Empowering Mentors To Guide Physics Students

Physics opens the door to an amazing variety of career options—but the myriad of choices does make it hard for those mentoring students to advise on areas outside their own. The APS Career Mentoring Fellows program can help by giving physicists in industry, government and academia the tools to support mentees in the best possible way

Midhat Farooq main

Mentor manager Midhat Farooq, senior careers program manager at APS. (Courtesy: Holly Croft/APS)

When deciding what to do with their lives, physics students often seek advice from people around them who are further on in their careers. But what if a student isn’t sure that they want to follow the same path as anyone they know? And how can a mentor provide the right guidance if they don’t have experience in fields beyond their own?

This is the challenge that the APS Career Mentoring (CM) Fellows program is designed to address. Set up in 2019, the program was initially inspired by the desire to create a supportive environment for undergraduates attending the APS March and April Meetings.

“We wanted trained volunteers to give students feedback on their presentations,” says Midhat Farooq, senior careers program manager at APS, who oversees CM Fellows. “But it’s evolved into much more than that. We’re training fellows in career statistics, resources and mentoring. They’re taking the efforts of APS Careers and amplifying them.”

Now in its third cycle, the program includes two training sessions, as well as mentoring opportunities and access to a wealth of information about different careers.

In the first training session, participants learn about implicit bias from an expert brought in by APS. This is to improve fellows’ awareness and understanding of biases, and ensure that they will be inclusive and welcoming of all students that they interact with. 

The other half of this session focuses on helping to build a mentee’s confidence in a STEM career. After all, while mentors provide information and advice, the mentee is ultimately the only one who can take action to advance their career. So an important way of supporting anyone is to help them develop self-efficacy and a growth mindset.

Putting Mentoring Into Practice

The second training session equips fellows with all the careers information that they need to kick-start their mentoring. Farooq does this by sharing a slide deck packed with the nitty-gritty on the jobs market, including statistics on the numbers of physics degree holders in different sectors, typical salaries for various roles, and example profiles of people working in them. This session prepares fellows for another core activity, where they contact a university and use the slides to present their own careers talk to the students and faculty there.

This year, there is also a new component on how to give constructive feedback on résumés, which is something that fellows can implement straight away. “We have a virtual career fair every year,” explains Farooq, “and we now have fellows staffing the résumé helpdesk where students can sign up for 1:1 appointments. So fellows are getting the training and applying it immediately.”

Participants also have plenty of other opportunities to practice mentoring, for example by giving feedback on students’ oral and poster presentations at the APS March and April Meetings, as well as the Division of Plasma Physics Meeting. Farooq has found that this is what fellows often find most enjoyable. “They like interacting with students,” she says. “They like giving back, that’s why they signed up for the program. It’s impactful and fulfilling.”

This desire to give back is something that motivated Stephanie Su, a current CM Fellow, to join the program. Su followed an atypical career path with several switches—after majoring in solid-state physics as an undergraduate, she completed a Ph.D. in particle physics. Today, Su works as a senior systems engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.

At every stage, Su found it helpful to discuss her next steps with people in jobs that she could see herself  doing five to ten years on. Hearing lots of different approaches to these topics helped to clarify her thoughts, and now she wants to pay that forward.

“I think about how difficult it was for me to explore my career,” she explains. “Having good mentors is such a crucial part of your whole academic experience. I was one of the lucky ones and I would like others to have a good experience too.”

Connecting The Dots

So far, Su is finding it especially helpful to have access to the program’s consolidated information on different careers to share with her mentees. As she points out, it would be time-consuming to have to research this on her own.

Brian Beckford and Stephanie Su

Career champions APS CM fellows Brian Beckford and Stephanie Su participate in a career panel discussion at the APS April Meeting. (Courtesy: APS)

But besides improving fellows’ mentoring, Su sees other, more direct benefits for participants. In particular, they gain a stronger sense of connection with the physics community—through doing the careers talk, getting to know undergraduate presenters at meetings and talking to other fellows.

Farooq agrees, adding that it can be a particular perk for physicists in industry, who can sometimes feel more removed from the community than academics. When it comes to mentoring, she emphasizes that having physicists from across all sectors is essential.

“Industry people will come and talk about their path and students will get exposure but also the academics are key because they are our representative at these institutions,” says Farooq. “We really want a large proportion of institutes to have a CM fellow. That way, the department has one person who is a champion for physics careers. We want to empower them with the relevant knowledge so that they can set students up for success.”

• Physicists working in academia, industry or government who are interested in mentoring undergraduate students are encouraged to apply to become APS Career Mentoring (CM) Fellows. Applications for the 2023–2024 cycle will begin in June 2023. For more details see www.aps.org/careers/guidance/mentoring.cfm.

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