A while back, after handing in my manuscript and before SteelyKid, I asked readers to suggest blog topics. I got to a few of them already, but there’s one more that I’ve been meaning to comment on, from tcmJOE:
I’m a physics undergrad about to begin my final year, and while I’m still thinking of physics grad school, I’m starting to feel less and less inclined to go into academia. Would you talk some more about career options for physics students outside of academia/pure research?
In many ways, I’m a lousy person to ask about this– I went directly from college into physics grad school, with about a week between my leaving Williamstown and my showing up at NIST to work for the summer before classes started. I’ve never had a “Real Job,” namely one outside of academia.
This is a little awkward, especially as I’m now in a position to give career advice to students, both in person and on the Internet. My knowledge of the non-academic job market for physics majors is second-hand at best, so take whatever follows with an appropriate amount of salt.
(I’m going to assume, by the way, that you’re looking for careers that actually use the technical aspects of the physics degree, and not just any job that pays a living wage. If you’re just in it for the money, Wall Street has traditionally loved anybody who’s good at math, and a lot of former physicists end up there.)
There’s a very big split between jobs you can get with an undergrad physics degree and jobs you can only get if you have a Ph.D.. There’s not much difference between the jobs you can get with a bachelor’s degree and those you can get with a master’s degree– physics, for whatever reason, seems to be a “Ph.D. or bust!” field.
At the undergrad level, any technical job you can get is essentially an engineering position. You’d be hired for having some basic technical competence, numerical ability, and problem-solving skills, and not so much for the specific knowledge of physics that you may have (though specific knowledge doesn’t hurt).
The good news here is that a physics degree will give you the ability to work in a lot of different fields. The bad news is, a physics degree will give you the ability to work in a lot of different fields.
This is really where I part company with “Thoreau”, who wrote about this in the context of diversity issues a few weeks ago:
The reality is that the real value of a physics degree is similar to the value of a liberal arts degree: In all likelihood you won’t spend the rest of your career making direct use of the concepts and calculations mastered in physics courses. However, a physics education gives a person (1) a very fundamental view of science and technology (2) an introduction to an experimental culture that is very DIY and clever with indirect measurement, and (3) an introduction to a mathematical culture that is able to blend high-powered computing, back of the envelope estimates, very fancy pure mathematics, and the workhorses of standard applied mathematics. This sort of training generally leads to a lower starting salary than engineering graduates (fewer entry-level jobs that precisely match the major) but long-term prospects that are comparable to engineering grads (and often more flexible).
If we stop thinking about “How can we get more students to consider my career path in basic research and college teaching?” and start thinking about how to get more students to consider an educational path that leads to a wide variety of opportunities, we might get more students of all types. … [I]t would be healthier for the profession if we recognized that physics departments can and should do more than just teach a whole bunch of service courses while trying to prepare a handful of students for a basic research path that most of them won’t even embark on.
While I’m sympathetic to the idea of emphasizing flexibility (I am, after all, a confirmed Liberal Arts College Guy), this is more effective as a strategy for making employed physicists feel good about themselves than attracting and keeping majors, for the reasons alluded to in the last sentence of the first paragraph, and spelled out in more detail here, here, and to some degree here. The problem is that while it’s true that a physics major gives students the skills they need to learn to succeed at any of a wide range of jobs, it doesn’t provide the immediate credential that qualifies them for any particular job.
If we over-emphasize flexibility, we risk becoming the English of the natural sciences– a good college major that doesn’t give you a path to a job.
But that’s a strategic academic matter, not anything relevant to the job question. From a practical standpoint, if you’re a physics undergrad looking for a technical job that does not require graduate school, there are jobs out there for you, but you’ll have to work a little harder for them. Companies looking to hire someone to engineer optical systems may be faced with a choice between one candidate with a physics degree, and another with a degree in optical engineering, and you need to convince them that you’re the right choice.
My advice to somebody in this situation would be to emphasize two things: research experience, and communication skills. If you want to stand out in a pool of candidates with more specialized degrees, it’s imperative to have some sort of relevant research experience– get involved in something as an undergrad, and demonstrate that you can produce results. If you’re lucky, you may even be able to find a project that’s directly relevant– the students I’ve worked with at Union who have gone directly into the working world have done so in positions that rely heavily on skills they learned in doing research, and that’s what got them the job.
Communication skills are also important. There are very few jobs that you would want to hold that don’t involve some element of interpersonal communication. You need to be able to convey information about your work to other people in an effective and efficient way, starting with whoever is going to interview you for your potential job, so these skills are essential. If you’re offered an opportunity to present your research results in an oral or poster presentation, take it. If you’re not offered one, make one.
As a practical matter, the process of getting one of these jobs is the same as the process for getting a non-science job after graduation: You write up a resume, and send it to everyone you might consider working for. If you’re at a good college or university, they’ll have a career office of some sort who can help with this– they’ll have directories of employers, lists of alumni contacts, and that sort of thing. The resources they offer won’t be as extensive for science positions as for investment banking, but at an absolute minimum, they can help you polish your resume and interview skills.
That’s the undergrad side of things. If you go on to graduate school, get a Ph.D., and don’t want to continue in academia, the options are somewhat different. There are more positions out there specifically looking for a Ph.D. in Physics than there are looking for an undergraduate physics degree, which makes the credential question a little less critical.
Again, discarding the Wall Street option, these generally are industrial positions, focussed on making some specific product or another. Since the demise of Bell Labs and other great industrial labs, there aren’t so many open-ended positions where you can just putter around and try to invent the laser, but they tend to be interested in specific problems relevant to particular situations.
I don’t personally have the temperment for this– I’m easily bored, and lose interest in problems after a while, so I’ve never looked all that closely at what these entail. My impression is that they require a good deal of attention to detail, as you would expect– the people I know who have gone on to positions in industry have been organized and detail-oriented to an almost compulsive degree.
Again, having a relevant research area helps– if you’re a pencil-and-paper theorist working on non-commutative geometrical subspaces for blah blah blah, you’re probably screwed. If you do experimental work in any field, you can probably apply what you know to some problem of industrial interest. And communication skills are at least as important here as for people with undergrad degrees.
The other non-academic option would be a position at a national research lab– NIST, one of the DoE labs, one of the DoD facilities, etc. Those positions can be quasi-academic, and are really the dream job for a lot of physicists– you have the job stability of being in the government service, but you get to work on more or less whatever you want, and you don’t have to teach classes. Staff positions at major national labs are fantastic jobs, but they’re also even rarer than tenure-track faculty jobs, so I wouldn’t make that a specific career goal.
As far as getting these positions, it’s similar to getting undergrad jobs, but without the college career center. On the other hand, though, if you’ve been doing research toward a Ph.D., you almost certainly know a lot of people in the field, and can draw on those connections to learn about job openings in the same way that an undergrad would use the career center. You also know who the major companies working in relevant fields are, because you’ve been buying and using their products, so you can contact them directly. After that, it’s the same resume-and-interview process as any other job.
Somewhere in between these two is the option of going to a different sort of professional school– getting the education credentials needed to become a physics teacher, for example, or going to law school with the intention of becoming a patent lawyer. Those are both excellent career options, and offer some opportunity to use the technical knowledge of a physics degree, albeit less directly. They also require a particular personality type to succeed (in particular, if you’re thinking about going to law school, you better like writing).
So, that’s what I have to offer on the subject of non-academic careers in physics. I wish I had more solid knowledge to work from, but maybe some of my readers can provide helpful comments.