APS News

Physics Bachelor's Degrees on the Rise After 10-Year Decline

A new study issued by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) reports that, for the first time in nearly a decade, the production of physics bachelor's degrees in on the rise. The graduating class of 2000 produced a total of 3,849 bachelor's degrees in physics, an increase of 7% over the class of 1999, and that number is expected to continue to rise at least for the next two years. The report also found that there has been a slight increase in recent years in the proportion of new degree recipients entering directly into physics graduate study.

According to Patrick Mulvey in AIP's Statistical Research Center, the data in the report are based on responses from 2,721 physics seniors from 763 degree-granting US physics departments, who were surveyed during their final year of undergraduate physics study. The center has been collecting data on senior-level physics and astronomy majors from both students and departments for more than 30 years.

For every 1000 bachelor's degrees awarded in the U.S., only about 3.3 are awarded in physics, and during the 1990s, physics bachelor's degree production declined sharply by 27%. "In a sense, physics lost some of its market share," says Mulvey. Especially hard hit were the larger departments that included graduate as well as undergraduate programs, and it is these departments which are now largely responsible for the recovery in degree production.

The report found that the likelihood of an individual receiving a physics bachelor's degree is much higher if he or she has taken a high school physics course; 92% of physics bachelor's said they had take at least one physics class in high school. Based on this finding, "With the increasing student enrollments seen in high school physics in recent years, one can be optimistic in thinking that more students may choose to continue with physics at the undergraduate level in the future," says Mulvey. Most respondents said they chose to major in physics because they were intrigued by the subject matter, followed closely by the influence of the high school teacher or college professor who taught their first physics course. Ironically, very few students cited long-term employment goals as their primary influencing factor in choose to major in physics.

Once students have declared a major, the study found that 76% of physics majors said they had worked on an undergraduate research project, which Mulvey says "gives undergraduates a feel for research through practical hands-on experience, solving real problems, not just those in curriculum-based labs." Such participation could also be an indicator of whether they will continue on to graduate studies. Ninety percent of those students intending to go to graduate school in physics had participated in a research project, compared to 65% of those planning graduate studies in other fields and 68% of students planning to enter directly into the workforce. Unfortunately, barely half of those hoping to become high school teachers participated in such projects-a group that could greatly benefit from such an experience since "They are the ones who will be imparting a feel for such practices to others in the future."

An overwhelming majority (84%) expressed satisfaction with their choice of major and said they would choose the subject again if given the opportunity to repeat the experience. Those who said they would change their major cited developing interests in another subject as their reason, not dissatisfaction with physics. Respondents also expressed optimism about their career prospects as physics majors, with 81% agreeing that their physics degree would provide them with a solid background for any career they ultimately chose to pursue. In terms of long-term goals, the report found a slight shift in postbaccalaureate plans, with slightly more than one-third planning to continue with graduate studies in physics, and another one-fifth planning to pursue graduate studies in other subjects. The top career goal for physics bachelor's recipients (31%) is to work at a college or university doing teaching and/or research, although the majority of new degree recipients said they planned to go directly into the workforce upon graduation.

Editor's note: The full report covering the survey can he found online at www.aip.org/statistics/trends/phystrends.html.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette