APS News


New Website Lets Visitors Assess “Female-friendliness” of Graduate Departments

By Marc Sher

A key date for Graduate Admissions Directors is April 15th. In addition to being the federal tax deadline, it is the date by which admitted students must commit to attending their choice of graduate schools. Between now and then, undergraduate seniors (and those reentering physics) will be scouring web pages, talking to friends, faculty and advisors, and visiting campuses.

What are the key factors in this decision? There is much more to a graduate school that the quality of the research. Graduate departments are communities in which young adults will spend 5-6 years of their lives. The probability of success depends in large part on the atmosphere in the department We’ve all heard horror stories of institutions with unfriendly climates, in which students are treated poorly and without much respect. For women especially, attending a school with a warm and nurturing climate can be critical in their career development.

Yet how are students to learn about the climate, especially the climate for women? Web pages generally give very little information and faculty advisors typically know a few people at the institution and can only comment about the research. The campus visits for admitted students are often (but not always) highly scripted affairs (“dog and pony shows”), on weekends, in which only current students with positive things to say meet with the prospective students.

As a member of the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (CSWP), I was interested in giving prospective students a better idea of the climate for women at graduate institutions. Of course, making a list of problem institutions would not be appropriate (certainly not under the APS rubric). Instead, an e-mail was sent to the chairs of roughly two hundred graduate institutions which asked five questions:

  1. How many tenure-track or tenured faculty–male/female?
  2. How many graduate students?– male/female?
  3. Is there a family leave policy for graduate students? If so, describe.
  4. Is there family health insurance available for graduate students? Is it included in the stipend?
  5. In a paragraph, please describe why someone applying to graduate school who is interested in a female-friendly department should choose your institution.

The first two questions are simple demographics. The next two are designed to give students a good idea as to whether female-friendly policies are already in place (as a result of the survey, several chairs have told me that they hope to institute such policies at their institutions). The final question is much more open-ended.

The response rate was extraordinary. With just an e-mail and one follow-up, we now have had responses from the chairs, or their designees, at 107 graduate institutions. Some give very little information, some give much more. Neither APS nor CSWP assumes any responsibility for the accuracy or the timeliness of the information presented. Still, this should be a valuable tool for prospective students.

The results can be found at http://cswp.womeninphysics.org/results.php

The CSWP urges all readers to inform their seniors about this website, and also urges those thinking about instituting family leave/family health insurance policies to peruse the database for information about the policies of other institutions. Finally, any department chairs who wish to add their departments (or change their existing entry), should contact me at mtsher@wm.edu and I’ll supply the URL for entering data.

Marc Sher is Professor of Physics and Director of Graduate Admissions, College of William and Mary

World Year of Physics Just the Beginning

By Alan Chodos

Amid the revelry this past New Year’s Eve, the World Year of Physics quietly passed into history. It’s worth taking a few moments to review what was accomplished, and to look ahead to the great deal that still needs to be done.

APS took the lead in promoting WYP activities throughout the US. One of our most important tasks was simply to get the word out to the physics community nationwide, and we’re pleased to note that over 600 events were recorded on our event finder at www.physics2005.org; since not all events found their way to our event finder, this probably means that there were in the neighborhood of 1000 outreach events organized at the local level under the rubric of the World Year of Physics.

With funding from the NSF, the DOE’s Office of Science, and NIST, APS also organized its own WYP projects. Two of them were aimed specifically at schools: the Eratosthenes project for high schools, for which over 700 high school classrooms signed up in the spring of 2005; and the PhysicsQuest project for middle schools, which garnered about 5000 participating classrooms in each of the spring and fall semesters of 2005.

In addition, we were able to devote $200,000 to finance 20 “Physics on the Road” teams across the country. We had to choose from among close to 40 excellent applications, and we were reminded of the tremendous talent and enthusiasm for this kind of outreach that can be unleashed with a small amount of financial support.

We also helped to launch “Einstein@home,” a project with real scientific potential, that uses data from LIGO and GEO to search for gravitational waves. Alas, gravitational waves were not found in 2005, but the project continues and the search goes on. We sponsored an “Adopt-a-Scientist” program that brings high school classes into contact with scientists in industry and academia. We commissioned a work of art, A New World View, celebrating Einstein’s achievements; details can be seen at www.physicsmatters.org.

Those are some of the highlights. I’m pleased to say that APS is extending PhysicsQuest as an ongoing annual project. Einstein@home and Adopt-a-Scientist are continuing, and we hope A New World View will have a lasting impact as well. But as David Harris points out in the January issue of Symmetry, all of these efforts, in a country the size of the US, cannot compete for very much of the attention of the average citizen. If you stop a random person in the street (or even on a university campus) and ask if they have heard anything about the World Year of Physics, the answer will almost certainly be no.

The good news is that therefore there is much opportunity for additional public outreach. The World Year of Physics was a valuable springboard to get the physics community more engaged with the public. But the effort has barely taken off, and we need to continue to be creative and proactive as we tell the story of the importance and excitement of physics.

As the Associate Executive Officer of APS, Alan Chodos was heavily involved in the Society’s World Year of Physics activities.

Einstein and the World Year of Physics

The fact that the World Year of Physics celebrated the centennial of Einstein’s miracle year turned out to be a mixed blessing. On the positive side, since more people have heard of Einstein than have any idea what physics is all about, it was frequently possible to use Einstein as a way of beginning a conversation about physics. The downside is that all too often the conversation stopped with Einstein. Much of the media attention naturally focused on the man with the deep-set eyes and untamed hair. Many of the public events concentrated more on Einstein’s achievements than on the promise of new discoveries. Einstein of course deserved the accolades he received. But to become a physicist or to be interested in understanding the physical world one doesn’t necessarily have to be an Einstein. Despite our best efforts, that message, important to students and the public alike, did not always get through. —A.C.

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
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff