Dot Physics

Low Completer Programs

This idea comes up every once in a while. The idea that an institution should remove its physics degree program because it doesn’t produce enough majors. Right now, it is up again due to budget problems in our state.

I think the idea of removing low-completer programs is dangerous. It comes from administrators who like to think of the university as a business. If you are a business, and you want to save money – it seems obvious to cut things that don’t produce as much ‘product’. Really, this brings up several issues.

Is a university like a business?

I am going to go with “no”. Let me look at another thing that is a business – a gym (where you work out, not where you do gymnastics). What is the difference between a gym and a university? Both have people coming in to make themselves better (academically and physically). Both have people to help the people get better (instructors and trainers). In both cases the people coming in have to pay. I think one of the key differences is in measuring success. How does a person know if their time at the gym is successful? For this case, that person should be able to evaluate if their time at the gym is doing what they want. That person can see if they can run farther, lift more, or just look better. That person does not need the gym trainer to tell them how they look.

Really, this should be the same for a university. A student should be able to measure his or her own progress. Unfortunately, for many students the evaluation of their learning is based almost entirely on the grades they receive. So here is the big difference. The way we are now, students are dependent on the university to tell them how well the university is doing. This would be just like going to a gym and having to ask the trainers if you look fit.

Why is physics a low completer program?

I guess the question is: why don’t more people major in physics? Or maybe they are physics majors and just not graduating as physics majors. I can tell you from my experience, students do drop out of the physics degree program, but not a whole bunch of them. Most of the physics majors make it through the program.

Here are some possible reasons students choose not to major in physics:

  • It is perceived as too difficult.
  • It depends too much on math (I guess this is the same reason as above)
  • They just don’t find physics very interesting (that is a fair reason)
  • They don’t see the product worth the effort. Maybe this is in terms of jobs or satisfaction of the degree compared to how much effort it would take to put into the degree

My response – yes, physics is difficult. If you have a physics degree, I think you will be more powerful because of the difficultness. This will give you more career opportunities (not just in physics). However, I don’t think anyone should study physics just because it will lead to a better job. You should study physics because it is interesting. I suspect that many people have the wrong idea of physics. They probably think physics is just a whole bunch of boring math-like word problems. Well, it isn’t boring (in my humble opinion). Physics is awesome. Just take a look at any of the links in my blog roll. Most of those are physics blogs with some pretty cool physics stuff.

Of course, there are some other cool things that you might want to study also. Art and history are both very interesting – or even art history.

What happens without a physics degree?

Perhaps the biggest problem of removing a physics degree is that many students wouldn’t take the university as a serious university. Oh, it could still be serious, but maybe it wouldn’t be perceived as serious. It would seem like the university would be taking the path towards “let’s just give students what they want”. Students want a degree, so give them that. But when you start down that path, it makes the degree you give them not so worthwhile.

Comments

  1. #1 Peeter Joot
    June 2, 2010

    I had a strong interest in physics in high school but chose engineering over physics. Somehow I ended up in software (low level systems software for a database product).

    While I’ve been out of school over ten years, I’d love to be able to go back and enroll on a physics masters and PhD (but know I don’t have the prerequisites to do it having only studied engineering).

    After starting to considering a back to school plan, and talking to coworkers about my interest in doing so, I ended up very surprised discovering how many of my coworkers here at IBM have masters and PhDs in physics, yet despite it all still ended up where I did after my engineering undergrad!

    I’d be interested in seeing some stats on what sort of jobs physics majors end up with. How many end up in physics driven industry, how many in unrelated industry (like software which appears to absorb many), how many in academia, … and how many in shoe sales;)

  2. #2 D. C. Sessions
    June 2, 2010

    Funny you should bring this up.

    Forty years ago I enrolled as a physics major. Lots of idiocy and general mistakes later, I had a BS in CompSci with minors in mathematics, physics, and electrical engineering. For all the mistakes on my part, the career has been a hoot — and all of the best opportunities came from the physics instead of the rest.

    Out of three kids, two chose to pursue physics; one has a BS anther is doing graduate studies in optics. (Kid #3 is ABD in social psychology.)

    Me? With my #1, #2, and #3 priorities at “mission accomplished,” I can actually see retirement coming into view. At which point I get to go back to my “childhood sweetheart:” blow the rust off of my physics and do some graduate studies.

    Peeter: make of this what you will, but from what the kids are seeing on the job market, physics really is the all-purpose major. Not as specialized as some but a great preparation for damn near anything. Forty years later, I can tell you that a good grounding in physics and mathematics was the key to keeping current with technology.

    But most of all because it’s fascinating.

  3. #3 andre
    June 2, 2010

    I’d have been a physics major if there were jobs shooting cannons off of cliffs and ramming masses into each other on big ice surfaces. Alas, there are no jobs left for pure Newtonian physicists.

