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Careers for physics majors.

What is physics? What is it that physicists do? How do I know that it is right for me? These questions are asked often by college students as they struggle with the career choices related to their major.

According to a well known text book author, "The study of physics is an adventure. It is challenging, sometimes frustrating, occasionally painful and often richly rewarding and satisfying. It appeals to the emotions and the aesthetic sense as well as to the intellect. The achievements of such scientific giants as Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, and Einstein form the foundation of our present understanding of the physical world. You can share the excitement of discovery that they experienced when you learn the value of physics in solving practical problems and in gaining insight into everyday phenomena, and its significance as an achievement of the human intellect in its quest for understanding of the world we all live in."

To set the record straight, I should also mention such modern day greats as Dr. George Carruthers, Dr. Herman Branson, Dr. Roscoe Koontz, Dr. Earl Shaw, and Dr. Shirley Jackson, African-American physicists who have made significant contributions to our understanding of nature.

As late as the nineteenth century, physics was called natural philosophy. It dealt with all scientific investigations of natural phenomena which lead to a formulation of the basic laws of nature. Since the nineteenth century, scientists have found that it is impossible for one scientist to pursue and understand the many aspects of science. Hence natural science was divided into several disciplines, physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, etc. We now say that the study of physics involves investigating such things as the laws of motion, the structure of space and time, the forces that hold different materials together, and the interactions between different particles. Physics explains how things we encounter in our daily lives work.

Preparation for Physics

What is the best preparation for a physics major? First, the best preparation began while you were still in high school, taking every math and science course possible. If you have a computer at home or if you have had access to one in your school, learn computer programming.

Learning how to study is as important as taking the proper math and science courses. Learn to take good notes, paying particular attention to their organization. Practice verbalizing concepts by talking to your friends and instructors about them. Form study groups and science and math clubs that provide a forum to apply and discuss ideas that are learned in class. You will find that if you can talk about the subject, if you can explain it to someone else, then you know it. Don't fall into the habit of deceiving yourself by saying "I know what that is, but I just can't explain it." Learn to be critical. Just because something appears in print, or because your teacher says it is so does not automatically make it correct. Question the obvious!

Dr. James Davenport, professor and chair of the Department of Physics at Virginia State University, advises that desire and motivation are key factors for succeeding in physics. Possessing basic abilities in mathematics and having related analytical skills make it easier to succeed. However, if you have gaps in your academic background, you can still get ahead in physics. If you are short on desire, you have no chance. Dr. Davenport sees this last fact as one of the primary reasons that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have been so successful in producing a significant fraction of the African Americans who have doctorates in physics. HBCUs produce good physics students because those students come with a strong desire to succeed. That strong desire, coupled with exceptional motivation and a strong support system provided by the HBCU gives rise to excellent results. Dr. Davenport sees his primary mission as that of continuing that grand tradition.

Dr. Sekazi Mtingwa, president of the National Society of Black Physicists, and professor and chair of the Department of Physics, North Carolina A&T State University, advises any student interested in physics to read magazines such as Scientific American or any popular magazine written for the layman. Learn to appreciate the depth and breadth of science and how it has an impact on your everyday life. Approach your preparation for science as you approach your preparation for English. If you expect to survive in this country, you must speak English, you must converse in it. "Also approach science as if you have no other alternative."

Dr. Joseph Johnson, professor and chair, Department of Physics, Florida A&M University, would remind you that any task for which you expect to be rewarded, and which is legal, requires much work. Physics is no different. "If you expect to reap the rewards, you must be willing to put in some hard work. One difference, though, is that if you decide to work now, the rewards also begin to come now." Dr. Johnson advises that for those who have worked hard, there are substantial financial packages that help to defray the cost of your undergraduate education. There are opportunities for rewarding summers working at an industrial or national laboratory. Additionally, should you decide to go on to graduate school, physics, unlike many disciplines, funds the graduate education of many of its students. African-American graduate students are more likely to be supported by fellowships than members of other groups.

