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Physics isn't just a way of life — it's also a career. And just like other careers, it's a lot easier to find the right path or switch between fields with some guidance. Until recently, however, the APS didn't have an organized way to pass job advice between members and on to physics students.
Then came the Committee on Careers and Professional Development (CCPD), established in 1998. Committee chair Heather Galloway says that providing career services is crucial for the APS.
"The future of physics depends on it," says Galloway, who is also an associate physics professor at Southwest Texas State University. "If students don't believe that they can have careers with degrees in physics, then I believe physics will cease to exist as a discipline. This may sound extreme, but successful departments generally have worked to inform their students and expand those students' options with respect to careers."
CCPD's first initiative was to form the Careers and Professional Development Liaison Program. More than 200 colleges, universities and government labs are members of this program, which provides tools for physics departments to develop their own in-house career programs for students and faculty.
The liaison program works simply. Each participating lab or university joins by filling out a form on the APS website. The institution names its liaison — a member of the faculty who has volunteered to act as a key link between the APS and the participating lab or university. The liaison gets periodic mailings with activity updates, is invited to nationwide workshops where he or she can network, discuss employment trends with other liaisons and learn about other programs, and can download a presentation package to help communicate all of this information to the students.
Galloway thinks the program has had some success. Still, she says, with approximately 600 universities not involved in it, the committee still has a long way to go. "We, as physicists, should put a higher priority on providing career information," she says. "And we on the CCPD need to publicize more what the liaisons are doing. I would definitely still like to see the number of liaisons grow."
To reach more physicists, the committee is working on several changes. They're planning to open up the passworded portions of their website so that anyone can access career information at any time. They're planning career sessions for the March or April meetings. And they're getting ready to better extend their services to established physicists who are considering career changes.
"There's very little information out there right now for physicists who want help or advice in making career transitions," says Arlene Modeste Knowles, the APS staff liaison for CCPD. "We don't even have anything out there yet. We've got a lot of work to do."
But both Galloway and Knowles agree that of all the challenges facing the CCPD, the biggest is keeping their information up-to-date in a job market and economy that is continually changing.
"We haven't figured out the best way of keeping our career advice current yet," says Knowles. "Right now, we get quite a lot of our statistics from the AIP, but statistics can take a long time to gather and analyze. By the time we see them and pass them along, the trends may already be shifting, especially in years like the past two."
Pat Mulvey concurs. He collects statistics for the AIP, and says that while the physics job market is affected by the economy like any other field, it is difficult to gather current information.
"It's hard to read the economy today," Mulvey says. "Economists don't even know what it's doing until six months after it's done it."
Some factors that influence the job market, Mulvey says, are the amount of available funding, how fast positions at universities open, how receptive employers in research and development are to hiring physicists, and the number of foreign physicists applying for jobs in the U.S. The market is also different for physicists looking for initial employment than it is for those who have been working and are changing jobs.
"There's just a whole lot going on, and it's such a small group of people," Mulvey says.
Because of the complexity of understanding the physics job market from statistics alone, CCPD hopes to begin asking the liaisons to report back their real-world observations of the job market.
"We would like to get information from them on what's happening where they work, what kinds of trends they're seeing, and pass that along to other departments," says Knowles.
In such a complex area, finding an effective balance will doubtless remain a challenge for the committee.
"We haven't figured out yet how to best stay on top of everything," says Knowles. "It has taken a little while for this committee to really get going.
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