Monday, April 14, 2008

The Extreme Deficit of Physics Undergraduates

David Harris is posting his report from the APS April Meeting going on this week in St. Louis. He is reporting on a session on physics education presented by Ted Hodapp from the APS. A listing of the issues involved in the shortage of physicists were given.

* The nuclear power industry will soon be suffering a shortage of qualified physicists to work for them. About 33 new power plants have been approved in the United States and will be starting up from 2010. That industry needs people with good science/math/problem solving abilities and physics graduates are an obvious choice.
* The medical physics industry employs about 3200 physicists, and have about 300 new jobs each year more than the current capacity for people with undergrad physics degrees. 78% of those people work in radiation oncology, and 16% in medical imaging.
* The growth of occupations requiring science and engineering undergraduate degrees has much higher growth than the civilian labor force but S&E enrollments are not growing anywhere near that fast.
* School principals rated physics and maths teachers about the hardest to recruit along with special needs teachers, primarily due to a shortage of qualified people.
* Math and computer science have about 70,000 undergraduate degrees granted each year, life science about 260,000. Physics has a mere 5000.
* Unemployment for physics graduates is very low, and for physics PhDs is an all-time low of 2.5%
* There is a need for US citizens with advanced physics degrees to work in classified areas. Hodapp says that Cherry Murray called the lack of US citizens with advanced degrees as “a national crisis.”
* The Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, the America COMPETES act, and the Tapping America’s Potential report all call for large increases in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduates.

Of course, there is a different viewpoint to this. You can read the comments posted to that blog entry, and also to the post that I made earlier that challenges the "Gathering Storm" report of the NAS.

Still, I have my own comments here.

1. The shortage being experienced by the nuclear industry is a direct consequences of the closing down of many nuclear engineering program in universities throughout the country during the past couple of decades. This is due to the lack of demand for nuclear engineers since the industry hasn't built a new commercial nuclear power plant at least during that time period. I don't think this can be attributed directly to the lack of physics majors.

2. While the employment may be "low", one also needs to look at what areas of physics that are more in demand than others and which areas of physics managed to get their graduates to land a job related to physics.

3. Traditional physics education needs to pay more attention to non-traditional jobs that may be available to physics graduates. I've seen school programs that are preparing their physics students to go into other areas upon graduation, rather than sticking with the traditional B.Sc-Ph.D-Post Doc-Faculty career tracks. Many smaller schools are at the forefront of that.

I still believe that a physics degree can still provide a rewarding career. However, I don't think that a lot of students are well-prepared to face the reality of employment after they graduate.


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