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Choosing physics, or not

By Margaret Harris

I’ve been mulling over this topic for a while, but a pair of blog posts this week has finally prompted me to write about it. One of them, entitled “Why I won’t be studying physics at A-level” appeared yesterday in the education section of the Guardian newspaper. In it, the anonymous female author lists a number of reasons why she is leaving physics, including a lack of female teachers and an “uninspiring” GCSE physics syllabus that “seemed out of touch compared with the stem cells and glucoregulation we were studying in biology”. There’s plenty to debate there already, but to me, the following paragraph was the most striking:

“I don’t dislike physics; neither do I find it boring or particularly difficult. But I do enjoy my other subjects more, so when it came to choosing between physics and geography for my fourth AS-level I opted for the latter. I thought it would be good to take a humanities subject to balance out the sciences.”

As someone who got a minor in medieval studies to “balance out” my physics undergraduate degree, I sympathize with this view. But I was lucky: I grew up in the US, which bases its higher education system on the broad “liberal arts” ideal. This meant I could study seven subjects right through my final year of secondary school, and at university, I still had plenty of freedom to explore. In fact, even after I picked physics as my “major”, I still took the occasional class on Shakespeare, history and (to the complete befuddlement of my later UK PhD supervisor) Byzantine art.

That’s where the other blog post comes in. In it, the University of Cambridge physicist Athene Donald laments the narrowness of the secondary education system in England and Wales, where “every boy or girl, at least those who aspire to A-levels and beyond, are forced into…either the square box that is arts/humanities/social sciences (AHSS) or the circular peg-hole that is STEM at 16, if not before”. No other developed country, Donald observes, asks its students to choose between humanities and sciences so early.

That early specialization has, I think, serious consequences for people like the anonymous Guardian writer. Although she concludes her article by declaring that leaving physics is “my choice”, the act of making such a choice – and making it now, irrevocably, when she is just 16 or 17 – is not within her control. Put simply, the current system is biased against students with diverse interests. And in my view (and, it seems, Donald’s as well) both students and society are ending up worse off because of it.

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  1. Hamish

    There are upsides to specializing early, especially if one is keen on a career in science. A British student can have a PhD before their 25th birthday. In much of Europe and North America, students can be in their late twenties before gaining a doctorate.

    I wonder how many British students would be deterred from doing a PhD if they knew it would mean 10 years at university?

  2. Margaret Harris

    Absolutely true, Hamish, and if you’re one of those people who know early on what you want to do and aren’t really interested in anything else, the England/Wales/Northern Ireland system is definitely superior. I had physics classmates at university who moaned about their humanities requirements and took “philosophy of mathematics” type courses to fill them.

    Interestingly, Scotland has a different system, and it seems like a good middle ground, with four year degrees that include some time for exploring in the first year but get narrower later on.

  3. M. Asghar

    One of the decisive reasons for choosing or not choosing the career of a physicist comes down to the possibility of employment in university or any other concerned oragnistion such as the CNRS in France. One just cannot pass one’s life as a temporary postdoc_- the order of the day, in different places.


    Honestly, I support Margaret Harris. I know the importance of “jobs” and “careers” and “start early”, etc. as well as the vast depth and scope of modern disciplines and specialties (compared to a human lifetime) .. not to mention the demand for inter-disciplinary perspectives and approaches. These (particularly jobs) seem to me to have less and less to do with “higher education” the older I become. (And “civics” appears to me to be the over-riding, but badly neglected, purpose of public education.) But Renaissance man or woman and liberal arts education (traditionally science, including Physics, is part of A&S) still seem perfectly legitimate goals to me (as does building as in engineering or biosciences), if you as a person are interested and motivated enough. What is or could be wrong with leaving physics for a while to study Byzantine (which by the way has been the subject of PhysicsWorld articles in the past, I seem to recall)??? You always come back to Physics pursuing anything at any depth. In college, one need not “graduate” in 4 years or specialize too much, even at the Ph.D. level. You do one thing (very well) for a time; then you do something else .. lifelong education can be thought of as a series of projects. Forcing life choices at 16 or 17 (or much earlier, at 5 or 6, e.g., academic or vocational “tracks”) seems rather unwise pedagogical practice. Teaching “focus” for some period of time, however, is an important affective, cognitive, and even psychomotor skills outcome goal.


    .. study Byzantine Art, I meant. And a really wonderful article about it in PhysicsWorld is to be found here:

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