in Physics: What Do Our Graduates Do?
Roman Czujko, Director, Statistical Research Center, AIP and Jack
Hehn, Director, Education, AIP
Physics students are characteristically
smart, tenacious, and accustomed to engaging in difficult problem solving activities. These attributes serve them well when they look
for a job, and employers tell us they understand and appreciate these attributes. Many physics students continue their education
beyond the Bachelor's degree, but only about 30% go directly to graduate school in
physics. Within five to seven years after
earning a bachelor's degree, two out of three have either earned an advanced degree or
are full-time students pursuing an advanced degree.
What other field can claim such a remarkable rate of academic achievement?
In the last decade there has been a
continuing dialogue in the physics community about the value of a bachelor's degree in
physics and the characteristics of a program of study that will prepare a physics major
for a productive career in science and technology, a workforce of great importance to the
American economy. Physics students commonly
pursue a broad range of careers after earning their degrees, but few will ever have a job
title of “physicist.” Many bachelor's
degree recipients succeed on their own with little assistance or advice from faculty, with
the exception of how to succeed in graduate school. There
is evidence that productive changes are taking place in physics departments that provide
students with more information and more encouragement about their future.
Physics Departments and the
professional and learned societies that serve physicists and scientists in related fields
are focusing more attention on undergraduate physics majors. In 2003 The National Task Force on Undergraduate
Physics (NTFUP) published a report entitled “Strategic Programs for Innovations in
Undergraduate Physics: Project Report”
(Spin-UP) by Hilborn, Howes and Krane, that details many constructive environments for
undergraduate students in “thriving departments” (http://www.aapt.org/Projects/ntfup.cfm). Within the report are descriptions of programs of
study in specific physics departments that can be used as examples of effective practice. Much of this information is summarized in a Physics
Today article entitled: "Why Many Undergraduate
Physics Programs Are Good but Few Are Great." (http://www.physicstoday.org/vol-56/iss-9/p38.html) A companion project looked at successful programs
in two-year colleges (http://www.aapt.org/Projects/spinup-tyc.cfm).
Career information about science and
technology is available from many of the professional societies. One good example is the Physics Today Career
Network (http://www.aip.org/careersvc/). A general source of information about science and
technology careers is the Sloan Foundation (http://www.careercornerstone.org/aboutsccc.htm)
There have been significant changes in
the number of physics bachelor's degrees awarded. That
number can be said to be “exploding.” During
the late 1980's and early 1990's, the number of these degrees awarded each year
bounced between 4,900 and 5,000. However, the
number of these degrees awarded began to decline in 1991, in large part, as a reaction to
the severe international recession that affected all fields and much of the industrialized
The number of bachelor's degrees in
physics bottomed out in 1999 at 3,646. However,
over the last 5 years, the number has exploded by more than 37% reaching 5,000 for the
first time in 15 years (Figure). Based on the number of juniors majoring in physics that
department chairs reported, we expect that the number of bachelor's degrees in physics
in the class of 2005 will be larger still. To
a significant extent, the recent increase must be credited to the practices and programs
described earlier in this article.
increase in bachelor's degrees is also showing up in graduate enrollments. In fact, over the last 6 years, the number of US
citizens entering physics graduate school (Table 1) has increased even faster than the
increase in physics bachelors. Why has the
domestic enrollment increased so fast and what about the quality of these students?
1: Entering physics graduate students by
citizenship, fall 1998 to fall 2004.
There are several factors that are
probably affecting graduate enrollments among domestic students. Despite the strong job market during the late
1990's, we saw an increase in the number of students who delayed entry into graduate
physics programs, i.e. they entered graduate school after working for one or more years. More recently, we have seen an increase in the
proportion of new graduates at the bachelor's level who are going directly into physics
It is reasonable to wonder whether the
quality of the US students has declined as their numbers entering graduate programs have
increased so dramatically. Unfortunately, we
do not have data on this issue. However, we
have had conversations with the chairs of several prestigious physics departments in
research universities. These chairs reported
that after their department had selected the students to whom they would send acceptances
for their Ph.D. program, they noticed two phenomena:
first, that the number of domestic students in their acceptance pool was large and
growing; and second, that the quality of the students being admitted had actually
increased. Thus, one is forced to ask if
many physics departments have improved the quality of their undergraduate program at the
same time as actively recruiting more students and making those undergraduate feel like
members of the department.
Even with all of this good news, some
cautionary comments are in order.
For the last several years, the US
economy has been in a recession. In general,
this recession is comparatively mild. However,
it is unique in that electrical engineers and IT professionals are among the hardest hit
during this downturn. Typically, people with
college degrees, especially in engineering and the physical sciences, have much lower
unemployment rates than the national average for all workers. However, during the first quarter of 2004 the
electrical engineers had an unemployment rate equal to the national average, systems
analysts were higher still, and programmers had an unemployment rate of 9%.
Why are these statistics important? They are important because these are precisely the
kinds of jobs that physics bachelor's degree recipients are most likely to get when they
go to work in the private sector. In fact, we
have already been seeing some of the effects of this economy on the employment of these
recent graduates. Historically, over 80% of
those receiving physics bachelor's degrees who enter industrial employment find jobs in
the science and engineering (S&E) enterprise. However,
of new graduates (classes of 2002 and 2003) who entered the workforce, fewer than 60%
found employment in science and engineering.
Clearly, hundreds of recent physics
bachelor's degree graduates are disappointed in their initial employment prospects. But, the problem goes beyond disappointment. Physics bachelor's working in science and
engineering got paid about $12-15,000 more in starting salaries than did those who did not
enter the S&E workforce (see top two bars of the figure at http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/summer2005a.pdf). How long can these poor job prospects
continue before sophomore and junior majors begin to switch to other fields?
Establishing mechanisms to stay in
touch with your graduates (alumni) provides many benefits to a department. Connecting graduates of your department to current
students is a powerful tool to encourage and motivate those students. Some departments bring physics bachelor's degree
recipients back to the department four to six years after graduation to talk with students
in an informal setting and/or to serve on departmental advisory boards. The alumni can talk to your current students about
what they are doing, the excitement of their jobs, how to find similar positions, and how
their physics education has helped them in their careers.
The faculty will also benefit from
hearing these comments from the workplace. It
will remind them that physics degrees lead to more than graduate school, and it will give
them an opportunity to self assess the effectiveness of the program of study for the broad
range of career paths that physics bachelor's commonly pursue.
A strong Society of Physics Students
(SPS) or Sigma Pi Sigma chapter may assist in these connections between students and
alumni (http://www.spsnational.org/). Providing information about “what
graduates are doing” on the web can also be a very powerful recruiting tool directed at
prospective students and their parents; an excellent example is provided by Sonoma State
Spin-UP makes the case that a strong
sense of community is an important aspect of any “thriving” department. The welfare of our physics community is deeply
dependent on our ability to recruit, prepare, encourage, and motivate the next generations
Roman Czujko has been the Director
of the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics for the last 13
years. He is a Fellow of the American
Jack Hehn has worked in science
education policy with emphases on undergraduates programs and departments of physics over
the last 14 years with appointments at AAPT, NSF/DUE, and AIP. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society.