A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication

The extreme deficit of physics undergraduates (APS April 2008)


I've just been to a session about undergraduate education in physics. Ted Hodapp from the APS talked about an APS/AAPT statement that calls for a doubling of the number of physics undergrad students. (I can't find the formal statement online--I only read it on a screen in the presentation.)

Hodapp presented a string of evidence that shows just how serious the dearth of physics undergraduates is. Because there was so much information, I'll just post a couple of dot points about it.

  • The nuclear power industry will soon be suffering a shortage of qualified physicists to work for them. About 33 new power plants have been approved in the United States and will be starting up from 2010. That industry needs people with good science/math/problem solving abilities and physics graduates are an obvious choice.
  • The medical physics industry employs about 3200 physicists, and have about 300 new jobs each year more than the current capacity for people with undergrad physics degrees. 78% of those people work in radiation oncology, and 16% in medical imaging.
  • The growth of occupations requiring science and engineering undergraduate degrees has much higher growth than the civilian labor force but S&E enrollments are not growing anywhere near that fast.
  • School principals rated physics and maths teachers about the hardest to recruit along with special needs teachers, primarily due to a shortage of qualified people.
  • Math and computer science have about 70,000 undergraduate degrees granted each year, life science about 260,000. Physics has a mere 5000.
  • Unemployment for physics graduates is very low, and for physics PhDs is an all-time low of 2.5%
  • There is a need for US citizens with advanced physics degrees to work in classified areas. Hodapp says that Cherry Murray called the lack of US citizens with advanced degrees as "a national crisis."
  • The Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, the America COMPETES act, and the Tapping America's Potential (PDF) report all call for large increases in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduates.

All in all, it paints a picture of a serious undersupply of physics graduates for teaching, technical, and other skilled roles in US society, and the promise of a good job market in future years.

See all posts from the American Physical Society April 2008 conference here.

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