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The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Why study physics? The difficult sell

Posted by Melissa on September 30, 2012

I was recently gathering some information on Carleton physics grads, and what I found highlighted what I already knew: our grads take their physics degrees and use them as foundations for diverse pathways post-Carleton.  For example, physics majors in the Class of 2012 went on to graduate school in architecture, astronomy, civil engineering, earth and planetary science, electrical engineering, law, mechanical engineering, and physics. And many of our physics majors don’t go to grad school. Graduates in the past five years who have gone into the work force have gotten positions such as a Minnesota Math Corps tutor, a science teacher at a charter middle school, a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda, an engineer at Seagate, an engineer at Bentley Instruments, technical support at Epic, a developer at BlackBag Technologies, a research technician at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a research associate at Pacific Northwest National Lab, a research assistant at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, and an investment banking analyst in the Clean Technology and Renewables Group at Piper Jaffray.

The physics major opens many doors. The quantitative modeling experience, the computer programming and laboratory skills, the thoughtful approach to problem solving, these are all relevant in many different arenas. Looking at the diverse paths of our graduates, I’m always bothered by why it is still hard to sell physics as a relevant major.  Part of the problem is that physics majors (with the exception of the few who get PhDs and go into academia) don’t become physicists, at least not in job title. Other majors seem to have clearer career tracks. Pre-heath students are on their way to jobs in the health professions. Computer science can provide a path to software development positions. Physics provides a clear track to ….? The answer is that physics can lead in a lot of different directions, but the physics major itself doesn’t send you in a particular direction. Student interests, experiences, and avocations in large part determine where students go after graduation. While the diversity of trajectories is a strength of the physics major, I also think that the open-ended possibilities can strike fear into the heart of an undecided student. Why risk the unknown if there are other STEM majors that can provide more clearly defined career paths?  My answer to that question is why pigeonhole yourself if you can choose a major that leaves immense career flexibility.  One of my favorite websites to have students visit is the Hidden Physicists page on the SPS Careers Using Physics website.  Nearly ninety percent of physics majors may be hidden, but wow, they do a fascinating array of things!

Another challenge in trying to sell the physics major is how best to highlight the ways in which physics majors can make a contribution to society. When I talk with incoming Carleton students, one of the most common reasons that science-minded students express an interest in being pre-med is because of a desire to have a fulfilling career which “makes a difference.” Students I talk with really want their work to be meaningful and impact people’s lives for the better. Physics often seems impersonal and remote — the particulars of the Higgs boson are unlikely to have much impact on public health or quality of life. Nevertheless, many physics majors choose career paths that have a significant impact on both individual lives (think teachers and medical physicists) and on bigger social problems. Physicists in engineering have long done “big impact” work, although they often work behind the scenes to make circumstances significantly better for society as a whole (reliable distribution of electrical power, designing greener buildings and more efficient transportation, etc). Recently, I’ve seen many of our physics majors interested in careers in the renewable energy sector.

The question, of course, is how to get these messages out to students early, before they decide that the path of least career resistance is to take a path that is more clearly defined.


2 Responses to “Why study physics? The difficult sell”

  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist said

    Ted Hodapp, who’s from Hamline and now at the APS, does a great talk about a lot of this. He’s the one who really helped me understand how we need to tell our students not to expect to find a “physicist” job. The other job/career possibilities you mention here are great options to have, and many of them “make a difference” as you say. I like to say that physics is the 21st century liberal arts major. That’s not to say I’m overly good at convincing people who are dead set on being, say, a chemist.

  2. Eric okorie said

    It a good eye opener. I will need more information on areas a Physicist can work

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