The most asked question college students are faced with is, Sometimes it is asked by well intentioned family members over the dinner table during Thanksgiving break. Other times it is asked by people just making chit-chat. Either way, it can be a daunting question for students because how useful is a degree anyway? Does a college degree guarantee a college-level job or will the degree lead to continued work in fast-food or retail? The latter scenario is what economists call underemployment, and it affects 43 percent of college graduates, according to a 2018 report. Being a physics major, I wanted to know what my chances were of being in the 43 percent and how University of Wisconsin Oshkosh is preparing me for life after graduation.When people think of a physicist, they might think of a scientist with a Ph.D. doing research in a lab, or maybe even an eccentric old man with wild hair and an intellect beyond any normal person.
A physicist can be anyone who holds a degree in physics, and they work in a variety of fields. Only about 1 in 7 physics degree holders have a Ph.D., according to the AIP Statistical Research center. The largest percentage of Ph.D. holders work as postdocs or in other temporary positions, while most permanent careers for Ph.D. holders are in the private sector. Between 1995 and 2007 roughly one-third to one-half of physics graduates went directly into the workforce. The remainder of graduates furthered their education in graduate school, most of whom studied physics, but a significant number went on to other areas of study and only 7 percent were unemployed, according to the American Institute of Physics. Physics graduates found jobs in high schools, universities, government labs, and the military. Over half of physics graduates going directly into the workforce went into the private sector. Graduates that were hired by a private sector company were employed as engineers or computer scientists.
A significant portion found careers in non-STEM fields. Careers in STEM often have higher beginning salaries than other jobs and graduates with physics degrees rank among the highest starting salaries ranging between 40-60 thousand dollars per year. Physics students also outperformed graduates of other disciplines in both the MCAT and LSAT including those in pre-med and pre-law respectively, based on the 2012 data. This shows that physics majors are highly employable in a variety of careers, not just science labs. Physics graduates are clearly employable, but do recent graduates have the skills necessary to succeed in the workforce? Only 34 percent of top executives and 25 percent of hiring managers surveyed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said college students had the soft skill needed to be promoted. These skills include; communication, teamwork, problem-solving, and critical-thinking. While physics students are certainly problem-solvers and critical-thinkers, how do the skills learned in undergraduate studies translate to the workforce? Most university physics departments focus on preparing students for graduate school and obtaining the all-mighty Ph.D. How do they prepare the 53 percent that go directly into the workforce?
Career development is a challenge many physics departments are facing. But programs at Carthage College are replacing the college thesis with a portfolio, according to an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, which helps graduates stand out by showing employers what students can do, not just what they know. Carthage also offers “experimental learning” options connected to different careers. According to the same article, Florida State University offers a seminar that focuses on career choices. Students interview faculty, hear from graduates in different career fields, and practice writing resumes reflecting current experience and specific to a job they are interested in. Many universities have included an applied physics program with emphasis on atmospheric physics, chemical physics, computational physics, and physical electronics. Studying specific emphasis can prepare students to enter the workforce with an applied knowledge of physics. Universities are also including a list of local companies which hire physics majors, and the American Institute of Physics provides a nation-wide database of such companies listed by state.
The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh has three emphasis within the physics degree program. Most students enroll in the professional physics emphasis which prepares students for graduate school. There is also an educational emphasis for students interested in teaching physics. Finally, there is an applied emphasis which, like other universities, prepares students for the workforce. The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh certainly has a small physics department compared to other schools and it is always a struggle between offering required courses and having enough students enrolled in a course, especially at the upper-level. In my experience, I have had to substitute courses because the required ones were not available. However, with such a small department, the class sizes are small, professors are readily available, and there is opportunity to do research with them. “For the applied emphasis, it has been hard to increase it.” Claims Dr. Barton Pritzl of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh physics department.
“One issue I think we face is in marketing it. I believe most students feel if they are going to go in that direction they may as well go into engineering. We have also had difficulties in running the classes. This is due to most of our majors going into the professional fields. Another reason is that a course or two were once required by the Computer Science Department, but their students no longer have to take them. We are investigating ways to diversify the applied emphasis to have a few more courses in areas like computer science and engineering technology to hopefully make the emphasis more appealing. This is something that is only in the planning stages and has not had a thorough discussion within the department. It is my hope that we can make it more appealing given many students are looking for majors that they feel will get them a job once they are done with college.” UW Oshkosh faces the same career development challenges other physics departments do. It cannot be compared to other schools with larger departments and more students. However, the studies have shown that physics majors are one of the most successful and employable students entering the workforce.