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By Tawanda W. Johnson
When you earn a degree in physics, do you have to become a professor?
The answer is no. In fact, more than half of people with a bachelor’s, master’s, or PhD degree in physics will work in private-sector jobs, according to the American Institute of Physics (AIP). But the academia myth persists, in part because students struggle to learn about careers in industry and beyond.
APS is working to change this. During the 2022 March Meeting, the Careers Panel Lunch event sought to expose students to diverse, non-academic careers. The panel featured physicists from IBM, Merck, BAE Systems, and UCLA’s Quantum Biology Tech Laboratory.
“It hasn't always been easy to seek education about industry opportunities or non-academic career development in general,” said Nia Burrell, a PhD student in physics at Northwestern University who attended the event. “I think it's really important for physicists to be reminded that there's so much versatility that comes with our degrees.”
APS members learn about diverse job opportunities during the Careers Panel Lunch held at the 2022 March Meeting.
Biswajit Datta, a postdoctoral student at the City College of New York, also found the panel helpful. Companies should offer students more internships, he said, to “help students easily learn about industry opportunities [and] be more willing to come out of the academic stereotype that they're only successful if they can become a professor.” Datta also noted the benefit of the APS industry mentoring (IMPact) program. “Being able to talk and receive guidance from people who are currently in industry is very valuable,” he said.
Crystal Bailey, Head of Career Programs at APS and moderator for the careers panel, emphasized the importance of industry careers. “Going into industry is a common pathway, and it’s incumbent on those who mentor students to let them know that industry careers are rewarding,” she said.
If physics graduates are interested in industry careers, Bailey added, then faculty should commit to helping them succeed—and APS can offer support. “APS is doing a lot to help students prepare for careers in industry, and we are here to provide resources to help educators mentor students for non-academic careers,” she said. APS supports a mentor program and sponsors webinars, job fairs, and career guides, efforts intended to inform members about diverse career options and emphasize the value of physicists’ skills in non-academic settings.
Graduates must also master non-technical skills in addition to technical ones. “The physics community places a lot of emphasis on learning data analysis and using technical equipment,” said Bailey,” but physics graduates also need skills such as leadership, teamwork, and communication.”
Panelists also discussed whether a person needs a PhD to be considered a physicist—a topic highlighted during an APS Annual Leadership Meeting session. According to AIP, fewer than one in five graduates with bachelor’s degrees in physics will complete a PhD.
Panelist Audra Macie, a Space Systems Program Engineer Manager II at BAE Systems, pointed out that she held a bachelor’s degree and not a PhD in physics, but has had ample opportunity to participate in research.
“We have to confront the myth that in order to be considered a physicist, you have to have a PhD in the field,” said Bailey.
Matthew C. Thompson, Director of Systems Engineering at Zap Energy, Inc. and Past Chair of the APS Forum on Industrial & Applied Physics, was thrilled that 150 students attended the panel.
“The demand from physics graduate students and postdocs for information on how to navigate post-academic careers, which the vast majority of them will have, remains as strong as ever,” said Thompson.
For Steven Lambert, former Fellow of APS’s Industrial Physics Program, the best part of the panel was talking afterward for more than an hour with students. “They asked many probing questions,” said Lambert. “This in-person interaction is so important, and it’s great practice for essential networking skills.”
Tawanda W. Johnson is APS Senior Public Relations Manager.
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Contributing Correspondents: Sophia Chen, Abigail Dove, Daniel Garisto, and David Voss