Given this, many are surprised to learn that fewer than 8% of those with a bachelor's degree in physics actually end up filling this Ph.D.-to-academia career niche. The other 92% land in a range of professions as varied as the individuals holding the physics sheepskin. I am one of that 92 percent. Although I earned my Ph.D. at a prestigious university, studying under a respected advisor and then proceeding to a postdoctoral fellowship in one of the most competitive groups in my field, I am now working as Assistant Manager in the Education Division at the American Institute of Physics.
What Is Organization Management?
What qualifies me for my job in organization management? First and foremost, according to the job description was that the applicant must have a Ph.D. in physics. That was simple, but what is it about managing a group that runs physics education programs that makes the Ph.D. necessary?
The primary answer has to do with communication. Besides training for research, the Ph.D. is also a socialization process whereby one becomes a member of a community with common traditions, mores, and ways of communicating. To be effective within the physics community and to have credibility, it is beneficial for one to be a part of the physics culture. It is not necessary, of course, but it helps substantially to be able to communicate and empathize with physicists as a physicist.
The second item on the job description stated that the applicant must have considerable experience as a physics educator. This was problematic for me, because the extent of my teaching background was as a teaching assistant in graduate school. To get the job, I would therefore have to persuade the people doing the hiring that I would bring other qualities and experiences to the Division that would mitigate my lack of teaching experience.
At this point it may be instructive to elaborate on what the AIP Education Division does. Our primary job is to run the Society of Physics Students (SPS) and Sigma Pi Sigma. SPS is a professional society, primarily for undergraduate physics students, with about 6,000 members. Sigma Pi Sigma is the physics honor society, with about 35,000 members. Running these two organizations requires managing staff and coordinating the range of services provided for our members.
In addition to administering these two organizations, our division publishes a hands-on science magazine, an electronic physics education newsletter, and we are initiating new programs to serve physics students and educators. Thus, to manage this group effectively requires experience in administration, management, organization, and also vision and ideas about the Division's future and its role within the physics community and society. It was my professional experience after my post-doc that added the real value to my Ph.D. and qualified me for my job.
How Did This Happen To Me?
Near the end of my post-doc, I decided that I should expand my career options by getting experience in science policy. This decision was motivated by my apprehension about increasing competition in the academic job market, and by my own interests in policy and the role of science in society.
While reading Physics Today, I learned about the Congressional Science Fellows program and the physicists who became fellows. Over the next couple of years, I became increasingly intrigued with the idea of applying to the program. Discussions on the Young Scientists Network and my own perceptions of the world in 1993 catalyzed my decision to go for it. On my birthday that year, I got the call telling me that I had been selected by the American Physical Society to be one of their two fellows for the 1993-94 class.
Congressional Fellows are sponsored by a large number of professional societies. The program is designed to bring scientific expertise into the legislative process, while simultaneously exposing the science community to the intricacies of how policy is made at the federal level. Fellows spend a year on the staff of either a Member of Congress or a Congressional Committee.
Ostensibly, Fellows are brought in to be the staff science expert. In reality, they become integrated into the staff mix and work on a variety of issues, few of which have science content. I chose to work for the House Science Committee, so my immersion in science policy was greater than that many of the others in my class. My year on Capitol Hill left me poised to make a career transition into science policy and management.
My next move was into another postdoctoral-type position, only this time it was not in science or policy, but in management. Again, an ad in Physics Today caught my eye. This job was dubbed "Physics Management Fellow," a temporary position designed to train a young physicist in management while serving as an assistant to the Executive Director of AIP. This job was a natural follow-on to the Congressional Fellowship and it honed my writing, speaking, management, and negotiating skills.
More importantly, being a Physics Management Fellow was an opportunity to positively impact an organization in which there were opportunities for professional growth into permanent positions. Or, it could be a good launching point into a permanent policy or management position elsewhere.
When the Education job opened up 2 years later, I was in a very good position to apply. My main challenge was to persuade AIP that the diversity of my background would compensate for my lack of direct experience as an educator. My two years in the Director's Office allowed me to gain the confidence of AIP management and demonstrate my abilities. Had I applied from the outside, I probably would not have been successful.
So What Do I Do All Day?
After landing the education job, I had a whole new set of challenges and skills to learn. I quickly learned that my job basically has two components-daily administration and long-term projects-that require different ways of thinking and different rates of energy expenditure.
Administration is a high-wattage activity, requiring lots of motion and human interaction. In contrast, projects get done at more of a slow burn, with much intellectual energy expended in the process of developing ideas and making plans. Working on projects is a lot like research in terms of the creativity and thought involved, while the challenge in administration is to work with our Division's management team to motivate staff and to coordinate the big picture of activities in our Division. My biggest challenge in this job has been learning to make the transitions between administration and projects efficiently so that my productivity does not crash.
