Why are there so few physics majors?

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  • #1
Wheelwalker
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Hello,

My name is David and I'm new here on the forums. I'm currently in my first year at Western Washington University. I am planning on majoring in physics but I am undeclared at this point.

Anyway, my question may seem like it has an obvious answer but I can't really seem to figure it out. I am in my first physics class right now. We are currently studying Newtonian mechanics and more specifically, projectile motion and two-dimensional kinematics. The class is very challenging and consumes a lot of my time what with homework, pre-labs, labs, lab homework, etc. Although it is very difficult, it is also the most rewarding to me. I have a fascination for the universe in which I live and that is my inspiration for studying physics. I eventually want to study astronomy in graduate school.

My question is: why are there so few physics majors? I understand it is very, very difficult and it will only get more difficult for me. But as long as I continue to put in the effort and time I have been putting into this class, I'm confident I can pass it and continue on. Is it the math that scares people away from majoring in physics? Is it the vast amounts of time and effort? Or are they simply not interested enough to pursue physics and would rather major in another field? Any input would be much appreciate. I feel as though I am missing something.
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
R.P.F.
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It depends on which school you go to, doesn't it? If you were at Caltech, then the statement would no longer be true.

Glad you are enjoying Newtonian mechanics. Physics didn't get fun for me till E&M and quantum.
 
  • #3
ParticleGrl
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My question is: why are there so few physics majors? I understand it is very, very difficult and it will only get more difficult for me. But as long as I continue to put in the effort and time I have been putting into this class, I'm confident I can pass it and continue on. Is it the math that scares people away from majoring in physics? Is it the vast amounts of time and effort? Or are they simply not interested enough to pursue physics and would rather major in another field? Any input would be much appreciate. I feel as though I am missing something.

A large part of it is the uncertain career outlook. If you are an engineer, you can almost certainly get a job in a technical field right out of college. Physics majors, on the other hand, end up all over the place (insurance, finance, teaching high school, programming, etc). If you want a job in a traditional technical field, engineering is a much safer bet. For most people who have an interest in physics, an engineering degree is a better path to their long term goals.

Of course, if your goal is to learn some physics (and who cares if you never get a chance to do anything with your knowledge), then its a great major. Its a good stepping stone to lots of other graduate disciplines (lots of physics majors get engineering or economics masters degrees), and its an interesting field of study.
 
  • #4
Wheelwalker
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@R.P.F.: Yes, that is definitely true, great point. I am very excited to get to E&M and quantum, although it will be awhile until I start learning about them.

@ParticleGrl: Oh, I hadn't really thought of that. Good point! When I decided I wanted to major in physics it really didn't have anything to do with what my job might be in the future. That's probably not a good thing, but I was (and still am) just really fascinated by physics/astronomy.

On a side note, I just noticed I said "appreciate" instead of "appreciated". Oops.
 
  • #5
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Some might argue that the many possible career options listed by ParticleGrl is a strength, not a weakness.
 
  • #6
genericusrnme
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The vast majority of people think anything that has anything to do with maths is super complicated and impossible for your average joe (because you can't learn maths, right?)

You've got no idea how many times people have said I must be able to do sums in my head because I've told them I study maths and physics -.-

Also, a lot of people will tell you that you won't be able to get a job with a physics degree, other see it as nothing but ticker tape and model cars due to poor high school experiences.
 
  • #7
Herricane
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You've got no idea how many times people have said I must be able to do sums in my head because I've told them I study maths and physics -.-

I agree. People always tell me that I must be good with numbers.
 
  • #8
ParticleGrl
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Some might argue that the many possible career options listed by ParticleGrl is a strength, not a weakness.

It depends on your long term goals. If you hate the idea of working in insurance, finance or management consulting and absolutely love the idea of traditional technical work (designing cars, or consumer electronics, etc) then an engineering degree is way more appropriate.

In my experience, most people drawn to the study of physics are drawn to the latter work more than the former. This suggests their goals would probably be better served with an engineering degree.
 
  • #9
lisab
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Welcome to the forum, Wheelwalker :smile:! This place will serve you well as a physics major.

People have strong preconceived notions of the kind of people who major in physics. Apparently, according to the public, we all look like this guy:

einstein.thumbnail.gif


Oh and we're all supposed to be freakishly smart and have no social skills. So that works against attracting a lot people to physics (unless you look like Dr Einstein, are freakishly smart, and have no social skills :biggrin:).

Also - the job issue that ParticleGrl mentioned.
 
  • #10
atyy
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There was an interesting column about this in http://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/201008/backpage.cfm

"UT isn’t lacking for good applicants; students are choosing other, challenging majors like biochemistry and engineering because of perceived employment opportunities, relevance to everyday life, and the sense that by pursuing these careers they will enter an intellectually-stimulating community tackling important questions. Among physics majors, such sense of identity and mission is often lacking. When faced with a major whose advantages are unclear, students choose others whose advertised virtues are many. ...

"Clearly, efforts to promote an identity would be hollow without responding to critiques that students don’t see the connection between physics and everyday life or other careers. We therefore developed a freshman conference course that allowed students to read papers, meet faculty, and learn about careers. We held a Physics Department Open House, consisting of a poster session that was conducted by undergraduates in the lobby of the building, open tours of all the research labs in the building, and a measurement of the gravitational constant g made by dropping watermelons off the 9th and 17th floors of the building. The event drew over 600 students. We solicited student testimonials explaining their career choice and connection to physics, that we then gave out in all non-major physics classes (10,000 printed so far). We developed a sophomore/junior design class in which students collaborated on the design of a pico-satellite. We also constructed an undergraduate web page that prominently features student and alumni testimonials about physics and careers. We’re hoping to expand the number of degree plans available to include emphases on biophysics."
 
  • #11
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It depends on your long term goals. If you hate the idea of working in insurance, finance or management consulting and absolutely love the idea of traditional technical work (designing cars, or consumer electronics, etc) then an engineering degree is way more appropriate.

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?
 
  • #12
kylem
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I agree. People always tell me that I must be good with numbers.

Half the people I know think that math majors spend all day adding numbers in their heads.
 
  • #13
Wheelwalker
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Thank you for all of the replies! They are all very enlightening.

I plan on majoring in physics but my ideal job would be some sort of government sponsored astronomy research position. I am very interested in exoplanets and the idea of colonizing other planets or moons. Of course I am biased, but it seems to me that there aren't many fields of study more interesting than physics.

Anyway, thank you again for the replies and the warm welcome to the forum. I appreciate it!
 
  • #14
daric soldar
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I was originally a Computer Science major when I started college. I was told that if I wanted to program video games, my first intended career path, that I needed to take lots of math and physics.

I was hooked on physics when I took a course called Physics for Scientists and Engineers. It is the intro physics course that all physics and engineering majors took at my local university. I absolutely loved it. I loved the second semester, too, where we were introduced to optics, nuclear physics, and quantum mechanics (just a small taste - nothing too crazy). Some of the topics of electromagnetism were a bit difficult to grasp (and still are), but I've come to at least enjoy learning about them instead of feeling obligated.

So why didn't I major in physics? I'll be honest: I need a job.

I'm currently working as a Co-Op employee at a reputable communications company due to the fact I'm a Mechanical Engineering major. There are plenty of my classmates trying to find jobs here, and it's really tight. Only one co-op that I know of is a physics major (and I'm betting he had some sort of manufacturing experience which landed him this job). I worked really hard in my courses at my first university to get good grades, and I was extremely fortunate to land this job.

You could say, "well, you could have been that one physics major that made it in." The truth is, it is very difficult (at least, as an undergraduate physics major still attending college) to get an engineering job, unless you have a) previous manufacturing/technical experience, b) connections, c) fantastic grades, or all of the above.

I also imagine that, although it may be easier content-wise to go from physics to engineering, it is much easier career-wise to go from engineering to physics (at least, it seems to me). With a BS in engineering, I figure I could always get a graduate degree that uses a lot of physics I find interesting (such as Nuclear Engineering, which is what I'm currently planning on studying for my MS), or I could go to a graduate physics program. I'm currently going to minor in Physics, which also counts toward my technical elective courses needed to receive my BSME. That way, if I take the courses and find I just don't care for upper-division physics coursework, I know to stick with engineering.

So, to boil it down to one sentence, engineering is a safer economic route for the type of work I want to do. I know that plenty of places hire physics majors, but do they always end up using the physics they learn like engineers do? I know, too, that jobs exist where physics majors can use their knowledge, but you also have to consider the ratio of Physics grads to these particular job openings. The ratio is much better for engineering grads than physics grads. So if you are absolutely infatuated with physics and want to do it as a career, you'll probably be okay (if you put it first before family and any other obligations, and assuming you have the ability to excel in the subject). But not everyone is a star academic...I'm certainly no genius. I'm engaged to be married, and our future family comes first in my priorities. If I get a chance to learn more about physics and possibly gain a degree in the subject after I'm capable of feeding my future wife and children, then I'll gladly take it. (Didn't Sheldon on "Big Bang Theory" mention something to the effect that, in order to be a true scientist, you have to whole-heartedly devote your entire life to its academic pursuit, like some kind of brainy monk? I know it was just a joke...but it seems to hold some truth to it).
 
