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Other Are we training too many physicists?

  1. Mar 8, 2015 #1
    In recent issues of "Physics Today" Th AIP in "advertisements proudly noted that 39% of high school students takes some kind of Physics course and most recently noted that the number of BS degrees in Physics has doubled from 3646 in 1999 to 7329 in 2013. Back in the early nineties there was a concern over the dwindling number of Physics graduates. Over the passed couple of decades the AIP has been fostering a program of "getting the word out" making Physics more palatable to the general masses, trying to attract more persons to get their feet wet in Physics and replenish the ranks. But I see students fascinated with Physics who are concerned about what to do with it. Has the AIP been too successful? Have they inadvertently promised a false future? Have Physics departments been too self serving in trying to keep their student enrollment up? Are they providing enough career guidance? Are there enough openings in graduate programs for qualified students?
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  3. Mar 8, 2015 #2
    If your goal is to get good work and live well, then studying basic sciences isn't going to get you there. However, the people who do study and advance the basic sciences may have their names in history books. It is like going in to the music business. Not everyone can be a rock star. In fact, if you study other branches of music you may barely scrape by.

    But those who do succeed, do so fantastically well.

    So you ask if we're training too many Physics students. The answer is the same as it would be for studying music. Most will scrape a living somehow. And some will discover the sorts of things that you read in history books. So is it too many? I don't know. What is too many?
  4. Mar 8, 2015 #3


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    That is not true. Most jobs physicists work in (note: this is not necessarily "a job for physicists") are well-paid. You don't get rich (even scientists that end up in history books rarely get rich, and certainly not from their regular salary), but it is certainly above the average. You never hear about the scientists that improved the magnitude of the giant magnetoresistance effect for your specific type of hard drive (or whatever), but that does not mean he they would not exist.
  5. Mar 8, 2015 #4

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    I agree.

    I was deciding between music and science as a career when I was in high school. I have done much better as an above average scientist than I would have as an above average musician. :wink:
  6. Mar 8, 2015 #5


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    The first thing to keep in mind is that the AIP publishes statistics on physics graduates - levels of unemployment, sectors in which graduates find employment, starting salaries, etc.
    So I don't think they're trying to pull a fast one on anybody.

    I do think that a lot of students would be better served if they understood that by going into physics they are not being trained to enter a profession and that there is not going to be a professorship waiting for them at the end of the road, complete with stable research funding. Of course, at the same time, I've always thought this should have been self-evident and wouldn't need an initiative from the AIP.
  7. Mar 9, 2015 #6
    It is true that the AIP is a good source of professional information and opportunities for prospective students. But how aware are they of this resource especially when planning a career?

    And I agree that they were not trying to pull a fast one, But has this resulted in inadvertent false promises. I believe that there was a sincere concern that Physics departments would loose status and support if their enrollment tailed off to much and that they would be relegated to providing service courses to other departments.

    And yes prospective physics students should understand that the opportunities for an academic career is very competitive and limited. but I disagree with the statement that they are not being trained for a profession for what ever they end up doing either in research and or implementation of established knowledge they require specialized knowledge and training after a long and intensive academic preparation for that endeavor just as a teacher, professor, lawyer, clergy or physician does. They are not just provided with knowledge, but trained to think, plan, contribute independently to the betterment of mankind as well as themselves.
  8. Mar 9, 2015 #7
    Be very careful to note the constraints and explanations when reading the statistics.

    In one report they wrote

    "The physics PhD classes of 2011 and 2012 consisted of 1,688 and 1,762 respectively. We received post-degree information on about 57% of these degree recipients. About 60% of these responses came from PhD recipients themselves, while the other 40% came from advisors."​

    (See page 5 of http://www.aip.org/sites/default/files/statistics/employment/phdinitemp-p-12.pdf )

    That infers that over 40% the outcomes of the Postdocs are not known and 22% of the overall responses are from indirect information. It is not unrealistic to infer that the responses to such a survey may be self selecting. In other words, if they're working at a coffee shop, they may not want to respond. If they're working for the Peace Corp, they may not be able to respond. If they're working on an oil field in South Dakota, they may not have time to respond.

    Also note that after two years many had gone in to Engineering or Software.

    I'm not trying to beat up on AIP, and for that matter, I'm not saying anything about getting a Ph.D in Physics. Academia and government is not an easy place to find employment, nor is the work environment the sort of thing that many yearned for when they started that endeavor.

