Preparing Physics Undergrads For The Jobs Of The Future

Few undergrads will enter careers in academia, but their training is geared to it.
Physics class
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Tam Tam 333 via flickr |

Erin Ross, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- By most accounts, science education is flourishing. In the United States, more students are pursuing degrees in science than ever before. But as the number of these college students increases, professors are facing a new challenge: how to prepare their students for jobs that frequently take them away from university halls.

Physicists, in particular, are feeling the pressures of a changing academic environment. According to Theodore Hodapp, the director of education and diversity for the American Physical Society in College Park, Maryland, physics departments traditionally were very small, graduating only a few students a year. Now, 7,500 students graduate with a bachelor's in physics each year.

That's "a good thing," said Hodapp. "But tenured staff positions haven’t increased at the same rate."

As graduate school becomes increasingly competitive, many of those undergraduates are looking to careers outside of academia. At a meeting of the American Physical Society in April in Salt Lake City, scientists and educators gathered to present the preliminary findings of the Joint Task Force on Undergraduate Physics Programs, which was started by the American Association of Physics Teachers and the American Physical Society to address this problem. According to the report, 40 percent of physics students enter the workforce immediately after graduation, while only 5 percent of them go on to receive professorships.

At the conference, Hodapp asked the attendees what types of jobs their recent graduates were getting. A few people said that some of their students had entered graduate school, in physics or other fields. But others said their students had chosen alternate paths, becoming engineers, technicians, teachers and programmers.

"But the question is," Hodapp told Inside Science, "are we preparing them for these jobs?"

"In some ways we're preparing them very well," said Paula Heron of the University of Washington, and a member of the task force. As part of the report, the task force surveyed employers to find what they liked about the physics majors they’d hired.

The response: "physics majors want to know how something works, and their broad theoretical training is helpful on the job," Heron said.

But there were areas for improvement. Many of the skills physics majors learned in school were geared towards careers in academia. "No one is using Lagrangian mechanics in the work force," she said, "and there's a tacit assumption that graduates will pick up any non-academic career skills they need on the job."

Instead, suggested Heron, programs could focus more on integrating professional skills like entrepreneurship and finance classes. More experience in coding and completing engineering work could also help students succeed, she said. And giving undergrads more research experience could help prepare them for academia and for industry – in the survey, managers said students who did research were more prepared to work on a team.

Still, it makes sense that professors would train their students to enter academia, said Hodapp. After all, it's the path they took.

But sometimes that mentality can lead to a pro-academic bias. Heron recounted stories of gifted students who want to work in industry, but are dissuaded from doing so by well-meaning professors.

One way to combat such bias, suggests Hodapp, is to take advantage of a university's alumni network and bring in guest lecturers who have chosen alternative careers. Hodapp also suggested encouraging professors to take their sabbaticals in industry or education to help them understand the types of jobs their students will likely choose.

Many universities are already implementing ways to better prepare graduates for the workforce. At the University of Maine in Orono, physics students can choose from two different tracks: one in traditional physics and one in engineering physics. Students attend career preparation seminars and are encouraged to pursue non-academic jobs.

The University of Maine was the first school to implement such a program several decades ago, said Michael Wittman, the chair of the department. But other schools are beginning to follow suit.

Ultimately, said Hodapp, this isn't just a challenge that physics departments have to face: it's a challenge facing all of science education. Although enrollment in science programs has increased dramatically, positions in academia haven't increased at the same rates – and many of the new positions are for adjunct professorships. These jobs often offer less pay and fewer benefits than tenure-track positions, even though the teaching loads can be similar.

In 2009, the American Association for the Advancement of Science released a report on undergraduate biology education. It led to sweeping recommendations for changes in biology curriculum. Many of its findings were later echoed in the American Physical Society report. Now, the hope is that this report will lead to a similar sea change.

"There are more jobs for scientists than ever," said Hodapp. "We need to be sure we prepare our students for them."

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Erin E.A. Ross is a science writer based in Santa Cruz, California.