|Training physicists for industry
|by Patrick Young
For physicists, jobs in industry outnumber those in academia.
As a consequence, and frequently as a preference, those with
bachelors degrees often seek an alternative to the physics
Ph.D., some in a different discipline. In response to this,
some universities have created professional masters
degree (PMD) programs to provide physics graduates with the
broader range of technical experience and expertise sought
report by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) found
that 62 of the nations physics departments offered masters
degree programs aimed at preparing students for industrial
careers, and that number has since grown by at least 4.
|Figure 1. Ric
Justus, an M.S. student shown here examining the results
of a plasma deposition with Texas Tech physics professor
Roger Lichti, interned at Intel and later went to work
for the company.
( Texas Tech University)
What you are looking for when hiring someone fresh out of
a university is the learning capability, says Joe Lebowitz,
director of yield and product engineering at Texas Instruments
Kilby Facility (Dallas, TX). With the professional degree,
students get the theory but they get a little more of a slant toward
practical application, and that is valuable. I have more confidence
in their ability to become productive faster.
By definition, PMDs are employment-oriented and usually terminal
degrees that combine much of the fundamental knowledge of a traditional
physics masters degree with specialized skills applicable
to industry. The success of such programs requires solid departmental
support. You have to have a group of faculty who are committed
to the idea because it involves curriculum development, says
Roman Czujko, director of AIPs
Statistical Research Center and a co-author of its PMD report.
PMD programs differ widely in their structures and areas of specialization.
When Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University realized that
none of Alabamas schools offered either optics or materials
science, its physics department created a PMD in optics and lasers
and materials science. Some schools have formal internship programs;
others have informal work agreements with local employers; some
do everything on campus. Columbia University provides no financial
assistance to students in its medical physics program, whereas Northern
Illinois University tries to arrange a teaching assistantship for
each of its incoming PMD students.
PMDs are market-driven programs and are not unique to physics. If
you think about executive masters degrees, they are designed
to accommodate the needs of their customers, says Philip W.
Hammer, vice president of the Franklin
Institute in Philadelphia and a co-author of the AIP report.
Hammer and his colleagues identified nine features that contribute
to the success of a PMD program:
- an external advisory committee composed of members from local
and regional industries and research laboratories whose work is
relevant to the program and who have a stake in its success
- actively networking and promoting interactions with industry
- exploiting faculty specialization to design courses applicable
to industrial careers
- an approach that requires students to take courses in other
- research ties related to the focus of a schools program,
which may be done in partnership with industry
- internships and other partnerships such as allowing employed
students to tailor their training to their companies needsthat
help students develop the skills needed by industry
- hands-on experience through appropriately designed laboratory
- flexible class schedules that enable students to take courses
in the day or evening
- encouraging the development of communication and team skills
important to working in industry.
The AIP study, supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, categorized
the 62 PMD programs it identified as strongest, strong, and new.
The ratings, however, provide only a measure of the programs
productivitytheir numbers of graduatesand do not indicate
the quality of the education they provide.
No PMD program incorporated all of the nine features of success,
but most of the strongest programs included many and awarded a minimum
of four degrees a year to students, most of whom accepted jobs in
industry. The 17 strong programs also incorporated many of the characteristics
of success but awarded fewer than four degrees annually. These
may look like small numbers, but for physics departments they are
quite reasonable, Hammer says. The 23 new programs had not
yet admitted their first students or were too new to assess.
The most important characteristic of a successful program is that
it seeks outside input and close relations with industry such
as the use of an external advisory committee. We get advice
from people who are going to hire our students, says Martin
Buoncristiani, chair of the department of physics, computer sciences,
and engineering at Christopher Newport University (CNU) in Newport
News, Virginia. Oftentimes, when we bring proposals to the
advisory committee, members point out ways that we can improve the
program that we would never have thought of without their input.
Strengthening ties with industry may include consulting agreements,
internship programs, periodic visits to companies, and inviting
industrial scientists and managers to campus. Physicists at Texas
Tech University in Lubbock visit students during their internships
and talk to people in the companies where they work. We try
to do that early to find out how things are going and to ensure
that the project is on track, and then later to make sure the students
are making progress, says Mark Holtz, professor of physics
and director of the program. That gives us good visibility
with the companies.
Finally, students need learning experiences such as internships
or laboratory projects. The value of the professional masters
degree comes from the networking and problem-solving experience
that accompanies working in areas important to industry, Hammer
says. An added value for students and companies is the ability to
hire qualified employees locally. When students graduate,
they usually look for work in the local area. This way I dont
have to spend money on relocating somebody, says Charles Noll,
who has hired PMD graduates to work for a National Aeronautics and
Space Administration (NASA) contractor.
The five university programs that follow illustrate different
features and activities that make up the PMD movement.
The University of Oregons masters in applied physics
attracts students seeking employment in industry or other professional
careers. We started this degree because we perceived that
there was something missing between the bachelors degree and
the Ph.D., which the traditional masters did not really serve,
says physics chair Dietrich Belitz. We had the impression
that there was definitely a market for a degree that was more focused
on technical experience and less on preparing people to do academic
research. It is working out very well.
Oregons program requires an internship, typically of three
to six months duration, which appealed to Laura Schreiner,
a 2000 graduate of the program. In the traditional physics
masters, you dont get much work-related experience or
come out with company connections, says Schreiner, who is
now a photolithography process engineer with Hynix Semiconductor
Manufacturing America (Eugene, OR), the company where she did her
The Oregon program, a joint venture between the physics department
and the universitys Materials Science Institute, draws faculty
from the physics and chemistry departments. Six students are enrolled,
and 29 have graduated from the program. Our strongest point
is the overlap and close collaboration between physicists and chemists
so that students are really exposed to both disciplines, says
Belitz. When they go to work in industry, hopefully they will
have an easier time relating to people with different backgrounds.
In its program, Texas Tech emphasizes laboratory experience on campus
and requires an off-campus internship, which means students must
move. Without a significant industry presence in Lubbock, students
do their internships elsewhere in Texas or in New Mexico or California,
at companies such as Texas Instruments.
We have one year of course work aimed at preparing students
to work in the semiconductor industry, Holtz says. The program
foregoes some of the courses of a traditional physics masters,
such as quantum mechanics, electrodynamics, and statistical mechanics,
and focuses on general microelectronics and parametric-testing courses.
A critical course is advanced process, which students take
in the second semester and is required before they go out on an
internship, says Holtz. In that course, they go through
many of the processing steps for making an integrated circuit, and
they make a simple photodiode and a simple metal-oxide-semiconductor
capacitor. When they have done that, we feel they understand what
goes on inside a fabricating plant. The Texas Tech PMD program
currently has 10 students (Figure 1).
Northern Illinois University (NIU) in DeKalb played to its strengths
in shaping its PMD program. Many physics faculty have research affiliations
with Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) and Argonne
National Laboratory. So we send the students there for the
summer, or they might work with one of us on a special project,
says Susan Mini, associate professor of physics and the departments
graduate curriculum chairperson.
Students have a choice between a specialization in high-energy
physics and synchrotron radiation. At Fermilab, students do predominantly
elementary-particle or accelerator physics. At Argonne, the focus
is on materials science. Moreover, NIU houses the new Northern Illinois
Center for Accelerator and Detector Development, where students
work with faculty in developing new technology for Fermilab.
Today, the department has 25 students in its traditional masters
degree program and 15 seeking a PMD, which typically takes two years
beyond a bachelors degree.
|Figure 2. Three-dimensional
display of a multifield conformal radiation therapy plan
on a reconstructed image of the brain, used for students
in the medical physics practicum.
(Cheng-Shie Wuu, Radiation Oncology, Columbia University)
Students in the medical physics program at Columbia University
study with faculty members in the department of applied physics
and applied mathematics and at its medical school. In addition
to course work, students engage in one or more practica
research projects in a medical setting that do not involve
direct contact with patients. Most graduates go to work at
hospitals in the New York City area (Figure 2, left).
The program limits the number of students it admits to ensure
quality and to avoid overstocking the market. It is
a one-year program, and the students make very good money
when they come out, says professor of physics Thomas
C. Marshall, the program director.
Many of the students enter the program while working at medical
facilities, and many keep their jobs while pursuing their degree
part-time. Michael Worman held a bachelors degree in physics,
but when he enrolled in the medical physics program, he was working
as a computer programmer, a job he continued for 30 months until
he graduated. We studied a wide range of medical physics,
says Worman, who now works at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
(New York, NY). It was a good introduction to the field, and
it introduced me to the people where I now work. One of his
practica involved a study whose findings will be published with
Worman as a co-author.
Set in the midst of an area that includes the Thomas Jefferson Accelerator
Facility and NASAs Langley Research Center, CNU created a
PMD program with flexible hours that caters to workers employed
locally. Students can choose from four areas of specialization:
modeling and simulation, solid-state systems, advanced computer
systems and instrumentation, and computer science. The program,
which currently has 15 students, makes use of faculty from all components
of the department of physics, computer science, and engineering.
One strong point is the interdisciplinary character of the
program, says Buoncristiani. We make a direct effort
to include three things in a students experience: communication
skills, working in teams, and a project, which teaches them that
in the real world, you generally live with problems for a long time.
Although the program has no formal internship requirement, students
often spend time working on projects and getting to know staff at
places such as the Jefferson Laboratory.
Now CNU is developing a five-year PMD program in which students
earn a bachelors degree in physics in four years and receive
their masters after one additional year. We feel it
will fill a need for both students and industry, Buoncristiani
Norton, S. D.; Hammer, P. W.; Czujko, R. Mastering Physics for Non-Academic
Careers, American Institute of Physics: College Park, MD, 2001;
50 pp.; available