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Understanding the work mobility of physics graduates

November 2019

Andrew Hirst from the University of York explores ways to improve the links between academic physics departments and industry in order to encourage graduates into technical employment

While it is well recognised - for example by the 2016 Wakeham review - that physicists are pivotal for driving growth in strategically important Yorkshire, Humberside and East Midlands industries, there are significant challenges in connecting students to regional opportunities.1

White Rose Industrial Physics Academy

Within the Yorkshire, Humberside and East Midlands (YH+EM) economic region sits the White Rose Industrial Physics Academy (WRIPA). WRIPA is a five-year-old collaboration between companies and physics students from the universities of York, Sheffield, Hull, Nottingham and Leeds.

Many of our most promising physics graduates turn away from industry because they don't know what it has to offer. WRIPA's goal is to improve the link between academic physics departments and industry, and to prepare undergraduate students for a technical career.

WRIPA addresses this challenge by providing physics students with the opportunity to gain skills, knowledge, work experience and connections that better prepares them for graduate-level technical employment. This is delivered through three core themes

  • careers support
  • curriculum work-based learning
  • employer engagement.

In all cases, the learning is authentic - it occurs in real professional contexts, involving professional activities and interactions with graduate physicists.

A majority of our students are interested to take up employment in the region but do not know of the employment opportunities here

Physics graduate outcomes

Analysing DLHE survey data across the WRIPA physics departments over the last six years strongly suggests the number of physicists in graduate-level technical work has increased.

However, taking a closer look at the DLHE data also suggests that graduate-level employment is higher outside the Yorkshire, Humberside and East Midlands region than within. In other words, physics graduates that are work mobile get better jobs.

At the same time, surveying our undergraduate physicists we know that a majority of our students are interested to take up employment in the YH+EM region but do not know of the employment opportunities here.

These findings were counter-intuitive to our initial approaches to support our students, which was predicated on the hypothesis that all students are work mobile and would seek post-study, graduate-level work irrespective of geographic location.

However, the work mobility of physics graduates is complex and can be summarised with the following observations:

  • The proportion of physics students that attain a graduate-level job in the YH+EM region is significantly lower than those choosing to leave (~55% vs ~80%).
  • High GVA regions (i.e. London/South East) are large attractors for our students - but not for a significant fraction.
  • A high proportion of physics graduates stay in the region (e.g. for Sheffield ~50%).
  • A high proportion also originate from the region (e.g. for Sheffield ~50% within 100 km).
  • 90% of high value and technical employment in the region is through SMEs [Humber LEP Strategic Economic Plan 2014-2020].

Student awareness, aspiration and mindset

Although WRIPA has increased the number of students that get graduate-level jobs a key challenge remains to support non-work mobile physics graduate to transit to highly skilled employment in the YH+EM region. This challenge is complicated given common characteristic exhibited by students across WRIPA physics departments:

  • low engagement with careers services
  • physics students tend not to look beyond academia when considering career options
  • the perception of no clearly identifiable graduate physics career pathways
  • fear of failure in graduate-level recruitment processes.

What next?

The WRIPA has recently been awarded funding from the Office for Students' Challenge Competition to boost links between physics departments and regional employers, develop inclusive modes of work-based learning and to support students to be more work mobile.

  • Build many more regional industrial relationships.
  • Work placements (long & short) and industrial projects.
  • Involve industry in curriculum development.
  • Travel and subsistence fund to help students gain regional work experience.
  • Support students to cope better with 'life transitions' (e.g. applying for a placement/graduate job, moving location).

This workshop was delivered at the AGCAS Annual Conference 2019, which took place in Manchester during the first week of September. You can view and download content from other workshops delivered at the conference.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of HECSU/Prospects.


  1. Wakeham Review of STEM Degree Provision and Graduation Employability, GOV.UK, 2016.

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