Monday, January 07, 2013

Survey: Physics 2nd Most Demanding Major

Anecdotally, science majors such as chemists and physicists tend to gripe about having the hardest majors throughout college. Although "hardest major" rankings may be fairly subjective, new survey data suggest physics majors have the 2nd most demanding major.

According to a survey of hundreds of thousands of college students in the U.S. and Canada, 36 percent of physics seniors spend 21+ hours preparing for class every week. Only one other group out-studied the physics majors: engineering students. 42 percent of engineering seniors devoted 21 or more hours to studying every week.

Researchers behind the National Survey of Student Engagement compiled responses from college seniors on a battery of questions covering their academic experience. Aside from confirming the fairly demanding nature of a physics degree, the study revealed a number of other interesting comparisons among majors.

For the survey, several majors were lumped into one of seven categories as shown in the chart above. Physicists and engineers had the highest number of students devoting 21+ hours to studying: the equivalent of at least a part-time job. Other areas of study, such as business, had far fewer students in this category.

There's much more to this survey than this statistic, however. Physical science students, for instance, were least likely to participate in class presentations, as shown below. This could certainly hurt physics students in the job market where employers value effective communication and presentation skills.

So we have a small idea of how different majors prepare for class, but how do they spend time out of the classroom? Although physics majors spent a lot of time studying, they still had time for other pursuits.

Physics students were the 3rd most likely to participate in co-curricular activities, behind engineers and biologists. These activities include the campus paper, student organizations, Greek life, and intramural sports.

Also, physicists were the most likely to tutor other students by a wide margin. 45 percent of physics students tutored others "often" or "very often," according to the survey.

This is something I anecdotally observed at my school; many physics students served as learning assistants for introductory physics classes. Physics students can also tutor supplementary subjects — like mathematics.

One universal trend across all majors proved revealing as well. Professors generally wanted students to study 1-2 more hours per week than the students self-reported. However, professors thought that their students were doing roughly 5-8 hours less work than the students reported.

That's a pretty huge disparity between what professors suspect and what the students report. The study authors suggested that this might be because the students didn't have opportunities to show what they learned or because their work simply didn't meet expectations despite the time devoted.

Regardless, professors seem to think that students are slacking far more than the survey suggests. Maybe students are over-reporting their hours, or maybe they're not using that time wisely (frequent Facebook visits and coffee refills can really sidetrack a study session).

There's a wealth of data in this survey, and you can create your own reports easily online. You can sort the data by race, gender, type of institution and area of study. Maybe there's more trends buried in the data.


  1. Using number of hours studied per week as a metric is ambiguous. A high number might mean the major is hard, or it might mean that the students taking that major are stupid.

    1. we can control for your stupidity. As you probably realize, intelligence follows the Gauss distribution, hence data can be normalized. On a side note, I'd like to see the intelligence quotient/ area of study graph.

  2. Maybe, but probably not.

  3. One should keep in mind that the survey is self-reporting and that Americans and Canadians are very prone to "presenteeism" -- ie convincing themselves that they are working, when they are really surfing the web etc.

  4. Americans and Canadians? Why should they be more prone to "presenteeism"? Yes, the students are self-reporting, but provided they all were surveyed the same way, the systematic errors (even those stemming from "presenteeism") should be consistent, which is why it makes sense to compare the students with each other.

    If, for some strange reason, all the physical sciences students were American or Canadian, and all the business majors were (presentably non-surfing) folks from other countries, then you MIGHT have a leg to stand on. But that's not the case.

    1. I meant to write "(presumably non-surfing)" folks . . .

  5. Buzz, I'm a Canadian living in the UK so I have form on this! Years ago when I first arrived in the UK I asked my new boss whether I could have my office pass extended so I could work late and over the weekends -- she looked at me like I had just arrived from Mars. And that's the UK, if I had said the same thing in France I probably would have been sent back to Canada! I'm not saying that folks outside of North America don't work hard -- they just don't feel the same need to appear to be working every hour god sends.

    On a somewhat related note, have you been following the controvesy surrounding the Forbes article that says being a university professor is the least stressful occupation? We're running a poll about it here...

  6. Thanks for the link. I'll ask some of the people here. Many of them have previously been professors. It will be interesting to know if they think life is more stressful now that they've left the academic world.

  7. What about math majors?