Why are there so few physics majors?

 Quote by kylem Half the people I know think that math majors spend all day adding numbers in their heads.
they don't?

 In undergrad we had about 60 students enrolled in Physics, Engineering Physics, or Astrophysics. It went to 40 by end of sophomore year, and 30 by the time I graduated. It's a hard working discipline, people recognize that and stay away if they can't make the cut.

 Quote by genericusrnme they don't?
Sometimes we multiply.

 At my university: First year physics majors ~60. 2nd year physics majors <15, including those retaking some 1st year courses. 3rd year physics majors: only 7 (myself included) are enrolled completely in the 3rd year without retaking courses. Last year only 3-4 people graduated. There are also a lot of people floating around between 2nd and 4th years who occasionally show up for some finals but with no clear graduation year in sight. First year students generally don't know what they're getting into, a lot of people jokingly blame it on that hit television series...

 First year students generally don't know what they're getting into, a lot of people jokingly blame it on that hit television series...
How can they, the show is pretty young, isn't it? Or am I getting old fast?

But on a more on-topic note: those digits you show (60 first year etc) are heavy! It's not quite as severe here. About 40 started in the first year and about half of them remain in the third year (although I thought this was already a big drop-off) (I don't know how many will actually graduate though, still doing my third and thus final undergrad year [in europe]). Is your or my university an exception? Or is it simply erroneous to apply statistics to such small groups?

 I'm in Spain and the drop-out rate for physics at my university is quite mild in comparison actually. At some bigger universities like Madrid (UCM) there are between 100-200 first year students and according to a friend that transferred from there just last year, about 6-7 people graduated last year. Average degree completion time is at around 10 years too. My uni its not far behind in that regard, unfortunately. The degree is currently 4 years in duration but it used to be 5 years. In both cases, that's including many courses considered grad-level by US and EU standards. In fact I'm having trouble finding a university to go to on an Erasmus exchange that has comparable courses to what I need to take in my 4th year.

 Quote by Vanadium 50 You do a tremendous disservice by suggesting that the only jobs for physicists are in " insurance, finance or management consulting". Students I have worked with have ended up going into: Aerospace Automotive Day-trading Intelligence (DIA and others) IT Medical accelerators Medical imaging Military Mining and Petroleum Radiation Safety Semiconductors Stay-at-home Mom Teaching High School Telecom However, I think there's also a fundamental issue - what is the purpose of a college degree? Is college simply an expensive trade school with more beer?
Yes.

(kidding)

I think the purpose is to give an employer the impression you know what you're doing, but I may be wrong ^^;

 Quote by genericusrnme they don't?

 Quote by Wheelwalker My question is: why are there so few physics majors?
I think it's quite simple. You make more money with less effort with just about any other major, so unless you are crazy in love with physics (and most people aren't), you are better off taking some other major.

 Quote by R.P.F. It depends on which school you go to, doesn't it? If you were at Caltech, then the statement would no longer be true.
Don't know about Caltech, but at MIT, the number of people going for physics shrunk dramatically in the late-1970's/early-1980's in large part because jobs for physics majors weren't there, whereas jobs for EE were.

Something that I've seen happen at MIT is today the biologists run the place, which wasn't true in 1975.

 Quote by Vanadium 50 Some might argue that the many possible career options listed by ParticleGrl is a strength, not a weakness.
Some would. The vast majority of the people I know wouldn't, and once you mention the situation to them, they decide to do something other than physics. I think it's cool, but I'm crazy.

I take the "Judaism" approach. If you try to convert to Judaism, a rabbi will tell you all of the reasons not to convert on the theory that if you really are meant to convert, nothing they will say will stop you. It's also good for the rabbi. If you have some situation in which someone gets a financial/social/good feeling advantage by convincing someone to convert, it makes it harder to think about/talk about things objectively.

 Quote by Mindscrape In undergrad we had about 60 students enrolled in Physics, Engineering Physics, or Astrophysics. It went to 40 by end of sophomore year, and 30 by the time I graduated. It's a hard working discipline, people recognize that and stay away if they can't make the cut.
Also a lot of this is departmental policy. A lot of physics departments have a "weed out" policy in which they intentionally structure the classes so that only a few people can get degrees, and they do this because they don't have the staff to teach upperclassmen, so they intentionally try to get rid of people at lower levels. One thing that I liked about MIT is that the politics was different, so there wasn't a weed out policy. The other thing is that at some schools, the physics department seem to have some connection with business consulting.

The other thing is that if you have a weed out policy this in fact discourage good teaching. If you have a good teacher, you might run into a "disaster" in which everyone learns the material, at which point there is no one to weed out.

It's really weird. Department have these weed out policies, then you have a different group of people trying to encourage people into physics at the high school level.

 Quote by Vanadium 50 You do a treendous disservice by suggesting that the only jobs for physicists are in " insurance, finance or management consulting". Students I have worked with have ended up going into
I'm getting seriously annoyed here.

