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Why are there so few physics majors?

by Wheelwalker
Tags: college, major, majors, mathematics, physics
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twofish-quant
#91
Jan29-12, 02:32 AM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by atyy View Post
Biology has good job prospects? What are you reading? Is it propaganda propagated by biologists?
Heh, heh, heh.

Come to think of it I hear a lot of gashing of teeth from lawyers.

Also, one thing that's been on my mind is that last year was a *horrible* year for banks. I'm hoping that this year will be better, but anyone that was doing physics Ph.D. to get a high paying job as a quant had better have a backup plan. And I'm annoyed because my "let's make a ton of money on Wall Street and retire to study supernova" plan is looking shaky right now.

Maybe we are all screwed. :-) :-) :-)

That actually makes me feel better. If we are all screwed no matter what we did, then I'm glad I spent ten years of my life doing what I loved and ended up with very little debt, and the person that majored in Art History is looking pretty smart right now. :-) :-) :-)
twofish-quant
#92
Jan29-12, 02:41 AM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by atyy View Post
Would something like this be less misleading http://www.payscale.com/best-colleges/degrees.asp? Unless the numbers aren't accurate, it seems physics majors actually do really well! (Conflict of interest declaration: I'm a biologist.)
Numbers like these are *amazingly* misleading. I can tell you first hand that starting salaries for physics Ph.D.'s in finance have gone sharply downward in the last three years, and while it's still a good gig, any statistics for 2007 are useless in 2011, and any statistics even if accurate in 2011 are useless in 2016. The hiring situation is such that information from Q1/2011 turns out to be useless for Q3/2011.

I can think of three ways off the top of my head in which the world could blow up financially (Greek default, China slowdown, another debt showdown in the US) in 2012 which would render 2011 stats useless. Conversely, I can think of three good scenarios (reverse those three situations) which would also render these stats useless.

One thing is that I'm pretty convinced that the idea of thinking in terms of majors is bad and the wrong question. Rather than asking "which major is better" I think the better question is why we are thinking about majors at all.
twofish-quant
#93
Jan29-12, 03:17 AM
P: 6,863
Someone wrote me e-mail asking why I was being so pessimistic and cynical. And part of it is that if after going through all of the crap that i've gone through that I still believe in science, that's hardly a cynical idea.

Quote Quote by atyy View Post
I see. Actually, my impression from the sidelines was that it was well understood that physics majors don't end up in jobs that use physics directly
1) I don't know if this is true at the age that matters. One reason I mentioned my story is that it's a story about how I was brainwashed. Since the Intel STS still exists and science fairs are still around, I presume that high school students are being taught the same things I was. Would be interested in talking with the Intel STS winners. A lot of the "I want to be a physicist" stuff happens at childhood, so figuring out what elementary school teachers are telling their students is important there.

2) There's also the question of whether the system stinks. One thing that I'm getting is that the system is so screwed up that you are doomed no matter what you do, at which point the only way of winning is to question the system. So if physics majors don't end up in jobs that use physics. *is this a good thing?*

3) Also one of the points I was making was that you get into a nasty situation if you take things to their logical conclusions. If Reagan should have told me "don't go into physics, just learn football" then you have to ask "where does it stop?" Should we be teaching science at all? My answer is *of course* but I want people to think about the question. If the justification for physics is economic, then what happens if physics is a money losing. If physics really does generate wealth, then the whole system is screwed up, and we have to start asking deeper questions.

Perhaps that's undesirable, but my gut feeling hasn't been that that was bad, except in the case of school teachers having to move to management to get a better salary.
People put up with a lot. One thing that got me through both graduate school and work is that I can basically convince myself that the situation "really isn't that bad" but that means that I have a lot of frustration and anger that has to go somewhere. Something that you find is to have a functioning workplace, you have to have a lot of emotional self-control, and if you are profoundly dissatisfied with your situation you have to repress this, and not scream at your boss.

This is something that everyone technical I know has to do and with the rare exception (perhaps Google) there is *profound* bitterness among the technical people at the managers that run things. This comes out in things like Dilbert. You also see this in academia with Piled higher and deeper.

