Paul Irving and Eleanor Sayre’s article “Developing physics identities” (Physics Today, May 2016, page 46) addresses an important and often overlooked consideration in undergraduate students’ growth. However, their study only scratches the surface.

The study might benefit from more diverse settings—more than one school and not just a top-tier research university. It would certainly benefit from a more diverse population. Only 3 of the initial 20 participants were women. Was that proportion representative of the program as a whole? Overall, only 7 of the 20 students—none of them women—completed the study. Did those who left the study also leave the major? If so, that is a high attrition rate.

We found it problematic that the authors did not start following the students until their third semester. As the article acknowledges, identities begin to form the moment a student first hears of physics. The first year of college is crucial in the process.

At St Mary’s College of Maryland, we have various initiatives to address program composition, retention, and early engagement. A particularly effective one is our Emerging Scholars Program (ESP), which draws students from our first-semester course for physics majors.1 Participants work through challenging physics problems in a low-stakes, social environment. We also conduct activities to explore the cultures of physics and of college. Although the ESP is open to all students, we invite students from underrepresented groups: women, members of various racial and ethnic groups, first-generation college students, and students from low-income families.

Participants in ESPs across the science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines at St Mary’s and at other institutions perform better and are more likely to continue in their major than students from similar backgrounds who do not participate in an ESP.2 Not only does the ESP boost overall persistence in the major, but it leads underrepresented students to more readily self-identify as physicists. Women constitute a higher percentage of physics, math, and computer science majors at St Mary’s than at the top liberal arts colleges in the US, and liberal arts colleges have a higher percentage of women in those majors than the country’s universities.3 Part of the increased persistence of students in ESPs derives from the social networks they build with students and faculty, but another part originates from the identities they build as physicists.

The article mentions that none of the study’s participants brought up gender or race issues during their interviews. Thus the authors conclude that gender did not play a significant role in the students’ experience. That is a very broad assumption to make. It also reinforces the incorrect but pervasive social assumption that gender or race is only a factor if women or nonwhite people are involved. White men have both a gender and a race, and those factors influence their entire experience.

We are concerned that the article primarily categorizes students by their attitude toward research. The authors’ previous publication4 on their study does not do much to reassure us that the categorization is not a result of the authors’ own view of what defines a physicist. Even if research is as important to the students as the article claims, it is important to understand the origin of the attitudes about primacy of research in students. Do they get it from faculty? The article describes that attitude as “common among physics faculty” and that a research career is the “expected path for physics majors,” yet no evidence is provided for that assertion.

The fact that the majority of physics students do not enter faculty or research careers has been well known for quite some time.5 The American Institute of Physics (AIP) and the Society of Physics Students reinforce other career options with their Careers Toolbox for Undergraduate Students & their Mentors. AIP itself is composed of 10 member organizations that do not fit that so-called expected career path. In our own classes at St Mary’s, we have developed a Career Moments curriculum (https://sites.google.com/a/smcm.edu/careermomentsphysics/home) that, like the Careers Toolbox, reflects the myriad of nonresearch careers for physics students and physicists. There are other useful resources too; see, for example, the career resources available online from the American Physical Society.

Since so many physics majors do not enter research careers, a tension may arise from the distinction between a physics major and a physicist—particularly as emphasized in the article’s categorization. Although the authors’ previous work4 at times discusses the distinction, their Physics Today article does not. Even if one accepts that research is central to being a physicist (we do not), ignoring the fact that most physics students will not enter research careers does not serve them well. The expectations of students and of the faculty who help form them thus need to be addressed. One way to do so is to bring some of the “hidden curriculum,” mentioned in the article, out into the open, as we have done in our ESP and our careers curriculum at St Mary’s. Furthermore, explicitly exploring the intersection of physics identity with other facets of identity can help improve access to, and persistence in, physics—to the benefit of the discipline and society.

We look forward to more work by Irving and Sayre and others on this important topic.

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