How one department avoided closure by increasing their number of majors
Note: These fictionalized anecdotes give a representational sample of actions taken by departments interviewed, and do not represent any individual department.
The physics department at a private 4-year college was under threat of closure due to its small number of majors -- they had been graduating 0 or 1 physics major per year for many years and had 6 faculty. Through conversations with the dean, the chair set a target of 5 majors per year and got the dean’s buy-in for a plan to reach that target, with no increased spending.
The department read the SPIN-UP report and started with things they could manage: they established a student lounge, faculty started an open-door policy, and they launched a low-cost seminar series. Students loved the lounge and the personalized attention from faculty made them reconsider switching into a large major like chemistry or math. Over 2 years, the department used the Phys21 report to reconfigure their major and add tracks in applied physics and engineering physics to appeal to more students; they publicized the great jobs physics graduates get; some students started adding physics as a second major because it was feasible and might help them get a job; the chair showed the dean that enrollments in the sophomore-level courses were rising. Over the next 5 years, two faculty retired and they hired new faculty with undergraduate-focussed research programs; students loved getting research experience and the chair always sent the dean notices when students, alumni, and faculty got awards or grants. Now, the department has 7-10 majors graduating every year and the dean holds them up as a model for other departments.
Understand how your department is evaluated and work productively with decision-makers
Focus these conversations on understanding the challenges they face, the actions that are likely to be taken, and how they evaluate the performance of your department.
Are they concerned about the average number of majors per year, or per faculty FTE? Are they looking at the total student credit hours produced by each department or faculty member? Does your department’s service to the mission/vision of the institution and/or service to the community or region play a role? Are they working to improve their standing as a research institution and want to see increased research productivity?
Check their numbers: are they correctly counting double-majors and enrollments in cross-listed courses?
Be sure to understand and convey to administrators how your program compares to other physics programs, nationally, on these same metrics. While they may be focused on one particular metric for evaluation, consider supplementing this with other metrics that paint a more comprehensive picture of your department’s contributions.
Bring solutions and options that align with their constraints and the institutional mission statement, strategic plan, etc.
Bring solutions, not problems. For example: “Our staffing is insufficient to offer the optimal number of sections of introductory physics, so we can cut the number of sections for pre-health students or we can cut the number of sections for engineers. How can we work together to find the best solution?”
Keep them informed about Department initiatives, activities, and successes that address the metrics they care about. (Is the number of physics majors increasing? Have you started new public outreach or recruiting efforts? Are your graduates getting jobs at a higher rate, with higher pay, or in more diverse fields?)
Frame requests for resources by showing how they will lead to improved outcomes on these metrics (student success, increased enrollment, etc.).
- EP3 guidance on , ,
Increase your number of majors
Meet with Admissions/Enrollment staff annually to ensure they understand the strengths and uniqueness of your program.
Ensure visiting students have a powerful experience. Have ready responses to potential parental worries (“Who hires physics bachelors?”; “Why should a student interested in engineering go to a liberal arts college?”).
Ensure that all students feel part of the department, and feel a connection to faculty. Does your department support and work to improve inclusiveness and diversity? Conduct targeted exit interviews and surveys to identify potential improvements to promote a sense of community and inclusiveness.
Do your students support enrollment events for prospective students and help tout the strengths of your program? Do the students, and faculty, engage in outreach opportunities (Scouts, “Physics Phun Night”, Observatory Nights, visits to K-12 classes) that both strengthen the culture and increase the visibility and value of the department in the eyes of the campus and community?
Do you provide and publicize undergraduate research and internship opportunities that appeal to students?
For example, if biology is popular, would a well-advertised Biophysics major using existing resources help attract students into your classes or program?
Is your minor accessible to other STEM students, or could it be augmented to pull in more students?
If partnerships with other departments/programs gain traction and look promising, communicate the initiative to the administration to demonstrate you are being proactive in addressing concerns.
Explore new tracks that would be attractive to students at your institution (or that you can recruit to the institution) that repackage existing resources and/or overlap with strong programs that enjoy a high number of majors (Computational Physics, Applied/Engineering Physics).
Consider leveraging experience in your Admissions Office and institutional partnerships to offer degrees that would attract students, such as a dual-degree engineering program or a high-school teacher preparation program.
EP3 guidance on: , High School Physics Teacher Preparation,
Reflect as a department on improvements to your curriculum that would recruit and retain more students and prepare them for diverse careers. Consider pedagogical or curricular overhauls that would improve student success (re-designed lab experiences, studio format introductory courses, integrated computational skills throughout the major, etc.).
Are your resources and major focused on producing PhD physics students (which account for less than 15% of physics majors, nationally)? Research the careers your alumni have (and start tracking current graduates now) and ask them how the physics major prepared them.
Are there opportunities to redirect/repurpose existing resources to create courses that have broader appeal and give students job-ready skills? For example: could Math Methods incorporate computational skills? Could Advanced Lab become an experiential project with a local business offering career experience and valuable professional connections?
Could offering some traditional upper-level courses every other year allow you the staffing to offer other courses that might attract more or different students?
Does your curriculum incorporate “soft skills,” such as professional communication, critical thinking, collaboration, project management, and time management, that are valued by employers and will help your students in the job market?
Do your alumni remain connected to your program? Alumni can serve as great networking connections, provide students with guidance and insights, give virtual or in-person seminars, or provide internship opportunities.
Strong ties with alumni can not only be a valuable resource for students, but can also bring them to the department’s aid more readily and with greater impact.
