Preparing physics students for 21st-century careers

Are universities teaching physics students the things they need to succeed in the real world? The vast majority of physicists don’t work as physics professors. Jobs outside of physics departments often require skills that are less important for an academic career.

In Physics Today (open access during November 2017), professors Laurie McNeil and Paula Heron discuss how universities can teach relevant business skills, without neglecting the physics curriculum. Based on statistical data and interviews, they show that there is much room for improvement.

Here are some quotes from Preparing physics students for 21st-century careers. I highlighted the passages that ring true in my experience.

“only about 5% of US physics bachelor’s degree graduates end up employed as physics professors—though others may pursue academic careers in related fields, such as engineering or computer science. The vast majority of physics bachelor’s degree recipients are employed outside academia for at least part, and often all, of their careers and are engaged in various jobs, about half of which are in the private sector.”

“When surveyed, physics graduates working in the private sector report that they regularly need to use skills beyond their knowledge of physics; figure 2 presents the data. Working in teams, technical writing, programming, applying physics to interdisciplinary problems, designing and developing products, and managing complex projects are all acquired skills. But for most physicists, developing them was only a small part of their educational experience.”

“The graduates we interviewed were virtually unanimous in their desire for more programming skills. Competency in analyzing data, distinguishing between models, and presenting results is important in many careers pursued by physics graduates. The omission of that type of preparation from their college programs puts graduates at a disadvantage compared with their engineering-major peers, who are more likely to have had such experience.”

“[T]oo often a physics program focuses primarily on the preparation of refereed publications.”

“Most physics programs also shortchange their students in another way: They rarely help them learn about career opportunities in physics, how to find a job, or how to assess the relevance of their skill set to that job. That many physics faculty members are only vaguely aware of careers outside academia makes their students’ transition to the workforce doubly challenging.”

Anyone concerned about physics or STEM in general should take the lessons of McNeil and Heron to heart.


I’m interested in this topic because I studied physics, went on to work for a bank, and then wrote a book about the financial sector.

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