Credit: Freddie Pagani for Physics Today
Topics: African Americans, Diversity in Science, Electrical Engineering, Materials Science, Physics
Students should strategically consider where to apply to graduate school, and faculty members should provide up-to-date job resources so that undergraduates can make informed career decisions.
The number of bachelor’s degrees in physics awarded annually at US institutions is at or near an all-time high—nearly double what it was two decades ago. Yet the number of first-year physics graduate students has grown much more slowly, at only around 1–2% per year. The difference in the growth rates of bachelor’s recipients and graduate spots may be increasing the competition that students face when interested in pursuing graduate study.
With potentially more students applying for a relatively fixed number of first-year graduate openings, students may need to apply to more schools, which would take more time and cost more money. As the graduate school admissions process becomes more competitive, applicants may need even more accomplishments and experiences, such as postbaccalaureate research, to gain acceptance. Such opportunities are not available equally to all students. To read about steps one department has taken to make admissions more equitable, see the July Physics Today article by one of us (Young), Kirsten Tollefson, and Marcos D. Caballero.
We do not view the increasing gap between bachelor’s recipients and graduate spots as necessarily a problem, nor do we believe that all physics majors should be expected to go to graduate school. Rather, we assert that this trend is one that both prospective applicants and those advising them should be aware of so students can make an informed decision about their postgraduation plans.
The “itch” for graduate school has always been a constant with me. I wanted especially to go after meeting Dr. Ronald McNair after his maiden voyage on Challenger in 1984. Little did I know that he would perish two years later in the same vehicle. Things happened to set the itch aside: marriage, kids, sports leagues. Life can delay your decision, too. My gap was 33 years: 1984 to 2017.
The recent decision by the Supreme Court to overturn another precedent: Affirmative Action in college admissions, affects graduate schools as well as undergraduate admissions. After every effort of progress, whether in race (a social construct) relations, labor, or gender, history, if they allow us to study it, has always shown a backlash. The group that is in power wants to remain in power, and the inequity those of us lower on the totem poll are pointing out they see as the result of the "natural order," albeit by government fiat.
My pastor at the time could have called our congressman and gotten me an appointment. My grades weren't too bad, and being the highest-ranking cadet in the city and county probably would have helped my CV. I chose an HBCU, NC A&T State University, in my undergrad because Greensboro to Winston-Salem was and is a lot closer than the Air Force Academy in Colorado. I would have been away from my parents for an entire agonizing year of no contact: cell phones and video chatting weren't a thing. I also wasn’t a fan of my freshman year being called a “Plebe” (lower-born). I do support the decisions students and their parents make as the best decision for their future. I do not support an unelected body trying to do "reverse political Entropy," turning back the clock of progress to 1953. We are, however, in 2023, and issues like climate change can be solved by going aggressively towards renewables: Texas experienced some of the hottest days on the planet, and their off-the-national grid held because of solar and wind, in an impressive display of irony.
Physics majors who graduate and go to work are prepared for either teaching K-12 or engineering. I worked at Motorola, Advanced Micro Devices, and Applied Materials. I taught Algebra 1, Precalculus, and Physics. So, if it’s any consolation: physics majors will EARN a living and eat! As a generalist, you should be able to master anything you’d be exposed to.
Speaking of Harvard: when I worked at Motorola in Austin, Texas, one of my coworkers was promoted from process engineering to Section Manager of Implant/Diffusion/Thin Films. He attended Harvard, and I, A&T. I still worked in photo and etch, primarily as the etch process engineer on nights. I noticed he had a familiar green book on his bookshelf with yellow, sinusoidal lines on the cover.
Me: Hey! Isn't that a Halladay and Resnick?
Him: Why, yes! What do you know about it?
Me: I learned Physics I from Dr. Tom Sandin (who recently retired after 50 YEARS: 1968 - 2018). He taught Dr. Ron McNair, one of the astronauts on the Space Shuttle Challenger. Physics II was taught to me by Dr. Elvira Williams: she was the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in Physics in the state of North Carolina and the FOURTH to earn a Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics in the nation. Who were your professors?
Him: Look at the time! Got a meeting. Bye!
Life experiences, in the end, overcome legacy and connection. We need a diversity of opinions to solve complex problems. Depending on the same structures and constructs to produce our next innovators isn't just shortsighted: it's magical thinking.
I now do think that 18 might be a little too young for a freshman on any campus and 22 a little too early for graduate school.
Just make the gap a little less than three decades!
The gap between physics bachelor’s recipients and grad school spots is growing, Nicholas T. Young, Caitlin Hayward, and Eric F. Bell, AIP Publishing, Physics Today.