. Achim Hofmann

Physics degree courses: "German universities are top of the pile"

Only a very small number of universities have a Numerus Clausus (NC) restricting the number of physics students admitted. Matzdorf: "Nor do we need an NC. Physics is not a subject that people study on a whim." A physics degree is only attainable if you have a certain amount of talent for it, plus mathematical skills, says the university professor. Ambition and tenacity are also qualities that you need.

There is little precise data on what number of physicists work in specific sectors after graduating. Oliver Koppel, Senior Economist for Human Capital and Innovation at the Cologne Institute for Economic Research, and Dr. Lutz Schröter, Diplom physicist at Volkswagen AG and DPG member on the industry and economy committee, are also unhappy about this. They published a survey in Physik Journal on labour market development and the occupational fields of physicists in the year 2010, and say the data for physicists is frequently imprecise. "The reason is mainly that companies' human resources departments specifically seek to employ physicists, but then frequently maintain no statistics on which of their employees are physicists", say Koppel and Schröter. An example: a person who has studied physics but later works as a computer scientist will usually be listed by the human resources department as a computer scientist and not as a physicist. The Federal Employment Agency follows a similar policy: when it records unemployment figures, it categorises people by their professional qualification - i.e. physicist -, but when publishing labour market statistics, it uses job titles, such as manager, project manager, or patent lawyer. That physicists are able to work in such a wide range of professions is due mainly to the way the degree course is designed. "German universities are top of the pile", states Hofmann from the point of view of the industry. "They offer a wide range of diverse disciplines." Physicists trained in Germany are therefore correspondingly in demand on the labour market. "We don't currently need graduates from the USA or other countries", says Hofmann, adding that only if the labour market were to shrink even further would one have to consider recruiting graduates from other countries.

Professional physicists: intellectual all-rounders Prof. Dr. René Matzdorf

Physicists are in demand: does this put industry in competition with universities?

A certain level of competition appears to be arising between the two main areas of employment for physicists, industry on the one hand and academia on the other: "No physicist goes into academia for the money", says Hofmann firmly. "It has to be a passion." University chair holder Matzdorf notes: "There are still many physicists who are interested in working at universities", but he also warns: "If conditions at universities continue to deteriorate, for example due to fixed-term contracts or the W salary bracket, I understand why some are more likely to go into industry." The 48-year-old himself was still lucky enough to enjoy a relatively straightforward academic career: after completing his doctorate and habilitation he spent two years in the USA, and was appointed to a C3 professorship while still there. In Germany he then moved once more, to a C4 professorship at the University of Kassel. But nowadays, only a small number of academics share his experience. The junior professorship model in particular puts a very high strain on young academics, says Matzdorf and explains: "They have to provide a large amount of teaching, are expected to attract third-party funding and complete projects within three years where possible." In addition, they are employed on fixed-term contracts and remunerated at the level of a primary school teacher. "Extremely high expectations at an extremely low salary", says Matzdorf, and demands: "There is an urgent need for improvement. Otherwise, too many scientists might choose a career in industry instead."

About the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft

It's the world's largest and oldest scientific society for physics: the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft e.V. (DPG) counts over 62,000 members. Founded in 1845, the DPG sees itself as a forum and ambassador for physics. Its members include professors, students, teachers and industry employees, but also patent lawyers and science journalists.
The DPG is funded mainly through membership fees and is headquartered at the Physikzentrum Bad Honnef near Bonn. Nine Nobel Prize laureates are currently among its members. The society has always been home to illustrious names: Albert Einstein, Hermann von Helmholtz and Max Planck were previous presidents of the DPG.

The fascination of physics

As varied as the career paths of physicists may be, what they have in common is their fascination with the subject. "Most physicists are excited by wanting to understand the world", explains Matzdorf. "That can mean the universe and the stars or everyday objects such as a smartphone." The DPG tries to convey this passion for discovering the world to schoolchildren. Many of its members work as STEM ambassadors. Their mission: to get children and teenagers interested in mathematics, computer science, the natural sciences and technology. Since 2001 the society has for example been organising the annual "Highlights of Physics" - a science festival for anyone who is curious, featuring celebrities such as TV presenter Ranga Yogeshwar or the former presenter of popular children's programme "Löwenzahn", Peter Lustig. This year, the "Highlights" will be coming to Wuppertal. The aim is to make physics comprehensible: "We live in a world that is far too abstract", says Hofmann, "many children spend too much time staring at a screen, and lose touch with everyday life." He offers an example from the world of tennis to illustrate his point: the spin, flight and the friction of the ball against the court - "It's all pure physics", he explains, and adds: "But if you only ever play tennis on your Wii, that's all gone."

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academics :: March 2013