Dr. Anthony Johnson, is the chairman of the American Physical Society's Committee on Minorities in Physics and a distinguished member of the technical staff at AT&T Bell Laboratories, Holmdel. He strongly encourages any student studying physics in college to get some industrial experience through summer programs that give a view of what it is that "real" physicists do. When asked to cite one of the things he likes most about the physics field, he remarked, "If your skills come across, then the barriers tend to drop. Physics is truly an international subject."

That advice is echoed by Dr. Shirley Jackson, professor of physics, Rutgers University and distinguished member of technical staff at AT&T Bell Laboratory, Murray Hill. "If given the opportunity to do experimental science as a high school or undergraduate student, go for it. Get involved in science projects, in science clubs, science fairs, summer work, study programs, and in summer research programs."

Dr. Jackson also cautions that students understand that all physicists are not geniuses. There is room in the field for those who work hard, who understand the basic principles, and who simply enjoy the work. She further admonishes that just because you can work difficult problems on paper does not guarantee that the world will beat a path to your door. You must be able to translate your knowledge into useful information. You must be able to converse intelligently with others.

Opportunities in Physics

As the recipient of a B.S. degree in physics, what can you expect to do? To answer this question, we will look at a recent report published by the American Institute of Physics.

According to this report, approximately 34 percent of degree recipients continued on to graduate school in physics. This recognizes that the best opportunities for physics majors, especially in research, will be for those who obtain the PhD degree. Approximately 19 percent of the degree recipients entered graduated school in other fields. This included fields such as astronomy, astrophysics, law, chemistry, computer science, engineering, material science, mathematics, medicine, education, and humanities. While the above list is not all-inclusive, it does demonstrate that an undergraduate degree in physics is an excellent foundation for graduate work in many other fields.

The report further states that 38 percent of the degree recipients accepted jobs in industry, government, and academia. Five percent went directly into the military, with the remaining four percent being either between jobs or had not secured one. For the BS graduate, the job opportunities tend not to be in the traditional physics laboratory, but are more engineering oriented. For example, at Argonne National Laboratory, Dr. Mtingwa advises that you may work as an accelerator operator or as a computer analyst. In the traditional laboratory, you could expect employment as a technician for a research physicist. Not to be overlooked is the possibility of teaching at the high school or some other level.

The starting salary for entry-level positions ranged from a high of $32,160 to a low of $21,360 (median $23,100) for men and from a high of $30,120 to a low of $21,000 (median $25,320) for women. Two factors that contribute to a higher median salary for women are that a smaller proportion of women than men is in the military and industrial manufacturers continue to pay higher salaries to women. This latter statistic is a reflection of the continuing shortage of women available for those positions. On the other hand, starting salaries for new PhD recipients ranged from a high of $49,200 (industry) to a low of $27,480 (college faculty) with a median of $45,240. In this group though, less than one percent were seeking employment.

Historically, there has always been a strong link between physics and the military and industrial communities. The current downsizing of the military as a result of the changes that have occurred in the world such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the breakup of the Soviet Union, etc., has caused the job market for physicists to be somewhat depressed. Yet when recipients of physics degrees are surveyed, the unemployment rate tends to be low. This seeming inconsistency is explained when one recognizes that the number of physics trained personnel working in fields that are not directly related to physics continues to increase.

What does all of this mean for students contemplating a career in physics. The job market tends to be cyclic. Trying to predict what is going to be "hot" 10-20 years from now is a risky game to play. Students are better off simply deciding what they enjoy doing, getting the best basic preparation possible, and going for it! Even for those in graduate school, the job you do may not be the same type as that held by your advisor. The beauty of a subject such as physics is that while you may not do explicitly what you were trained for, your broad education allows you to do other things--the opportunities exist.

Dr. Jackson believes that the physics of materials is likely to continue in importance in the future. It affects much of the technology that influences people's lives, and, hence, is likely to play a major role. Examples of such influences are in medicine, consumer goods, and military hardware. Opportunities are also expected to occur at the interfaces of what previously were separate fields. Computers, computer architecture, and computer languages are likely to be strongly influenced by on-going work in photonics. As photonic materials are studied, and we understand properties of matter and the interactions that occur, we will better be able to sign machines that employ this new technology.

