FEd August 1995 Newsletter - A Report on the Department Chairs' Conference on Graduate Education.

August 1995



Previous Newsletters

Current Issue

Contact the Editor

Editorial: A Report on the Department Chairs' Conference on Graduate Education.

Diandra L. Leslie-Pelecky

In May, I represented the Forum on Education at an APS and AAPT jointly sponsored Physics Department Chairs conference entitled "Physics Graduate Education for Diverse Career Options". The conference format was composed of presentations and smaller discussion groups. The presenters, representing academia, government laboratories and industry, discussed the value of the graduate degree and the overall future of physics. AAPT Executive Officer Bernard V. Khoury provides an excellent overview of the presentations in his column in the July issue of the AAPT Announcer.

The general outcome of the conference was well summarized by conference co-chair David Campbell as `Quasi Status Quo': although the machine is running, it is time to make some much-needed modifications. The consensus was to refrain from any radical changes in the traditional graduate program (advanced course work followed by an independent research project), but also recognized the need for students to develop additional skills that have not been emphasized in the traditional program. The current system produces scientists with skills -- such as critical thinking and problem solving--that are highly valued by academia and industry; however, speakers emphasized that physicists do not adequately develop oral and written communication skills and so-called `people' skills. These missing elements become increasingly problematic as physicists find increasing competition for employment, funding, and the taxpayers' opinions that what we do remains important.

Increasing the breadth of experience was strongly encouraged. Some suggestions included: meaningful minors in other sciences, engineering or business, developing foreign language or advanced computer skills, and internships in research and/or teaching. At the same time, however, participants also suggested efforts be made to decrease the time needed to complete a Ph.D. Although deliberate extension on the part of advisors or students may be a factor, the main contributor to this problem is poor management. Advisor, student and department must all actively contribute to expediting the process. The requirements for the Ph.D. must be explicitly stated, with goals and milestones set (and periodically evaluated) by both advisor and student. Although some artificial limits were suggested, (e.g., restricting the time the student can be supported, making student progress a condition for the PI's grant renewal, etc.) these were rejected as being difficult to uniformly and fairly implement.

Many felt that graduate programs implicitly suggest that most students will find academic research positions. In reality, academia has always employed only a small fraction of physicists. Despite the numbers, the perception exists that a job with a title that does not include the word `physicist' is an `alternative' career and that the person with that career ceases to be part of the physics community. A similar problem is that of the `terminal' Masters degree, which is often viewed as a consolation prize for those not `good enough' to earn a Ph.D. We were introduced to some outstanding `professional Masters' programs that provide intensive training in response to a strong local or national demand. It is imperative that faculty, departments and the professional societies recognize the breadth of employment obtained by people with graduate degrees in physics. Those employed outside academe or the select remaining industrial research laboratories must be made to feel welcome in the physics community. While some may perceive the emphasis on nomenclature as a type of political correctness, students are strongly affected by their perception of how various career paths are valued by those around them -- who are almost always exclusively academicians. We should take the same care with these terms as we do in differentiating between mass and weight.

Many of the activities applauded at this conference are being pursued in different parts of the physics world. For example, local meetings -- such as the joint meetings of the Texas Sections of APS/AAPT and SPS I enjoyed attending as an undergraduate -- provide students with numerous chances to develop their presentation skills in a professional setting. A student paper competition, which awards a cash prize to the best presented student talk, has recently been established to motivate student participation. Most importantly, if faculty make an effort to introduce their students and help guide them through the conference, students have an opportunity to begin learning the intricate rules of the physics community early in their careers.

There are numerous other opportunities for students to develop necessary skills: journal clubs, group meetings, oral presentations instead of a final exam, participation in activities for the public, etc. Combined research/teaching post-docs give the future candidate documentable teaching experience under the supervision of experienced teachers in addition to the research credentials. A faculty member taking a graduate student to accompany her on a trip to granting agencies provides an introduction to the funding process at the feet of a veteran. Although participation in these activities takes time away from doing research per se, the end result is a better prepared physicist -- regardless of what the student's eventual job title is. All of these activities have the same goal: to formalize mentoring so that the transition from graduate student to professional physicist is second order. The conference explicitly rejected across-the-board changes to be uniformly enacted at all institutions. The implication of this is that the future of the field is in the hands of the individual faculty and students, with professional societies providing a forum for discussion of the issues.

The examination of graduate physics education initiated by this conference is promising, but there is more to be done. Department chairs are a relatively homogeneous group: the conference would have benefited from the presence of more women and/or minority physicists. I encourage AAPT and APS to not only continue their interest in this topic, but to include a broader spectrum of physicists -- particularly those in the early stages of their careers. It is especially important to bring these different groups of physicists together so that they can appreciate each other's constraints and perceptions, and share successes. As one of those `early career' physicists, I was heartened by the seriousness, dedication and passion of the attendees as we discussed problems and possible solutions. I was also disappointed at the laughter in response to a colleagues' explanation of why many junior people are angry about the current situation. In the end, what is most important is that the physics community has recognized that it is time to examine the process of educating physicists.

One of the issues raised by the conference was the need for physicists to improve their communication skills. Most often, the public is aware of what we do through the efforts of a newspaper or magazine writer, a television show, or a radio program. This issue of the Forum on Education Newsletter focuses on the interaction between science and the media. I hope their comments on how they `translate' our words and what they think the public finds interesting will help you communicate the importance (and fun) of what you do to non-scientists.