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January 16, 2006

Physics Department offers course on working in industry

By Tim Stephens

UCSC's Physics Department is giving students in the applied physics program something few college students in any major receive: a course on how to get a job after they graduate.

Marianne Walpert
Physics alumna Marianne Walpert spoke to physics students about working in industry. She is vice president for sales and marketing at Pacific Power Management, a solar energy company.
Photo courtesy of Pacific Power Management

The new course, called The Physicist in Industry, is intended to let students know what kinds of job opportunities exist for people with physics degrees and how to go about pursuing those opportunities and succeeding on the job.

"Most college students are not very aware of the job market and what they need to do to get those jobs," said Fred Kuttner, a lecturer in the Physics Department.

Kuttner and Bruce Rosenblum, professor emeritus of physics, designed the course and taught it for the first time last year. The course will be offered every year during spring quarter and is open to all students, although first preference is given to students in the applied physics program.

"The large majority of physics students will get jobs in industry," Rosenblum said. "Even among those who go on to get a Ph.D., the majority will get jobs in industry. And yet, as far as I know, we seem to be unique in offering a course that really addresses the careers that students need to prepare for."

Both Kuttner and Rosenblum have extensive experience working in industry, but they felt it was important to bring in guest speakers to give the students advice about current opportunities. They wrote to a large number of physics alumni, hoping to hear from two or three who would be willing to come talk to the class. They were overwhelmed by the response, Rosenblum said.

"We got about 40 replies and were only able to invite eight of them," he said. "Alumni love to come back and give advice to students."

Marianne Walpert, who took freshman physics from Rosenblum when she was a student here in the 1970s, was among the alumni who spoke to the class last year. Now vice president for sales and marketing at Pacific Power Management, a solar energy company, Walpert said physics provides a good foundation for a wide range of careers.

"Not everyone can be or wants to be a researcher in a lab, so I think it's a great idea to offer a course that exposes students to different career options," Walpert said. "I'm in marketing now, but I don't for a minute regret having a degree in physics. The physics of solar technology is what got me hooked on it in the first place."

John MacMahon, another alumnus who spoke to last year's class, said the problem-solving skills of physicists are highly valued in industry. Cofounder and chief technical officer of a medical device company, Kerberos Proximal Solutions, MacMahon earned a B.S. in physics at UCSC and an M.S. in electrical engineering at Stanford.

"I look at physics as being the core problem-solving technique for any engineer," said MacMahon. "If you have a company that designs and develops new products, what you need are problem solvers."

Kuttner said the guest speakers are the highlight of the course. Students also prepare a resume, conduct a mock job interview, and get advice on how to succeed on the job.

Rosenblum noted that, in order to succeed on a job, students should know something about the concerns of their boss or their boss's boss. The course therefore includes economic topics, such as cash-flow management and how to read a profit-and-loss statement. Kuttner, who has an M.B.A. in addition to his M.S. and Ph.D. in physics from UCSC, has taught these topics as a faculty member at Northwestern Polytechnic University. Rosenblum has taught courses in entrepreneurship in the Economics Department at UCSC. 

George Blumenthal, professor of astronomy and astrophysics and a past chair of the UC Academic Senate, praised the course, noting that it serves the needs of both students and industry.

"This course by Rosenblum and Kuttner is an outstanding example of how the University of California can work in partnership with industry to meet the employment needs of both students and companies and to favorably affect the industrial climate in California," Blumenthal said.

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