Degree: Physics PhD
Current Job: Professor of Physics and Associate Head for Undergraduate and Graduate Studies, Pennsylvania State University
Rick thought his physics and math courses in high school were by far the most enjoyable ones. Despite this, he started my undergraduate career at the University of Minnesota as a pre-major in architecture. This lasted a total of one quarter before he switched to his first passion: mathematics.
Rick continued taking the intro level physics courses, and after taking a modern physics course, "I realized that the beautiful mathematics that I'd been seeing so abstractly could have real life applications, especially in fields like elementary particle physics."
The "Standard" Academic Route
The realization that physics was the practical application of mathematics led Rick to add physics as a second major, and after earning his undergraduate degrees, he stayed at the University of Minnesota for a PhD in theoretical physics. Since then, he has followed the so-called "standard academic route", with two postdocs and a faculty career at Pennsylvania State University, where he has risen through the ranks, including two stints as Associate Dean.
Advocating Diverse Outcomes
Despite his own "traditional" career path, Rick has also become a dedicated and enthusiastic advocate of the diversity of outcomes that a physics degree (at either the undergraduate or graduate level) can provide beyond academia. "One of my greatest joys is teaching a 'junior careers course' each spring (this year to about 73 or so junior majors) where we explore the range of post-undergraduate career options," he says.
The careers course includes having visiting alumni panels ("this last semester held via Zoom of course," he says) to show just how successful physics majors can be out in the proverbial 'real world', beyond just academic outcomes.
Even among graduating physics seniors who do attend graduate school, not all are in physics programs. Rick points out that the 2020 graduating seniors at Penn State committed to graduate programs in statistics and medical physics as well as pure physics. Other seniors have gone into industry, taking jobs at Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, and even going into the Peace Corps.
Rick especially recommend networking. "I encourage all physics majors (anywhere) to explore career opportunities through networking, use the great information available from APS/AIP, and take advantage of linkedin.com to connect with peers and mentors," he says.