    All I'm saying is that one should be realistic about goals and purpose for the study. Realize that one may not be able to find employment in exactly what was sought. Do not fixate on that one goal. It may well be achievable. But it may not be what you thought it was; the lifestyle may be more difficult that what you expected; or you may be one of those people whose social needs have changed.

    This is true for virtually any degree, but it is even more true for those who study year after year to get that postDoc and then... what?
  9. Mar 9, 2015 #8
    Just for the record my post was not for my own concerns for employment. I am a retired physicist just thinking about persons not finding what they were seeking or may have inadvertently been led to seek.
  10. Mar 9, 2015 #9


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    When I say "not being trained to enter a profession" what I mean is that they will not graduate with a recognized credential for entry into a specific professional field. Contrast this with a degree in engineering for example, where new graduates are reconized as qualified for entry-level positions in the field. In some cases physics graduates may be just as skilled or qualified, but they will always face that initial hurdle of convincing the employer of this and often in a scenario where the qualified engineering graduates have already saturated the inbox. Studying physics will give one an education in physics, but not a recognized professional credential.

    That said, I can't help, but wonder if perhaps the question should be a little different. If we were to agree that we are in fact training too many physicists, that begs the question - what is the appropriate number? Should undergraduate positions be limited to the number of graduate positions? Should graduate positions be limited to the number of professor positions in academia?

    Instead, might we ask, is there a way to make a standard physics undergraduate degree more relevant? More economically viable? Should it, for example lean more towards an engineering physics degree, where graduates are qualifed to become engineers, but also poise the students to go on to graduate school in physics? Should it come with a teaching qualification? Or what about offering options for merging physics with finance? With geology for entry into geophysics? With medicine for entry into medical physics?
  11. Mar 9, 2015 #10
    What is the appropriate number?: It will be known in retrospect but a prospective estimate is difficult. Could we set criteria? as:

    Limit the number to graduate positions: but that assumes all are going to enter graduate school or are in fact qualified to do so. And how are graduate positions regulated.

    Limit the number to academic positions: But that assumes that physicists only become professors. We "know" from the AIP that 90% of physicists do not have jobs that are described as a physics position. They call them "Hidden Physicists"

    Then what? I think at one time it was self limiting: reputation of being difficult, requiring more self discipline and commitment than most undergraduates could muster. Perhaps early intervention of underachievers would be appropriate or a faculty more involved and interested in the students future.

    Relevancy: "Deja vu" all over again. The sixties was the dawn of relevancy. Student screamed for relevant courses. I know of three persons in my graduate research lab that left physics for relevancy including oceanography and civil engineering. Although interdisciplinary programs existed they were considered for the "losers" but it was a wakeup call in any event. Hybrid programs are now welcomed as true science. Physics shed off those who could not see relevancy in pure physics. As I stated above we only now are producing BS graduates at a rate of the late sixties early seventies. But now we must share the job market with the likes of engineers, chemists, biologists who have training in physics. To be sure BS Physicists are not excluded from graduate programs in Biophysics, bioengineering, geophysics, finance or information technology, or any other interdisciplinary programs. Such a step though would require more time to make up for missing course work. Are they prepared for that on top of the uncertainty associated with a research project.

    Preparing them to teach: Physics Education programs already exists. Aside: in the most recent issue of "Physics Today" it was noted that a recent survey o 3500 high schools in the US in 2012-2013, 27,000 teachers taught at least one physics course in that academic year. Of that number 8,000 held a degree in physics.

    One thing one might do is ask current physics degree holders in the work force if they had to do it all over again would they? Was it worth the effort in terms of personal satisfaction and life style that it provide them.

    What we should not want to ever happen again is to create a demand or need for a discipline and then pull the rug out from under them as what happened in NASA 45 years ago. Could this happen with the LHC?
  12. Mar 9, 2015 #11
    If many of the BS/PhD's in physics were starving or flipping burgers I'd say yes, but to my knowledge many of them are making upper middle class wages in interesting or at least reasonable employment. The fact that most do not become professors is hardly an issue; most fields of physics seem pretty saturated, and driven by a fairly small number of individuals as it is without piling on more.
  13. Mar 9, 2015 #12
    Yes, I think we are. The question presumes that physics education is for becoming a physicist. There are far more qualified candidates than positions. Furthermore, there are even more trained (degreed) people than there are qualified people.

