Register to reply

Non-academic career options for the theroetical physicist

by daveyrocket
Tags: career, nonacademic, options, physicist, theroetical
Share this thread:
daveyrocket
#1
Apr18-11, 06:24 PM
P: 185
These are some notes of the observations I've made over the past few months looking for jobs. This might be useful for someone else but keep in mind it's rather focused around my personal situation and preferences. I did my PhD and postdoc in theoretical condensed matter physics, mostly DFT / strong correlations (if you don't know what that is then don't worry about it). I'm looking for a job outside academia, I'm rather bored with physics and I'm desperately trying to stay on the west coast of the United States.

These observations are all biased and anecdotal, so if you read this and thought you found it useful, you're probably wrong.

Materials Science / Engineering - Industry jobs, even entry level ones, seem to overwhelmingly require experimental experience. I managed to interview for the one theoretical solid state physics job I found, and I didn't get it. Or I find jobs where they want someone with more mechanical engineering-type experience, like doing mechanics of materials. It seems there are mechanical engineers to fill those positions, and it's difficult to play a numbers game here because there really aren't many positions like this. (again, had an interview, didn't get the job.)

Oil/gas - The oil/gas jobs that I've seen that I might be remotely qualified for all want experimental experience. Also, you've got to be willing to move to places no one in their right might would want to live in, like Alaska or Texas. On the plus side, you will probably get to travel a lot in certain positions, although I don't really care for that. No idea about salaries. If you're a tree-hugging hippie, then skip this one. In fact, go to the very end of the list.

Engineering
  • Civil - Not qualified. There is lots of competition from actual civil engineers. My ex-girlfriend had a degree and experience and good references and she still has a ton of trouble finding a job.
  • Mechanical - Theorists might have relevant qualifications (finite element experience) for a small handful of modeling jobs in this field. But not in my case. Experimental experience would be helpful for most positions. It wouldn't be so bad, but there is competition from engineers who already have the right qualifications.
  • Electrical - Not qualified. PhD in theoretical physics gives no training in EE.
  • Environmental - I think this would be really interesting, but I have no qualifications to get into it. A master's in environmental engineering would go a long way, but no more school for me for a long while.
  • Chemical - Even though I minored in chemistry and my background is solid state physics, my experience is not relevant enough because of a lack of laboratory chemistry and experimental methods.
  • Geophysics - Don't have related experience. No experimental experience, no training in geology. Sounds really cool though.
  • Semiconductor Industry - Nearly all jobs want experimental background. If you're a theorist, you better have worked on silicon.

Information Technology - The main problem I have with doing IT is I had the skills to do it before I even started my bachelor's. The whole reason for going to college in the first place was to get away from these kinds of jobs. Most IT jobs will not have much in terms of upward growth, unless you can/want to get into management. It's probably the easiest field for a physics PhD to be self-employed in though.
  • Support - Maybe? I've done tech support before but that was a really garbagety job. Doing high level technical support for people with technical expertise might not be too bad. But this seems like a dead-end career. Might be a good way to pay the bills while studying for the patent bar if nothing else comes along. I have a friend doing technical support for theoretical physicsts, helping them with running codes and interpreting the results of their research. His is one of extremely few jobs like it; there might be as many as a half a dozen jobs like it in the country.
  • Management - Lack of management experience is probably a problem.
  • Software engineering - More than qualified, but I have back problems that computer use and especially programming makes worse. Plus many of these jobs require long hours. Salaries will be pretty good but probably not increase much with experience compared to other options.
  • Web development - Kill me now. I used to consult as a web developer. Web development is the most demoralizing kind of software development, and I will never do it again. Requires long hours typically, and extensive psychotherapy to deal with the fact that you contribute to the moral decay of society every time you write <!--[if IE]> in your code. Contract work is very easy to come by though, so with a little expertise in this area you will not be hurting for work.
  • Systems Administration - Viable option. Need to do more research on this one. Seems a bit boring. You probably need to learn a lot about networking. Pay seems average with not a lot of upward mobility. Chances are you will never make $100k in 2011 dollars (although there is a slim chance you might). May require being on call, so if there are problems at 2am you've got to go in and fix them. This might be a great way to get into a different industry, develop contacts and use networking to change out of the IT field into something you'd rather be doing.
  • Technical Consulting - Could vary a lot. Sounds stressful and not much fun. Long hours and pay is average. Could be a good option for entrepreneurship. I interviewed with a technical consulting firm but wasn't terribly impressed.

Management Consulting - need an MBA? Don't know much about this. Apparently management consulting firms may give "mini-MBA" training to get you started. Jobs are available, but you can expect long hours and lot of traveling. You do meet a lot of people so you could make a lot of business connections to have a way out when you get sick of it. Unless you have the personality of a bag or rocks, or a theoretical physicist.

