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By Midhat Farooq
APS has identified the career and professional development of students and early career physicists as a priority. While the APS Careers team leads various projects, such as creating career guides, conducting webinars and workshops, and more, to support the next generation of physicists, we have found that mentoring works best on a smaller and more local scale. This idea led to the creation of the Career Mentoring (CM) Fellows program.
In Fall of 2019, applications were accepted, and an inaugural cohort of 24 CM Fellows was selected by APS based on their mentoring experience, volunteer roles, interest in physics careers, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statements. The first major responsibility was to provide feedback on undergraduate student presentations at the APS March and April Meetings. To prepare the cohort for this important task, all mentors attended an implicit bias training session, which also covered best practices for giving constructive feedback. Due to the 2020 March Meeting cancellation, they were not able to attend the talks as planned. However, as APS staff worked hard to conduct the April Meeting online, two CM Fellows volunteered to provide feedback on the virtual talks and three more served on career panels during the Meeting.
Another major component of the program is that Fellows give a career talk at a physics department of their choice. APS Careers created and provided training on a slide deck containing data on physics career paths, collected and analyzed by the American Institute of Physics and NSF, as well as career guidance resources developed by APS. Despite the pandemic, the Fellows gave 14 virtual talks to a total of more than 200 students. Survey results indicate that both undergraduate and graduate students gained a broader understanding of career paths available to them, and a majority agreed that they felt better about choosing physics as their field of study and saw the impact physics training can have on the world.
These outcomes directly align with the goal of APS Careers and we hope to continue the program to train more career mentors and reach more students and early career scientists in the coming years.
Jenna Walrath is a Technology Development Group Leader at Intel Corporation. After serving on the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics, Jenna continues to volunteer for programs benefiting the physics community. She shares comments on her experience as a CM Fellow with the first cohort:
When I heard about the Career Mentoring Fellows Program, I was excited to participate. As an undergraduate, I remember avidly seeking out every opportunity to learn about career paths, especially those outside of academia which were not as visible to me. I had the same questions I believe all students do: What are my options? How do I get there? And most importantly, how do I decide what I want? Many departments have taken up this mantle on their own with programs like career seminars, but a centralized set of career mentoring resources available nationally through APS has great potential to bolster these existing resources as well as provide new ones to students in all types of programs, regardless of their department’s resources.
While it was disappointing that the in-person events were cancelled this year, I was grateful for the virtual opportunities still available. This year I participated in the April Meeting as a career panelist and gave a presentation on career paths in physics at Willamette University. In a period of immense uncertainty, I hope that these events helped calm some of the students’ anxiety about the future, arming them with the knowledge to make the best individual choices for their careers based on their interests and values. It helps that the messaging here is overwhelmingly positive—the data from AIP show that physics graduates are generally highly sought-after, well-paid, and well-satisfied with their careers. The opportunities available are incredibly diverse, and so the question is not “What can you do with a physics degree?” but “What do you want to do with your physics degree?”
Jan Kleinert conducts research as a Fellow for the Equipment and Solutions Division of MKS Instruments, where he leads an interdisciplinary team and enjoys mentoring. Jan is part of the first cohort of CM Fellows and shares some observations about the program:
As a physics undergraduate I had my future life trajectory all figured out: go to grad school, get a PhD, and, eventually, become a tenured physics professor—easy! It turns out that this is a pretty common mindset among physics majors, because that is what we are predominantly exposed to. Once in grad school, I saw first hand what physics professors really do, and it was not for me. Time to reorient myself! But I had no roadmap on how to do that. What followed was a combination of dumb luck, coincidences, and a rather haphazard transition into industry, where I have been happily doing research ever since.
Talking to colleagues, I found that my transition experience is not at all unusual, even though there is no good reason for it to be so haphazard! So when the new Career Mentoring Fellow program was announced, I jumped at the chance to participate and provide some perspective to the next generation of professional physicists on how to navigate the transition from the ivory tower to the much larger and more diverse outside world. APS Careers collated a nice set of statistical data to show that the majority of physics majors actually end up in the private sector—eventually—and are generally highly satisfied with their career choices. And the way to approach the transition to the private sector is neither particularly hard nor complicated once you become aware of the resources available to you through the APS Careers program. This enabled me to embed my personal experience into a much larger and consistent context. When reaching out, I found undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, and even faculty deeply curious and excited to get a first-hand peek behind the curtain. Well worth it for all involved!
Midhat Farooq is the APS Careers Program Manager and is in charge of overseeing the Career Mentoring Fellows program. For more information about this program, go to the Career Mentoring Fellows page.
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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
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