Making the Case for Your Physics Department

Where Does Your Department Rank?

US Physics Department Bachelor Degree Histogram

Departments graduating under 10 majors per year should take immediate action to increase recruitment and retention.
Gray arrow Recruiting Physics Majors

In this era of tight budgets, university administrators and state higher education boards have been taking aim at physics departments as a means to cut costs. Physics programs have been closed or have faced threat of closure in states such as Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Idaho.

Whether your department is under active threat or not, it is up to you to make the case for why your program is valuable to your institution and the greater community. If you don’t, who will?

Strategies for Making Your Case

The time to be proactive is now. Making your department indispensable to your institution and the surrounding community can prevent you from ever having to fight for survival.

Educate Your Administration
University administrators may not realize all the ways in which your department provides value to your institution. Keep your administrators regularly informed about 

  • The dollar value of external funding brought in
  • Departmental teaching productivity and revenue from teaching
  • Interdisciplinary projects and collaborations with other departments
  • Awards and recognition won by department faculty
  • Alumni achievements

Give your administrators fact sheets with this information so they have it available at all times. And if you are at a smaller, less research-intensive institution, send copies of all published articles and project summaries of external grants to the offices of your President, Provost, etc.

Increase the number of majors in your department.
Programs graduating low numbers are the most common targets for the budget ax. If you are graduating less than 10 majors a year (as most physics departments in the US are), you should take immediate action to recruit and retain more majors.
Gray Arrow Recruiting Physics Majors

Increase the number of high school teachers graduating from your department
Supplying local schools with highly qualified physics teachers may be the number one thing your department can do to build community support and make itself indispensable. It can also provide great PR for your institution.
Gray Arrow Preparing Future Teachers

Keep in touch with and track your graduates
Maintaining contact and tracking program alumni has two major benefits--one, it provides an important source of data for demonstrating the value of your program, and two, it gives you a cadre of allies who can speak up for the department if needed. Alumni support is very significant, because they give money to your institution.

Publicize information about physics careers
Less than a third of all physics majors go on to academic positions, yet most people cannot name physics careers other than university professor. Show your administration and your potential majors that physics is excellent preparation for wide range of careers in the public and private sectors, using your graduates and others as examples.
Gray Arrow Physics Career Information

Make sure your curriculum addresses real-world issues
Consider adding flexible degree tracks focusing on teaching, engineering, biophysics, pre-med, and other concentrations that are relevant to communities outside of physics. Courses with titles such as Physics of Energy, Physics of Climate Change, and Teaching and Learning Physics are easily recognized by others as addressing real-world issues.

Be a valued member of your institution
Strategies for creating and demonstrating value include:

  • Developing collaborations and interdisciplinary programs with other departments on campus
  • Housing equipment or facilities that other departments use
  • Publicizing your successes to the media -- awards and grants won by faculty, successes of alumni, etc.
  • Being a source of positive press for your institution
  • Making faculty a resource for others on campus, in the media, and in the broader community through outreach events, service learning programs, and media contact sheets
  • Aligning your department with your institution’s mission and values

Create a Plan for Continued Improvement
You should have a written strategic plan you can show to your administrators describing how you are working to strengthen your program. Update this plan every few years.

Enlist Allies
In addition to alumni, letters from people in government and industry can also have a major influence on administrators and policy makers. It is best if you have cultivated these alliances before a threat occurs.

Contact APS
If your department is under threat, APS representatives can send letters to your administration on your behalf.
Gray Arrow Email APS Education

More Information and Resources

The Economics of Education: Closing Undergraduate Physics Programs
APS News, December 2011 -- A "Back Page" article by Theodore Hodapp, APS Director of Education and Diversity, with advice for departments on how to boost their programs and avoid closure.

Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics (SPIN-UP)
A report from a study of physics departments that beat the odds and increased their enrollments. Learn how your department can thrive!

Human Capital Development format_pdf
Report from May 2011 SPIN-UP Workshop at Hampton University

Strategies for Making Your Case
Web page from the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton University. Written for geoscience departments, but highly relevant for physics departments as well.

Physics Programs Face the Axe at Seven Texas Universities
APS News, October 2011

Electronic Coalition May Save Some Texas Programs

APS News, December 2011


APS gratefully acknowledges the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College for inspiration and guidance for the content on this page.