Quantitative Finance - Stressful and long hours. Fairly similar in many respects to graduate school. Salaries are very high, better than any other option, but you have to live in NYC. I don't want a job that is similar to graduate school, so no thanks. But with the right personality and circumstance, this could be a very rewarding career.

Defense - No security clearance. Don't want to get it either. Salaries are probably quite high, but I don't know how they compare to patent attorneys or quants. There's a non-compete agreement that if you break you will go to jail for a long time. Also your work will be classified, so if you want to change jobs you won't be able say what you actually did on your resume. Well, you can say what you did, sort of, but you can't go into detail, which only matters if you want to talk to someone who would know what you were talking about. Which they would if you were trying to stay in your field. So this is not a good stepping stone to get to academic research if you care about that sort of thing. If you don't you can always come back to this list after you're done designing bombs that will be used to blow up little brown children. If you haven't developed a conscience by then, the oil/gas field will have an opening for you. Otherwise, see the section on non-profits.

Insurance
  • Actuarial - The job market is not large on the west coast. People on forums seem pretty pessimistic about the situation especially for entry level candidates, and especially for physics PhDs, but I do know one person who got in without too much trouble. Salaries start out good, in the 50k-60k range and a lot of room for growth. You have to take tests, which you're probably good at and you might even like if you've gone through a physics PhD program.
  • Underwriting - The usual over-/under-qualified condition. Salaries seem low, especially at the entry level, and entry level qualifications are really low, with many not even requiring a 4 year degree. Not many entry level positions available. Could be a good way to get into the industry and make contacts to move up though.
  • Sales - I definitely don't have the personality for it and I don't know many physicists who do. Salaries are typically moderately low, in the 30k-40k range. The right positions can pay pretty well though, and if you have the personality for sales you can make hella cash from commissions. But if you had the personality for sales, why the hell did you study physics?

Technical Writing - Might be boring work, but if you like writing and get the right job this could be very interesting. A lot of low salary jobs exist, but I think these have very low education requirements. The right job for a physics PhD could pay quite a bit. Upper end salaries with large tech companies can be fairly high, in the 100k range. Those probably require 10+ years of experience but at least there is upward mobility.

Science Journalism - I have not had an easy time coming up with information on this job. Salaries that I've found range from 35k-70k.

Teaching
  • Community college - seems like a garbagety job with poor salary. You get to stay in academics, but you won't have time to do research and so you will probably never transition to a research position. This is career suicide in many ways, IMO. There could be upward mobility into administration though. But because of the way the state budgets have been run into the ground, half your compensation will be awarded in the form of groin kicks (and you're getting them, not giving them). With the current academic job situation, your peers are already all lined up around to block to purchase athletic supporters. But you get to work with students! Many of whom are in a special remedial situation! At least you can get tenure. In most schools anyway.
  • 4 year college - lecturer - Few jobs, lots of competition. Salary is decent, around 40k. Up to 100k can be gotten for senior lecturers at large universities. No research support. For a theorist interested in research, this is a viable option since you just need access to computers, and you can build collaborations. But you probably won't have much time to actually do research. With the right motivation for research this could be a stepping stone to a professor position, otherwise it's a dead-end job.
  • 4 year college - professor position - Tremendous competition for jobs. Very few jobs, and locations are spread out. Publish or perish. Don't have to publish a lot though. Salary will be decent. You won't have much spare time.
  • University professor - If you're going for this job, you already know everything I can possibly tell you about it and you don't need to read this list.
  • Corporate Training - Don't know much about this. It could be a decent consulting gig if you have the right connections.
  • Tutoring - Low salaries, and you're overqualified. Not only is the hourly wage low you probably will only get a maximum of 20 hours a week. You could freelance easily though.
  • English as a foreign language - Apparently there is demand for EFL teachers with technical backgrounds overseas. Could be cool although most jobs are going to be in China and east Asia, so you won't be going to cool places like Buenos Aires. Oh there are jobs in Europe too but probably more competition for those.

