Life Outside the Circle
by Francis Slakey, APS Associate Director of Public Affairs
By June 1st, 4,500 students from across the country graduated with a bachelor's degree in physics. Fewer than half will go on to further study, while the rest will search for a job in an extraordinarily competitive marketplace. For thousands of these graduates, their past four years will be judged on one criterion: can you contribute to a company's bottom line? Science departments should be in the business of making sure the answer is "yes."
Preparing students for careers is nothing new to an undergraduate physics department. Many faculty develop their curriculum with the goal of preparing students to enter and succeed in a competitive graduate school. By requiring 60 math and physics credits for a degree, they expertly train undergrads to become grad students.
Once in graduate school, most students are trained to become faculty. And if they become faculty, odds are they will train students to go to graduate school: the academic-science circle. For the vast majority of students graduating this June, there is no future in this circle.
Many physics departments are preparing students for academic careers that they have no possibility of pursuing. In today's job market, it is about as likely that a college football player will become a pro as a physics undergraduate will become tenured faculty. And sports programs are justifiably criticized for not helping students to prepare realistically for their future.
Some departments are responding by providing career advice-but most of it won't help students prepare for the future. Having been isolated for so long, it's difficult for most professors to give meaningful advice about what's going on outside the academic circle. While their concern is admirable, their advice often misses the mark.
The advice typically takes one of three forms: (1) you can always get a job on Wall Street; (2) you've developed tremendous analytical skills that can get you any job; (3) you just have to craft your resume carefully and do some networking. All three suffer from the same problem. The advice assumes that a student can get a non-academic job without ever having ventured outside of the academic-science circle. Wrong. Employers are looking for more than just academic credentials. It is a buyer's market and analytical skills are a dime a dozen. Students will get a job outside the circle based on what they know about life outside the circle.
The key to career preparation is for students and faculty to get acquainted with what lies outside the circle. A recent APS-sponsored roundtable conference hosted by Rep. George Brown serves as a model (see story, page 1). Called "Shaping Science Education To Meet the Industrial Needs of the 21st Century," the conference brought together students, state and federal officials, scientists from industry, academia and the national laboratories, elementary educators, and other regional community leaders.
The meeting accomplished two things. First, it ended the isolation of several of the academic institutions that participated. Many of the attendees from academia admitted to being inadvertently detached from the local community. But after the meeting, one professor summarized the feelings of many of his colleagues: "Higher education must make a conscious effort to become a player and partner with business." Second, it outlined a variety of curriculum changes that could assist students in preparing for life outside the academic circle, ranging from supplementary courses to modified lab courses stressing teamwork, time management, and administration.
The conference participants are now planning follow-up meetings, but their reach doesn't extend much farther than Rep. Brown's district. However, a local businessman asked a promising question that applies to faculty across the country. "If this were an economic development conference, would academic scientists come?" Odds are that there are economic development meetings being held in a neighborhood near you. When you go, don't forget to bring a student.
For more information about the APS Roundtable Program, contact Francis Slakey in the APS Washington Office, 529 14th Street NW, Suite 1050, Washington, DC 20045, phone: (202) 662-8700; fax: (202) 662-8711; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.