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Student (and Family) Expectations for Meaningful, Well-Paying Employment

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the total number of students in grades 9-12 rose nearly 20% from 1999 to 2016 and is projected to remain nearly flat over the next decade and fall substantially starting in 2026. The ethnic makeup of this group also shows something else: The number of white students is declining, while enrollment among Black students remains level, and the number of Hispanic/Latinx students has doubled from 1999 to 2016 and is expected to increase by nearly 50% over the next decade. Many of these students will be the first generation to attend colleges or universities; their decisions about which major to choose may be strongly influenced by parents and family members, many of whom see a well-paying job and having a positive impact on their community as key desired outcomes of a college degree. In physics, students from underrepresented groups make up a tiny fraction of degrees awarded. If physics is to become an attractive option for future students, it must fulfill these expectations for meaningful employment. The current poor performance of physics in demonstrating or delivering these outcomes to prospective students does not bode well for the discipline.

PIPELINE conducted a study of student perceptions of physics as a discipline, their career goals, and their perceptions about the role of innovation and entrepreneurship in physics education. These data shed light on the issues and challenges faced in recruiting majors. When asked to describe being a physics major to high school students considering physics, physics majors frequently described the importance of understanding how the universe works, developing a useful skill set, and being smart and good at physics. In contrast, students rarely described doing physics as a means to solve problems that help people, communities, or the world. Even more, a subset of male students stated that social impact was not important for physics, as the ideas had sufficient value in their own right regardless of their application, though all female respondents said social impact was somewhat or very important (Williamson et al., 2019). However, when physics majors described their “dream job,” many in our study hoped their careers would address problems that make a positive difference in their world (Leak et al., 2020).

What Physics Majors Say

Of 178 physics majors given a set of reasons that they would recommend physics to a prospective major, most selected understanding the universe or gaining skills.

Source: Leak et al.

So we see a disconnect where part of a student’s larger identity as a person is wanting to do good in the world while physics programs generally do not embrace that same value. Many students enter and persist in physics, but we are likely missing many capable and passionate students who are less likely to consider physics because it seems aloof. The data suggest physics educators already do an excellent job portraying physics as a discipline motivated by curiosity and scientific inquiry; however, there is room for improvement in showing students how physics knowledge can help improve our society and the world around us.

Social Impact

Students' perspectives on the importance of social impact within physics education.

Knowing how physics impacts society will help people understand what they are learning, and why they are learning it. It can also get students more excited about what they are learning.

“I think when you are building different things that will benefit us as a society you should know the physics of it as a way to expand on it and make it better.”

When asked about the importance of social impact of physics, 48% of surveyed majors said very important, and 44% said somewhat important. All female students said social impact was very or somewhat important.

Social Impact Isn’t Important Because…

Of the five students who believed social impact to be not important for the physics discipline, the reason given was social impact wasn’t necessary for many aspects of doing physics.

In these responses physics was typically described as a discipline that “can just be fiddling with equations and abstract concepts.”

Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is a valid goal on its own, and while it is obviously good to benefit society it is not a necessity.
You do not have to think about the impact on some random person in Australia while you study the collision of protons.

Source: Williamson et al.

This perception of physics as a discipline contrasts with the needs and interests of incoming college students, who are often attracted to disciplines that they can clearly connect to jobs that pay well and have an impact on their communities and the world. This mismatch of perception and reality is a challenge that physics needs to meet if it will be positioned to attract and retain majors. Other disciplines have consciously addressed these perceptions. Engineering is seen as a discipline that connects students with a clear career outcome that can have direct social impact and is successfully recruiting a far larger number of underrepresented minority students. Physics could be viewed this way, too. Ninety-five percent of physics students are ultimately employed in diverse industries and are even better prepared to utilize their broad science understanding and problem-solving skills to address real-world issues than engineers (and are recognized to do so). It is therefore unfortunate that physics is often perceived as a discipline leading to limited career options, primarily academic research careers focused on fundamental topics with little connection to human needs. These perceptions dissuade otherwise interested students from pursuing it as a major.

Engineering and Physics Bachelor’s Degrees Received by Underrepresented Minority Groups in 2016

A larger proportion of engineering bachelor’s is awarded to underrepresented minority students compared to physics bachelor’s. Although these percentage differences are small, they amount to a large difference in the number of students in each field.

Number of Degrees ReceivedPercentage of Total Degrees
Hispanic StudentsEngineering Bachelor’s11,30110.7%
Physics Bachelor’s7159%
Black StudentsEngineering Bachelor’s4,1663.9%
Physics Bachelor’s2513%
Source: Anderson et al.

At the same time, employers say that physics graduates—as valuable as they are—are not well prepared in key areas that ultimately hold them back compared to other hires. A survey was conducted at Kettering University of industry employers who worked with physics students over the course of a semester-long industry internship required under their program. The surveyed employers stated that the physics students were competent in some key scientific and technological areas and were strong at continued learning; it also indicated that physics students lacked key skills, knowledge, and mindset to be successful in private sector environments. Evidence shows that physics programs that have addressed these topics have had greater success in recruiting students and placing them in jobs and careers.

What Employers Say

Industry employers who participated in a survey conducted at Kettering University (155 respondents) and a national APS workshop on issues facing industry indicated that although physics students tend to be competent in some scientific and technological areas, they lack other key skills, knowledge, and mindset to be successful in private sector environments.

More than 80% of surveyed employers agreed that physics majors

  • Could easily grasp new knowledge and concepts
  • Were able to identify, formulate, and solve problems
  • Were able to analyze and interpret data
  • Could competently use computer applications and databases
  • Were able to use current techniques/tools for technical practices
  • Could engage in continued learning and problem solving

Employers also said that physics graduates are missing important training and experience

  • Ability to design a system, component, or process to meet a specific need
  • Ability to function on multi-disciplinary teams
  • Ability to recognize value of diverse relationships (customers, supervisors, etc.)
  • Leadership skills
  • Familiarity with basic business concepts (i.e., cost-benefit analysis, intellectual property, project management)
  • Communication skills (oral and written), especially how to tailor a message to an audience
Source: Roughani and Svinarich, Rumble et al.

Other research on current physics students indicates that they (a) do not recognize the importance of these skills or (b) do not believe that a physics education should provide them . If physics students do not recognize the potential impact of their abilities on real-world problems, they do not recognize the positive impact they could be having. If this attitude can be changed—and the skills and abilities of PIE brought to the table—not only will students be well prepared for their careers, but physics will also be attractive to the diverse population of incoming students who currently flock to other disciplines. Physics, reimagined as PIE, can be extremely impactful, specifically because of the breadth of technical expertise that physics offers. Section 3 of this report provides guidance as to how this can be accomplished.

Where Students Feel I&E Aspects Should Be Learned

Research shows that many physics students do not believe that physics classes should teach communication, business, or innovation and entrepreneurial skills.

Source: Leak et al.
The Impact of Innovation and Entrepreneurship Education