Reader Request: Career Options

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Stephen
    August 18, 2008

    As a physics grad student entertaining the idea of quitting, it would be great if tcmJOE could report back his experiences.

  2. #2 Uncle Al
    August 18, 2008

    http://www.dilbert.com/fast

    When slaves chained to the oars drown those who beat the big drum have a flotation device.

  3. #3 Stephanie Chasteen
    August 18, 2008

    I recently did a survey of all the graduates from our undergraduate physics program. We were surprised to see that a full 40% did not go on to graduate school, and of those, many seemed to go into industry. This may change how we think about what we are teaching in the upper-division courses (which implicitly prepare students to go on to graduate studies).

  4. #4 Brian
    August 18, 2008

    Nice summary Chad. I have a similar problem describing non-academic jobs to my students in chemistry. I agree that for undergrads the one of the most important things they can do is become good communicators, but I would add written communication to the interpersonal and oral.

  5. #5 chezjake
    August 18, 2008

    Another option for those with an undergrad degree and an interest in the “knowledge” and literature of physics is to go for a Masters in Library and Information Science. There are jobs in major academic libraries and both government and industry research libraries, as well as with specialized information and consulting companies.

    There is a Physics-Astronomy-Mathematics Division of the Special Libraries Association, whose website can provide contacts and information about the job possibilities in this area.
    http://units.sla.org/division/dpam/

  6. #6 Jonathann Vos Post
    August 18, 2008

    A good case can be made that the best step after a Physics degree is a job in the Biomedical goup of industries.

    First, your intelligence, disclipline, detail-orientation, logic, and numerical plus computer abilities will be appreciated.

    Second, you can command a good salary, for your age.

    Third, it’s a growing field, and that offers good career prospects.

    Fourth, you follow in the footsteps of dozens of physicists who switched to molecular biology, such as Max Delbruck, and in the spirit of Schrodinger’s book “What is Life?” that essentially predicted information-carrying macromolecules such as RNA and DNA.

    Hence, fifth, after you’ve gotten some some real jobs done, and saved some money, and extended your network of contacts, and hopefully written some papers or made some public presentations, you are in better shape to switch back into the academic world. In Physics, or Biology, or whatever. You’ll now be ahead of BOTH the people who never had a nonacademic job (sorry, Chad), and the people who have never received a science degree.

    What Physics did for Mathematics in the 17th through 20th centuries, by the way, Biology is doing for Mathematics in the 21st Century.

  7. #7 Sandra Porter
    August 18, 2008

    As a practical note, and my small sample size. We’ve hired plenty of physics majors. Many of them seem to end up working as software engineers, programmers, or system administrators.

  8. #8 Sandra Porter
    August 18, 2008

    The sample size that I’m familiar with is pretty small, but we’ve hired a few physics majors. It seems to be pretty common for physics majors to end up working as software engineers, programmers, or system administrators.

  9. #9 Lethe
    August 18, 2008

    The difficulty in getting a job at a government lab as a Ph.D. in physical science or engineering can vary a lot depending on the lab. I’ve heard dark mutterings (unverified by any personal experience on my part) about the near-impossibility of landing a NIST staff position, while I got my job at a DoD lab pretty easily. There is a whole lot less competition here for a given position than there is in academia, and the jobs can be filled quickly (by initially hiring people through a defense contractor) on the authority of a single person. I was actually offered my position during my interview (my talk went well, and there was a severe need for people here at the time);I gather that such a thing would be a wee bit surprising during an academic job interview.

    I can’t speak for NIST, but at the DoD and DoE labs where I’ve worked, you can’t “work on more or less whatever you want,” you can work on more or less whatever you (or your project lead) can get funded. This usually means that you need to have an eye toward an application appropriate for your lab’s mission, and are thus less basic than those in academia. Projects that fall under the heading of basic research (6.1, for those familiar with the DoD’s notation) around here would mostly seem quite applied to an academic, and research that an academic would consider basic stands very little chance of getting funded.

  10. #10 John Novak
    August 18, 2008

    Well, as one of the resident actual engineers reading the forum, I tend to think of physics jobs according to the following sorta rough hierarchy: There are jobs about discovering new physics, jobs about doing or using physics, and jobs about using the physics mindset.

    Physicists can mock me, but this is the right prism for engineers to apply to physicists, amongst ourselves. It is, arguably, a useful prism for physicists to at least understand if they are asking engineering companies for money. Here’s what they roughly mean:

    Jobs about discovering new physics is exactly what it sounds like, and is probably the media and popular impression of the field of physics: Guys in tweed jackets with sweet-smelling pipes hanging around university quadrangles thinking really hard. Basically, a university professor. Occasionally, there are some jobs in industry that may be like this, but they’re damned few and far between, and even those tend to be about discovering new laws of physics that might be relevant to practical problems today rather than figuring out the quantum information properties of black holes… unless you’ve got a blakc hole generator in your lab, in which case, IBM wants to talk to you.

