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Building a physics identity

Posted by Melissa on February 14, 2010

When physics is mentioned in social situations, I often hear the comment, “Oh, I’m just not a science person.” The question of how one develops a science identity is interesting and relevant to the discussions of increasing participation and retention of students in STEM fields. Thus, an article in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching by Zahra Hazari and colleagues about students’ physics identities caught my eye.

Of course, identification with physics is only one small part of an individual’s identity; it cannot be separated from personal identity (the characteristics and experiences by which individuals define themselves) and group identity (due to associations with family, religious, and cultural groups). Hazari builds a notion of physics identity that intersects with personal and group identity, and is primarily based on four elements: interest, performance, competence (belief in an ability to understand physics), and recognition by others (as being, or potentially able to be, a good physics student). Using this physics identity framework, Hazari and colleagues explored how physics identity is related to student goals and how teachers might influence students’ physics identities.

The result that surprised me most was what impacted the physics identity of female students. In particular, having female scientist guest speakers or discussing the work of women scientists had no impact on the physics identity of female students. However, explicit discussion of the under-representation of women in physics was found to positively impact female physics identity, while not having any impact on male physics identity. This suggests tackling issues about the status of women in physics directly is more effective than band-aid solutions that attempt to paint gender-balanced pictures of science.

Another interesting, though unsurprising, result was the correlation between student career outcome expectations (job characteristics deemed important for future career satisfaction) and physics identity. Namely, student desire for a career providing intrinsic fulfillment by working with knowledge and skills was the strongest predictor of a student’s physics identity. As is pointed out in the paper, this is both a blessing and curse for physics:

“Anyone who has a physics background or has worked with physicists knows that there is truth to the claim that the physics culture promotes ‘physics for the sake of physics.’ The benefit of this cultural standard is that those who end up participating usually love the theoretical basis of what they do….However, there is a fundamental imbalance in this norm because mainly those who come from backgrounds with the luxury of affording knowledge-based motivations will opt into physics. Others who have additional motivations, like socio-economic concerns, will need to have a passion for physics above and beyond the norm in order to disregard such concerns and opt into physics….Perhaps if the physics community promoted and supported more balanced motivations, physics would be more successful in attracting members of under-represented groups.”

The study also found a negative correlation between physics identity and career outcome expectations that include the availability of personal time and working with others. The stereotype of physicists working long hours, all alone, for the glory of science seems to impact student physics identity. To me, this is a cause for concern, particularly for efforts aimed at increasing the number of physics majors, as it suggests that individuals from privileged backgrounds with no burden of economic concerns or family/communal commitments are most likely to consider physics. How can we convince a broad range of students that a career in physics can be something other than an all-consuming research career for the sake of research? And how can we remind physicists that the beauty and universality of physics is not sufficient for selling the field to a wide audience?


5 Responses to “Building a physics identity”

  1. Alex Small said

    I apologize if what comes next sounds ranty, but I think that what you said here is important; I just think that there are some issues here that the physics community (including those most concerned about this issue) have not thought through all the way:

    I wish I could agree that the key to getting more physics majors (and more diverse physics majors) was emphasizing the applied, practical side of physics, ways in which students can better themselves economically while contributing something to the betterment of the world. I work in very applied areas of physics, and I teach at a large, public, primarily-undergraduate university with a large emphasis on STEM disciplines and a large number of students from under-represented ethnic groups and first-generation college students. If this hypothesis were true, that emphasizing the practical side rather than “pure physics for the sake of physics” were the key then the things that I do would be the key to building our department into a juggernaut with a huge number of physics majors and so many under-represented students that every funding agency and professional society around would be throwing cash and accolades at us.

    The problem is that it just isn’t so. My colleagues and I move heaven and earth to offer practical elective classes, emphasize career skills, offer electives in more applied areas of physics (solid state, electronics, optics, biophysics, energy and the environment, plasma, k-12 science education, etc.), offer seminars on these topics, and so forth. We try to emphasize the practical. We teach intro physics to a huge number of engineering majors, so we have an audience. And by the admittedly low standards of physics we actually have a decent percentage of female faculty, and all of them work in these more practical areas of physics and are actively and visibly involved in efforts to promote more practical and career-oriented areas of physics within our institution.

    But which electives and seminars bring in students? Astrophysics and particle physics. We can talk until we’re blue in the face about how important materials science and biological physics and education research are to the future and their careers and contributing something to the world, and we can get some students interested. But we can get far more students to show up just by whispering “black holes.” And when we do that, we can get a crowd that includes a significant number of female and ethnic minority students. There’s just something about the pure and fundamental that draws them in. These fields promise (however inaccurately) to deliver the secrets of the meaning of life and what the universe is all about, and no amount of mathematical modeling of cancer therapy can compete with that.