Law
  • General - No way in hell I'm going to pay for law school tuition.
  • Patent Attorney - Passing the patent bar is an option, but not one I will pursue before I need to find my next job. This does seem like it could be really boring too. The salary potential is tremendous though, 2-3 times what you will find in just about any other option. You will probably have to work in a large city, but you should be able to work just about any large city in the country.
  • Patent Agent / Examiner - There are ways into the IP field without having the law degree. A job as a patent agent or examiner should be quite good salary-wise, and you might someday get funded to pursue the law degree. Having a degree in electrical, computer, or software engineering would probably be more helpful here than physics, but at least you can still laugh at the civil engineers.
  • Forensics - There are jobs that physics PhD's might be qualified for. No idea what the competition is like. These are government jobs: state or federal mostly. Starting pay is decent, 50-60k for state jobs. Federal is probably higher. Maybe there are forensics consulting firms too.
  • Enforcement - If you are athletic, you could be an FBI agent and hunt down the aliens that abducted your sister. Pay is good and a background in physics might be rather rare and valuable. Athletic requirements will disqualify most physics PhD's, especially the theorists. You could train, but I think you have to keep up with it as long as you are employed. So if you don't like physical training enough to already be doing it, this is probably the wrong field for you.

Antique Sales - I only put this here because I met a guy at a milonga a couple of weeks ago doing this. He got a PhD in biochemistry, decided it was the wrong field, and now he travels to third world countries, buys up a bunch of antiques real cheap and brings them to the US and sells them. He makes a decent living, enough to travel around the world and learn from tango masters in all the places you would want to go if you liked something interesting like dancing. But I think he was an experimentalist, so he has an actual personality. That's why this job works for him.

Non-profits - Huge variety here and I haven't looked in depth. If you're a tree-hugging hippie who thinks money is evil, this is the industry for you. But it seems a physics PhD will have no special advantage, unlike certain engineering degrees. Salaries will likely be significantly lower than working for a for-profit business or for the government. You get paid with karma instead of money but you like it, you dirty hippie. If you're coming here from the defense industry, you probably need the karma more than the money anyway.

One final comment for job searchers. Network. Network the crap out of the people that you know. I know you hate it but do it anyway. Even if you're a social retard like me. I've only managed to exploit a scant three connections, but it got me four job interviews. (That's not a typo, I've gotten more than one job interview out of one person.) I've also submitted about 100 resumes online, and gotten maybe three interviews. I don't care how bad your social anxiety is, you will still have the lowest effort to payoff ratio through networking. Take an extra dose of your zoloft,* and send that email to that former group member who quit academics in a manner that seemed odd at the time but now you're strangely jealous of him/her.

* Note: I'm not that kind of doctor, so don't take my advice to OD on your SSRI. But the rest of my advice is unquestionably good, obviously.
Phys.Org News Partner Science news on Phys.org
New type of solar concentrator desn't block the view
Researchers demonstrate ultra low-field nuclear magnetic resonance using Earth's magnetic field
Asian inventions dominate energy storage systems
ParticleGrl
#2
Apr18-11, 06:51 PM
P: 685
As someone in a similar boat- phd in high energy theory looking for work, wanting to say in the San Diego area, I can say that my experience has been similar. I would add that management consulting does seem quite willing to hire, but the hours are incredibly long and there is a lot of travel (expect to fly out to a client Sunday afternoon, and fly back in late Friday night, every week). On the upside, its supposed to be a great way to build business connections.

I would also add that community college (at least on the west coast) is a terrible option for the time being. Due to budget constraints, a lot of them are trying to make up shortfalls by hiring adjunct instructors on a per class basis. Teaching a full load, you'd be lucky to scrape by with 20k and no benefits.

I am curious- how did you find technical writing/science journalism type positions? I haven't seen much advertised and would be interested.
Mororvia
#3
Apr18-11, 08:32 PM
P: 262
Haha, I know your post was meant to be pretty serious, but it also contained a lot of comic relief. Kudos!

A couple of things for clarification for others who may read:

- If you're interested in patent law, it would could be beneficial to look to start as a patent examiner at the US Patent and Trademark Office or one of the contractor firms that also to work for the USPTO. If the government ever gets its budget shenanigans back in order, USPTO will also likely start paying for folks to go to law school again. Not a bad gig to get paid fairly nice money to be an examiner and then have work pay for your law school as well.

- Just because you have a job that requires a security clearance, that doesn't mean you can list what you do on your resume. You just can't share specifics.

daveyrocket
#4
Apr18-11, 10:51 PM
P: 185
Non-academic career options for the theroetical physicist

Thanks, I incorporated your comments.

ParticleGrl - I found very little on science journalism jobs. I did things like searching for "science journalist" on glassdoor.com. For technical writer, just search for that phrase on a job site, like so:
http://www.indeed.com/jobs?q=technic...an+diego%2C+ca
twofish-quant
#5
Apr18-11, 11:40 PM
P: 6,863
I have a lot of experience in oil/gas. Worked five years at a major oil company.

Oil/gas - The oil/gas jobs that I've seen that I might be remotely qualified for all want experimental experience.
There are a lot of coding jobs in oil/gas.