    Jobs about doing or using physics aren’t those. I suppose I could break this up into two separate categories, but when I try to I find they blend into each toher way too much. But these are jobs that clearly needs physicists to do, or people with some serious insights into physics, but aren’t discovering new laws. There are more of these jobs that meets the eye, especially at large R&D companies.

    These might be things like taking exhaustive atmospheric measurements under various conditions to find out what the expected eprformance of sensors or communications systems would be. Or providing the physics insights to engineers at semiconductor fabs, to help apply the latest research breakthroughs from academia, translating them to wafer runs for products. Or the optical design problems Chad refers to above. Or any one of a number of job descriptions. As Chad notes, these tend to be a bit specific in nature, at least to the degree that industry has problems it would like to solve. You may not be doing exactly the same thing, every day, for the rest of your career, but you will often be told, “This is a problem we are going to solve.”

    Also note, by the way, that some of these might sound like lab technician jobs, such as the atmospheric characterization example above. That might be true… if you’re given an exact set of measurements to take. In industry, as a practicing physicist, it might also be your job to understand the device and atmospheric physics well enough to help define what measurements need to be taken. Also, the scale of the labs can get pretty big.

    Obviously, there are many many more examples– those are the ones off the top of my head, from disciplines close to my own work.

    And then there’s the jobs that use the physics mindset. The big example in my mind is systems engineering, although there are certainly other routes to that job position. Systems engineering is one of those jobs where you have know a little bit about a lot of technical subjects– too many for there to be a reasonable chance of any one person being really expert in all of them, so you look for people who know a lot about one or two, and who demonstrate the ability to come up the curve quickly and think about details that seem unrelated.

    Other examples might be engineering program managers, or various management types on the technical end in large engineering companies. I’m sure there are other examples, but those are the ones I’m familiar with.

    In a way, I think this is not unlike the informal hierarchy of computer science, where there are guys doing serious research on language design or numerical optimization; guys who take those results and work them into libraries and packages; guys who turn those into real world, external products; and guys who just happen to leverage a knowledge of “how computers work,” into useful work for other people.

  11. #11 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 18, 2008

    Mind you, before the Financial industry shot both its feet off, “Quant” (a.k.a. “Rocket Scientist”) for a brokerage or hedge fund would be the recommended job for someone with a new Physics degree.

    John Novak is right, too. I say this after doing some sorts of Engineering for two decades in the aerospace industry after all my academic degrees, and before returning to academe as an adjunct professor of Astronomy and of Mathematics, and now being in my 2nd year of high school and middle-school teaching to heartbreakingly mis-educated urban teenagers.

    But I mentioned Biomedical industries seriously, as (in John Novak’s classification) these can pay well for your doing or using physics, and using the physics mindset.

  12. #12 Jes
    August 18, 2008

    “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.”

    DOE labs are definitely not the place to look for job security. Lay-offs have been common events these last few years. There are hiring freezes in effect at some labs, and more lay-offs are coming in the Fall, so I would wait a year or two before even bothering to put in a CV. If you decide to take a job at a DOE lab, just for the experience, think of it as a temp job. A PhD won’t always save you. In my experience, the postdocs get thrown out with the technicians.

  13. #13 Travis Hime
    August 18, 2008

    In addition to the government-run labs there are companies that contract with the government (mostly the military) to do physics research: the most prominent example I know of is Arete Associates, which is one of the top private-sector employers of physicists. I believe they mostly do computational/numerical modeling. These sorts of jobs are available with either a bachelor’s degree or a PhD, but for the ones that work with military agencies you need to be a US citizen and otherwise able to get a security clearance.

    I decided to leave academia last year (I got my PhD in December) and, after looking at a broad spectrum of jobs, ended up joining a quant group at a major investment bank. Wall Street hires physicists not just for their math skills, but for the ability to find patterns and relationships in large quantities of data with lots of noise. It’s not physics but it’s certainly research, and it can be quite fulfilling intellectually if you like looking at data and trying to figure out the principles behind it. And there’s a more visceral thrill associated with playing a very high-stakes game. Certainly the paycheck is nice, but it’s far from the only reason to consider Wall Street.

    On the other hand I think there are a lot of unpleasant quant jobs out there; it’s important to find something that’s a good fit. And as Jonathan Vos Post mentioned, the quant funds were among the hardest hit in the recent financial crisis so a lot of them aren’t hiring right now.

