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Spotlight on the Profession of Physics

Physics Revitalization in a Decade of Transitions

By Philip W. Hammer

Philip W. Hammer
"Our challenges are reduced to a marketing problem."
-- Philip W. Hammer
Over the past decade, the physics community has experienced plummeting degree production, evolution in the demand for physicists, increased salaries, and introspection about the state of physics education. All of this is the coupled to a bubble economy that is either bursting or bouncing. This state of affairs comes at a time of general prosperity in an increasingly technical economy. Yet department chairs are nervous because of the tenuous relationship between physics departments and students, particularly undergraduates.

The physics community needs to respond urgently to an historic shift in the role that physics plays in society. The situation calls for a community-wide assessment of how physics fits into modern society, followed by innovative reforms to physics education to bring students back and revitalize the field. The first step is to recognize that the department is the fundamental social unit of the physics community. As such, chairs and faculty should change their departments' approach to physics education in an attempt to keep up with the times. Many already have, and their innovations show promise in that they have grasped the essential nature of the changing world of physics. They have leveraged the economic advantages of physics to create new programs and recruiting strategies.

The labor economics of a physics degree is encouraging. At all degree levels, the supply of physicists is low compared to the supply of scientists from other technical fields, and in comparison to historical per capita numbers. Concurrently, demand for physicists is high as measured by relative employment rates and salaries. Thus, those with a degree in physics will be statistically competitive in our technical economy.

While the low supply of physicists may be great for individual physicists competing in the job market, the shrinking population of physics majors spells trouble for physics departments, many of which are seeing their degree programs threatened because of declining productivity. Why are students leaving physics?

My conjecture is that students perceive a disconnect between what they learn in physics and their immediate career goals. In addition, industry does not explicitly recognize the value and broad applicability of a physics degree. Furthermore, these perceptual barriers among students and employers are intertwined via negative feedback: employers express their hiring values through job ads; students respond in lockstep by populating engineering and computer science programs out of fear of unemployability; upcoming students see all the action occurring outside of physics and direct their attention accordingly. And all the while, employers continue to focus their efforts on the biggest reservoir of talent. In the midst of this dynamic, physics departments have done little to address and correct the misperceptions driving this system.

Our challenges are reduced to a marketing problem. As the fundamental social unit of the physics community, departments must take ownership of this problem, first by changing people's perception of physics using outreach strategies laced with facts and anecdotes and then by offering a product to students and employers that backs up these assertions with real value.

For example, demand for physicists is up and the diversity of this demand is becoming an asset valued by the community. Until the recent correction in the high tech sector, it had been a seller's labor market, and many physicists found lucrative and stimulating opportunities in fields far removed from academia. Physics is not a risky economic choice. This is a powerfully simple message to deliver to students. Furthermore, the strength and breadth of a physics degree creates an intellectually nimble employee who can retool in real time, enabling him or her to respond efficiently to new challenges.

Crafting a similarly compelling message for industry is trickier. There is no monolithic "industry," and every company will have its own personality, needs and culture. Therefore, marketing physics to employers requires developing personal relationships to understand the nature of particular companies' needs and creatively coupling them to your department's strengths and capabilities. I call this approach, "Take physics local," because crafting the message means connecting with those employers most likely to hire your students. Some digging will reveal former students in these companies, some of whom will be in positions to hire. Alumni will be familiar with the department and will have a sense of what physics has to offer.

Many departments are taking physics local and have begun to market themselves differently. They are crafting new programs that explicitly address the expectations of students and the needs of employers. One trend is the emergence of the Professional Masters Degree (PMD). PMDs emerged in the booming economy of the 1990s as a strategy to combat declining enrollments, capitalizing on a recognition of the fundamental strengths of a physics degree and the broad societal benefits of physics. Now that the economy is in another period of transition, individuals and institutions must be even more nimble than before, and they will have to be more aggressive in marketing their strengths.

PMD programs meet the needs of a well-defined sector of employers; they are multidisciplinary; they are non-thesis and time-limited; they operate in consultation with advisors representing the companies most likely to hire their graduates; and they emphasize workplace skills such as teamwork, project leadership, communication and interpersonal skills, as well as technical excellence. PMDs are alternatives to research-based graduate programs for those who desire further education to enhance their employability, and are also designed with the needs of future employers keenly in mind.

For physics departments, PMDs and other programmatic innovations could provide the type of fresh approach that attracts students and outside partners, such as employers, in a way that revitalizes the department. Such revitalization could provide the competitive edge that enables departments to thrive during difficult transitional periods, and positions them well for the next economic upswing. For individual physicists, current adjustment in the economy creates challenges. Yet those holding a physics degree and armed with a curious mind and flexible ambitions remain among the most competitive in the labor force because of their education and inherent adaptability. Physicists nearing the end of their undergraduate years will have many choices to make. I am encouraged by the growth in PMDs because they offer revitalizing optimism for physics departments, and they provide viable options for the physics-talented who seek non-research, economically viable alternatives to the PhD.

The economic ride we are on promises many surprises. Those institutions and individuals best prepared will fare best in competitive times of uncertainty. Physics has shown itself to be an excellent career accelerator in good times, and a good shock absorber in more difficult times. I am confident that physics will remain an excellent choice for students, and that innovative departments will emerge strengthened by this decade of transition.

Philip W. Hammer is at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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