    So I’m a chemist. What you, as a physics department needs to do (and this is the secret of the chemistry department) is make your subject a requirement for other popular majors. That way the faculty is necessary and then you can deal with a small amount of majors. Sorry, but we chemists already took premed, nursing, forensics, and environmental science. Try business or prelaw.

  4. #4 D. C. Sessions
    June 2, 2010

    Sorry, but we chemists already took premed, nursing, forensics, and environmental science. Try business or prelaw.

    And thanks for that hard work. Since chemistry requires physics …

  5. #5 Eric Lund
    June 2, 2010

    At the moment our physics department has enough enrollment that nobody is talking about abolishing the major, but we did have a close call a decade or so ago when annual graduating classes were in the single digits (this is also a state university). However, our physics majors, at least the ones who declare a physics major as freshmen and can afford to attend full time, are generally able to graduate within four years. The same cannot be said of some other departments which are more popular than physics but have not been able to fill faculty vacancies because of budget constraints. Our university is relatively well off by this measure: I hear that elsewhere students in many majors are routinely forced onto five- or even six-year plans simply because they cannot get into courses they need to graduate.

    Here is where I draw the line: If you are routinely prevented from offering required courses in the major because enrollment is less than the university-specified minimum, then you need to take a hard look at the viability of a physics major. Until you reach that point, administrators should be happy that your majors graduate in four years (assuming of course that they actually do). The bean-counters will be happy to know that students who finish in four years are less expensive than those who take longer (even at private universities, tuition does not cover costs).

  6. #6 Eric Lund
    June 2, 2010

    Sorry, but we chemists already took premed, nursing, forensics, and environmental science.

    Physics is also a requirement for premed, as well as engineering, chemistry, and geology/geophysics. At my undergraduate alma mater, two semesters of physics is a general requirement, even for political science majors. Then there are the general-education astronomy courses (most universities combine astronomy with the physics department), which are popular among math-phobic liberal arts majors who need to satisfy a distribution requirement. So we’ve been there and done that.

  7. #7 Chad
    June 2, 2010

    Being a physics major myself, and in fact a student at the particular university that Dr. Allain professes, I’ve done my share of wondering what the university would be doing with my beloved department after hearing that they would be dropping some programs. Especially knowing exactly how much of an endangered species we at this university are.

    But I think the university should try to look at the other side of this coin, and the fact that because there are so few of us, we really get a chance to get in the labs and do research with our professors, giving us MUCH more preparation (in my opinion) for the years of graduate studies to come afterwards, than say, sitting in an auditorium with 120 other students.

  8. #8 A
    June 2, 2010

    andre in #3 has a start: Point out that physics is a requirement for chemistry, e.g., as well as for pre- engineering and engineering technology.
    So the metric for success of your department should be the number of students taught, not just the majors.
    It may become more difficult to hire good physics professors if the University does not have a physics major.
    (If a reader of this is at such a college, this does not apply to him/her; there’s talent everywhere.)
    Then, some of you and your colleagues bring in outside
    research funding, however small the amount, or be associated with famous research institutions (like LIGO nearby, or Oak Ridge). That should count.
    (They also should count science education, considering the lack of qualified physics HS teachers.)
    So your argument may be that cutting the physics major
    – will not lead to significant savings (as minor/prereq
    physics classes still need to be taught);
    – will lead to loss of prestige, outside funding;
    – may lead to loss of highly-qualified faculty.

    Good luck! I hope your chairman is good at politics.

    By the way, my perception of research universities is that they are businesses, financing themselves from the overhead of the grant money brought in by faculty (and of course, from state subsidies and tuition). If you don’t bring in overhead money in excess of a multiple of your salary, no matter how well you teach or how interesting your research is….

  9. #9 Cherish
    June 2, 2010

    Is physics a service dept. at your school (i.e. most of the money coming into the department is as a result of teaching service courses to other depts)? If so, I don’t think they could get rid of it without some other departments pitching a serious fit, most notably engineering. I’m pretty sure that an engineering student isn’t going to get anywhere without a decent physics background.

    As for usefulness, I think my grad studies have been all over the place, and the physics has been useful in everything. My major problem is that some fields are not as math oriented as I like. :-)

  10. #10 coldbilly
    June 2, 2010

    A university that does not offer a physics degree is NOT a serious university. It can not be. A university that does not offer a physics degree may PRETEND that it is a serious university but pretending is all that university is doing.

    This issue is not specific to SLU. Many universities like to play pretend.

    I graduated from Southeastern 30 years ago with a physics degree. There were a grand total of 4 physics majors in my class. One is a PhD mathematician. One is a PhD physicist. One is having a successful career in the aviation industry. One had a successful career in the nuclear power industry.