    I think the question could be opened up more though, including people not becoming a physicist. But in that case I still don't see a deficit of physics training. I'm a new engineer and I use 0% of my physics education on the job. Most of my fellow physics grads use little to none of their physics education on the job. Most jobs don't really care if you can show bessel functions are orthogonal or that you can write a script to calculate clebsch-gordan coefficients. Undergraduate physics knowledge is a dime a dozen and is not very useful. Its fun though.

    The fact that many are upper middle class in at least reasonable employment is not germane IMO. In my experience my fellow physics classmates were largely already upper middle class and fairly well off to begin with. They are not going to struggle whether they did a physics degree or not.

    Sure. There is no reason at all to push somebody into physics. If they want it, they will go into it. Pushing somebody into may not be in their best interest and often it is not. Both my undergrad and grad educations were filled with self-loathing about how the students were too male. They wanted more females so bad that they would give girls a hard time if they tried to quit. I still remember watching one of my professors lecture/encourage a girl not to quit physics even though she hated it. It was ridiculous. She said she would stay, but then never came back... lol. I don't doubt she made the right decision. The life path that professor was trying to push her on is not good for most people.

    I got zero as an undergraduate and zero as a graduate student at two different institutions. I had to become an engineering major and take engineering classes to get into a network and get a job.

    Depends on the program I guess. They had about twice as many students accept and join grad school as they wanted the year I started. So about half of us got pushed out or quit. I think that other programs have lower attrition rates. Nearly all the physics grads I have meet or worked with have gotten into a grad program that they wanted to (just maybe not at the school they wanted too).
  14. Mar 9, 2015 #13
    After getting my PhD in theoretical physics, I became a software developer (with zero background in programming). The transition has been successful. However, nothing I did in grad school, or as an undergrad for that matter, has contributed to that success. I was just as prepared to be a software developer the day I graduated high school as I was the day I got my PhD. My experience in grad school didn’t help me at all, it was more of a case that the attributes that allowed me to succeed in grad also allowed me to succeed in software.

    In terms of money the opportunity costs for getting a PhD were pretty high, but I wouldn’t say I regret it. I basically got to spend a few years doing something I really liked and learned some interesting things. I was pretty much funded with public money, which basically trained me for a fairly specific job that’s completely irrelevant for what I’m currently doing. I’m hardly the only one. In that sense I would say there are too many physicists being trained.
  15. Mar 9, 2015 #14


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    The Chinese want to build a circular collider, Japan is interested in a linear collider and various neutrino experiments are planned or under construction. Oh, and we should not forget the tens of thousands of accelerators that are used in industry (although with a different purpose than particle physics).

    You might learn how to show that bessel functions are orthogonal. But what you also learn is how to solve a problem that you did not see before. And that is much more universal than bessel functions.
    Analyzing stock markets and particle collisions is not so different - you have to learn the new vocabulary, you might have to replace bessel functions by Chebyshev polynomials (or whatever), but you are still analyzing data.
  16. Mar 10, 2015 #15
    Perhaps people interested in making money and financial stability should not pursue physics, then? Getting a PhD does not entitle you to a good job, nor should it. If you want a job, then one would naturally study in a professional field or a skilled trade.

    Personally, I still would get a PhD knowing with certainty there won't be any job at the end. But, that's because I am not getting the PhD for career and financial purposes, but rather to explore my academic interests. I have a feeling most people who are currently doing their PhDs or plan would agree. It wouldn't at all bother me if I couldn't find anything more sophisticated than digging ditches for a living.

    Again, if you care about things like job prospects and money, going into physics will likely be a major mistake. You're best served going into a profession such as engineering or a money-oriented industry such as finance.
  17. Mar 10, 2015 #16
    Thinking the way you're suggesting is a major mistake, whether your career path is physics or not.
    Last edited: Mar 10, 2015
  18. Mar 10, 2015 #17
    The financial industry in the US has shed tens of thousands of jobs a year for several years. 2014 finally saw things come around a bit, but I wonder why you are so ready to send people to that industry; the past few years have not been kind to analysts in that sector.
  19. Mar 10, 2015 #18


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    Then the question that is worth asking (and from which this thread is largely about) is whether pursuing physics degree is actually worth it, in the sense that a physics degree can actually provide its graduates with tools needed to find some form of employment that utilizes the skillset they have supposedly gained from the degree.

