Personal Finance
Working Your Degree
December 29, 2000: 7:14 a.m. ET

Enrollment in undergraduate physics programs in on the decline
By Staff Writer Shelly K. Schwartz
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - For folks planning to end their college education with a bachelor's degree, the physics department on campus may as well hang a flag saying "keep out."

Career counselors and college advisors have for years suggested to students that a physics degree has little real-world application unless they back it up with grad school or a doctorate degree. And it's left physics classes across the country filled with misconceptions and empty seats, said Sonja Lopez, supervisor of the Society of Physics Students.

"The degree is dying off," she laments. "There's this notion that if you don't go on to get a master's or a Ph.D that you are a physics flunkie. We are trying to change that; to show entering freshman that physics is it. This is a great degree to have. You are going to be the most employable grad."

Defining the field

Physicists, as defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, explore and identify basic principles governing the structure and behavior of matter, the generation and transfer of energy, and the interaction of matter and energy. 

In most cases, they apply their knowledge to practical areas, such as the development of advanced materials, electronic and optical devices, and medical equipment, the Bureau writes in its latest Occupational Outlook report.

They also, however, attempt to discover and explain laws describing the forces of nature, such as gravity, electromagnetism, and nuclear interactions. And they find ways to apply physical laws and theories to problems in nuclear energy, electronics, optics, materials, communications, aerospace technology, navigation equipment, and medical instrumentation.

It's complicated stuff.

"The perception has been that physics is not a place to go if you want to get a job easily, or the job of your choice," said Ed Goldin, director of career services for the American Institute of Physics. "Enrollment has graphicreally dropped off in the last five years, which have been growth years in the overall job market."

He notes the lack of interest in physics programs has been perpetuated by an employer base that fails to grasp the educational background a physics major brings to the table.  

But Susan Kennison, a 1997 physics grad from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. said she believes that's starting to change.

"I'm surprised by how many potential employers light up when I tell them I have a physics degree," she said. "Basically the perception is that, 'we can teach you anything.' It's being recognized more and more as a broad-based education, a springboard."

Kennison, 41, now works for Orbital Imaging Corp. in Sterling, Va. as a principal engineer helping to gather and analyze satellite and aerial photography remote imaging data. The data is used by government agencies and commercial customers to create maps, search for petroleum products and track oceanic and atmospheric changes.

"I love it," she said. "I love not just knowing how things work on the surface, but what makes them tick underneath and there's nothing more interesting and mother nature."

Kennison said she is beginning to take classes toward her master's degree but notes it wouldn't be necessary for all physics grads.

"In my case it's my work that inspired me to go back," she said. "I just started taking my first graduate class in remote sensing."

Paying the bills

Those who major in physics typically specialize in one of many subfields -- elementary particle physics, nuclear physics, atomic and molecular physics, physics of condensed matter (solid-state physics), optics, acoustics, space physics, plasma physics, or the physics of fluids. Some specialize in a subdivision of one of these subfields.

As an undergraduate major, you can expect to take courses in the natural

sciences and mathematics fields, including electromagnetism, optics, thermodynamics, atomic physics, and quantum mechanics.

Astronomy is also considered a close cousin to physics, the Bureau notes, since those who practice the science use the principles of physics and mathematics to explore the fundamental nature of the universe, including the sun, moon, planets, stars, and galaxies. They also apply their knowledge to solve problems in navigation, space flight, and satellite communications and to develop the instrumentation and techniques used to observe and collect astronomical data.

  "The truth is that you can do anything with this degree. Probably 50 percent end up in science- and engineering-related positions."  
  Ed Goldin, American Institute of Physics  
The majority (nearly 60 percent) of undergraduate physics majors do eventually go on for a higher degree, whether its law school, medical school or another degree in physics.

Those who don't, head for the private sector and largely work in electrical and computer engineering, biotechnology, computer programming and information technology. Others work as insurance actuaries, Wall Street stock analysts and real estate. 

(Click here for previous Working Your Degree columns).

"Since it's so broad it's very hard to define," Goldin said. "As a result, the parents who are shelling out the bucks for their kids want to know what they can go into with a physics degree. The truth is that you can do anything with this degree. Probably 50 percent end up in science- and engineering-related positions."

On the job

Physicists and astronomers held nearly 18,000 jobs in 1998, the latest year for which BLS data are available. About 80 percent of nonfaculty physicists and astronomers worked for commercial or noncommercial research, development, and testing laboratories.

The federal government employed almost 2 in 10, mostly in the Department of Defense, but also in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Departments of Commerce, Health and Human Services, and Energy.

Historically, many physicists and astronomers have been employed on research projects -- often defense-related, the BLS reports.

Small or no increases in defense-related research and a continued slowdown in the growth of civilian physics-related basic research will result in little change in employment of physicists and astronomers through the year 2008. Growth rates are expected to fall below 10 percent. The need to replace physicists and astronomers who retire will account for almost all expected job openings.

  graphic PAY DAY  
    Starting salaries for physics grads with a bachelor's degree this year averaged $42,455.
  • - NACE
    The good news is, however, that job growth rates in the engineering and computer programming industries, primary employers of physics grads, are expected to rise 21 percent or more through 2008.

    Paycheck check-up

    The other good news relates to money. As a professional category, physicists are highly paid.

    The BLS reports that median annual earnings of physicists and astronomers in 1998 were $73,240. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $41,830 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $113,800.

    And according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, annual starting salaries for physics grads with a bachelor's degree this year was $42,455.

    Starting salaries this year for computer engineers, however, a popular field for physics majors, averaged nearly $50,000.

    "These grads land everywhere, from insurance actuaries, to video technicians," said Lopez. "A lot of high-tech companies hire them now too and the curriculums are starting to change so that these students are more employable at the bachelor's degree level."

    Still, she said, the long held perceptions that have stifled growth in physics enrollment won't happen overnight.  graphic