We should also look at the "out of the ordinary" disciplines that utilize a physics background. There are many ways that physicists can put their backgrounds to work. Dr. Jackson reminds us that even on Wall Street, the laws of physics are used to model very complex systems--physics knowledge applied to economic models.

The strong overlap between the biological and physical sciences is expected to continue pushing at the boundaries. As the research on the structure of DNA becomes more and more sophisticated, separation between physics and biology becomes more and more blurred. Opportunities in fluids and plasma impact directly upon the energy problems of this country. Studies of turbulence and fusion will get more attention as we try to provide sources of energy to replace fossil fuels. Research on turbulence in many respects is driving the computer industry, and according to Professor Joseph Johnson, has the possibility of providing entirely new forms of energy. Additionally, many new vistas in aeroscience are just beginning to come into being. Studies in cosmology keep changing what we know to be the boundaries of the universe. The space program has created much excitement about the universe and how humankind relates to the universe as we know it.

Further Information

The National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) is an organization formed to address the under-representation of African Americans in physics and to help develop the careers of its members. The Society has several student chapters that meet in conjunction with the national organization, giving students an opportunity to both present and listen to technical papers, and network with other students and professionals. For more information, contact NSBP at Department of Physics, North Carolina A&T State University, Greensboro, NC or call (901) 334-7733.

The National Technical Association (NTA), a 67-year-old organization of African-American engineers, scientists, and technical professionals, also encourages student participation. Besides their annual student symposiums, NTA, in partnership with Black Collegiate Services, Inc., publishes a technical journal that is edited by Dr. George Carruthers. The JOURNAL of the NTA includes technical papers and general interest articles from students and professionals. For more information contact NTA, P.O. Box 7045, Washington, DC 20032-7045 or call (202) 829-6100.

The National Physical Science Consortium (NPSC) was formed to address the dramatic decline in the number of people of color entering the physical sciences. The NPSC offers fellowships for students planning to pursue graduate studies in the physical sciences. Interested students are urged to contact NPSC, c/o UC-San Diego-DO16, 955 Gilman Drive, LaJolla, CA 92092-0516.

The American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), a 62-year-old society of over 10,000 members, has as its primary concern the advancement of the teaching and learning of physics at all levels and the promotion of an appreciation of the role of physics in our culture. For further information, contact the AAPT, 5112 Berwyn Road, College Park, MD 20740-4100, (301) 345-4200.

Another organization, the century old American Physical Society (APS), has an active Committee on Minorities in Physics. Besides keeping statistics, the organization posts job announcements and awards corporate undergraduate scholarships. Contact the APS, 335 East 45th Street, New York, NY 10017-3483, for more information.

In short, the world in which you live is a fantastic laboratory. Learn from it! Look about you and ask questions. Why is the sky blue? Why does the water running down a drainpipe circulate counterclockwise? Asking and answering questions such as these help to prepare you for study in the sciences. If you prepare well for the opportunities that exist, then physics can be an exciting career choice for you.

Dr. Janes Stith is a professor of physics at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY.

Warren F. Miller, Jr. Associate Director Los Alamos National Laboratory for Research and Education

Warren F. Miller is associate director of Los Alamos National Laboratory for Research and Education. He is concerned with the strength of the Laboratory's science and technology base, assuring that they have the competencies to address emerging national research and development agendas. He is also responsible for university collaboration and kindergarten through 12th-grade science programs.

While an undergraduate student at West Point, Miller was allowed to take one elective in an otherwise totally prescribed curriculum. He took an experimental course in nuclear engineering and was very much attracted to its combination of physics and engineering. Miller later chose nuclear engineering as his graduate discipline.

After graduate school, Miller went into research and teaching. However, the leadership, management, and administrative experience he acquired at West Point and in the Army caused him to be a natural candidate for management positions.

Miller, who is affiliated with the American Nuclear Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Technical Association, says that mentors and role models are important on the road to success.

"Yes, I had a remarkable African-American high school physics teacher named Ervin Akin who taught me that you can love science and remain a well-rounded human being. Scientists aren't by definition weird," Miller says.
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Title Annotation:Career Reports: Mathematics & Science; includes related article
Author:Stith, James H.
Publication:The Black Collegian
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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