    And if the answer to the question is "no", then the following questions may be worth asking:

    (1) Is there a way to make undergraduate physics degrees more relevant? (an issue that Choppy brought up earlier)

    (2) If not physics, then what should someone with a similar scientific interest pursue instead to maximize the chances of finding suitable employment that in fact does utilize the skills they have learned in school?
  20. Mar 10, 2015 #19
    If the physics degree one gets does not include coursework with significant programming or hands on experimentation/electronics experiences (whether they be class work or REU's/Internships) and only includes the typical physics 1-2, modern physics, thermo, EM, QM, CM, and Stat Mech sequences and maybe some other purely theoretical electives than the answer will typically be no (unless one wants to teach).

    There are many ways to make a physics degree more relevant, but that involves changing the standard physics degree to include more programming, engineering, and statistics coursework. For example, UCF offers physics degrees but specializations in computation, material science, optics, and others:

    http://physics.cos.ucf.edu/undergraduate/degrees/ [Broken]

    Many schools offer what are called engineering physics bachelors which combine physics with some engineering specialization (where they take the junior/senior level physics coursework appropriate for their specialization), for example:

    http://www.engin.umich.edu/college/academics/bulletin/depts/engin-phys (Michigan)

    http://engsci.utoronto.ca/explore_our_program/majors/engineering_physics/ (Toronto)

    Engineering is probably the closest thing for someone with a scientific interest that will maximize the chances of finding employment, but it would involve broadening horizons for people whose interest is in finding things out about the physical world for the sake of the knowledge versus using said knowledge to build things.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
  21. Mar 10, 2015 #20

    In my experience undergraduate physics programs aggressively avoid those changes, and I figured out fast that suggesting or being associated with that kind of thinking was damaging to my relationship with professors and administration.

    There are programs I've heard about second hand that do a better job, but they tend to be at smaller schools.

    I'd be interested in what other physics grads experience with this was.
  22. Mar 10, 2015 #21
    What makes you say that? Do you think then that people interested in making money and job prospects should pursue a purely academic discipline such as physics? Please elaborate.

    I feel you're nitpicking here. While I'm not too sure about the current state of the financial industry, it still is one of the main industries that people work in for the sole purpose of making money. All I was saying in my post is that there are jobs and industries that are more accommodating of one's interests in having good job prospects or earning large amounts of money.

    Why should the degree need to change to accommodate a handful of people who shouldn't be in physics in the first place? The physics degree, as offered by most schools, already imparts a rather sufficient education as I'm sure most academics would agree.
  23. Mar 10, 2015 #22
    Physicists need to worry about money and job prospects just like everybody else. Not being concerned about what your job will be post graduation is stupid. It really is a non-issue as to whether your discipline is academic or not.
  24. Mar 10, 2015 #23
    Dragoon, why do you think physics is a purely academic discipline? Do you imagine that industrial research or even day to day engineering services can take place without a knowledge of physics?

    I acknowledge that many people live in the ivory tower of academia, but to state that physics has no practical applications (or perhaps you have a different notion of pure academia) and imply that engineers don't need it or that only pure academics should study it is a perversion of logic.

    I may as well say engineering is a purely trivial discipline since you are just stating obvious application of physicists work. This is ridiculous. Do we really have such a hard time accepting that there are no such separation of disciplines, and in reality we are just finding ways to understand and manipulate nature?
  25. Mar 10, 2015 #24
    I disagree. Rather, I think it is a matter of priorities. If job prospects are important to a student upon graduation, going into physics might be a major mistake. Just about any job in industry that can be done by a physicist with a significant amount of training can also be done by a graduate with the relevant credential and already has a sufficient amount of training for that job under their belt. As industry becomes more stringent about possessing the required credential to even qualify for an interview, the standard industry options of physicists will continue to erode. Hence, one is truly setting themselves up for disappointment and failure if they believe studying physics will net them a good job. For a few, it definitely will, but for most getting a good will be largely independent of their education.

    For some reason, people here tend to look at a physics graduate program as if its some form of professional training. A more accurate comparison would be with an art history graduate program. Surely you don't think studying someone pursuing art history in graduate school should be too concerned with job prospects? Because if they are, they chose the wrong field.
  26. Mar 10, 2015 #25
    Surprise, I disagree! ;) The financial industry has shed more than a half million of jobs in less than a decade, and employees there don't make nearly as much money as most people think. There are some quant jobs that are good, but the number and nature of those jobs changed dramatically after 2008.

    Beware using it as an example of where people should head instead of physics - it's not a good one!
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