Careers for Physics Majors

By Stith, James H. | Diversity Employers, January-February 1993 | Go to article overview

Careers for Physics Majors


Stith, James H., Diversity Employers


What is physics? What is it that physicists do? How do I know that it is right for me? These questions are asked often by college students as they struggle with the career choices related to their major.

According to a well known text book author, "The study of physics is an adventure. It is challenging, sometimes frustrating, occasionally painful and often richly rewarding and satisfying. It appeals to the emotions and the aesthetic sense as well as to the intellect. The achievements of such scientific giants as Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, and Einstein form the foundation of our present understanding of the physical world. You can share the excitement of discovery that they experienced when you learn the value of physics in solving practical problems and in gaining insight into everyday phenomena, and its significance as an achievement of the human intellect in its quest for understanding of the world we all live in."

To set the record straight, I should also mention such modern day greats as Dr. George Carruthers, Dr. Herman Branson, Dr. Roscoe Koontz, Dr. Earl Shaw, and Dr. Shirley Jackson, African-American physicists who have made significant contributions to our understanding of nature.

As late as the nineteenth century, physics was called natural philosophy. It dealt with all scientific investigations of natural phenomena which lead to a formulation of the basic laws of nature. Since the nineteenth century, scientists have found that it is impossible for one scientist to pursue and understand the many aspects of science. Hence natural science was divided into several disciplines, physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, etc. We now say that the study of physics involves investigating such things as the laws of motion, the structure of space and time, the forces that hold different materials together, and the interactions between different particles. Physics explains how things we encounter in our daily lives work.

Preparation for Physics

What is the best preparation for a physics major? First, the best preparation began while you were still in high school, taking every math and science course possible. If you have a computer at home or if you have had access to one in your school, learn computer programming.

Learning how to study is as important as taking the proper math and science courses. Learn to take good notes, paying particular attention to their organization. Practice verbalizing concepts by talking to your friends and instructors about them. Form study groups and science and math clubs that provide a forum to apply and discuss ideas that are learned in class. You will find that if you can talk about the subject, if you can explain it to someone else, then you know it. Don't fall into the habit of deceiving yourself by saying "I know what that is, but I just can't explain it." Learn to be critical. Just because something appears in print, or because your teacher says it is so does not automatically make it correct. Question the obvious!

Dr. James Davenport, professor and chair of the Department of Physics at Virginia State University, advises that desire and motivation are key factors for succeeding in physics. Possessing basic abilities in mathematics and having related analytical skills make it easier to succeed. However, if you have gaps in your academic background, you can still get ahead in physics. If you are short on desire, you have no chance. Dr. Davenport sees this last fact as one of the primary reasons that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have been so successful in producing a significant fraction of the African Americans who have doctorates in physics. HBCUs produce good physics students because those students come with a strong desire to succeed. That strong desire, coupled with exceptional motivation and a strong support system provided by the HBCU gives rise to excellent results. Dr. Davenport sees his primary mission as that of continuing that grand tradition.

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