A Response to Physics Today’s Article on the Benefits of a Master’s Degree in Physics

I have submitted the following comments to Physics Today in response to Toni Feder’s article “A physics master’s degree opens doors to myriad careers” published in the April 2019 issue, pp. 22-25.

I must add two cautions to Toni Feder’s piece on the benefits of a physics master’s degree. After I completed my MS in physics in 1991 from a public university in North Carolina, my undergraduate alma mater, also a public university in North Carolina, refused to recognize my MS as preparation for further graduate work and the physics department’s then graduate admissions officer told me to, and I quote, “not even bother applying because I would not be accepted.” In fact, only one university in North Carolina of the ones I approached, a private one, said it would recognize my MS degree. Regarding a master’s in physics as good preparation for teaching, it is indeed that. However, the job market is flooded with PhD recipients whose training is in research, not teaching. Too many institutions, even community colleges where teaching is ostensibly the focus, list a PhD as either a preferred or required credential for introductory undergraduate teaching, i.e. non-research, positions and actively prefer PhD applicants over master’s applicants despite accreditation guidelines, at least in my part of the country, being identical for community colleges and four year colleges and universities. This bias exists either because institutions don’t fully understand the accreditation guidelines or willfully ignore them in order to boast about having so many PhD’s among their faculty in marketing material. I submit that master’s degree holders need to be aware of these problems.

Respectfully submitted,
Paul J. Heafner


Comments 2

  • I hadn’t considered that those were the reasons for the bias. I had assumed it was a filtration process to make each search easier – one institutions would generally continue to use unless someone could prove to them that it was somehow costing them. It’s hard to know whether your given reasons are more correct, but they probably do play a strong role. Thanks for sharing!

    • With the lack of hiring transparency in academia I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure. So yes, the biases I’ve seen are themselves biased.

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