The article “The Business of Academic Physics,” by John Rigden and James Stith ( Physics Today, Physics Today 0031-9228 56

200345November 2003, page 45 ) piqued my interest, particularly their concept of alumni as an “untapped resource.” About 10 years ago, when the job-market crunch was a very big deal for PhD graduates especially, I started a program called Alternative Careers for Physicists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The goal was to get students to realize that a person with a physics PhD could do other things than be a clone of his or her adviser.

My first inclination was to contact a group of alumni and have them come and report their experiences outside academic physics. On second thought, though, I decided that was not the optimal thing to do; I think educators spoon-feed students too much. So although I agree that professors need to help inform the students about outside opportunities, it is also the responsibility of the students—who are adults, after all—to be proactive in charting the course of their own lives. I feel that many students, after four years’ undergraduate and perhaps six years’ PhD education, have become passive and institutionalized. That is a poor attitude to have in the real world.

As a countermeasure, I decided that the students themselves should give the talks. At the beginning of the semester, I gave a pep talk and had the students write on the blackboard all the possible careers outside academia that they had heard of or were curious about. Volunteers then offered to research each area: What does the job entail, what qualifications are needed? Is extra training necessary, and if so, what are the best places to do that? Who are the leading employers, what are the lifestyle and pay scale like, and what are the special benefits? The volunteer would also be able to contact and interview alumni. Then each week, a different volunteer would present the seminar and answer questions.

The outcome of this was that the students first of all learned how to research a career and became confident of their broadened research ability, as opposed to the research that they were familiar with. They understood that they could take control of their lives. They shared their work, so that for the effort of researching one career, they received in return the benefits of the research of a dozen other people. Students also realized that the outside world was approachable and not so distant from them.

Faculty members’ response to this program was quite interesting: Many strongly approved, but a few found it unsettling—they just didn’t get the idea that it was all right for a student to be both studying for a PhD and making plans to enter the real world. I perceived a bit of a conflict of interest between those few professors and their graduate students.

How well did it work? As a completely voluntary seminar, it was the best attended in the department; I received nothing but positive comments from the students. Several other institutions heard about the program and told me they wanted to emulate it. The seminar was held again the next semester, but my schedule wouldn’t permit its continuation beyond that.

In tapping the resource, therefore, let us not overlook the one that is closest to us: our students, who will be beneficiaries of such programs.