APS News

Industrial Physicists Mentor Young Scientists

By Emily Conover

IMPactWhen Edward Chen entered graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he planned to go into academia, like many of his peers. But as he neared the end of his education, he learned that an academic postdoc was far from the only option for a Ph.D. physicist. "The possibilities are enormous," he says — from working in government to doing research in industry.

But, Chen says, the job market is difficult to navigate for students who consider venturing beyond the familiar halls of academia, and he was unsure whether he should start a postdoc, or dive into the private sector. "I’ve sort of been grappling in the dark the last half year, just trying to make sense of what a Ph.D. means, and what you can do with a Ph.D., and what I wanted to do for the next 5 or 10 years of my professional career."

Fewer than 20 percent of physics Ph.D.s become permanent academic faculty, says APS Careers Program Manager Crystal Bailey, and more than half of physics Ph.D.s eventually wind up in the private sector. Despite that, many students struggle with lack of access to information about industrial careers, says APS Industrial Physics Fellow Steven Lambert, because "They're surrounded by academics."

To address this knowledge gap, APS has created a new program, called Industry Mentoring for Physicists (IMPact). "Students are aware that they won't all get academic jobs, and many of them don't want academic jobs," Lambert says, but "they have no example of what it's like to work in industry."

The program pairs graduate student or early career APS members with experienced mentors in industrial physics for a short-term mentoring relationship. Prospective mentors and mentees fill out a short profile through the IMPact website, and the mentees are matched up with potential mentors based on geography, area of interest, or the questions they want answered.

Once connected, the mentor and mentee can proceed however they like — IMPact program guidelines recommend four discussions over three months, usually by phone or video conference. Students can have up to two mentors at a time, and mentors can have up to two mentees.

Since November 2015, APS has gradually rolled out the program to larger numbers of physicists. It is now open to graduate student and early-career members of APS in the U.S., and to industrial physicist mentors. Although the program is not yet open to undergrads or to members in other countries, Lambert hopes to expand the program in the future. "We're trying to have a successful program with a limited audience at the present time." As APS News went to press, 95 mentors and 207 mentees had signed up on the website, and 40 matches had been made.

When he heard about the program, Chen says, "I knew it was something I needed." His mentors shared their experiences, helped him make contacts with other industrial physicists, explained the reputations of various companies, and discussed the implications of taking a postdoc before moving to industry.

"You won’t get this kind of advice from your professors, because your professors have lived in this academic bubble their entire careers," Chen says. "They don’t really know what it means to work in a government lab or work in a for-profit research lab."

Given that only a small fraction of Ph.D. students will find permanent jobs in academia, says Matthew Thompson of Tri Alpha Energy, "I personally have noticed a big need for advice and training." Thompson has mentored over a dozen students during his career, and he helped spark the IMPact program by proposing an industrial physics mentoring program at the 2014 APS Workshop on National Issues in Industrial Physics. Thompson is now participating in IMPact as a mentor.

"If you connect a student who’s done nothing but been in school, probably their whole lives, with someone who is out and having a successful career in industry, that gives them the existence proof," says Thompson. Mentoring is "great for their morale and their options for the future."

Walter Buell of the Aerospace Corporation was one of the first mentors to participate in the program. He says that he would've found the program useful if it had been available when he was a student.

"It certainly would have gotten my brain thinking in a different way, and it would have gotten it thinking in that way earlier," Buell says. "When I finished graduate school I was pretty sure I knew exactly what my career was going to be: I was going to go off and do my one postdoc and become a professor, because that’s what one did." Instead, he ended up taking the one nonacademic position he applied for.

Now, Buell hopes to help students be better prepared for nonacademic careers and the job hunt. "In addition to telling the background story of how I got into a nonacademic position and what sort of preparation would have been useful, a lot of the other pieces have been helping with networking ideas," says Buell. He has put mentees in touch with contacts at companies they are interested in, or with industrial physicists who started off in the mentee's field in graduate school.

Even if mentees ultimately go the academic route, Buell says, the program is "a good introduction to networking," and the mentees can forge connections that may be useful in their academic careers.

Buell says he's found mentoring to be an interesting experience. "I can draw on some of the conversations to help in my own recruiting efforts as well," for example, to understand "the sorts of things that newly minted Ph.D.s are thinking about."

Chen finally decided, with the help of his mentors, to forego a postdoc and instead take a position working in the defense industry. For most Ph.D.s, who often have spent most of their lives as students, Chen says, "It’s very scary to jump from a university setting to all of a sudden a non-university setting." But, Chen says, participating in IMPact has strengthened his confidence in his decisions.

To learn more about IMPact and sign up to be a mentor or mentee, visit impact.aps.org.


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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Emily Conover
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
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