The study of physics is the most direct way to understand our universe. Therefore, a profession in physics research is the best way for one to be on the frontier of our explorations of the world we live in. on the other hand, when talking about physics, people immediately come up with images of geniuses like Newton, or Einstein, making the subject far from the daily lives of the public.
I once held similar thoughts, which formed contradictions in my head between the intriguing nature of physics and the intimidating difficulty in perusing a higher level of physics research. In addition, I was holding the stereotype that the career options of a physics major are extremely limited, which proves to be untrue after the interview I conducted with a professor in physics. It is due to such conflicting ideas and doubts of career perspectives that I decided to choose the profession of physics as my area of interest. The interview results and analysis, together with relevant research on the topic will be presented in this report.
The interviewee is a professor at the department of physics and astronomy in a renowned university. He has had over 15 years of experience at the point of the interview. Before assuming the position as a professor, the interviewee had never been in a similar position. After studying as a graduate student and obtaining his postdoctoral degree, he was working in a national institution as a researcher. The size of the institution enabled it more than adequate funding in major physics projects, of which some the interviewee took part in himself.
Such experiences have helped him in the application for a faculty position in his current university. However, it is stated by the interviewee that teaching positions for physics in universities, especially of advanced levels, are not in abundant supply. This is partly because many of the established professors in the field remain in position even in their 60s and 70s, but the situation is becoming better now.
After a year in the position and the successes, the interviewee has obtained tenure, which enables him to enjoy academic freedom without worrying about livelihood: he is free to choose high risk and high reward research based on his interest in the field. With a tenure, the contractual bonds grant him relative security of the position. In terms of training before the profession, the interviewee had to go through six years of Ph.D. and even more for a postdoctoral, before working as a researcher to gain experience for 3 years.
However, little pre-occupation or on-the-job training was required for him. Such lack of training in the teaching areas is described by the interviewee as “learning on the job for 15 years.” As a result, different colleagues adopt different teaching styles. However, he also acknowledges teaching as one of the biggest challenges faced by him in the profession, as it can be difficult at times to convert physics into understandable ideas. similar concerns on the lack of training for professors are expressed in the study done by Jolly (2009), emphasizing the importance of innovative methods of teaching, instead of the casual and ununiform style currently adopted by most universities.
As a professor in physics, one of the major responsibilities of the interviewee is teaching. it is mostly students of advanced levels that the interviewee teaches, but sometimes he also teaches entry-level physics to undergraduates. However, the amount of work-related to teaching is only the tip of the iceberg for a profession (Herbst, 2012). A large amount of preparatory work needs to be done, shifting through books and articles to find suitable materials that help the students.
In addition, professors also need to come up with exam papers that require annual updates and address the questions of individual students. Since the interviewee has already obtained a tenure position, the work listed above accounts for only a small fraction of all works to be done by him. As a professor for advanced physics, the dominant parameter of evaluation for his works is the active research done in physics.
Continuous efforts must be made in performing experiments and drafting academic reports and journal articles. The research problem can be troublesome, but that is considered the whole point of conducting research by the interviewee: to solve problems that haven’t been solved before.
In addition to the teaching in classes and grading of assignments and exams, the interviewee has other responsibilities as well. as a faculty member, he needs to fulfill the services to the department and the university. For example, sometimes the interviewee needs to help do management work in some of the projects initiated by the university, steering things in the right direction.
Review of internal stuff can also be required sometimes. As a member of various physics committees, he also needs to fulfill these responsibilities and maintain cooperation and communication with his peers. Doing so enables him to obtain relevant information that helps him in his research, inspiring him with new research ideas as well. from the interview, it can be concluded that the job of a professor in physics is much more diversified than expected. In addition, the interviewee also discussed possible career options for students of physics majors.
In addition to the professional path chosen by the interviewee, engineering and technical works that are related to physics are also one possible career option. Moreover, students studying physics often possess high levels of math abilities and problem-solving skills, which enable them to obtain career opportunities in the financial sectors (Forshaw, 2013). Overall, the correlation between physics and problem solving has enabled physics graduates a very wide range of career choices.
The readings done by the interviewee are mostly academic-related, such as scientific research and news in the area of interest. The communication skills required for a professor in physics are mostly in writing, whose audiences are mostly peers in the same subject. However, increasing amounts of popular science outreach are done in addition to academic writing. The audience of such writing changes from the physicists to the general public, which requires the ability of the interviewee to convert science ideas into ways understood by the public, making it interesting at the same time.
The interviewee has written pieces for online magazines, such as Ion and New Scientist. The increasing non-academic writing opportunities are generated both actively and passively for the interviewee. In some years, the emphasis of work for the interviewee would be on scientific research, which increases the amount of academic writing and decreases the writing for the public audience. in other years, the shift between the two happens, with the primary task remaining in the academic field.
The writing process for the interviewee involves the use of his laptop. He claims to be most productive for different types of writing in different locations. In the early years, he has also had attempts of writing science fiction novels and short stories, some of which were published recently. For academic writing, special formats are usually required for different journals and publications. In comparison, little formatting work is required when writing for online magazines. Besides reading and writing, other forms of communication with peers are important, too.
For example, the interviewee attends conferences frequently, in which he presents his recent research findings, or listens to the others present. Such communication will create a better sense of professionalism and contribute to increased cooperation, especially co-authoring of new research papers. The number of citations, effectiveness in the presentation of scientific ideas, and convincing fellow peers is the major criteria in determining the success of the interviewee’s career.
In conclusion, the interview has broadened my mind on the impression of physics professors. In addition to high IQ, the factor that stands out more is the dedication to professional work and the passion for academic research. I used to imagine a professor in physics deriving the most “astounding” equation in a large, empty lecture hall, or buried behind piles of books doing calculations all day.
However, those are only a tiny fraction of the work needed for a professor. In reality, the responsibilities of a physics professor are highly diversified and are much closer related to the real world than expected. Research findings have also shown an inadequacy in the pre-occupation training for physics professors, which requires the ability to convey complex ideas in an understandable fashion and truly help the students. Moreover, the skills of communication embodied in academic writing, and problem-solving abilities are also what I need to improve myself on, for the preparation for my entrance into a career in physics.