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Physicists: is more always better?

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?

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  1. JJEHerrera

    What they seem to be saying, though, is not so much that they need more physicists, but more physics teachers. The distinction is important in that teachers in general require additional skills; not just knowing their subject, but also how to transmit it efficiently to young people.
    As I wrote elsewhere in this blog, one of the main advantages of physics is that students are trained to analyse problems, solve them, and learn new things. This gives them an edge when they have to change subjects. Some engineering schools have a similar approach, and it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between applied physicists and innovative engineers. The border gets blurred.

  2. Lee

    I always have to laugh (perhaps with a bit of a scornful or cynical laugh) when I read about the very sad story of a shortage of high school physics teachers, in particular those with a real physics degree. I can barely hold back my tears. Yes, I am being sarcastic.

    I have a physics degree but no teaching credential. I went on to get a masters in an engineering field in addition to my bachelors in physics, so I could get a decent job, which I badly needed. I went to work in an engineering firm. But I have looked into “alternative licensing” teaching programs in various states. I would love to be able to teach kids about math and science. Maybe I’m missing some program, but so far every program I see requires you to go ahead and take a lot of education courses and get certified and then maybe, possibly, you can get put on a list just in case some day a job opens up. Of course you have to do this on your own time, without any compensation, and of course they won’t let you in a classroom so you can make some money teaching. Leave that to the bi-lingual (i.e. Hispanic) or minority (i.e. Black) Education graduate who understands perhaps a bit more about science than my dog. Then again, he, or more likely she, is probably a union member. Nothing against unions, unless they are destroying education by keeping out highly qualified teachers. By the way, I called my local school district when it seemed they were looking for math and science teachers, and, in spite of having math and physics on their list of most needed subjects, they told me that the only openings currently were in bilingual education. The lady who told me this had a Hispanic accent. What a scam! There is no shortage of physics teachers or science teachers in general. There is an oversupply. This is clear from the hiring policies and alternative licensing policies of the schools. If I am wrong, and I hope I am, then prove it. Prove it! I keep asking people to prove it. But no one can. No one can point to a program where a physics grad can find a job teaching physics while simultaneously pursuing a teaching credential. Of course, there may be a job somewhere in some religious school. Maybe it’s a Catholic school (sorry, I still remember Galileo) or a fundamentalist Baptist school (don’t mention that whole evolution thing). If I were religious and didn’t mind teaching for starvation wages I might look into it. Get real, people. If you want good teachers in physics and other subjects in high school, you need to pay. Look at how high school teachers are valued in some of our chief competitors, such as Japan and Germany. Stop wasting our time with these pie in the sky scams about phony alternative licensing programs and stop moaning year after year about the shortage of math and science teachers and start doing something concrete to solve the problem. Start real programs that involve getting paid to teach while you get the wonderful education credential in your spare time. And of course, there is the elephant in the room. No one in their right mind will enter a program of any kind where they are put into, shall we say, an “urban” setting. I might like to teach but I don’t want to get assaulted, stabbed, or shot by my students. I don’t want to work in an area where I risk getting killed if I step outside the school grounds. So again, I laugh at your silly claims.

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