Guide To Retention of Undergraduate Physics Majors

Version 2021.1

Retention includes ensuring that students who are already physics majors complete your program. This section focuses on strategies for creating a welcoming, inclusive, and student-focused environment in which students feel they are a part of a community and are more likely to stay. Successful retention strategies include improving curriculum, degree programs, and support structures for students, which are implemented throughout all years, with particular focus on the first and second years. For guidance on recruiting students who have not yet decided to major in physics, see the section on Recruiting of Undergraduate Physics Majors.


Effective retention strategies are critical to increasing the number of graduates from your program; creating and maintaining a healthy, inclusive community; increasing the diversity of students in your program; and strengthening the viability, vibrancy, and climate of your department or program. Having larger and more diverse cohorts of students can enable your program to offer more diverse courses and opportunities for students, to facilitate better study groups, and to provide an environment in which students with diverse backgrounds and aspirations will feel welcome and succeed. These factors increase students’ and faculty members’ sense of being part of a community working together toward common goals and building camaraderie, where students can both take leadership and get peer support to work through challenges. Creating a successful retention plan enables faculty to contribute to the future of the discipline and the community. Retaining the students who are already in your program is cheaper and more effective than recruiting new ones, although recruiting is still important (see the section on Recruiting of Undergraduate Physics Majors for details).

The Cycle of Reflection and Action

Effective Practices

Effective Practices

  1. Make retention an explicit goal that your entire program supports through a comprehensive plan

  2. Nurture a community atmosphere and a departmental identity, culture, and climate of respect and student advocacy

  3. Implement a relevant, high-quality, accessible curriculum that is supported throughout your institution

  4. Offer degree programs or tracks that are flexible and relevant for students with a wide variety of backgrounds, interests, and career aspirations

  5. Create and leverage support structures for students

Programmatic Assessments

Programmatic Assessments

President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, “Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,” Executive Office of the President (2012): a report outlining how to successfully recruit and retain students in STEM.

Reference 1 is an extensive study of the reasons students leave STEM majors, which successful retention practices must address. References 2–5 provide case studies and overviews of the features of physics programs that are successful at recruiting and retaining students. References 6 and 7 illustrate how the culture of physics often includes assumptions that only naturally brilliant students can succeed, the problems with such assumptions, and how adopting a “growth” mindset that assumes everyone can learn physics creates a culture in which more students feel welcome pursuing physics.

  1. E. Seymour and A.-B. Hunter (editors), Talking about Leaving Revisited: Persistence, Relocation, and Loss in Undergraduate STEM Education, Springer (2019).
  2. R. C. Hilborn, R. H. Howes, and K. S. Krane (editors), “Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics: Project Report” (SPIN-UP report), American Association of Physics Teachers (2003): Case studies are in Appendix VIII, pages 94–140.
  3. P. Heron, L. McNeil, et al. (editors), “Phys21: Preparing Physics Students for 21st-Century Careers,” American Physical Society (2016): Case studies are in Appendix 1, pages 52–66.
  4. AIP National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics & Astronomy (TEAM-UP), “The Time is Now: Systemic Changes for Increasing African Americans in Physics & Astronomy” American Institute of Physics (2020): Case studies are in Appendices 5 and 6, pages 126–149.
  5. J. Stewart, W. Oliver III, and G. Stewart, “Revitalizing an undergraduate physics program: A case study of the University of Arkansas,” American Journal of Physics, 81(12), 943–950 (2013).
  6. S.-J. Leslie, A. Cimpian, M. Meyer, and E. Freeland, “Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines,” Science, 347(6219) 262–265 (2015).
  7. R. E. Scherr, M. Plisch, K. E. Gray, G. Potvin, and T. Hodapp, “Fixed and growth mindsets in physics graduate admissions,” Physical Review Physics Education Research 13(2), 020133 (2017).
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1738311, 1747563, and 1821372. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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