Also, you've got to be willing to move to places no one in their right might would want to live in, like Alaska or Texas.
There are lots of good things about Texas. Austin is a really cool place. Houston.... Well. Someone summarized Houston by saying it has all of the problems of a big city and none of the benefits.

If you're a tree-hugging hippie, then skip this one. In fact, go to the very end of the list.
There are a surprisingly large number of tree-hugging hippies in oil/gas. It's not a bad job if you care about the environment and you want to be in a position that you can actually do things to make things less bad rather than just complain about the situation.

One thing about oil companies, is that everyone realizes that the oil is going to run out in the next century and the cheap oil is already gone. The major oil companies are all becoming energy companies, so that whatever technology generates energy in 2050, they'll own it.
daveyrocket
#6
Apr19-11, 01:48 PM
P: 185
How are coding jobs in oil/gas different from coding jobs in other industries? Are they similar to the coding jobs in investment banking? What are the hours like and how are the salaries? Is the coding done mostly on modeling problems, solving differential equations, doing finite element calculations, things of that nature? Or are they doing stuff like writing code to automate machinery? What sort of problems are they trying to solve?
Shaun_W
#7
Apr19-11, 05:44 PM
P: 270
I consider the environment very important and I'm in oil & gas. Don't assume that just because someone works in oil & gas that they don't give a damn about the environment. When working in oil & gas, you have a lot more say in how the environment is treated than if you chain yourself to trees whenever someone is going to build a new runway and write lots of blog posts.
lisab
#8
Apr19-11, 07:47 PM
Mentor
lisab's Avatar
P: 2,985
Quote Quote by Shaun_W View Post
I consider the environment very important and I'm in oil & gas. Don't assume that just because someone works in oil & gas that they don't give a damn about the environment. When working in oil & gas, you have a lot more say in how the environment is treated than if you chain yourself to trees whenever someone is going to build a new runway and write lots of blog posts.
Same can be said for many industries.

Years ago when I worked for a paper company, there was a woman who got a lot of media attention for sitting in a tree and not coming down, to save the tree.

At the same time there was a guy I worked with, a chemist, who was obsessed with finding a low-or-no-effluent way to make paper. He worked on this even on his own time!

Twenty-plus years later, several of that chemist's ideas have been successfully implemented. The tree that woman sat in, it was cut down (albeit by vandals).

Real change happens from the inside, often.
Andy Resnick
#9
Apr19-11, 08:41 PM
Sci Advisor
P: 5,515
Quote Quote by daveyrocket View Post
These are some notes of the observations I've made over the past few months looking for jobs.
This is a remarkably complete post, and based on my experience (I got my PhD in 1997 and have been in several of the sections) very accurate. Thanks!

Of course, nobody has commented on the obvious- earn a degree doing something that can be easily transferred to an industrial setting. Theoretical physics ain't it.
ParticleGrl
#10
Apr20-11, 12:05 AM
P: 685
Quote Quote by Andy Resnick View Post
Of course, nobody has commented on the obvious- earn a degree doing something that can be easily transferred to an industrial setting. Theoretical physics ain't it.
A point that should be regularly repeated. As much as it seems like common sense, I honestly wish any of the people I relied on for advice in my academic years had made this point. Yes, you should follow your dream, but temper it with reality.
twofish-quant
#11
Apr20-11, 01:26 AM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by Andy Resnick View Post
Of course, nobody has commented on the obvious- earn a degree doing something that can be easily transferred to an industrial setting. Theoretical physics ain't it.
I think it's not that simple......

On the one hand my astrophysics degree has been really useful for my finding an industrial job. But on the other hand, it's because I've spent a lot of time in areas other than on assigned homework, and it happens that the type of theory that I did involved spending eight hours a day for five years on front of a computer coding....
twofish-quant
#12
Apr20-11, 01:39 AM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by ParticleGrl View Post
As much as it seems like common sense, I honestly wish any of the people I relied on for advice in my academic years had made this point. Yes, you should follow your dream, but temper it with reality.
It's more complicated. I've had much more success in following my dreams, and ignore people that wanted me to be "realistic." One thing that happened in my undergraduate years was that I was extremely curious about things other than physics, so rather than study only physics, I spent a fair amount of time studying things like economics or C++ or French postmodern philosophy or Chinese constitutional law. This really hurt my grades, it hurt me when I went into graduate school and pretty much eliminated any chance that I had of being faculty.

But I ended up doing quite well.

I suppose whether you should follow your dreams depends on what your dreams are, and where they come from. One of the things that I was able to do was to do some historical detective work. Why do I believe this? Where did my dreams come from? A lot of it came from my parents and teachers, but that's just the start of the mystery. Where did *they* get their dreams from?

