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Taking the “Hidden” out of “Hidden Physicists”
Taking the “Hidden” out of “Hidden Physicists”
Connecting physics students to careers with the Career Pathways ProjectBy:
Kendra Redmond, Toni Sauncy, and Roman Czujko, Career Pathways Project Investigators, American Institute of Physics
One of the biggest challenges facing undergraduate physics programs when it comes to recruitment and retention can be summed up in one word: JOBS. Although most departments focus primarily (and sometimes exclusively) on preparing students for physics graduate school, in reality only about one in six physics bachelor’s degree recipients eventually earns a PhD in physics, and 40 percent of the physics graduates in the United States enter the workforce within one year of receiving their bachelor’s degree. These graduates commonly pursue engineering and information technology careers, but many go on to become teachers, medical doctors, lawyers, science writers, analysts, and other types of professionals.
Although people who enter the workforce after earning their physics bachelor’s degree have successful, fulfilling, and lucrative careers, physics students often do not know about these opportunities. This is because, in general, faculty members have not worked outside academia and have few professional connections outside of academic circles. Thus students who are deemed by the faculty as “not physics graduate school material” or who are not interested in attending physics graduate school are often left to explore their career options on their own.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that this lack of knowledge about career opportunities and nearly exclusive focus on getting students ready to enter graduate school can have a significant negative impact on students, as well as on recruitment and retention within the physics major. Students who need or want to go to work after earning a bachelor’s degree may become dissuaded from studying physics and drawn in by other fields with well-known career paths (e.g., engineering), even if their true interests are more aligned with the study of physics. The fact is that a physics degree is excellent preparation for a wide variety of fields, as exemplified by the “hidden physicists” stories featured in each issue of Radiations (see Hidden Physicists). Increasing the number of physics bachelor’s degree recipients could add significantly to the “STEM workforce” of people highly trained in problem solving, critical thinking, and valuable technical skills.
In light of these circumstances and with support from the National Science Foundation, the American Institute of Physics—home to Sigma Pi Sigma and the Society of Physics Students—began in 2010 a multiyear Career Pathways Project (CPP). The goals include exploring how physics departments can better prepare students to enter the STEM workforce and how physics students can better prepare themselves to enter the workforce. Sigma Pi Sigma has a history of celebrating physics graduates who use their physics training in unique and interesting ways. This project is a kind of next step in the process of taking the “hidden” out of “hidden physicists” and exposing the many options that are commonly available to physics graduates.
The project began with exploratory site visits to a set of diverse physics departments that graduate high numbers of physics students who enter the STEM workforce upon graduation. The visits did not produce a universal recipe for success, but a number of common features emerged that seem to influence a department’s success in preparing students for the STEM workforce:
- Varied and high-quality lab courses
- Research opportunities for undergraduates
- Curricular flexibility
- Communication skills as part of the undergraduate physics experience
- Faculty and staff commitment to the success of all students
- Strong community of students
- Connections with alumni
- Relationship with the career services office
- Mentoring and advising physics majors in accordance with their interests and goals
- Opportunities for physics majors to be involved in outreach activities
These results, bolstered by many stories shared during site visits, indicate that alumni connections can play a significant role in educating physics students and departments about career opportunities for physics students and in helping students connect with such opportunities. For example:
- Department seminars that feature alumni speakers are well received and offer students unique insight into career paths that physics faculty members are often not familiar with themselves.
- Alumni who serve on advisory boards or work with students and faculty in other capacities can be excellent resources for networking and identifying research and internship experiences. This is especially true when the alumni are local. (See Jim Gaier’s story on p. 12.)
- Physics students often hear about research, internships, and job opportunities from recent graduates with whom they are still friends. (See Andrew Watson’s story on p. 11.)
- A simple list of physics department graduates and their current employers alongside general physics career information can be a great recruiting tool for potential majors and their parents.
- Some career services offices (or their equivalent) effectively engage alumni in interviewing students during mock interview sessions. Although the site visit teams did not see physics alumni being engaged in this way, doing so may be especially useful for helping physics students learn to communicate their skills in a way that is meaningful to potential employers.
The CPP findings are being disseminated through reports, resources, and workshops aimed at faculty and students. There is also a great opportunity for alumni to step forward and help create a physics community that embraces all students interested in physics, regardless of physics graduate school ambition. So, Sigma Pi Sigma alumni, we encourage you to take a short break from this issue of Radiations and send a brief note to the physics department at your alma mater (or a department near where you live) detailing where you are now, what you are doing, and any ways that you are open to engaging with students. Let’s see where this goes.
The interactive resources presented in the AIP Career Pathways Workshops are relevant to all physics students. Even those who go to graduate school will need to get a job someday! Materials center on helping students identify and clearly articulate the knowledge and skills that stem from their physics background, with resources for building an effective resume, interviewing, networking, and other aspects of the job search. Image courtesy of the American Institute of Physics.