So people put up with a lot if they have no choice, but sense my damn physics training comes in, I have to start asking "is there a better way?"

I suppose some of it is also a matter of perspective - two-fish seems to consider finance a branch of physics, while you don't.
It's because I'm self-delusional.

Since I would cut off my left leg for a job in physics, if I'm unable to convince myself that what I'm doing isn't something "like physics" then I'll go insane. Since definitions are definitions, I'll just redefine things so that I don't go insane, and it helps a lot because the people that I work with have a lot of the same motivations, so we can create our own social reality. The people that I work with are either science/engineering types with the same sorts of psychological issues, or sales people/lawyer types, who are used to redefining things to keep people happy.

If people in this group say "you aren't *really* doing physics" then I don't care. If my boss says "you aren't *really* doing physics" then I have a problem, but since my boss figures out that letting me think I'm doing physics makes him money, he isn't going to contradict my version of reality (particularly since a lot of my bosses have Ph.D.'s too).

But then this brings up the question of *why* I would cut off my left leg for physics, which goes back to things that I was taught growing up.
atyy
#94
Jan29-12, 03:10 PM
Sci Advisor
P: 8,628
Quote Quote by twofish-quant View Post
2) There's also the question of whether the system stinks. One thing that I'm getting is that the system is so screwed up that you are doomed no matter what you do, at which point the only way of winning is to question the system. So if physics majors don't end up in jobs that use physics. *is this a good thing?*

3) Also one of the points I was making was that you get into a nasty situation if you take things to their logical conclusions. If Reagan should have told me "don't go into physics, just learn football" then you have to ask "where does it stop?" Should we be teaching science at all? My answer is *of course* but I want people to think about the question. If the justification for physics is economic, then what happens if physics is a money losing. If physics really does generate wealth, then the whole system is screwed up, and we have to start asking deeper questions.



People put up with a lot. One thing that got me through both graduate school and work is that I can basically convince myself that the situation "really isn't that bad" but that means that I have a lot of frustration and anger that has to go somewhere. Something that you find is to have a functioning workplace, you have to have a lot of emotional self-control, and if you are profoundly dissatisfied with your situation you have to repress this, and not scream at your boss.

This is something that everyone technical I know has to do and with the rare exception (perhaps Google) there is *profound* bitterness among the technical people at the managers that run things. This comes out in things like Dilbert. You also see this in academia with Piled higher and deeper.
But in fact that seems to be arguing for physics majors not to use physics directly, at least in conjunction with another idea you've expressed "Politics is a skill". So really I don't think anyone is going to grudge higher pay to a good manager (good from the point of view of shareholders and employees; also I suppose one aspect of being a good manager is to be able to set appropriate pay scales). What we want is managers and politicians who understand physics and technology and society, since all elements are needed. (It does bug me that Saint Jobs seems to show that maybe bad managers are needed - but maybe that's just the media - and Wozniak's incredibly sincere tribute still sounds in my head). Anyway, the engineers seem to have incorporated more social skills into their curricula over time, compared to the scientists.

Maybe like the Jesuits - everyone a priest, but each with their own specialty - but in reverse - everyone a physicist, but each their own "normal" lives.

Quote Quote by twofish-quant View Post
It's because I'm self-delusional.

Since I would cut off my left leg for a job in physics, if I'm unable to convince myself that what I'm doing isn't something "like physics" then I'll go insane. Since definitions are definitions, I'll just redefine things so that I don't go insane, and it helps a lot because the people that I work with have a lot of the same motivations, so we can create our own social reality. The people that I work with are either science/engineering types with the same sorts of psychological issues, or sales people/lawyer types, who are used to redefining things to keep people happy.

If people in this group say "you aren't *really* doing physics" then I don't care. If my boss says "you aren't *really* doing physics" then I have a problem, but since my boss figures out that letting me think I'm doing physics makes him money, he isn't going to contradict my version of reality (particularly since a lot of my bosses have Ph.D.'s too).

