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.
- seeking and obtaining funding for research.
- filling significant roles in administration and governance of departments, institutions, or professional societies (this is known as "service").
Education & Background
The path begins with a Bachelor's and PhD in physics or a closely related discipline like engineering or mathematics, with a major emphasis in physics.
While working on a PhD—which can take between five and eight 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).
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 or co-teaching responsibilities, or attending teaching seminars/workshops. Candidates should also seek opportunities to build an expansive research network and learn an array of education research techniques.
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 in a research laboratory (appointments typically are two years), where they would establish an identity as a scientist and 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 require faculty to be 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 his or her future students.
Most faculty in liberal arts colleges start as an assistant professor at an academic institution, either at a Doctoral/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 he or she focuses on bringing new ideas to fruition in the laboratory or classroom.
For more information about faculty positions in research universities, please see our Faculty at Doctoral/Research Institutions page.
Faculty at Doctoral/Research Institutions
The assistant professor phase lasts six years, during which time the faculty member will be expected to prove his or her worth to the institution through excellent teaching, research, or 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—few people are so lucky!
In fact--fewer than 20% of all physics PhD graduates eventually end up in tenured faculty roles.