Physics, Professionally Speaking

November 15, 2018
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Assistant Professor of Astrophysics Alexander van der Horst teaching his Physics Capstone course (Photos: William Atkins)

On the first day of his Physics Capstone course, Assistant Professor of Astrophysics Alexander van der Horst reveals a hard truth to his class of 20 physics majors who have spent much of their academic life navigating labs and solving complex mathematic equations: Their physics futures, he tells them, may not go as planned.

“Only 5 percent of them will become me,” van der Horst later explained, because the overwhelming majority of students majoring in physics won’t hold jobs in academia. Instead, they’re far more likely to be employed in fields like technology, engineering, finance and even the military. “Anywhere you need problem solving, analytical skills or technical expertise, you’ll find physics majors,” van der Horst said.

That was the jump–off point for a revamped capstone course that equips physics students with the knowledge needed to succeed in 21st-century careers. The new curriculum includes professional development components and a new focus on writing as a form of critical inquiry and scholarly expression. It also offers a more mentored learning environment where students are asked to design and conduct research in an ethical manner while acquiring the expertise for disseminating their findings to different audiences. In overhauling the curriculum, van der Horst gathered input from graduating seniors, colleagues and organizations like the American Physical Society (APS). He also consulted with staff from GW’s Center for Career Services and faculty in the University Writing Program.

“Our aim is to deepen the research experience… and trigger the students to consider their post-graduation career choices earlier in their degrees,” said CCAS Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Physics Evangeline J. Downie. “We hope students will leave the class better prepared for their research experiences and future fellowship, graduate school and job applications. We want to prepare them to be better members of the physics community.”

The course is funded by the APS PIPELINE project, an initiative to create and document new approaches to teaching physics. Physics Department Chair William Briscoe serves as its principal investigator and is, as van der Horst notes, “a strong advocate for revamping the physics curriculum towards 21st century careers.” The class itself is collaborative in nature, focused less on lecturing than group work and student participation in understanding the real-world context of theoretical studies. Students are introduced to timely topics within the physics community, like diversity and inclusion, as well as broader career skills such as oral presentations and resume writing.

 “These are things we don’t learn in the lab,” said Jane Peabody, a junior physics and math major. “Most physics classes are very technical. This class shows us how to actually function in the professional world. I think of this class as ‘How to be a Physicist.’”

The Wide World of Physics

With 95 percent of physics majors choosing careers outside of academia—about half of them in private sector fields—many graduates don’t even have the title “physicist” in their job descriptions. “If you’re a chemist, you look for job titles with ‘chemist’ in them. Biologists look for ‘biologist,’” van der Horst said. “There are very few job listings that say ‘physicist.’” Instead, physics graduates often find themselves in engineering positions—like systems engineers or computer engineers—or in public sector forums like climate change policy or infrastructure analysis.

According to the American Institute of Physics, physics graduates transition into a wide range of industries and careers because of their diverse skill set. That spurred van der Horst to make professional development a centerpiece of his course. His guest speakers have included Industry Career Coach Sonya Merrill from Career Services, who led exercises on employment resources and elevator pitches. Students are also required to visit the Career Services office and create a professional CV. “We aren’t learning about equations in this class, we are learning how to talk about the things we do,” said Lexie Weikert, a junior physics major and history minor who hopes to work in space policy. To broaden students’ post-graduate career choices, Brad Conrad, national director of the Society of Physics Students, addressed the class on the spectrum of physics jobs, citing a baker who uses her physics degree to calculate how much jam produces the optimal pastry crunch.

“As an undergraduate physics major, I’m realizing that you can relate what you learn to anything you want to do,” said junior astrophysics major Jason Starita. “You’re not just restricted to doing research, you’re not restricted to academia. The skills that you learn are skills that employers want.” After a summer interning in a nuclear physics lab at the University of Glasgow, Starita decided his future workplace would be outside the lab. A student in the GWTeach program, he plans to teach high school math and physics.

From left: Physics students Rohan Patil, Jason Starita, Muhammad Salis and Jane Peabody.

From left: Physics students Rohan Patil, Jason Starita, Muhammad Salis and Jane Peabody

Van der Horst also introduces students to issues within the physics community, like research ethics and the lack of diversity. An APS report noted that only 20 percent of physics students nationwide are women (at GW, the figure is closer to 50 percent), while underrepresented minorities—African, Hispanic and Native Americans—comprise only 10 percent. Downie has guest-lectured the class on topics including visible and invisible minorities and disability; implicit bias; stereotype threat; and LGBTQ+ status.  

“It’s important for me, as a woman in science, to have a voice in these issues—whether it’s at GW or within the larger physics community,” said Peabody, who aspires to work in the energy industry after graduation.

Van der Horst plans to share his course materials with GW faculty and physics departments at other universities. “There is no standard textbook for what we are doing here. Some of the activities are not physics-specific and can easily be translated to other disciplines. I'm happy to give others ideas for developing a similar course,” he said. Meanwhile he continues to challenge his students to recognize and expand their skills. In an early class, he asked students to name things they were good at. But many students had a hard time listing their in-demand professional skills beyond solving math and physics problems. “They don’t know the skills they have,” he said. “They think they need to have a PhD to call themselves physicists. I tell them, ‘No, no, no. You are a physicist the moment you get your physics degree. And there are many things you can do with it.’”