People with physics degrees end up taking a "variety of jobs" because you've got to do something to survive and if you are smart enough to get a physics degree, you can figure out what you have to do to put food on the table. But having pull a "career MacGyver" while rewarding in some ways is a *pain in the rear end*.

The other thing is that I found that in order to get those jobs, I had to actively find my education. One reason that I think I've done well, is that I have an interest in things other than physics, and if I just did what my physics teachers told me to do, I'd be seriously screwed. As it turned out, I've only been moderately screwed.

I think I've ended up doing well, but I wonder how much of is "me" and how much of it is the degree. Since I'm the curious sort of person, I suspect that I would have done as well had I gotten a physics, math, or economics degree. Looking back, I'm pretty sure that I would have gotten "more money with less work" getting an undergraduate major in economics, finance, law, or management. I'm crazy and I care less about this than most people, but the fact that most people are career-oriented when it comes to college is why there are so few physics majors.

 However, I think there's also a fundamental issue - what is the purpose of a college degree? Is college simply an expensive trade school with more beer?
For 98% of the people that go to college, it absolutely is. You might be able to get people to take courses just for the hell of it or for personal enrichment, but there is *NO WAY* you can justify the costs or the debt without promising that the education will provide the money to pay the bills.

I'm also getting more annoyed here. If the purpose of college is something other than being a trade school with beer, then it's weird that the hiring and promotion for academia depends on technical specialization in one area.

If you want college to be something other than trade school with beer, people will have to fundamentally rethink/restructure the system, and most people won't pay  for it.

Mentor
 Quote by twofish-quant For 98% of the people that go to college, it absolutely is. You might be able to get people to take courses just for the hell of it or for personal enrichment, but there is *NO WAY* you can justify the costs or the debt without promising that the education will provide the money to pay the bills.
Excellent. A number. Can you support that with a reference? The highest number I have seen is 90%, and that's for a much vaguer question ("a better future") from a survey allowing multiple yes responses. The CIRP number for "a better salary" for 2007 is just under 70%. Note that concern about paying for college has fallen to an all-time low of under 12%.

If college is supposed to be a trade school with more beer, why are there history majors? Women's studies majors? And, to pick on the usual punching bag, art history majors?

If you look at the growth in college enrollment since the 80's, it's gone up 60%. Virtually all of that has been outside the traditional liberal arts and sciences: business, health services, that sort of thing. Majors that lead more or less directly to one's first job. This is especially true of the second half of this period. The "trade school with beer" model is very new - it's not something that has been present since the founding of the American universities, and it's not something that was a factor in their rise to be the best on the planet.

 At my university here in the UK the physics department is just getting larger and larger, the intake this year was ~250, up from ~220, and only ~20-30% drop out before graduation.

 Quote by Vanadium 50 Excellent. A number. Can you support that with a reference?
Personal experience. If it's different for you, then maybe you know different people.

 Note that concern about paying for college has fallen to an all-time low of under 12%t.
Those survey numbers are so wildly at variance with my person experience, that I question the validity. This is one of those, who do you believe some random survey or your own eyes? There are enough crap surveys out there that you have to go through a ton of convince to convince my that they have any validity, and even then if survey says X and I see Y, then there is still something to be explained.

 If college is supposed to be a trade school with more beer, why are there history majors? Women's studies majors? And, to pick on the usual punching bag, art history majors?
Why indeed? People are starting to ask that question, and those departments are getting their funding cut. Let me ask another question. Why to physics professors make more money then history professors, and why do business/finance professors make more money than physics professors?

Also, whether college is supposed to be a trade school is a different question from whether it *IS* one or whether people go into college expecting it to be one.

 If you look at the growth in college enrollment since the 80's, it's gone up 60%. Virtually all of that has been outside the traditional liberal arts and sciences: business, health services, that sort of thing. Majors that lead more or less directly to one's first job. This is especially true of the second half of this period. The "trade school with beer" model is very new - it's not something that has been present since the founding of the American universities

Part of it is that until the 1960's, most people didn't go to college. In the 1940's and 1950's, lots of people went into the military and Vietnam changed that.

Also, I think a lot of had to do with NYU which basically changed the model of college funding in the 1980's. In the 1980's, NYU got a done of money which they put into developing new programs rather than in endowments. Reference: Einstein, Shakespeare, and the Bottom Line.

 it's not something that was a factor in their rise to be the best on the planet.
Maybe, but so what? It's a side effect. Once you had large universities generating faculty, these faculty needed to be funded, and so increasing enrollments dramatically brought in tons of money.

The problem is that even if you *wanted* to go back to some golden age you couldn't. And the golden age wasn't that great. A lot of the reason American universities ended up on top was because World War II destroyed colleges in Europe and drove a ton of talent to the United States. Also the threat of nuclear annihilation meant a ton of money for physics. Yes some good came out of WWII and the cold war, but it's nothing that I'd want to go back to.

Yes the rise of US universities is a great and glorious story, but so what? You can't live in the past, even if you wanted to. The internet won't let you.

 Tags college, major, mathematics, physics