By Hamish Johnston
Here’s a question for you: how many physicists graduate each year from US universities?
The answer is about 4000 — a number that has been steady for about 40 years, which is why the APS and the AIP want to more than double this to 10,000 per annum.
But does the nation need more physicists? To try to answer that question, there is a session at the March Meeting called “Why do we need 10,000 physics majors”.
I got a preview of the issues at a press conference with two of the speakers — Theodore Hodapp of the APS and Roman Czujko of the AIP.
Hodapp explained one beneficiary of more physicists would be high school students because more of them would be taught physics by physicists. Indeed, today American universities produce just a third of the required physics teachers — and amongst those who teach physics, just a third have physics degrees.
And according to Hodapp, the current crisis in the shortage of physicists could be solved in one stroke if every teaching college in the US graduated just one extra physicist per year.
Hodapp places some of the blame on physics departments, who for years have set curricula with a focus on getting their undergraduates into graduate school — rather than into jobs like teaching.
This, according to Czujko is changing, with physics departments trying to improve how they prepare their graduates for lives outside of academia. Indeed, he thinks they should even tailor their programmes to deal with the economic realities facing graduates — in other words recognizing that physicists that graduate in a recession may need different skills that leave in boom times.
And just to stir things up a bit, Czujko pointed out that when it comes to pay, physics graduates do fair to middling — better than biology grads, but worse than engineers. So is the market lukewarm on physicists. Indeed, if you look a bit closer it seems that physics grads get paid more than others because many of them end up doing engineering jobs — whereas biologists do not.
So, does the US need 10,000 new physicists every year?