Conference Report

Executive Summary

Directors of graduate studies and department chairs from 74 physics departments convened at the American Center for Physics from January 31 to February 2, 2013 for the second conference on graduate education in physics. They were joined by representatives from industry, national laboratories, and professional societies (including a European representative), and 11 graduate student leaders. The meeting, which followed up the 2008 graduate education conference, was organized by the American Physical Society (APS) and the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) with partial National Science Foundation (NSF) funding. Attendees shared best practices and discussed how to spur innovation and creativity to improve graduate education in physics and address challenges and opportunities facing the discipline.

One of the major challenges physics faces is a persistent inability to engage students from underrepresented minority groups, who will represent an increasing fraction of the U.S. student population in coming decades. Another challenge facing graduate programs is that approximately 50% of the physics PhDs in the U.S. are awarded to foreign students, and with countries such as China and India strengthening their own science research infrastructure, the competition for the best foreign physics graduate students at U.S. universities is likely to increase. Both challenges have implications for recruiting a sufficient pool of future physics graduate students. Recommendations to increase diversity in physics include:

  • Increasing efforts to recruit diverse students
  • Developing flexible admission criteria and exam structures
  • Building bridge programs of the type that APS is developing,
  • Establishing cohorts with a critical mass of underrepresented students,
  • Employing research-based curricula and pedagogies in introductory courses,
  • Providing effective mentoring and monitoring of student progress (including training faculty in these skills),
  • Adding family-friendly policies to graduate programs
  • Providing resources and support for all students.

Sessions also focused on preparing students for diverse careers. Physics is becoming more interdisciplinary, and representatives from many departments reported they have begun to modify their curricula and exam structures in order to accommodate interdisciplinary research and interests. Participants also agreed that physics graduate education should provide adequate training for non-academic careers, since a majority of physics graduate students (approximately 70%) will end up employed outside academia. Industrial and national lab representatives emphasized that a “T-shaped” physicist, who has an in-depth knowledge in some areas of physics but has a broad knowledge across the discipline as well as in professional skills, can adapt more readily to new situations and a rapidly changing work environment. Recommendations to improve the professional training of students in physics graduate programs include:

  • Developing a department identity
  • Adding flexibility to the curriculum
  • Teaching students a wide range of professional skills, including oral and written communication, networking, program management, leadership, and the ability to work on and lead teams
  • Engaging department alumni working outside of academia