Physics for Fun and Profit

Eager to help grad students make the leap to the business world, Georgetown is trying a radical approach to teaching science

by Christopher Shea
Washington Post
Sunday, May 13, 2001; Page W22

Graduate education in the arts and sciences is a lot like the stock market of early 2000: All the participants in the system know it has deep flaws; things can't continue the way they have. But few people dare to challenge what everyone else is doing. Besides, if you just ignore the problems, there's always a chance they'll go away, right?

America's graduate schools -- by many measures still the best in the world -- are not likely to implode like the Nasdaq. But a simple mismatch of supply and demand is sending seismic ripples through the higher-ed system. In the humanities, graduate programs keep enrolling students who have almost no chance of getting jobs in their field when they emerge 6, 8 or 10 years later. Embittered students are affiliating with blue-collar unions and demanding that they be treated like employees -- like the dirt-cheap teachers they believe themselves to be.

Things are more complicated in the sciences. Because scientists have technical skills industry wants, they face a softer landing if they lose out in the academic job market, or decide teaching isn't for them. Still, more and more people are asking why graduate education remains so purely academic, when, according to the National Research Council, in most science fields more than half of graduate students end up in industry.

There's been tinkering around the edges to deal with these problems. The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, in Princeton, N.J., has set itself up as a matchmaker for ex-academics, steering liberal-arts PhDs toward companies like Merck, Microsoft and McKinsey. It also gives stipends to humanities PhDs who want to test the waters of the private sector.

At the University of Texas, which has the nation's largest graduate school in the arts and sciences, grad students can take a series of courses in "intellectual entrepreneurship," which is supposed to get them thinking about how they want to use their degree -- inside or outside academia -- and how they can maximize its value.

On the science side, Georgetown University is trying something more radical: a physics PhD program whose whole point is to steer people into the for-profit arena, not academia. Beginning next fall, the university expects to enroll about half a dozen people a year, train them in physics for five years, give them a PhD, and then send them to work at for-profit companies -- as a first choice, not a disappointing fallback.

Which raises some difficult questions: Is this an overdue step? Or one more grim chapter in the corporatization of universities -- another case where market values have triumphed over more high-minded goals?

There's no doubt industry likes physicists -- one fact that makes Georgetown's program interesting. Physics PhDs have been through an extraordinarily tough technical boot camp. A somewhat dated study that Georgetown likes to cite -- it's from 1993 -- found that by mid-career, undergraduate physics majors had the fifth-highest average salary, relative to other majors. By late career their salaries were highest. Another study, by the American Institute of Physics, found that physics PhDs who graduated in 1998 and went into industry had an average starting salary of $62,700. That's more than literature scholars are getting, to say the least.

The problem, as Georgetown sees it, is that the leap from academia to industry is getting tougher. Physics PhDs used to slide smoothly into jobs at basic-research enterprises, such as Bell Labs. Those places are dinosaurs. Today's PhDs are more likely to find themselves at small and mid-size companies, cranking out code and speeding up microprocessors on deadline.

Hence, a mismatch. "Some of the main complaints that come from industry are that physics students don't know how to work in teams," says Jim Freericks, the boyish-looking director of Georgetown's new graduate program. "They can't communicate their ideas to people -- either scientists in other fields or nonscientists -- and they have difficulty understanding that a company needs to make money, as opposed to just letting them work on the most interesting projects." In an effort to make the transition smoother, Georgetown's new physics PhD program will draw on the resources of the university's McDonough School of Business. The students will take 39 credits of physics courses plus 10- credits at the business school, getting a taste of marketing and management theory. Each year, a physicist from a for-profit company will teach a course, presenting students with a problem they might encounter at an actual company, which students will tackle in teams (as they would in industry). After their master's-level work, they'll leave for a year-long internship at a tech company. Then it's back for a dissertation. Many of Georgetown's 23 physics professors and adjuncts already work on applied projects -- one lab there works on shrinking and improving tiny medical devices -- so in some ways the program's a natural.

And it's about time, say some people in industry. For too long, they argue, science training has catered mainly to senior scholars, who see grad students largely as cheap labor for their own big projects -- as fodder for their own future Nobel Prizes. "The staffing of those research projects is totally unrelated to where these young men and women are going to find employment when they are finished," says Charles B. Duke, vice president and senior research fellow at the Xerox Wilson Center for Research and Technology in Webster, N.Y., who sits on a board that advises Georgetown about its new program. "The customers for a PhD program should be the students, not the professors."

Others on the advisory panel have even grander dreams. William Frederick Lewis, who, like Duke, has a PhD, is the brash CEO of D.C.-based Prospect Technologies. He wants to breed a new type of business titan. On the one hand, he says, he's seen brilliant programmers with PhDs who can't look a CEO in the eye or make an intelligent comment at a marketing meeting. On the other, he says, "B-school people usually don't have a clue how technology works." Georgetown's program aims to produce people expert in both skills. "Sure, they can be VP of research," Lewis says. "But how about chief operating officer, or treasurer? They should have those jobs."

Along with the PhD, Georgetown will offer a master's program, with some of the same science-finance blending. The effects could even trickle down to undergraduates. The number of physics majors graduating in this country -- 4,000, roughly, in 1999 -- is the lowest it's been since the launching of Sputnik in 1957, even though the overall number of undergraduates has quadrupled since then. If undergraduates thought of the major as a route into business, more people might try it, and, as a nice side benefit, general scientific literacy might rise.

The Georgetown program has its critics. Some on the campus see it as a step away from the university's goal of the last two decades, which has been to focus on its traditional strengths, like foreign policy. Georgetown once had a traditional physics PhD program, but it was killed in the mid-'80s as part of that effort to streamline. Jeff Schmidt, a physicist trained at the University of California at Irvine and author of Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives, outlines a few other objections. First, says Schmidt, Georgetown underestimates how prepared physicists already are to put their technical skills at the service of employers. Second, he suggests that a PhD is overkill for most business careers. "Bringing a physics PhD to a managerial job," he says, "would be a ridiculously elaborate and masochistic way of saying to top management, 'I'm smart.' " As a kicker, he adds: "Grad students in the program will be looked down on. They'll be seen as not loving physics, because they have this other, profit-making, agenda."

What really matters, of course, is whether students -- the "customers" -- go for it. Eighteen applied, and about a third of them are expected to enroll. Karen Graver, who will graduate from Mary Washington College this spring with a bachelor's degree in physics, has worked in the McLean office of Science Applications International Corp. for several summers. The Georgetown program excited her because she loved what she did for the company: "I'm really comfortable in a lab, and I knew I didn't want to be a professor," she says. She wants ultimately to go into biotech.

She's no doubt brilliant, but when I asked her what she worked on during her summer internships, our conversation went off the rails. She spewed baffling factoids about "silicon wafers," "micro-fabrication," etched canals and chemical mixtures. She got bogged down. She stopped. She tried again. I never got it.

Largely my fault? Sure. But Georgetown is hoping that with its program under her belt, Graver will be able to paint a picture of her work that would rivet even a journalist with a shaky scientific background.

Or, more important, a venture capitalist with a shaky scientific background.