Before I was a senior scientist developing lithium ion batteries, I was once a physics major. Can you believe it??
I have my bachelors in physics (with a minor in music and a Masters in materials science and engineering). When I started as a physics major I had no clue what was in store for me or what it really meant to be a physics major. All I knew is that I liked music, science, and math, and physics seemed super interesting and challenging. I was curious about spacetime, black holes, string theory, dark matter, and all these mysteries of our universe!
Looking back, I wish I had some extra advice because I did not recognize some of the more toxic qualities of the physics culture until much later in my education, though I suffered from the symptoms throughout my time in college.
As a physics major, whenever I introduced myself and what I studied people would ALWAYS give me a surprised look and response. They’d reply “A PHYSICS major?!?” in shock or surprise as if I had just turned water to wine, or question why a “pretty girl like me” would study such a subject. At first it felt flattering to receive feedback that I “must be smart”, but over time it made me hesitate when telling someone what I studied because the reply was almost always annoying and emotionally tolling; I sometimes felt the other person wanted me to explain myself as if I had to justify why I picked the major. Now, I see that this type of response is a microaggression, and a form of harassment that added to my feelings that I didn’t belong in physics.
It’s obvious that physics lacks diversity and inclusion, especially for those of us in the field. From the moment I started as a physics major, from the make-up of my classes (often I was the only or only 1 of 2 women in a classroom) I felt like I must represent all women and prove myself worthy of being called a physicist. The problem was, I would try to conform how I dressed and acted, trading in my authenticity to try to be respected. It never worked because true belonging comes when you stay true to yourself and are given acceptance for your authentic self (Thanks Brené Brown!). Harassment and bias continued no matter how hard I tried to conform.
Harassment is so normalized in society that I did not recognize it for years. Once I did realize I was being harassed, I felt like if I spoke up that I would be seen as problematic and that I wouldn’t make the networking connections I needed for my career. It felt scary to speak up or report as I thought it would put the career I was working toward into jeopardy.
With the harassment, bias, and microaggressions, plus looking different as a woman in my field, I had a hard time feeling like I belonged in physics. My self doubt grew (even though I was a top performer in my classes), and I shied away from forming professional relationships with many of my professors.
The following tips come from my perspective as a female physicist as I look back on the lessons I have learned:
Study Tips (5)
- You don’t have to be a genius to study physics. Everyone’s jaw will drop when you tell them your major, and in a workplace people still find physics majors impressive; however, there are probably many times you will feel like you aren’t smart enough or aren’t tough enough to be a physicist. The truth is that you do not have to be exceptionally smart to do well in your science career. Seeing failure and being wrong as learning moments is far more important. Keep learning and trying. Perseverance is more important than being a genius.
- Read the textbook! It helps prepare you for each lecture AND often problems from the textbook (or similar) end up being exam questions.
- Form study groups with your colleagues. It’s great to develop lifelong friendships and connections for future career success. Don’t be shy if you’re the minority in the group; everyone is just learning and growing as an undergraduate! If colleagues do ever harass you or treat you disrespectfully, you also don’t have to put up with that behavior and should address it right away. (See this post for more information on navigating inappropriate behavior.)
- Don’t put pressure on yourself to learn ALL of physics as a physics major. As an undergraduate, you’ll get a broad overview of many subfields of physics, and learn how to problem solve and learn how to find information. If any one subfield of physics interests you, read papers and get involved in research on that topic to explore your curiosity and see if you would like to go into a career related to that topic!
- Fall in love with the beauty of math, but learn all the tools you can use to simplify your work. If you really enjoy calculus and thinking deeply about applying mathematics to scientific concepts, it’s a good major for you! Calculators and programming languages that help you perform complex calculations will make life easier for you in school and in your career.
Career Tips (9)
- A physics major gives you the skills to problem-solve and succeed in nearly any field, but especially ones related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. You have options for your career! Take the time as an undergraduate to learn about and do research in various fields to follow your curiosity and see which subfield you want to specialize in.
- Know how a degree in physics will set you apart from other science and engineering majors, and use that to leverage job opportunities. Compared with chemists and engineers and other STEM majors, you will be more comfortable with mathematical concepts and formulas and derivations once you enter the working world. Coding is likely easier for you because of this- you only really need to learn the languages themselves, since you will have already learned the mathematical concepts involved in coding. And btw just learn coding – you might as well. I’ve heard it phrased that physics majors can do a job 88% as well as other science and engineering and math majors , but can do a variety of things that those majors can’t necessarily do. You’re versatile and a problem solver, understanding the connections between physical phenomena. It’s great for someone who wants to go into project management or systems engineering.
- Learn how to pitch yourself to a potential employer or graduate school advisor. You may have to find creative ways of explaining your skills to people and what you are capable of since it may not be obvious to them. The skills and knowledge of physics majors are not well understood by the general public.
- Take time to learn about different types of work environments through internships and research experiences. While you may be interested in one subfield of physics (let’s say materials for quantum computing) you can work in a variety of locations. Amazon (a large global company) has position for quantum materials scientists, as do national labs, academic research labs, and other mid-sized, small companies and start-ups. Different work environments have different cultures and work-flows; finding which types of work environments you can thrive in is just as important as picking the industries you want to enter for your career.
- In many universities, professors uphold the opinion that pursuing a PhD in physics and continuing on to become a physics professor is the most noble and best type of career to have in physics. While there is nothing wrong with becoming a physics professor, there are so many other options and in reality there are very few positions for physics professors. Not all physics majors can go on to be physics professors. It’s perfectly okay to choose to go into industry, pursue graduate school in a different field (I went into materials science and engineering!) or work at a national lab. Do what you want to do, and take others’ opinions with a grain of salt.
- Form positive, supportive professional relationships with colleagues and professors. They are your network for your career! Physics is a small world, and you’ll likely work with at least a couple of them at some point in your professional career. This is another reason why attending study groups, joining physics societies and clubs, and office hours are important; growing those relationships early on is great! If you feel like your colleagues and professors harass you or treat you with disrespect, know that there are many many other people in physics and related field. Pursue relationships outside of your university with people who are supportive, or consider transferring to a different university with a more supportive and nurturing environment.
- Study the physics GRE early if you want to go to graduate school for physics to get a good score!
- Take advantage of hands-on learning experiences like internships and research experiences. In these opportunities, read scientific papers, learn that specific field, and ask for help if you need it. As an undergraduate student, you are not expected to know everything, but showing that you’re interested and doing the work to learn goes a long way in getting you mentors and other opportunities. Your first internship or research experience will be the most difficult to get, but after that it will get easier to find opportunities. Try not to be too picky for your first experience, but at the same time be mindful about what you do or don’t like, and try to pursue what interests you most. Which leads us to…
- Think global, act local, and maintain a growth mindset. Don’t limit your options as you proceed in your field. You have options for grad school study- I went on into materials science and engineering to have a more applied science education for a career in energy materials research. Others can go into a wide array of grad school disciplines or even teach! You don’t have to stay in physics for graduate school or your career when you graduate, although that may be what your professors and colleagues push you to do.
Culture Tips (8)
- Physics is its own culture. It has its own unwritten rules that you must learn, but at the same time recognize where it is toxic. For instance, many physics programs can feel exclusive, hierarchal, patriarchal, and domineering. Many within physics claim it is an objective field of study and does not have problems internally, but when you look at the demographics it’s obvious many people aren’t permitted to persist in the field (like women and people of color). The more you become aware of the culture, the more you can see how YOU are not problematic, which can help alleviate feelings of self doubt, imposter’s syndrome, and the sense that you don’t belong. Also, just because the culture of physics can be toxic, does not mean that you deserve to be treated with disrespect or inappropriate behavior. As I mentioned earlier, please document, speak up, and report any instances of microaggressions or harassment.
- Pick a university where you’ll be supported. Not all university physics programs are the same in their culture. The state university I attended for my undergraduate degree had a culture that supported students, while the research university I attended for graduate school placed more emphasis on research. This meant that the majority of professors were more nurturing at my undergraduate institution than my graduate institution. Depending on your needs as a student, you want a university where you will thrive and grow! Prestige of a university or program does not necessarily make it the best fit for you!
- Physics has its own culture and values, and because of its male-dominant makeup and historical ties to militarism, these values reflect the majority-group. For instance, there’s an emphasis on understanding nature in order to control it so that one can profit and have power. The way research is structured and even the topics of research that receive grant funding reflect this value system. More funding is given to research that has a monetary gain than research that is only for pure intellectual pursuit. Many fields are highly competitive within physics because of limited funding. Older and more prominent institutions and research groups typically get the most funding because of their historically high publishing rate and the connections of the principle investigator (or PI). So, if you do want to go into a more competitive sub-field of physics, you’ll want to study in those universities with those specific research groups.
- Physics is big field and each subfield has its own culture and values. Gain research experience in different labs and internships to learn about each culture and find what suits you. Read papers even if you just struggle through them and have to google every word. (Bonus points if you read your professors’ papers and ask them questions about their research during office hours!)
- Gaslighting is, unfortunately, very prevalent in STEM fields. Trust your gut and intuition rather than your professors or other people you look up to. Some professors may be incredibly technically brilliant, but can be manipulative, unhelpful, or even abusive. If you feel like a professor is treating you badly, they probably are; you don’t deserve that kind of treatment. For instance, if someone tells you that you don’t belong in physics or that you don’t have what it takes to be a research scientist or be successful, don’t listen to them! They are simply telling you they don’t support you, and you should seek other relationships mentors and colleagues that do support you!
- If you are a woman, be mindful of pressures to do outreach and education and choose what is best for you. If you want to research, stick to research gaining research experience. I felt like my professors gave me many opportunities in education and outreach, and, while it did help me grow my leadership skills, it did take time away from growing my research experience. It’s ok to say no to opportunities that won’t positively serve you, and focus instead on what will actually help you grow in your career.
- Prioritize your own mental and physical health. The culture of physics is very exclusive and competitive because of its values and limited funding. You deserve to feel safe and comfortable at school. According to statistics from American Physics Society, about 75% of undergraduate women in physics are harassed. That’s 3 out of 4! This means that if you are female, it is more likely that you will be harassed than not harassed. Be prepared for when you experience harassment because it can blindside you when you least expect it!
- Attend conferences and join Society of Physics Students (SPS) and/or the International Association of Physics Students (IAPS) for more opportunities and networking!
Physics is definitely a challenging field, and even more so if you’re a minority; however, that should definitely not deter you from pursuing that physics major! I am grateful that I made the decision to major in physics; I learned amazing things, met incredible life-long friends, and landed my dream-job of being a scientist! Studying physics opens up a world of opportunities, and is a great choice of a major for someone who likes to be challenged intellectually. There are many high-paying job opportunities for physics majors! I make 6-figures with a BS in physics and MS in materials science and engineering. And, if you want to grow more wealth, a physics degree sets you up to be able to understand technical industries so that you can become a business owner or investor.
Overall, remember that you know what is best for you, and a major in physics is just the beginning of your career. You’re new, so it’s normal and okay to not have everything figured out and not know everything about physics. Take advantage of all the opportunities offered to you, ask for help when you need it, and stay true to yourself!
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For more information on navigating a career in STEM, check out “Resilient in STEM” the podcast HERE!