Career Colloquium for Physics Majors: Using Exploration to Increase Persistence

by Samantha McGurgan

As career counselor for the [California Polytechnic State University] College of Science and Math, I noticed a consistent theme in my appointments with physics majors. They like physics, are good at physics, but have no idea how it relates to their future career paths. This lack of a lock-step career path leaves many students feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and directionless. Many times my first touch point with them is when they are in my office for a change of major appointment, seeking information about policy. They feel disconnected and isolated. They worry about how a degree in physics will help them in the future. And they want to switch to a more direct-to-career major, like engineering or business.

Change of major appointments are a great opportunity for career intervention. More often than not, after posing a few strategic counseling questions, it’s revealed that the inability to envision a clear career path is the issue. But what about the students that aren’t coming in?

When a physics faculty member shared with me that she was seeing similar themes in the classroom, we decided that together we could solve this problem. Combining her industry expertise and my career development knowledge, we crafted an exploration workshop embedded within the existing quarterly Physics Colloquium, designed to provide students with the opportunity to explore careers related to their major, identify areas of interest, and the means of connecting to alumni professionals in industry.

Here’s how we did it:

The 60-minute Career Colloquium workshop began with a think-pair-share discussion based on this prompt:

Why did you choose physics?

Students shared their answers with the larger group after a brief brainstorm, which we captured on the white board. The opportunity to process, share, and reflect on common interests served not only to create connection among participants, but also to remind them that they chose their major because it is interesting, uses critical thinking talent, and allows them to follow their intellectual curiosity since it is so broad (and to see that their peers did the same).

A brief lecture followed, detailing data from our university’s Graduate Status Report and the American Institute of Physics Career Pathways Project’s Careers Toolbox for Undergraduate Physics and their Mentors, and an overview/demo of each search tool to be used in the activity.

Activity:

We gave each student a stack of sticky notes, color coded to match the categories below, with instruction to write down their findings on them (1 item per note):

  1. Identify three fields of interest that relate to physics using “What Can I Do with My Major?” website
  2. Identify three job titles of interest that relate to your major using O*NET Online
  3. Identify three professional alumni to reach out to for an informational interview using the LinkedIn alumni tool

Outcomes:

Once they had filled out all nine sticky notes, they arranged them on the whiteboard, separated by color category, then clustered together by likeness. Without prompting, they quietly gathered together to evaluate their findings. And then:

“Who else wants to work at ____ ?”

“I’d never heard of ____ before. Can you tell me more about that company?”

“Who wants to meet _____? I know her—let me give you her e-mail.”

Our students left the workshop feeling inspired, motivated, and validated that they had made a positive career decision when choosing to study physics. Most importantly, they left with tools to further their exploration and a means to connect with professionals going forward.

Our dream is to provide a workshop like this for all science and math majors. How have you encouraged science majors to explore careers within their major?

Samantha McGurgan

Samantha McGurgan, Career Counselor, California Polytechnic State University, Cuesta College, San Luis Obispo
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/samanthamcgurgan/

5 thoughts on “Career Colloquium for Physics Majors: Using Exploration to Increase Persistence

  1. Thanks Samantha. I like the idea of group discussions to generate shared experiences and perspectives, which can provide students confidence in their major selection.

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