    Yes, it is true that there were many people who graduated with us who did not graduate in physics but who also had successful careers. I suppose three out of four of these graduates also left Louisiana.

    Anyway, Lousiana loves lawyers. Perhaps the powers that be might be interested to know that the best lawyers were also physics majors. Why? Because in a university that does not pretend, the attainment of a physics degree more often than not means that the graduate has learned to think rationally (vice pretend).

  11. #11 coldbilly
    June 2, 2010

    A university that does not offer a physics degree is NOT a serious university. It can not be. A university that does not offer a physics degree may PRETEND that it is a serious university but pretending is all that university is doing.

    This issue is not specific to SLU. Many universities like to play pretend.

    I graduated from Southeastern 30 years ago with a physics degree. There were a grand total of 4 physics majors in my class. One is a PhD mathematician. One is a PhD physicist. One is having a successful career in the aviation industry. One had a successful career in the nuclear power industry.

    Yes, it is true that there were many people who graduated with us who did not graduate in physics but who also had successful careers. I suppose three out of four of these graduates also left Louisiana.

    Anyway, Lousiana loves lawyers. Perhaps the powers that be might be interested to know that the best lawyers were also physics majors. Why? Because in a university that does not pretend, the attainment of a physics degree more often than not means that the graduate has learned to think rationally (vice pretend).

  12. #12 joemac53
    June 2, 2010

    I must be coming from the same place as the rest of the commenters. I graduated with a math degree 35 years ago, although math was the toughest subject I ever studied. It humbled me constantly, but I loved it and could not stay away. After teaching just math for several years at the high school level, the assignment to teach physics was passed to me. I was wild to have the best job in the whole system, teaching math and physics.

    I tried to make physics interesting to my students and to show them how important it was to look at the world through a physics lens. My students come back to tell me how cool physics is in college. No way can a university get away with eliminating a physics major.

    Now I’m ready to retire from high school teaching and look for a job where I can be close to science and math. I can’t afford to go back to school, but wouldn’t that be a gas?

  13. #13 josh g.
    June 2, 2010

    I was going to mention to add “competition with engineering” to the list of reasons people don’t take a physics major, but I guess that’s come up indirectly with previous commenters.

    Also:

    I’d have been a physics major if there were jobs shooting cannons off of cliffs and ramming masses into each other on big ice surfaces. Alas, there are no jobs left for pure Newtonian physicists.

    Isn’t that pretty much what engineering jobs are all about?

    I’m actually mostly serious here. There are plenty of jobs specializing in Newtonian physics, but Newtonian physics specialists are pretty much engineers AFAIK. In my mind, people majoring in Physics are moving beyond Newtonian and into all that crazy quantum particle relative stuff.

    I wonder if the real thing killing

  14. #14 josh g.
    June 2, 2010

    … the number of physics majors is that engineering has a P.Eng waiting for you at the end and a physics major closes that door.

  15. #15 bn
    June 3, 2010

    The problem for me, a current student is that there are not many jobs that i can imagine myself doing within the field (even though I’ll probably end up being a physics major)

    I’d have been a physics major if there were jobs shooting cannons off of cliffs and ramming masses into each other on big ice surfaces. Alas, there are no jobs left for pure Newtonian physicists.

    That kind of sums it up. (IE there are no jobs that interest me at the moment, that I no of (feel free to suggest (please)))

  16. #16 bn
    June 3, 2010

    This is also making it hard for me to be motivated, not having a eventual goal of a particular job.

  17. #17 Rhett Allain
    June 3, 2010

    @bn and others,

    I agree about the job prospect. If you have your mind set on going into academics, you have that. Otherwise, the future may seem uncertain.

    The cool thing is that you could end up with a job just about anywhere. APS sponsors this ‘report’ (not sure what else to call it) about where some people with physics degrees end up. It is called “Hidden Physicists”.

    Here are the issues of Hidden Physicists – interesting stuff.

    http://www.spsnational.org/cup/profiles/hidden.html

  18. #18 D. C. Sessions
    June 3, 2010

    Now I’m ready to retire from high school teaching and look for a job where I can be close to science and math. I can’t afford to go back to school, but wouldn’t that be a gas?

    Double-check that — I’ve looked into what “college as retirement” costs, and it’s dirt-cheap for someone who already has housing, meals, etc. covered. WAAAAAY cheaper than greens fees.

  19. #19 Paul
    June 21, 2010

    Though grad school (pchem), I taught several physics majors that were taking mid-level courses to fulfill the premed requirements. When I asked why premed (I had debated med school myself for a whole 5 minutes), and each of one said that they could not get a job without a PhD in physics, so they were going to med school instead. I found this surprising because there were plenty of chem jobs available that only required an undergraduate degree – although that may explain why there are few domestic students in the chemistry department at my university.

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