APS News

APS/AAPT Conference Ponders Graduate Education Reform

More than 70 physics departments from around the country were represented at a conference for department chairs held in May at the American Center for Physics in College Park, Maryland, aimed at exploring how physics graduate education can promote diverse career options for physicists. Co-sponsored by the APS and the American Association of Physics Teachers, it was the seventh in a series of department chair conferences. It focused rather narrowly on how physics departments can preserve high quality graduate education while instituting necessary changes to adapt to major shifts in the career options available to graduate students.

"I was impressed by the commitment of the chairs to grapple with difficult issues ," said APS Executive Officer Judy Franz, who served on the steering committee appointed to organize the event. "They really took full advantage of the chance to share good ideas and 'best practices' for graduate education."

The primary format involved working-group discussions among the participating department chairs, supplemented by individual and panel presentations from experts in several relevant areas. Friday's plenary sessions featured a keynote address on the changing university environment for graduate programs in science by former presidential science advisor and APS Vice-President D. Allan Bromley (Yale University), followed by an analysis of today's job market for physicists by Roman Czujko, director of the Education and Employment Statistics Division of the American Institute of Physics.

Other discussion topics included industrial views of graduate education in physics; funding and demographics of graduate students; and diversity among graduate students.

The working groups' conclusions were ultimately consolidated into a series of recommendations. The participants agreed that the basic nature of the traditional physics program should not be fundamentally altered: namely, advanced coursework followed by an independent research project requiring the solution of a complex, novel, physics-related problem. However, they recommended that these be supplemented by an increased emphasis on communication and teamwork skills and experiences outside the physics department to better prepare students for diverse careers. Also, departments should make vigorous efforts, including close monitoring of students' progress, to decrease the time in which Ph.D. degrees are completed.

It was recognized that the physics professional societies, departments and individual faculty members have the responsibility to inform graduate students of the full range of employment opportunities available to Ph.D. physicists. This includes stressing the excitement, challenge and worth to society of so-called nontraditional careers, which in fact have historically employed a large fraction of the physics community. Departments should also develop and implement a range of "value added" opportunities to broaden the experience of their graduate students. Examples include coursework in computer science and business; minors in other sciences or engineering; and industrial, teaching or national laboratory internships. Finally, it was agreed that strong professional master's degree programs that are aimed at serving the real needs of regional industries should be encouraged.

In terms of funding and demographics, conference participants agreed that with future funding for research so uncertain, available resources should drive the student population in the short term. However, some departments have already begun to reduce admissions, and it was agreed that some sort of "population control" should be practiced. Nonetheless, the physics community should increase its efforts to remove barriers impeding the entrance of women and minorities into the field and to foster their success. The chairs also agreed that separate standards for admission of foreign students are inevitable and appropriate.

The participants recommended that the American Institute of Physics continue to maintain and publish relevant data and forecasts regarding Ph.D. physicists. It was suggested that departments work with their institutional development offices to try to obtain updated information on all of their Ph.D.s, which could then be forwarded to AIP's Employment and Education Statistics Division to help with its demographic studies. The chairs also requested that AIP conduct a more detailed analysis of the career paths of foreign graduate students to determine what fraction remain in the U.S. for their long-term careers.

The members of the conference steering committee were David Campbell and Kurt Gottfried, co-chairs; John Armstrong, Judy Franz, Bernard Khoury, Kenneth Krane, Zachary Levine, Doug Osheroff and Howard Voss.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin