If it ain’t broke…

Words such as “rethinking”, “restructuring”, “re-inventing”, etc., periodically recur in the context of science education in North American universities, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Physics is one of the disciplines most often under scrutiny. Every so often, and especially when the economy takes a down turn and academic jobs become scarce, the basic tenets underlying the education of physics majors and graduate students (both Master’s and PhD) are questioned, and calls are made for changes to physics curricula.
Revisiting with an open mind, and reassessing the effectiveness of an educational system is generally a healthy exercise; some shortcomings can always be identified in the way physicists are trained. Curricula can be improved, course syllabi updated, and new courses introduced, for example to reflect advances in the field. Physics departments have been generally wary of embarking in drastic, wholesale overhauls of their programs. Doubtless, this is partly due to the chronic slowness of academia to react to external stimuli. However, curricula and programs reflect the experience accumulated over decades; they ought not be disposed of, and/or significantly altered, simply to keep up with the latest fad. If fundamental changes are in order, it should be in response to an objective crisis.

For example, the need for a “more broadly applicable physics training” was advocated already thirty years ago [0], in light of a shortage of academic and research-related jobs. There was never really any consensus on specific actions that universities and physics departments should take, but concerns were voiced over the excessive “narrowness” of the background of physics graduates, supposedly unfit to seek employment outside academia or research laboratories (regarded as their obvious, possibly only professional outcome). The same arguments, almost verbatim, were echoed a little over a decade later, in concomitance with another perceived oversupply of physicists, especially PhDs, again facing a lack of faculty jobs in academia [1], and again frequently portrayed as ill-equipped, in terms of both mentality and background, to find a placement outside their “traditional” arena. Particularly telling is this article published in Physics Today in 2001, in which expressions such as “utterly clueless”, “easily diverted from practical goals” and even clichés such as “lacking social skills” are used by a physicist to characterize the aptitude of physicists to succeed in the corporate, industrial sector.

One would think that, in a community that prides itself of subjecting theories to the rigorous scrutiny of experimental data, such a severe judgment would be corroborated by actual quantitative observations. A crucial aspect of this exercise would be to establish empirically a greater difficulty faced by physicists (unable to secure an academic career) at becoming productive members of society than, say, mathematicians, chemists, engineers, or for that matter musicians, philosophers, architects and other college-educated professionals. For, if actual data showed that physicists are on average on par with (or even better than) others at pursuing non-traditional careers, there would hardly be any reason to advocate specifically a “restructuring” of the education of physicists over that of others, and the entire discussion would seem… well, pretty silly [2].
For example, a chronically higher than average unemployment rate for physicists would clearly be a bellwether. A measured paucity of physicists, within professional sectors removed from academia or research, would certainly give credence to the charge of “scarce flexibility” vis-a-vis the reality of the job market. One would simply have to take seriously, e.g., a survey conducted among employers, head hunters or managers, widely lamenting the inability of physicists to become effective contributors in an industrial or commercial setting.
There are many a quantitative measure from which one could choose. The funny thing is, none of them is ever cited by the “restructurers”, who by and large state their case as if it were self-evident, or quote at best anecdotal evidence (hearsay ?). In fact, all reasonable measures consistently show the opposite of what the restructurers posit.

The unemployment rate in the US among PhD physicists has been consistently below the national average since the American Physical Society (APS) has been keeping track of the data, also comparing quite favorably with that of other scientists and PhDs across all disciplines. For example, during the period 2000-2004 the unemployment rate for physicists was two to three percentage points below that of the civilian labor force, approximately one percent below that of PhD chemists, and slightly better than that of all PhDs. In 2006, 1% of all PhD physicists was unemployed, compared to 1.9% of chemists, 1.9% of engineers in all specialties and 1.7% of computer scientists. Although data fluctuate over the years, on average PhD physicists do not seem to fare any worse than their colleagues in science and engineering; the same is true for Bachelor’s and Master’s recipients [3].
While it is probably true that most physics students are initially motivated by the desire of pursuing a career in academia, or in a research laboratory, or in any case in a setting allowing them to make use of the knowledge acquired through their studies (just like any student in any field, I would submit), physicists have historically found employment in a wide variety of fields, mostly outside academia [4].
How well do they do ? Well, if salary is an indicator, pretty darn well, I would say. Salaries of physicists are at least on par with those of other scientists and engineers. Indeed, despite their “utter cluelessness”, supposed difficulty at understanding how business works, not to mention their social ineptitude, in 2001 these social misfits ranked 15th in the list of the top 20 highest-paying professions in the US, according to the 2001 Occupational Employment Statistics Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. What is even more interesting, when asked to express an opinion about it, Roman Czujko, director of the Statistical Research Center at the American Institute of Physics stated “Physicists are among the most, shall we say, ‘agile’ of degree recipients” [5], an assessment clearly at variance with the notion of “narrowly trained intellectuals, incapable of thinking outside the [academic] box”. Indeed, the American Physical Society website even has a specific section entitled Profiles in versatility, describing the successful experiences of physics graduates outside academia, or even science.
My personal experience, consistent with that of countless colleagues, overwhelmingly supports Czujko’s assessment. Physics majors and PhDs working in the private sector perform quite adequately.

A comment that I often hear is that, while employment numbers may be reassuring, a greater share of physicists than degree holders in other disciplines are involuntarily working outside their field. Indeed, some data would appear to support this contention [6]. However, the underlying implications that
a) physicists failing to secure a career in a field related to their expertise look back at their educational choice with bitterness, regretting their decision to pursue it
b) it is somehow “wasteful” to educate a student in a highly specialized field if there is no market demand for it
seem baseless and gratuitous.
I have personally never met a physics graduate (even PhD) working outside academia and/or not engaged in research, who regretted having chosen physics as a field of study; where are the numbers showing otherwise ? And again, the same would apply to many other intellectuals, for example educated in the arts, from whose presence and contribution society benefits anyway, regardless of their occupation (do we really want to regard as “wasteful” to educate, say, so many musicians, given that only a negligible fraction thereof will become successful directors, cellist or tenors ?).
Secondly, even though they may not directly make use of their physics background, graduates consistently point to the skills acquired during their research-based training as very helpful in their profession, even if it does not involve research [7].
Finally, the eventual migration of workers, even highly specialized ones, to different areas and sectors of employment, unrelated to their education, is something commonly observed across the whole professional spectrum.

Another observation, not devoid of merit, is that PhD physicists tend to spend prolonged periods of time on temporary (postdoctoral) positions, in what is often regarded as a “holding pattern”, waiting for a tenure-track faculty opportunity. Here too, however, it is not clear what significance one should attribute to this observation. It is true that many physicists are willing to endure considerable hardship in order to attain their goal of an academic career, but they do it out of personal choice, not for lack of alternatives. Moreover, worrying about something like that at a time of great worker mobility in the job market, with workers of widely varying skill and education changing jobs every few years (often not out of choice but out of necessity), seems unwarranted. Again, why should physics and physicists be singled out ?

So, what exactly is so wrong with the present state of college physics education, that a “restructuring” is needed ? I am sure something is wrong, and by all means we should look for it and try to fix it; for the most part, though, it seems to be working just fine. There will always be people who are dissatisfied with their careers, and with how things have turned out for them. This is unfortunate, of course, but no more true for physicists than it is for any other category of college educated intellectuals; I am not sure that there is anything that can be done to prevent that from happening, and this is really no criterion to assess the effectiveness of an educational system and program.
By pursuing change for its own sake in the absence of any demonstrable need, in essence by trying to “fix something that ain’t broke”, one usually does more harm than good. In the case in point, actions might be taken that could dilute the content of the physics major and graduate programs, devoid them of substance, take away those qualities and features that make them truly unique, ultimately reshaping the overall physics college experience into some hybrid (e.g., some other flavor of engineering). Alas, I am afraid that some of those actions are actually being taken, in many departments. A quite conceivable, and most unfortunate outcome of this operation, may be that of turning away from our discipline the most motivated and enthusiastic students.

[0] M. D. Fiske, executive summary in L. Grodzins, The Transition in Physics Doctoral Employment, 1960-1990, American Physical Society, New York (1979).
[1] A bogus National Science Foundation report that had warned a decade earlier about an impending shortage of scientists that never actually materialized, was frequently blamed as one of the causes of the oversupply. The study may indeed have been flawed, but the contention that droves of young people from all over the world chose to study science because the National Science Foundation told them so, is ridiculous.
[2] Naturally, one may also argue that, in and of itself, a scarcity of employment opportunities would not constitute sufficient a reason to “restructure” the physics curriculum, at least not anymore than it would for disciplines such as literature, music and arts, that students pursue at the college level being perfectly aware of the typically uncertain employment prospects. In general, it seems rather restrictive to view college education as aimed primarily at enhancing one’s employability.
[3] National Science Board 2008 Science and Engineering indicators, Tables 3-15 and 3-16. Although combined data are given for “physical sciences” bachelor’s, therefore including chemistry and earth sciences, assuming comparable numbers for all physical sciences seems reasonable, in light of the picture that emerges from the report.
[4] See, for instance, this article and references therein.
[5] Source: “The 20 Best Paying Jobs in the US” by Ben Murray (2001).
[6] National Science Board 2008 Science and Engineering indicators, Table 3-16. Note that data fluctuate significantly; for example, the proportion of physicists claimed to be involuntarily employed outside their field in 2003 is 4.3%, almost half of that for 2001 (8.2%).
[7] See, for instance, R. Czujko, Realities of the Physics Job Market, 1995.

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One Response to “If it ain’t broke…”

  1. mareserinitatis Says:

    I think this is true of a lot of technical fields, although physics may be picked out a bit more. It seems like a lot of people would like to turn most of these degrees into “tech degrees” where they expect the students to learn a lot of specific information that would be useful in certain professional settings. This would, hypothetically, reduce the amount of time it takes to train someone into a position. However, this trains this person to only be able to fill a few select positions and doesn’t allow any mobility on the job. It’s a lot more easy to offshore people like this. If you get a person who has a good grounding in theory and can apply it generally, it may take more time to train them into a particular job, but that isn’t the only job they will ever be able to do. I also tend to think they’ll be more innovative in their job.

    (It’s funny you mention this because my husband and I were just discussing it the other night.)

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