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Career Profile: Become a Faculty Member at Bachelors or Liberal Arts Institutions

The faculty career at a glance

Education: PhD or Master’s in physics, including physics education research, or related field.

Additional Training: Postdoc in physics field and substantial teaching experience.

Salary: Starting $45,000 - $105,000

Outlook: Fewer than 20% of graduates in physics will hold permanent tenure-line faculty positions, while an additional 20% may find non-tenure track positions.

What they do

Physicists in academia wear many hats, often at the same time. Most academics in liberal arts schools spend time doing the following:

  • Teaching and developing new courses, curricula, and teaching methods
  • Directing, conducting, and publishing research, usually in collaboration with undergraduate students and/or other scientists
  • Mentoring and advising undergraduate students
  • Seeking and obtaining funding for research
  • Filling significant roles in administration and governance of departments, institutions, or professional societies, known as "service"

Education & background

The path begins with a bachelor's, master’s, or PhD in physics or a closely related discipline like engineering or mathematics, with a major emphasis in physics. This can include a degree in physics education research (PER).

While working on a PhD, which can take between four to ten years, one gains the basic physics knowledge and technical know-how that forms the basis of a future career, and begins publishing the research conducted with one's research advisor(s).

Additional training

Most liberal arts institutions expect faculty to teach courses and direct undergraduate research, so colleges will be looking for evidence of an ability to do this successfully. Candidates should seek opportunities to teach physics and learn about science education, for example: teaching assistantships, co-teaching responsibilities, or attending teaching seminars/workshops. Candidates should also seek opportunities to build an expansive research network and learn an array of instructional techniques based on education research.

Some people may gain the needed experience within the PhD program, and move directly into a tenure-track position at a liberal arts college right after graduation. Others may prefer to first hold a postdoctoral position, with appointments typically being two to three years, where they would take more responsibility for direction and publication of their research.

A third route is to teach for a year or so in an academic setting. Many colleges offer temporary instructional positions to replace faculty on leave, which could require teaching as part of a team or being solely responsible for one or more courses. Other post-graduation experiences such as an internship or job in the private sector, government, or science policy can broaden one's experience and make them a better candidate.

Graduate school and/or post-graduation positions of this type can also be helpful in establishing collaborations and networks that will benefit not only the faculty member, but also their future students.

Career path

Most faculty in liberal arts colleges start as an assistant professor at an academic institution, either at a doctoral or research university or a baccalaureate-granting institution. At baccalaureate-granting institutions, the expectations are more heavily weighted toward teaching and are less heavily weighted toward research, publications, and external funding than at research universities. Assistant professors can expect the institution to provide resources such as space, equipment, and administrative infrastructure while they focus on bringing new ideas to fruition in the laboratory or classroom.

The assistant professor phase lasts five to six years, during which time the faculty member will be expected to prove their capabilities to the institution through excellent teaching, research, advising, and service. After the professor's performance is evaluated through a vigorous external and internal review, indefinite tenure may be awarded. Tenure carries the prize of freedom to pursue a physics career forever with a degree of independence unattainable in virtually any other setting. It also carries responsibility to work even harder to keep research current and vibrant, and to take on leadership roles. Tenured professors will work with young people and with cutting edge science every day.

In fact, fewer than 20% of all physics PhD graduates eventually end up in tenured faculty roles.


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