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  • #15
daveyrocket
164
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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?

No one goes to school in physics because they want to be a stay-at-home mom when they grow up.
 
  • #16
daveyrocket
164
5
Some might argue that the many possible career options listed by ParticleGrl is a strength, not a weakness.

Those people probably haven't been looking for jobs in the current market.
 
  • #17
nonequilibrium
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Good question OP, I'm wondering the same (a least year physics and math undergrad myself). The posts here haven't enlightened me so far. But indeed, I too have encountered the prejudice that physics and math students have to be geniuses. It's quite irritating actually, cause when you try to fight it off, it just seems like you're a modest genius...

EDIT: on further reflection, I might like to add that I've also noticed a lot of people have a bad image about physics due to bad high school experiences. If the experiences were just bad, I would be more okay with it, but the experiences were also simply unrepresentative. They spent the day trying to measure the resistance of a resistor in an incredibly louzy manner. Maybe it was representative of 19th century physics, but I hope it was representative to no age of physics, actually. That being said, I'm not sure how this influences people's decisions: I think the people with innate interests in physics aren't going to be the ones who got fooled in high school, but I'm not terribly sure. Then again, that might be it: only the people with innate interests remain, as opposed to other majors? It's a guess.
 
  • #18
genericusrnme
620
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Half the people I know think that math majors spend all day adding numbers in their heads.

they don't? :bugeye:
 
  • #19
Mindscrape
1,861
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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.
 
  • #21
Lavabug
866
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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...
 
  • #22
nonequilibrium
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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?
 
  • #23
Lavabug
866
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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.
 
Last edited:
  • #24
Elwin.Martin
207
0
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 ^^;
 
  • #26
twofish-quant
6,821
18
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.
 
  • #27
twofish-quant
6,821
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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.
 
  • #28
twofish-quant
6,821
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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.
 
  • #29
twofish-quant
6,821
18
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.
 
  • #30
twofish-quant
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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.
 
  • #31
twofish-quant
6,821
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One other thing the "weed out" doesn't stop once you get your undergraduate degree. Once you get your undergraduate degree, there is more weed out at the Ph.d., post-doc, and junior faculty levels. Among the people that get their undergraduate degrees, about half will go the graduate school, half of those will get a Ph.D., half of those will start a post-doc half of those will finish up one, etc. etc At some point someone will take a big red stamp, and mark FAILURE on your forehead, and that's part of the system, because once you are a FAILURE, no one has to take what you think seriously.

It's not all bad... If you play your cards right, you do learn some interesting things about the universe. Most people aren't interested in learning interesting things about the universe, and even for those who are, it's not obvious why physics is better than German literature.

One of the interesting things that I learned is that sometimes it's good to be bitter, angry and cynical. I don't think that I would have gotten as far as I have without being angry. Sometimes I hear the universe speaking to me, and it has the voice of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket...

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: Because I am hard, you will not like me. But the more you hate me, the more you will learn:
 
  • #32
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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.
 
  • #33
217 MeV
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1
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.
 
  • #34
twofish-quant
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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

New is not necessarily bad.

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.
 
  • #35
twofish-quant
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Also one thing that *was* part of post war rise of the American university is massive government funding, to the tune of billions of dollars. This funding was quite explicitly delivered on the expectation that colleges would drive economy growth.

The other thing is that if I'm wrong, and I tell a lot of people that no a physics degree isn't particularly useful for getting a job, and they still want to learn physics, that's quite cool. But the question here is why don't people major in physics and that's because they think (and think correctly) that physics won't particularly help you get a job

The other thing is that the statement about physics preparing yourself for careers is highly misleading. The reason physics majors end up in IT related jobs is that there is no required certification. If you have a physics major and nothing , then you are automatically disqualified from being a doctor, lawyer, nurse, electrician, civil engineer, truck driver, real estate agent, accountant, or barber because legally, people can't hire you.

There are no such restrictions on computer programmers, so that if you have computer programming skills, then you can still get a job doing it. The trouble is that those skills often come from *outside* the major, so if you just take your physics courses, and do nothing else, you are doomed when it comes do those jobs, and by contrast, you major in Russian literature and can program, the employer won't care. And there are huge, huge internal pressures that you must resist in order to do something outside your major.

The other thing is that none of my pre-finance computer jobs were heavily mathematical. My current job is, but this is something of an interesting trick. Finance has some of the world's best salesmen and applied psychologists, so when they see that my mouth waters every time I see a PDE, they do their best to make me feel that I'm doing physics on the (correct) theory that I'll ask for less money, and they'll be able to keep the excess.
 

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