    And it isn’t just us. My understanding is that, historically, the astronomy community has done better than physics at attracting women. There may be many reasons for that, not all of them related to the lure of the fundamental, but at the very least we can say that being a more pure than applied* area of science has not been a stumbling block for (comparatively) better representation of women in the field.

    Now, suppose we tell a minority student who wants to help her community that people who are well-versed in optics and solid-state physics are the key to developing better solar energy sources to solve our environmental problems. She could say “Yes, but if I major in electrical engineering I can still take classes on optics and semiconductors, AND I have a degree that looks better for recruiters when I’m applying for my first job after college.” We can tell a minority student who wants to help her community that biophysics is going to help us answer the biomedical questions of the future, and she can say “Yes, but I can study biomedical engineering or biology or public health and be a step closer to the clinic.”

    What can we say in retort? Well, we can point out the benefits of taking a more fundamental approach to the science, getting an education that emphasizes a broader view of science and technology rather than a narrower set of specific applications of current interest to industry, and the long-term benefits of taking a fundamental view of the principles underlying all of these application areas, and developing problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. We can explain that physics has unique benefits in these areas, and point to the long-term salary and employment data that AIP compiles to compare physics majors with other STEM disciplines. I’m sure you’ve seen those statistics at least as many times as I have, and I’m sure that since you’re at a liberal arts college you are even better-versed than I am on the arguments for studying fundamental intellectual fields rather than specific areas of application. So we know the arguments for the strengths of physics training relative to other fields (especially engineering), but the situation remains as it is despite these arguments.

    We could embrace the practical even more, and really aim our courses and degree options at the practical side, but at some point we become redundant with the engineering school. We could just offer copy-and-paste versions of what the engineers offer (e.g. “Optical Network Design” instead of “Fundamentals of Optics” or “Semiconductor Device Engineering” instead of “Principles of Solid-State Physics”) but the problem is that we probably lack the expertise to teach the specific applications as well as the engineers do. What we do best is, at the end of the day, more on the principles side. The most important things that I have to offer to my students ARE on the fundamental side; they come from taking a fundamental view of the technologically important problems that I’m trying to solve, rather than a more practical view. These problems need both perspectives, and even my colleagues in more applied disciplines value physicists precisely because we ARE different from them. The diversity argument extends to intellectual perspective as well as gender and ethnicity.

    So, while I’m all in favor of emphasizing applied and interdisciplinary physics, if we go TOO far from our roots we face the triple threat of (1) becoming almost redundant with engineers but (2) not being quite as good at it as them and (3) losing what we do best. That won’t help us attract students of any background, and it won’t help us serve the students that we do attract. Meanwhile, the things that we do best, the curiosity-driven fields, do seem to have more resonance with the under-represented (at least at my school) than the more applied areas, and maybe part of the reason is because that IS what we do best, and when you do what you do best you are more likely to succeed.

    So it’s a hard problem to solve.

    Anyway, I want to agree that emphasizing the applied is the key to solve all sorts of problems facing the physics community as well as society at large, but the truth is that it seems to be far more complicated.

    *Yes, I am aware that once upon a time astronomy was a very applied discipline, when used for navigation, but those days are past–studying gamma ray bursts isn’t going to steer a ship to port.

    • Melissa said


      Your points are well taken. Physics IS different than engineering. Since I’m at a school that doesn’t offer an engineering degree, we don’t have to worry about losing students to more applied engineering disciplines. As you mention, it is indeed the fundamental nature of the field that makes a physics degree powerful.

      To some extent, student interest in astrophysics and particle physics mirrors the relatively large fraction of news coverage that those two subfields get in the general media. I don’t know if you follow Chad Orzel’s blog, but he occasionally comments on the disproportionate coverage of these particular subfields and the corresponding popular interest. I’m not sure what drives it, but if we can use these areas to attract students, then we should. My concern is that some physicists (and it certainly doesn’t sound like this is an issue in your department) are too enamored by the purity of fundamental physics. These individuals feel that it is a waste of a physics education to prepare students for non-research based careers, and they don’t support students who are interested in using their physics degrees to follow non-traditional paths. Maybe encouraging broader thinking about the trajectory of a physics career doesn’t increase overall student interest in physics, but I certainly don’t want anyone to be driven away because they are interested in finding ways to use their physics degree outside the academic research lab or to feel like they are second class citizens because they are interested in applied physics, physics education, or the like.

