One in five university physicists earns more than £50,000 a year, an official report on university staffing trends reveals.
The study, which looked at the numbers and pay of academics in England over the past eight years, shows that lecturers in physics, chemistry and mathematics get the top pay, but their numbers are falling.
In contrast, academics in law departments are among the worst paid in the sector, as are staff in education and the creative arts, the Higher Education Funding Council for England report says. These low-pay disciplines have seen increases of more than 20 per cent in staff numbers.
The median salary for physics academics on permanent contracts was £41,330 in 2003-04, nearly £6,000 higher than the median for the sector as a whole. Yet the number of jobs in physics departments has plummeted by 10 per cent since 1995.
Chemistry and mathematics departments show a similar trend, with median salaries of £40,010 and £39,350 respectively. Staff numbers have also fallen by 10 per cent over ten years.
Peter Main, director of education at the Institute of Physics, said:
"Physicists work extremely hard. One of my most difficult tasks as head of department at Nottingham University was persuading colleagues to have a holiday."
The effect of this high work ethic, he said, is high standards in research demonstrated by top ratings in the research assessment exercise. "Physics is very top-heavy in terms of 5* rated departments. Many of the departments with lower grades have closed. This means there is a high concentration of high-quality research people, many of them professors."
Tracy Allan, a policy officer at Hefce, said high salaries may be necessary to lure staff away from well-paid jobs outside academia.
"In shortage areas (such as physics), universities sometimes need to pay a market supplement to fill jobs. We are running a scheme of golden hellos of £9,000 over three years in some subjects, which could push up the base salary. Universities also have their own schemes."
The report says the median salary in law departments for 2003-04 was £35,370, the same as in education and the creative arts. Staff numbers in these three areas rose by 23 per cent, 22 per cent and 42 per cent respectively between 1995-96 and 2003-04.
Louise Ackers, professor of European law at Leeds University, who has carried out research on academic employment, said: "One factor behind low pay may be the fact that law departments tend to be highly feminised. Jobs at legal firms are often very high pressure and come with long working hours, which don't suit people like me with four children."
She added: "Our research shows that that pressure for pay isn't so high in feminised sectors. Women tend to be more worried about contractual security than pay."
The median salary of permanent academic staff in the UK was £35,370 in 2003-04. Some 12 per cent of UK academics earned more than £50,000 a year, the report says.
Staff Employed at Hefce Funded HEIs: Trends Profiles and Projections is available at www.hefce.ac.uk
FACULTY FIGURES SALARIES OF PERMANENT ACADEMIC STAFF, 2003-04 Subject
% of staff earning £50,000+ Physics
20 Mathematical sciences
18 Biological sciences
18 Other physical sciences
16 Engineering/technology/ building/architecture
14 Social/political/ economic studies
agriculture and related
13 Subjects allied to medicine
11 Business/administrative studies
4 Creative arts/design
3 Unknown and combined subjects
14 All subjects
12 Source: Hefce