Outreach is a major component of my job. It is very important that our Division be visible and accessible to our constituents. This means lots of time on the phone and e-mail, and it also means much travel around the country to visit schools and attend conferences. During the academic year, I probably average about one 4-day trip per month. On many of these trips, I give talks, and each trip requires varying levels of summary reports at the end. Travel, including preparation and wrap-up, is a time-consuming but critical component of the job.
My job is professionally rewarding for many reasons. I get credit and recognition for the work I do, both within AIP in terms of advancement, and within the physics community in terms of professional visibility from talks and publications. Professional recognition is particularly important because, although I no longer make scientific contributions to physics, I make contributions in advancing physics and physicists as a professional community.
As noted earlier, I spend considerable time on outreach, either writing articles or traveling to give talks. My recent activity has been focused on assessing the relationship between physics and society with particular attention paid to the undergraduate degree and its perceived lack of usefulness to students. Specifically, I am concerned that the 38-year low in the number of undergraduate degrees in physics is an indicator that students and employers no longer view physics as a useful course of study.
In my travels and writing, I attempt to persuade students and the physics faculty that physics (or science in general, for that matter) is the best training for a professional life in our technical society, and that as a professional community we should aggressively promote this notion to students and the public.
Comparing the Work
The work style in my job is intense but steady for 8 to 9 hours per day. This, coupled with my ability to make daily progress on important projects, is satisfying and suitable to my lifestyle, because I am able to advance professionally and I still have time for life outside of work. My hours and my ability to make progress are also different in comparison to my previous jobs.
Research could be managed in a normal day, but there was always a subtext of pressure stemming from possible competition from another lab, and also the pressure to make progress in the name of next year's funding proposal. The upside of research, and a similarity to my current job, was that the ideas and outcomes had my name on them, making my performance measurable and recognizable as my output.
In Congress I worked hard on important issues, and from a Congressional perspective, I made significant contributions. For example, in the subcommittee for which I worked, we labored for about 9 months on a bill to reauthorize high energy and nuclear physics in the aftermath of Congress's killing of the Superconducting Super Collider. Our bill was eventually passed by the House of Representatives. As with all House-passed bills, this one moved over to the Senate for approval, but due to timing it died a slow death by neglect.
This is a typical story in Congress: people work very hard to craft legislation, yet relatively few bills are signed into law. The legislative process is slow and incremental, and while this may be part of the genius of our system of government, it can be frustrating for the individuals who want to see their hard work pay off maximally.
On the other hand, even though our bill never became law, the policy it laid out did have lasting effect. The death of the SSC forced high-energy physicists to work with Congress and the Executive Branch in setting priorities for the future of their field. This cooperation and the way in which the scientists formulated their recommendations resulted in a generous bump in funding that helped keep high-energy physics healthy during the post-SSC transition. In this instance, scientists working with Congress and the federal agencies crafted a rational national science policy.
Another frustrating factor about working in Congress is that most creative output, such as speeches and op-ed pieces, is perceived as the work of the Member of Congress, not the staff person who actually crafted the words. At AIP, meaningful progress on issues that affect real people can be made daily and I get credit for my work.
Few career trajectories are deterministic. As a college student in my first physics class, I had no vision of myself sitting in College Park 12 years later worrying about the state of the physics education. I do not think that an undergraduate can plot a strategy for becoming assistant manager of the education division of an organization. The process is too nonlinear and dependent on timing and the relationships between individuals to have an outcome that can be predetermined.
My career strategy in college was to proceed in a manner that kept my options as open as possible. After my B.S., getting a Ph.D. seemed like the natural next step in keeping with this strategy. In retrospect, this was a wise decision because of the intense professionalization that occurs in the Ph.D. process.
Similarly, the unpredictability of career planning also applies to questions of where I go from here. For a scientist with experience in policy and management, there are many organizations in the Washington, D.C., area that could provide good opportunities. Within any one organization, such as AIP, the opportunities for advancement exist but occur less frequently.
For those desiring a career in nonprofit management in a science-related organization, I would suggest that being a member of the represented community is key; hence the need for a Ph.D. However, while probably necessary, a Ph.D. is not sufficient. Growth and experience in non-science areas, such as management or policy, are important for developing the worldview, maturity, and temperament required of the position.
What is the Ph.D. good for? The Ph.D. is good training for a professional life. For me, it was my entree into the culture of physics and the first step to my current job. This argument only works after the fact, however. Others at AIP have landed their jobs via a different route than I, but among the physicists, the post-B.S. study is our common bond.