Working on a Career in Physics

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Working on a Career in Physics


Toni Sauncy, Outgoing Director of the Society of Physics Students and Sigma Pi Sigma

Toni Sauncy. Photo by Ken Cole.

Until a few years ago, my answer to the question “What do you do?” rolled off my tongue effortlessly. “I am a physicist.” My answer was more about identity than function, but I knew what I meant. Surely it was obvious to the most casual observer. I taught physics at a university and did physics research. But my career, devoted to the undergraduate physics enterprise, has evolved. I have learned that the answer may not be obvious at all. A myriad of possible answers now shapes my response to the question and structures my interactions with students inside and out of the classroom.

The American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center keeps close tabs on the physics community. From its meticulous record keeping and careful analysis, we know that more than half of all physics bachelor’s degree recipients do something other than pursue a graduate degree in physics! These physicists do all kinds of jobs in all kinds of settings. Those that do pursue graduate studies do so in a variety of disciplines and go on to a broad range of successful careers. Statistics also tell us that the number of bachelor’s degree recipients is on the rise. This means more physicists out there, solving problems, innovating, contributing, and changing the world. I do not have personal experience in navigating those nonacademic career paths, but as an educator I have come to understand that it is my responsibility to learn more about all of the jobs physicists do so that I can best prepare undergraduate physics students for what lies ahead.

As a mentor, teacher, and research advisor, I have always told my students that the proper answer to the question “What can you do with a physics degree?” should be a hearty “Anything you want!” In this issue of The SPS Observer, we look at career paths for physicists, drawing on the outcomes of a three-year National Science Foundation–funded project, the AIP Career Pathways project. The evidence is clear: physics is a solid foundation that prepares students for success in a variety of career paths.

For the past two years, my own career path has taken an unpredicted detour, as my physics problem-solving skills helped me navigate a new trail for which I had no formal preparation and walked with me through the new set of challenges I faced as the director of SPS. I have enjoyed my time in the SPS National Office, getting to work beside some fantastic people who have been part of my physics journey since I was a student myself. They have been patient and encouraging along this unexpected portion of my physics career path. Together we have forged some new ground for SPS. They have indulged my curiosity, supported my decisions, and helped me keep track of my keys (as all who know me well do). It has been my great honor to be part of furthering the mission and vision of SPS for this short time period.

This fall my career path will take me to a new but more familiar landscape filled with classes and students and faculty meetings. As I meet a new group of students and start this new part of my physics adventure, I will carry with me a new perspective about the possible answers to the question “What do you do?,” a renewed conviction for making sure that physics really is “for all,” and a new set of tools for helping each new physicist find the path that calls to him or her the loudest. //

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