Thread: Jobs for physics graduates View Single Post
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I haven't responded to this string till now, since I was curious on how people react or respond to this, especially from "career physicst", if there was any. Since I fall into that category, I think it is only fair that I give a bit of my perpective on it.

The issue of becoming a physicist is something that I have a bit of an interest in. I started writing a series of article titled "So You Want To Be A Physicist" for a website that I run, mainly as a record on all the things that I WISH someone would have told me while I was pursuing my degree. No doubt that there were a lot of things that would have made my academic pursuit a bit easier, or less mysterious, had I known a bunch of things along the way.

Part of the problem here is that a lot of incoming undergraduate physics majors have rather "lofty" ideas of what physics is, and what a physicist does. I lost count on how many undergradute physics majors I encouter lately who are enamoured by "String Theory" and "Quantum Gravity", etc., and want to "major" in them. Now, there's nothing wrong with those (crossing fingers), but to think that those are the only exciting areas of physics is taking a very jaundice view of what physics is (they're always surprised when I tell them that the majority of practicing physicists are in the field of condensed matter/material science).

Now at some point, the "employability" of these physics graduates would come into play - like 6 months before graduation. I can relay an anecdote that I personally encounter. Back in the early 90's, during one of the economic slowdowns in the US, there were stories of theoretical physics Ph.D's having to abandon their field and go into other areas for employment, even a story of one ph.d having to drive a bus to make a living. At the same time, I personally know of at least 2 ph.d candidates in the field of Medical Physics and 3 from condensed matter who, even before they finished defending their ph.d theses, were already getting ~$70,000 job offers from various companies. ($70,000 back in the early 90's was a LOT of money, especially for fresh graduates). What was the difference between them and those ph.d's who couldn't find jobs? Their EXPERTISE!

Those people were either in a high demand area (Medical Physics), or they were experimentalists who possessed SKILLS (thin film fabrication and characterizations) that not only are marketable for an academic track career, but also in so many other industrial sectors. Yet, when we asked the new incoming physics majors at that time what area they want to specialize in, they STILL pick theoretical particle physics, String, etc...

Your employability as a physics degree holder depends VERY much on what area you specialized in, and what skills you possess. I will right off hand say that these two factors are very limited if you stop at a B.Sc level. At the doctoral level, if you majored in String theory, or other similar theoretical areas, then you can expect that your employability is highly limited in scope, and this would predominantly come from educational institutions. Considering the rate that they are hiring, and the number of graduates that is being produced, a person with this major should not be surprised if offers are very scant. On the other hand, if you're an experimentalist, and you know (i) ultra-high vacuum systems (ii) pulse laser ablation thin film deposition (iii) x-ray diffraction and electron beam diagnostics systems (all these may appear to be different areas, but when you do an experimental work, you don't just do one thing), then by golly, you have the skills that companies as varied as Intel, Applied Materials, .. all the way to National Labs and of course, academic institutions, are looking for! Furthermore, experimentalists are more desireable to academic institutions because of one important thing: they tend to be able to bring more research grant money than theorists.

If there's ever a "moral" to this story to potential physics majors, it is that while you're pursuing your physics degree, never lose sight that eventually, you will leave the secure comfort of an academic life. When that happens, think of what you know and possess that someone else might find of value. Hopefully, this will influence on what kinds of choices you make along the way.

Zz.