One day I was in the library reading a book on 18th century Chinese philosophy, and I came upon a philosopher (Dai Zhen) and reading about him was bizarre because by some weird coincidence, he happen to believe almost exactly what I believed. It took me a few weeks to realize that it wasn't a coincidence. He happen to come from the same part of China as my parents, so *he* was in large part responsible for brainwashing me.

Something that helps a lot is to figure do the "been there, done that thing." The dream of every upwardly mobile Chinese family in the 19th century was to pass the Imperial examinations. There was one major problem too many degrees, too few jobs, and it's interesting to see what people did.

Figuring out where your dreams came from helps you to figure out how to revise them.
twofish-quant
#13
Apr20-11, 01:43 AM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by daveyrocket View Post
How are coding jobs in oil/gas different from coding jobs in other industries? Are they similar to the coding jobs in investment banking? What are the hours like and how are the salaries? Is the coding done mostly on modeling problems, solving differential equations, doing finite element calculations, things of that nature? Or are they doing stuff like writing code to automate machinery? What sort of problems are they trying to solve?
Hard question to answer. If you ask what the life of a HEP physics professor is like, then it is easy, because there are about a dozen or so hired each year, and you can take a look. Asking what the life of a coder is like is much more difficult. The good news is that there are a lot of jobs. The bad news is that because there are a lot of jobs, it's hard to generalize.

The analogy I like to use is that coding is a specialized form of "writing." Knowing that someone in a company "writes stuff" tells you very little at all about what they do.
Sankaku
#14
Apr20-11, 02:39 AM
P: 717
Quote Quote by daveyrocket View Post
But the rest of my advice is unquestionably good, obviously.
I am not looking for employment and don't have much useful to add; however, I enjoyed your cynical sense of humour and wanted to say that technical writing jobs can be very diverse if you have any skill at the written word (which it looks like you do).

It may not be demanding on your theoretical skills but getting your foot in the door can lead to other positions as well.
Ryker
#15
Apr20-11, 08:25 PM
P: 1,088
Hmm, reading this makes me kind of wonder, though. If people going into theoretical physics are close to mathematicians in terms of courses they have to take, and the amount of maths they know, why don't PhD's in theoretical physics have the same avenues open as the mathematicians do. I'm reading more and more how desired the latter are in industry, so what are theoretical physicists lacking in comparison, and how hard would it be to remedy those deficiencies? My guess is that not much, so unless my guess is wrong, the outlook for theoretical physicists shouldn't be that bleak.

What am I missing?
daveyrocket
#16
Apr20-11, 09:24 PM
P: 185
What sort of avenues do mathematicians have open to them that you have in mind? I've uncovered a handful of jobs looking for statisticians. For someone like me who is avoiding software jobs, it's pretty bleak.

Quote Quote by Shaun_W View Post
I consider the environment very important and I'm in oil & gas. Don't assume that just because someone works in oil & gas that they don't give a damn about the environment. When working in oil & gas, you have a lot more say in how the environment is treated than if you chain yourself to trees whenever someone is going to build a new runway and write lots of blog posts.
That's a good point, and I'd add some text to that effect if I could edit the topic.
maverick_starstrider
#17
Apr20-11, 09:36 PM
maverick_starstrider's Avatar
P: 1,164
Well as a person in Computational Condensed Matter myself this is certainly off-putting. I have a Masters and am in my first year of PhD (done in about 3). I personally like to temper my physics explorations with Computational know-how (Parallel-programming, exact diagonalization, finite element, etc.) and I also had a minor in Applied Math in my undergrad. Once I get out I don't know if I have any strong interest in continuing in physics (although if the option was open I'd certainly pursue it but I'm just not married to the idea). I'd be perfectly happy working in some sort of computational or mathematical modeling situation, scientific or engineering computation, etc (i.e. same toolbox different subject). I'm wondering to what extent you feel that your experience overlaps with my own. I also have no experimental.
daveyrocket
#18
Apr20-11, 10:13 PM
P: 185
Yeah my experience is very similar to yours. My two main problems are my location restriction and my aversion to coding jobs. There seem to be rather few mathematical modeling jobs in my area. There are some but not many.

None of the condensed matter specific stuff you will do will be relevant to any job in industry save a very select few. If you don't think you're going to have a strong interest, why are you doing the PhD?

Edit: oh, the finite element stuff could be useful.


Register to reply

Related Discussions
Career Options Career Guidance 0
Physicist: Academic career or Science (Non-Academic)? Career Guidance 1
Career options Career Guidance 0