There’s no place like home Many physics graduates look for jobs in the towns or cities they already live in, rather than moving elsewhere. Andrew Hirst and Veronica Benson explore the implications of this “emotional geography” and discuss how universities can give physicists the skills local employers need l i 9
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It’s usual to think of physicists as globetrotting rebels who uproot their lives to go wherever the opportunities lie. Moving from c i t y t o c i t y an d c o un t r y t o c o un t r y, t h e y c o o l l y switch locations, following their physics dreams – be it CERN in Geneva, oil rigs in the Nor th Sea or star t -ups in Silicon Valley.
The reality, though, is rather different. Many young people – physics graduates included – prefer to stay where they grew up or studied. They have an emotional attachment to the town, city or region they’re already living in, and are reluctant or unable to move. While it’s not exactly clear why, we attribute this to a sense of geographic belonging, which is related to place, family, social and community relations. In some cases, money is probably a key factor too.
The importance that students give to this “emotional geography” also affects the kinds of jobs they can get after graduation. In the UK particularly, the graduate labour market is geographically unbalanced, with most graduate jobs concentrated in London and south-east England and in the larger cities of Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. So if you’re a physics graduate from a part of the country with few physics-based employers, it’ll be harder to find a job using your physics deg r e e i f you c an’ t – o r don’ t wan t t o – move.
According to the 2015/16 Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) report, some 69% of UK graduates took their first job in the region of their home domicile. Further analysis using data from the survey shows that 45% of graduates did not move regions at all – they both studied and sought wo r k i n t h e i r h ome d om i c i l e d r e g i o n . T h i s i nability or unwillingness of graduates to move means that university physics departments need to do more to recognize the importance of “place-based” decision-making when it comes to graduate career choices. Departments also need to adapt their physics degrees so that students can more easily find graduate jobs in the local area – and have the skills that local employers need.
Local skills for local people The impact of emotional geography on physics graduate outcomes was a key theme of a meeting in London hosted by the Institute of Physics (IOP) in July. The meeting was organized by the South East Physics Network (SEPnet), which links nine physics departments in south-east England, and by the White Rose Industrial Physics Academy (WRIPA) – a collaboration between the universities of York, Sheffield, Hull, Nottingham and Leeds. Emotional geography, it turns out, is a particular headache for physics departments in regions with a low Gross Value Added (GVA) – one way of measuring economic output that can be used as an indicator of regional productivity.
This problem is borne out in an analysis carried out by Alastair Buckley, a physicist at the University of Sheffield, who examined the mobility of students who studied physics at the university between 2011 and 2017. He found that a high proportion (about 50%) of Sheffield physics students’ domiciled (permanent) address when they applied for the course was within 100 km of the university. What’s more, after graduation 65% of Sheffield physics students chose to return to their domiciled address (most likely the parental home) to work. Buckley and colleagues consider these physicists to be “work immobile”, meaning that remaining in a desired location may b e mo r e i mpo r t an t t o t h em t han t h e t y p e of job they do.
Buckley’s analysis shows, however, that physics graduates at Sheffield who are “work mobile” – i.e. prepared to move after graduation – are more likely to get better, graduate-level work. That’s because other parts of the country with higher productivity and growth have a greater number of graduate-level jobs that make the most of a physicist’s specific skills and knowledge. Indeed, when the five WRIPA departments analysed the DLHE data, they found that physics graduates who stay in the Yorkshire, Humberside and East Midlands region (where those departments are based) have significantly lower prospects than those
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