Best Practices for Educating Students about Non-Academic Jobs

The APS Council in its Statement on Current Employment Opportunities for Physicists (Statement 94.2) noted that students with degrees in physics have succeeded in a wide range of academic and non-academic careers. It urged academic physics departments to reexamine their programs in light of the wide range of possible careers for physics graduates.

To help departments in this endeavor, the APS Committee on Careers and Professional Development (CCPD) prepared this document, Best Practices for Departments of Physics, grouped under the two headings “Assisting Graduates to Find Non-Academic Jobs” and “Changing the Educational Experience to Prepare Students for Non-Academic Jobs.” Examples of each are provided, but only those based on actual successful practice. More information about a particular example can be obtained by emailing the person who prepared the description.

This is a draft document, and CCPD urges readers to send comments and additional examples to Crystal Bailey.

I. Assisting Graduates to Find Non-Academic Jobs

  1. Invite physicists employed in non-academic jobs to campus to meet with students informally, make a formal presentation to them, or both. These visitors provide students and faculty with examples of employment opportunities, how to find them, and how to succeed in these jobs. Alumni of the department, particularly recent graduates, provide an excellent pool of speakers. The audience can be undergraduate majors, graduate students, and postdocs. Grad students must have input in the planning, and in fact these events can be organized by the graduate student association. These talks are often presented as an undergraduate course.
    Gray arrow   Examples from Carleton College and University of Washington
  2. Compile an alumni database that contains the place of employment, job title, areas of expertise, year of graduation, as well as contact information. This database provides a list of prospective speakers. Make the information available to students and faculty, in paper format, via email, or on the departmental website, to facilitate networking and enable all members of the department to become familiar with employment opportunities available to graduates. Also, an alumni group can give good advice on the academic program and how to best prepare students for non-academic employment. While compiling this database and keeping it current is indeed difficult, even an incomplete database of recent graduates has proved useful. In many institutions, alumni development offices can work with the department to provide useful assistance in creating and maintaining the database.
    Gray arrow   Example from Sonoma State University
  3. Provide networking contacts for students seeking non-academic employment and educate students on the importance of informational interviews and how to conduct them. For PhD graduates, networking opportunities can be provided on an individual basis by advisors who have contacts with physicists in non-academic positions, including alumni. Valuable resources include faculty with corporate connections and adjunct faculty who are employed in industry. Lists of alumni, their place of employment, their responsibilities, and contact information provide networking assistance to both students and faculty. These resources should be made known to all students in the department.
    Gray arrow   Example from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  4. Provide students information on how to explore what kinds of jobs they would find interesting, how to search for a job, how to network, how to prepare a vitae or a resume, how to conduct an informational interview, how to interview effectively, etc. For undergraduate students, some of this may be provided by an institutional placement or career office. However, many of these offices fail to appreciate the array of skills possessed by a physics major and the diversity of career options that might be suitable. The department must monitor the services of the central office and provide additional information as necessary. The central career office often does not serve graduate students. The department, not just the individual advisor, must provide such information.
  5. Show students the resources provided by the AIP and the APS. This includes:
    Gray arrow   APS Online Career Center
    Gray arrow   APS Physics Job Fairs
    Gray arrow   AIP Career Guidance for High School Students and Undergraduates
    Gray arrow   APS Careers in Physics Website

II. Changing the Educational Experience to Prepare Students for Non-Academic Jobs

  1. Consider introducing several tracks at the baccalaureate level to enable students to mold their studies in physics to their career aspirations. This usually includes a track for those intending to attend graduate school, those wanting to find employment in a technical field immediately upon graduation, and those with an interest in pursuing a physics degree to augment other career goals, including law, medicine, and teaching physics at the high school level. Formulate carefully the curriculum of each track. Solicit feedback from alumni.
    Gray arrow   Example from Rutgers University
  2. Introduce the option of internships in industry or in government labs for undergraduates, a very useful way to expose students to the real working life of physicists. Encourage research experiences for undergraduates, not only for learning physics techniques and appreciating the joy of research, but also for improving communication skills and teamwork.
  3. Offer students the opportunity to pursue research in applied areas or interdisciplinary fields or to take courses or internships that might point towards a career in industry. 
    Gray arrow   Example from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  4. Consider initiating professional masters’ programs that recruit students wanting more training in physics, but not wanting a research degree. These could be interdisciplinary programs with a track in physics. These not only serve students in the professional masters’ program to achieve career goals, but also help faculty and students in the department appreciate the breadth of opportunities available to students trained in physics. The visiting committee and the speaker series usually connected to such programs also serve to provide information about alternative careers.
  5. Give students opportunities to improve their writing and speaking skills and provide them feedback on their efforts.