  2. Alex Small said

    I’m with you 100% when you say:
    My concern is that some physicists (and it certainly doesn’t sound like this is an issue in your department) are too enamored by the purity of fundamental physics. These individuals feel that it is a waste of a physics education to prepare students for non-research based careers, and they don’t support students who are interested in using their physics degrees to follow non-traditional paths.

    I think my department should spend more time talking students out of graduate school than talking them into it. If you got a C in quantum after taking it from an easy grader, and you didn’t turn in half your senior lab reports, maybe a Ph.D. in quantum gravity isn’t what you’re cut out for, no matter how cool you think fundamental physics is. (Then again, I don’t know that the private sector wants the guy who didn’t turn in his lab reports either.)

    The problem is that funding agencies would disagree with you. We are always told that we need “more Americans” in graduate school, and I was once a fly on the wall when some important people* who were talking about diversity earlier in the day started saying some xenophobic things about foreigners in grad school (after a few drinks). Moreover, we are told by funding agencies that we specifically need more under-represented students in grad school.

    Sure, I largely agree with that point, and I suspect that you do too, but I don’t know that I can go to the most economically disadvantaged segments of the population and say “OK, you’re the first in your family to go to college, now why don’t you spend several years forsaking significant income before entering an academic job market with 100 applicants per job ad?” Even if we make reforms to graduate education (and we should!) a graduate student research assistant will never make as much money as a college grad in the private sector, and it will always be demanding and stressful (the transition to being able to independently formulate and answer important research questions is inevitably a stressful process that has a lot of lows before the highs come). Also, while I would be the first to say that Ph.D. students should consider non-academic careers as paths to success rather than second choices (and I suspect you would concur), the funding agencies clearly have their eyes on academics. (Which sort of makes sense: The funding agencies are there for basic research; the private sector relies on customers rather than NSF grants.)

    So there’s sort of a mixed message that we are expected to send. On the one hand, I think you’re right that we’ll attract more students if we put our energy into those who aren’t headed to grad school, and promote a variety of career paths. On the other hand, there are pressures for us to expand our student cohort and send some of them to grad school, even though the best way to recruit them may be by talking about something other than grad school. There’s a way to thread that needle, but it isn’t easy.

    Also, to be clear, it may have sounded patronizing above when I said that I don’t want to tell the economically disadvantaged to go to grad school. In fact, I don’t try to talk students out of grad school. (Unless they got that C from the easy grader and didn’t turn in lab reports.) I will support any good student who makes an informed decision to go to grad school. Talking somebody out of it “for their own good” would be as presumptuous as talking somebody into it “for the good of society” as some funding agencies would like. I’m paying the grad school application fees for a good minority student who is short of cash, because he’s smart and he made an informed decision and I think he can do it. However, if he had decided to try the private sector I would have wished him the best of luck and written strong letters of reference, and if somebody said “It’s such a shame that he leaked out of the pipeline!” my response would be “This smart guy is going to the workforce to have a good career and in a few years he’ll make more money than me. What are you smoking if you think this is a problem?”

    *Nobody the public has heard of, but definitely some active people doing important things within the profession.

  3. Alex Small said

    Shorter version of what I was trying to say yesterday:

    Suppose you do a research project with a minority undergraduate, and she has fun and gets some good results and learns some useful skills. Suppose she then takes a job in the private sector, and in a few years is making more money than an academic. I’d be happy for her, and I suspect that you would be too. However, a funding agency would be even happier if that student had gone into a Ph.D. program, or maybe (in the case of NSF) an M.S. program in science education. You may want to take a broader view of physics careers, but the funding agencies are focused on grad school.

    A senior administrator at my school recently gave a presentation to some important people regarding programs to support under-represented students in STEM. This administrator bragged (justifiably!) about one program that has done a good job, but the statistics cited most prominently were the number of students who had gotten graduate degrees or gone into high school teaching. Graduate school and academia were on the radar, but the private sector was not, even though we know that most STEM students (of any background) will not stay in academia. I don’t fault the administrator–I think this person is smart enough to know the audience, and know what’s on their radar.

    • Melissa said

      You make a good point that funding agencies and others who track recruitment and retention often view graduate school enrollment (and subsequent degree completion) as the ultimate success. I guess that focus makes my concern over narrowly defining what a physics career can be even more relevant. Why do funding agencies and others not deem scientifically trained students with bachelor’s degrees as being a success story for enhancing the scientific/technical literacy of the workforce? I whole-heartedly agree with you that going to graduate school is not a requirement for having a fulfilling career in the science/technology sector. We shouldn’t push students to graduate school if they aren’t interested or have other personal/career goals. Of course, if talented students who want to go to grad school are meeting roadblocks on the way, that’s a completely different issue.

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