  14. #14 andy.s
    August 18, 2008

    Sporting goods.

    My freshman-year roommate’s dad said he was a physicist on the Manhattan project, was sort of ‘downsized’ after the war and wound up running a sporting goods shop on the north side of Chicago.

    He advised me to stay the hell away from the field, as there was no future in it.

    Don’t know if that’s really true, but I do notice that there seems to be a lot more PhD’s in any given year than the field has room for.

    I always just figured that the government subsidizes graduate studies and such. And when you subsidize a commodity, you often wind up with surpluses of it, whether it’s soybeans or PhD’s.

  15. #15 Mister Troll
    August 18, 2008

    The mentorship program that the FIAP division of the APS has access to is very good:

    http://units.aps.org/units/fiap/fiapmentornet.cfm

  16. #16 CCPhysicist
    August 18, 2008

    Very good article, and a great comment by Novak at #10. I’ve got to find a place to add a link to it in one of the old articles in my “jobs” series. [Look for the jobs tag in the sidebar.]

    Chad, what you need to do to improve your knowledge is make it a point to keep in touch with every one of your grads. Make it very clear to them that taking a non-academic path is not failure and that you want them to contact you in 5 or 10 or 15 years and tell you what they are doing. After all, AIP stats show that only about 1/3 of all PhD grads end up in an academic position but I know my alma mater was utterly ignorant of where any of the other 2/3 went.

    For example, contrary to what you wrote, Bell Labs
    http://www.alcatel-lucent.com/wps/portal/BellLabs
    still exists with operations in 4 states and 8 countries. One guy I know just retired after about 30 years with them and several others I know are with one or another branch of that organization. Your readers might be interested to know that the PhD in experimental physics is what mattered, not the sub-field. You can move from doing beam optics to light optics, or from nuclear physics to VLSI R&D. This is about doing physics, as Novak put it. But not a single one of these people was on the list of alumni assembled by the lab where they did their PhD. That would be why the profs don’t know where the jobs are.

    One acquaintance in grad school failed the prelims and shifted to an engineering PhD program. Given the market at the time (see part 1 of my “jobs” series), I think he lacked the motivation to study hard enough since he knew his stuff. One alternative is to get an MS in engineering instead of an MS in physics if you were planning to stop at that level. That helps with the credentials issue. One student used a specialty MS program to jump into the animated movie business, for example. [Choice was between name in Phys Rev Lett or name on the Big Screen. She picked the latter and is still smiling.]

  17. #17 agm
    August 19, 2008

    Chad, first, thanks for pointing out the problematic nature of dealing with career services offices for graduate students. It’s just not an easy situation for anyone involved.

    But dammit, I need to sit tcmJOE down, ply him with mead, and talk sense into him. It takes a particular type of crazy to want to do grad school in physics, particularly after seeing the department and grad school’s problems. He might work out as a theorist, but if that means chasing an academic job. Plus, that’s what a worthwhile program in the US would train him for, because the faculty don’t know anything else for the most part.

    A couple of mentions for bio, but it needs to be pointed out that bio is headed in a very bad direction funding-wise. What’s the NIH acceptance rate, 4% or so now? tcmJOE’s previous roommate, also bright, hard-working, and on the ball, is starting a biosciences PhD, but I believe he knows what he’s gotten into.

    That, of course, implies that one should also encourage physics majors to look at a field that actually has the money everyone incorrectly thinks bio has and will hire BS degrees: geophysics. An entry-level geophysics job, though it takes careful planning and a lot of work to switch fields, is possible — these companies regularly hire technically capable non-geologists to do data processing such as seismic reflection processing. An MS can be completed in 3 years and is employable at a more advanced level. (Go oil money.) After that, all you have to do is survive living in Houston…

  18. #18 Jamie Bowden
    August 19, 2008

    To add to what John posted above, I work with a lot of guys who have PhD.s in physics, and a lot of what they do is program management and systems engineering work. Lower level scientists around here tend to be applied physics types and engineers working on optical sensors and radar systems (not design, but data fusion and discrimination and phenomenology and other related work). Most of our PhD.s started off doing applied physics and worked towards their doctorates as they moved up. It might be all of them; I don’t believe any of them have ever worked in academia.

  19. #19 tcmJOE
    August 21, 2008

    Thank you everyone for the advice, definitely some things to think about.

    Stephen, I could keep you updated, though it’ll be several months before anything gets settled (after all, senior year is just about to begin). So we shall see.

    agm, I do rather like mead. We’ll see what happens, though I’m fairly certain that I’d be doing grad school somewhere else. Unless the people here take out a wad of bills and start putting them into my lap. Not going to happen, but it is a rather enjoyable dream…

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