APS News

Spotlight on the Profession of Physics

Physicists in the "Engines of Tomorrow"

By Craig Davis and Jim Tsang

Editor's Note: This is the second in a new series exploring the health of the physics profession. The first article appeared as The Back Page in last month's issue. Other articles, by other authors, will appear in coming months.

Craig Davis and Jim Tsang
Craig Davis and Jim Tsang
When one of the authors was looking for a permanent job at the end of his post-doctoral appointment, he mainly interviewed industries. A prominent professor observed, "You're good enough to get an academic job," implying that somehow he would be settling for less. No doubt this view is still held by some people today: the ultimate career for physics PhDs worth their salt is at a university, or perhaps a national lab.

In the past a position in an industrial research laboratory frequently did not differ that much from one in academic environment. Today, however, even the most prestigious industrial laboratories have changed. While physicists may still perform research fundamental to technology, increasingly industry expects them to be engaged in the business. Physicists are called upon to be involved in customer satisfaction, finance, and marketing. They work in teams comprised of scientists from other disciplines, engineers, and non-technical people. They may find themselves on a long journey that takes one of their scientific papers into a commercial product, which can be simultaneously educational, amusing, appalling, tedious, and exciting. The special qualities of physicists that allow them to get to the bottom of a problem or to understand technology broadly often mean that they lead teams or manage R&D departments.

In his provocative essay "Find the Hidden Physicist" (September, 1997 issue of The Industrial Physicist), John Rigden noted that 1/3 of physics PhDs eventually go into industry, and that an astounding 63% of baccalaureates entering the job market take industrial jobs. Their employers call many of these people engineers, rather than physicists. They are "hidden" behind a misnomer, which diminishes the recognition of the physics contributions. He called upon industry to identify physicists properly and for the academic community to think of industrial physicists as their colleagues. Much to its credit, the APS recognized the significance of this major portion of its membership as the job market weakened in the 1990s. The creation of the APS Forum on Industrial and Applied Physics and its subsequent growth is a sign of this change.

Some say the 21st century will belong to the biologists. Thus, the physics profession potentially faces a new crisis: no longer being the premiere science and the attendant reduction of its slice of the research funding pie. Although it is foolish to assume that physics will lose its luster indefinitely, it is equally risky to think that the profession will remain healthy without change. There is an opportunity for the APS and the physics community to embrace fully the value of industrial and applied physics, not only for the health of the profession, but also for the benefit of society.

What should the academic world know about industrial physicists? Many physicists in industry have jobs with titles that fail to mention physics. How do they obtain such jobs? Many are hired directly into such positions, especially at the bachelors level. Others, especially PhDs, begin in research, often doing work related to their thesis or post-doc. The activities of these rather fundamental researchers evolve over time into applied work, development, and even into business-oriented projects. In today's world, few will remain in fundamental research throughout their careers. At the very minimum, they must understand the impact of their work on their companies and appreciate the problems their employers face. Besides talking to their former classmates, professors, and other colleagues at APS meetings, they learn to talk to new communities. These include engineers designing, manufacturing and testing products, and sales people who see how existing products are being used in the field and the problems that customers are looking for solutions to. Often they find pressing needs for what they know or can learn.

Should physics education and training be changed to reflect the needs of industry? Perhaps. There are a number of innovative programs, such as the entrepreneurial physics program at Case Western Reserve University. Our guess is that many of these programs will flourish and contribute valuable technical talent for industry. However, even with no changes in the traditional education of physicists, without altering the curriculum, there are some simple actions that university departments can take. Summer internships for students are extremely valuable. Internships give students a chance to see what industry is like, provide contacts and opportunities to network, and give students the opportunity to prove themselves to potential employers. MIT, for example, is making internships in industry or national laboratories part of their graduate program.

Likewise, professors should consider spending part of their sabbatical leaves in industry. There is a new APS Industrial Faculty Fellowship Program, which promises to be useful as well. Such experiences provide interesting new research projects and open up possibilities for future collaborations and for placing students and graduates. Obviously, industry benefits considerably from having students and faculty as visitors in research labs, R&D activities, and business groups. Industrial speaker programs (AIP, FIAP) provide physicists who can speak to students, as well as faculty, about life in industry. Our experiences suggest that students greatly appreciate the information and insight. The most important point, however, is simply to keep an open mind about the many alternatives a physics graduate can pursue.

One can debate whether physics is a field of scholarship or a profession. For us, it is both. We believe the latter aspect is essential for the continued health of the physics community. Public support for physics research is usually based on the promise of future applications and contributions to economic growth or on an appeal to national pride, not necessarily on scholarship. The great successes of biology in gaining federal support derive directly from the benefits to human health and the eradication of disease. Regarding physics as a profession in addition to a scholarly pursuit recognizes the usefulness of physicists and the impact of the science on society.

Craig Davis is Manager of the Physics Department, Ford Research Laboratory.

James C. Tsang is a member of the research staff at the IBM T. J. Watson Research Center.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette