Advice For Physics Majors (a serious article, for once)

Epilogue: An open letter to Physics Educators

Back in 2007, the American Physical Society decreed that we need to double the number of students getting bachelor’s degrees in physics. According to the announcement, reasons why we need to boost the number of physics graduates include addressing national needs like economic competitiveness, improved technological knowledge, and creating an “informed electorate”. But two other motives were singled out in this article from APS news that quotes several bigwigs from APS and the American Association of Physics Teachers. If you’re a high school or college student considering majoring in physics, you ought to check this out — pay close attention to the recruiting motives of your university’s physics department.

The first reason is a pretty good one — a shortage of K-12 physics teachers. Makes sense — lots of schools (particularly in poor or rural areas) have to get by with physics teachers who majored in biology, chemistry, basket weaving, etc. Getting more qualified instructors out there, resumes in hand, can only help kids get better and richer science educations. But keep in mind that schools might not actually want to hire thousands more physics teachers — after all, plenty of physics teachers don’t have physics degrees and still manage to be excellent instructors (including, I might add, my high school physics teacher, who was far better than almost all of my college professors). I’ve been hearing for years about how K-12 schools are desperate for physics teachers, and yet several of my friends have had trouble finding full-time positions that didn’t require moving across country. Maybe my impression is wrong and the jobs will appear, but even then, what do you do if you don’t want to be a physics teacher?

But this isn’t the motive that really bothered me. More galling was a second reason mentioned by Michael Marder, an APS officer:

Increasing the number of physics majors is important for other reasons as well, says Marder. “More and more, the influence of the discipline depends on how many majors it has. I’m worried that the physics community will lose resources” if it does not attract more majors.

The sad truth is that for political reasons, the health of an academic department at a university depends on how many students are attending classes, paying tuition, and winning awards in the major. When it comes time to dole out the new faculty lounge or install better air conditioning, the business school with 2,000 students will get better priority than the Medieval Languages department with 3 students. While I sympathize, I think it’s irresponsible to boost the clout of your department with more students, without a matching increase in the number of available jobs for them when they graduate. The hard truth may be that the number of people graduating in physics every year (a few thousand) reflects the demand in the job market pretty accurately. I’m not so naive to think that physics departments will stop doing this (or that physics is the only department on campus to do this), but I would urge the departments to invest some serious effort in career placement for all the new recruits.

I wouldn’t be on my soapbox about this if I thought the physics community did an adequate job preparing physics majors for getting jobs. But my one major complaint about an otherwise fantastic education in physics is the negligible effort my professors put into career education and placement. Marder from APS does acknowledge this:

“I think we are most likely to meet this goal if it is part of a general change in attitude in physics departments so that the undergraduate degree is not exclusively aimed at people continuing on to graduate school in physics, but also is attractive for students interested in other careers,” says Marder.

Well said, but I doubt that this “attitude change” will be pursued with as much gumption as the push to recruit more students. The only concrete plan mentioned to accomplish this is a couple articles in APS News:

The language accompanying the statement notes that “physics majors successfully pursue and are qualified for a wide range of careers, and we support a much broader recognition of this by faculty and employers.” APS News is in the midst of a series of articles, under the banner “Profiles in Versatility”, that highlight physics majors (and in some cases PhD’s) who have gone on to a variety of careers. The first three articles appeared in the April, June and July APS News (all available online), and more will appear in future issues.

I can’t say this would fill me with confidence if I were a graduating physics major looking for a job. Throughout my career, it was hard to avoid the impression that my professors knew next to nothing about how to get any job other than a university professorship, and in fact privately held some disdain if you didn’t want to be a professor.

Forgive me for turning critical at the end of this lighthearted essay, but I wish someone had told me these kinds of things when I was still in school. The majority of people who got bachelor’s degrees in physics did not go on to become university physics professors, and a significant fraction won’t even be doing physics in their careers. If you’re one of them, you’ll get very little help from your physics department, and that’s a shame. In my opinion, physics departments should already be putting a lot more effort in career counseling for the students they have now, much less for the thousands of new students that will be appearing in the next few years. Rest assured, once I make my billions from this website, I’ll donate my fortune to start just such a program.


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