The (un)employability of physics graduates in technical careers

The (un)employability of physics graduates in technical careers

By Dr Andrew Hirst, White Rose Industrial Physics Academy (WRIPA) Programme Manager


physics main A recent publication by the South East Physics Network (SEPnet) and the White Rose Industrial Physics Academy (WRIPA) highlights current and potential issues with the employability of physics graduates.

An outcome of a recent SEPnet / WRIPA workshop argues that linear career paths will become less common, with physics departments trying to meet this challenge by developing student employability through more effective, active learning. Highlighting some of the challenges and barriers to producing robust physics graduate outcomes, the report also considers how the wider context of the Industrial Strategy impacts (or should impact) the development of degrees and sets out a vision for future curricula and departments.

The report's key recommendations:

1. A physics degree programme should move from one that emphasises factual knowledge to one of application of knowledge

In 2014 physics-based businesses directly contributed 16.1% of the UK’s economic output, more than £177bn per year.1 Including indirect spending, the total impact of physics-based businesses on the UK economy was more than £411bn in 2014. Despite this, physics-based technical industries are struggling to recruit, and DLHE data shows that only 1/3 of UK physics grads go into technical employment.2

"Either physics graduates are missing crucial skills, or employers perceive that they are. Either way, there appears to be a disconnect between universities and business."

This gap between need and fit can be attributed to the skills that physics graduates possess. A recent Guardian article highlighted how, in similar industries such as tech, graduate employers are actively seeking to diversify their recruitment to include humanities graduates, who they think are more likely to demonstrate much needed skills in problem-solving, creativity and critical thinking.

Either physics graduates are missing crucial skills, or employers perceive that they are. Either way, there appears to be a disconnect between universities and business.

2. Industry partners should provide input into curriculum-based learning experiences

The ‘simple’ solution to this disconnect is to bring the two areas closer together. Universities with a strong track record in business liaison provide better opportunities for students to gain experience in industry and to understand the application of their knowledge.

Placements, year in industry, accreditation, sponsored degrees, degree apprenticeships, guest lectures and co-curricular are all valuable methods of collaborating to produce graduates fit for, and tailored to, the industries in which they are needed. They also add value to the student learning experience; the NCUB Student employability index demonstrated that 92% of students want work experience, internships and placements while at university, and we know that students who undertake work experience see their academic performance rise by approximately 5%.3

3. Universities need to align graduate skills and knowledge with regional innovation and opportunities.

Universities are often naturally embedded in their places, and in many cases work hard to widen and deepen collaborations with one or more cohorts of businesses. Those in their immediate vicinity, from large global corporates to smaller companies in their value chains, offer a unique opportunity to address regional need and skills gaps.

These partnerships are responsible for valuable mutual learning between universities and businesses, with the exchange of knowledge, processes and best practice developing to mutual advantage and measurable economic gain in the region. The alignment of business need and university curricula develops in tandem, with institutions building programmes of learning that in many cases are informed by regional employment opportunities.

One poignant example of regional focus in collaboration in the report is the University of Sheffield, who, like other ‘WRIPA’ physics departments, are working with local employers to set final year undergraduate projects. Based on ‘authentic’ physics problems, these projects offer the student the opportunity to apply their knowledge to solve business problems, and to present their solutions to the businesses themselves.


It is clear from the report that the work of both SEPnet and WRIPA is vital to protecting and enhancing physics graduate employability. All three recommendations: application of knowledge, industry collaboration and regional awareness are key to the success of a degree programme and its graduates. In addition, these three recommendations are also key to the bigger UK innovation picture.

"All three recommendations: application of knowledge, industry collaboration and regional awareness are key to the success of a degree programme and its graduates "

Considering the wider context of the Industrial Strategy, physics graduates are of unique importance given their potential as multi-disciplinary problem solvers and creative thinkers.

As the report succinctly summarises – the key to the future economic success of the UK is to find a formula that increases productivity and grows economies outside London. And this cannot simply be achieved for current physics graduates and current industries, but also with an eye to the future. We need to be preparing courses for graduates who will fill new roles which emerge in 5, 10, or 20 years’ time. This doesn’t necessarily require the technical knowledge to be taught, but to instil values and skills in innovation, flexibility, and curiosity, so that graduates today have the capability to take on the challenges of tomorrow.

Published: 25 October 2018

1. ‘Physics-based businesses are defined as; astronomy and astrophysics; chemical physics; materials physics; nanotechnology; optics and photonics, superconductivity; biophysics; electricity and magnetism; mechanics; nuclear, particle and high-energy physics, semiconductor physics; thermodynamics. Cebr, The role of physics in driving UK economic growth and prosperity, 2016.
2. Cebr, 2016.
3. Driffield, N., Foster, C., Higson, H., Placements and degree performance: Do placements lead to better marks or do better students choose placements, 2011.
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