Is your administration comparing the number of majors in physics to the number of majors in biology, or economics? Consider supplementing their chosen data with some that provide a broader view of your department’s value and contributions. Use AIP/APS data to help them understand the national averages of majors in physics (compared to other fields) and the value of a physics major to your graduates and society.
Does your administration count each track or degree you offer as a different “major”? If multiple degrees rely on the same courses, show that the required faculty FTE (or other resource) is the same regardless of the number of tracks. Show the improvements in recruitment or alumni outcomes as a result of particular tracks (e.g., do graduates of your Applied Physics track have outstanding job placement?).
Increase your total enrollments and/or credit hours produced
Ensure courses in service to other majors are high-quality, well-advertised, and serve their target populations effectively. Engage in regular conversations with departments and programs that your courses serve so that they see the value of your courses for their majors, and your value to the institution.
Ensure the courses you offer for general-education or other institutional requirements (e.g., courses for elementary education majors) cover topics that appeal to current students, are well-taught, and provide skills and knowledge tailored to campus requirements and student needs.
- EP3 guidance on: , ,
Be responsive to minimum class sizes. Even if exemptions are available or routinely granted, consistently offering courses with enrollment below your institution’s “threshold” is dangerous -- over time it may damage your department’s status with the administration.
Make introductory and intermediate courses as appealing and enticing as possible to other majors, maybe some students will even opt to minor or double-major in physics.
Consider alternating your upper-level courses so that their enrollment is higher every time they are offered.
Consider offering interdisciplinary courses that can serve other majors in addition to your own (e.g., upper-level biophysics, a different take on electronics aimed at engineers, computational physics, climate physics, upper-level quantum or thermal physics that appeals to chemists) and work with those other programs to include your courses in the requirements for their major.
- EP3 guidance on: ,
Do enrollments in all physics (or physics-taught) courses count equally (e.g., whether they are required for a major or fulfill general education requirements)? Does your administration cancel or otherwise discount courses with an enrollment below a particular level?
How is your administration counting lab credits and staffing? Does having your introductory lab as a separate course hurt or help your numbers? Could undergraduate assistants be used to combine lab sections under one instructor to stretch staffing while maintaining good pedagogy and outcomes?
- EP3 guidance on:
Support the mission of your institution
Consider outreach opportunities (Science nights, Scouts science badges, Observatory Nights, public talks on current events) that increase the visibility and value of the department in the eyes of the campus and community.
Publicize the careers and achievements of alumni.
Contact area businesses that have hired your students or with whom you have partnerships, and who can speak to the economic value and versatility of having a physics degree.
Consider creating a track to prepare high school physics teachers -- there is probably a strong need in your area.
Are you effective in keeping the majors you have? Engage in assessment efforts to understand student perception of your department and curriculum to see if there are changes that can or should be made to increase retention.
Keep your 4-year graduation rates (and other relevant metrics of student success) in line with institutional targets and rates in other STEM disciplines. Work to identify and remove roadblocks that are causing students to spend more time than necessary earning their degree.
- EP3 guidance on: Retention of Undergraduate Physics Majors
Ensure you understand the role of these courses in your institution’s mission and goals, and be responsive to these. (E.g. Is there a new Writing Across the Curriculum initiative? Can you support teacher education through a stand-alone physics pedagogy course or a course for elementary education majors?)
- EP3 guidance on:
Work to attract and retain students from marginalized groups.
Publicize your efforts, improvements, and accomplishments in making physics attractive to a diverse group of students.
Identify opportunities to partner with regional businesses to create internships or semester-long project-based experiences for your students to give them on-the-job experience and career connections.
Partnerships with other institutions (e.g., dual-degree/3+2 programs) and employers open opportunities for your students beyond your curriculum, can serve the workforce needs of your region, and enhance the visibility of your institution.
Understand what outcomes are important to administrators at a variety of levels (dean, provost, president, board of trustees). Read institutional mission statements, strategic plans, and the minutes of board meetings and other important campus committees. If your board of trustees has a faculty representative, connect with them.
Get plugged-in to important campus committees, either by ensuring members of your department are on them, or speaking regularly with the people who are.
Share materials with stakeholders that help them publicize the great things you do: high quality (suitable for publication) pictures from well-attended events, awards, noteworthy publications or public talks by your faculty all highlight your successes and provide concrete examples they can reference.
Be visible in supporting campus-wide initiatives and priorities and use them to achieve your goals. (E.g., offering a first-year seminar could boost your non-majors enrollments and recruit additional majors, improved retention of students from marginalized groups in your introductory courses increases your number of graduates while also improving equity).
Improve your department’s research profile
Outline a strategy and revisit it on a regular basis.
Encourage faculty (and work with them) to apply for external grants and/or internal seed grants to make external grant proposals more competitive.
Help faculty find funding by publicizing new opportunities, keeping a list of ongoing opportunities, and keeping a collection of successful proposals.
Advocate for department/STEM/institutional grant-writing support.
Work to create a culture of high-impact research in the department, both among current faculty and especially when you hire new faculty.
Perform “match-making” between faculty in physics and those in other departments where research collaboration might be possible and fruitful.
Consider creative ways to share equipment, space, and maintenance in order to do more with less while building good will outside the department.
- EP3 guidance on: Undergraduate Research
Are total research dollars the important metric, or does the administration want to see some minimum research productivity from all faculty? Help your administrators understand the funding context in physics and in the various fields of physics (e.g., NSF proposal success rates, average proposal amounts by institution type and field, typical levels of funding for theorists).
Do your administrators want more multidisciplinary large-scale efforts and high-profile research centers on campus? Cultivate strong working relationships with your colleagues in related disciplines in order to build coalitions for such efforts.