But then this brings up the question of *why* I would cut off my left leg for physics, which goes back to things that I was taught growing up.
I don't think you are delusional. Perhaps there is only one discipline - statistics or machine learning - which consists of two subdisciplines - mathematics, the study of possible patterns or what's learnable - and physics, the determination or learning from data of which patterns occur. Also, statistics requires a "multiple comparisons" correction for independent hypotheses (the HEP guys seem to call this the "look elsewhere effect"), and the way to guard against that is of course to make your hypotheses less and less independent, or more and more unified, which is of course, physics.
cdotter
#95
Jan29-12, 07:14 PM
P: 306
Why are there so few physics majors? Because it's easier to get a job with an engineering degree.
twofish-quant
#96
Jan30-12, 03:32 AM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by atyy View Post
Well, I suspect the communities could be much larger. I think the biggest revolution in recent years (computing and the internet) was driven by huge communities.
True, but most of them were doing things other than physics theory. There's a person that writes ad copy convincing people to get broadband, and then some person that stands at a street corner signing people up for broadband. They are part of the big community that is crucial for the revolution, but they aren't the theoreticians.

Also, there can be huge advances on old, "well-understood" stuff - like Gabor and holography which only needed classical Maxwell's equations, or Poincare's work on the stability of the solar system which produced the qualitative theory of differential equations and was a forerunner of chaos.
But you still don't need that many people. That's really the problem here. The more breath taking the idea, the fewer jobs there are involved in creating the idea.

That's interesting. At least in the US, shouldn't a labour law prevent this (the same way one isn't supposed to pay a foreigner less than an American)?
The US has very, very weak labor laws (people in other countries are shocked that most people in the US work without formal written contracts), however even this doesn't fix things. Germany has strong labor laws, but people use internships to get around them (so I've been told). It's has to do when economic reality meets bureaucracy. The people that make the decisions will set their own salaries so that they are decent, and if there is any grunt work to be done, they then hire "disposible people" to do it (i.e. graduate students, post-docs, interns).

I'm reminded of the movie Bladerunner in which the "replicant robots" are programmed with four year life spans so that they die before developing feelings. Post-docs are the same way. By the time you've figured out the university, your contract expires and you are replaced with someone new.

Well, I don't mean fleeced in that way. Musicians are mostly poor, but the great musicians are respected for their creativity. Scientists are thought of in the same way too, but I suspect overly so.
I know people in the music industry, and it really doesn't work that way. The musician is probably one of the more disposible parts of the system.

Also, the problem with doing science is that you need time and money. It doesn't matter how good an observational astronomer you are, if you don't have access to a telescope, you can't do anything, and this focus on creativity creates a winner take all dynamic. You publish, you get a reputation, you get grant money, you publish more.

The starving musician might work, but the starving physicist won't.

Now having said that, I'm confused whether physics PhDs should be paid well or not.
I'm more interested in *is* than *should*. Of course, I believe that physics Ph.D.'s should be paid a ton of money. This belief may have something to do with the fact that I'm a physics Ph.D. So saying that Ph.D.'s should be paid a lot is a no-brainer for me. Now the person whose wallet I have to grab to pay myself might have different ideas.

The hard part is to figure out how to make it happen.
twofish-quant
#97
Jan30-12, 03:54 AM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by atyy View Post
So really I don't think anyone is going to grudge higher pay to a good manager (good from the point of view of shareholders and employees; also I suppose one aspect of being a good manager is to be able to set appropriate pay scales).
One aspect of being a good manager is that you can convince people to do stuff. Once you have that skill, you'll likely use it to convince people to give you their money. It's not surprising that people who have sales and marketing skills end up on top of most companies, because they are the people that figure out how to use psychology to get people to do things.

So you put people under mass hypnosis saying "you will like drinking this fizzy water" and then "you will like drinking this fizzy water and handing me lots of money for the privilege of drinking this."

What we want is managers and politicians who understand physics and technology and society, since all elements are needed.
Who is "we"? From the point of the view of people running things it makes more sense to understand the minimum amount of physics and technology, and then pay experts in that area peanuts to get the information that they need. If anything goes wrong, then you have some underpaid scapegoats ready to feed to the wolves.

I don't think you are delusional.
I think I am. Part of staying sane involves thinking that you are crazy.

Also, statistics requires a "multiple comparisons" correction for independent hypotheses (the HEP guys seem to call this the "look elsewhere effect"), and the way to guard against that is of course to make your hypotheses less and less independent, or more and more unified, which is of course, physics.
Not sure that this is the situation. One thing that I've found is that different parts of physics involve different philosophical foundations. Whether they are all part of one giant unified foundation, I really don't know. In the case of astrophysics, you are often dealing with historical data and you are also often dealing with unique cases (i.e. how do you run statistics against the big bang?) You also cannot control the environment or do any reasonable experiments in which you influence what it is that you are trying to study.

It turns out that a lot of the philosophical issues in astrophysics turn out to be the same as those in finance. There was only one Big Bang. There is only one Supernova 1987A. There was only one Great Depression. You might find some similarities between 1987A and other supernova, but there are some things are are unique to 1987A, and stars are not like electrons.

So there is a good philosophical fit between astrophysics and some issues of economics.
elkement
#98
Feb2-12, 01:25 AM
P: 127
Quote Quote by ParticleGrl View Post
What I was trying to get at was what a shortage of scientists/engineers would look like. If there is a shortage that means that there ISN'T someone out there already trained- so you go with the generalist and train them for the specifics.

It also means that the "selling point" we use to get people into physics is a problem- if no one wants a broad background, being a generalist is a kiss of death.
Hi ParticleGrl,

in middle Europe companies and authorities also declare "shortage" of whatever technical experts where there is none.

Here the trend is as follows: Especially larger corporations rather search for specialized freelancers that do not need to be trained and the market for freelancer agencies is booming. As I understood the job market and business models these freelancers in Europe are "more free" / entrepreneurial (re social insurance etc.) than are "temps" in the US.

Since freelancers are extremely flexible and willing to commute 100s of kilometers every Monday and Friday companies finally find one of those rare experts - this seems to be more effective than training experts inhouse.

So "shortage" simply justifies the replacment of permanent positions by freelancers.

It started out in IT, but the model has been transferred successfully to any engineering discipline. I have seen project requests for "freelance physicists", but those projects usually require very specific skills / experience in specific sectors and physicists compete more than ever with more specialized engineers.
twofish-quant
#99
Feb2-12, 02:55 AM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by elkement View Post
Here the trend is as follows: Especially larger corporations rather search for specialized freelancers that do not need to be trained and the market for freelancer agencies is booming. As I understood the job market and business models these freelancers in Europe are "more free" / entrepreneurial (re social insurance etc.) than are "temps" in the US.
There are two things that really annoy me about this:

1) I can't find anyone in control that you can point to and say "stop this." What you'll find in large companies is that these sorts of decisions are decentralized so that there is no single person or small group of people from the CEO on down that can change this. This is where the "invisible hand" hits back.

2) It's also annoying because this is one of those "be careful what you wish for" moments. Way back in the 1990's, the idea was to encourage this sort of freelancing and labor flexibility on the theory that it makes the economy more efficient which would generate enough wealth to make everyone's dreams come true. If you lose one job, no problem, another one would turn up, and way back in 2000, that's really more or less what happened.

One of the things that upsets me is that way back in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, people really felt as if we were going to enter into a Golden Age of peace and prosperity, and it seemed to be working through out the 1990's and all the way up to the mid-2000's.

So what the heck went wrong????

It started out in IT, but the model has been transferred successfully to any engineering discipline. I have seen project requests for "freelance physicists", but those projects usually require very specific skills / experience in specific sectors and physicists compete more than ever with more specialized engineers.
One thing that is happening is that I'm becoming increasingly convinced that we've managed to not merely create a "zero sum game" but a "negative sum game." You'd think that somewhere, someone would be taking all of this exploited wealth and laughing all, but my observation is that even people that are supposed to be in charge of the system are also terrified of losing their jobs. So it's not the 1% screwing over the 99%. I think we've created a system in which *everyone* manages to get screwed over.
Opus_723
#100
Mar3-12, 02:54 PM
P: 179
As a point of trivia, I'm a physics major at Western too. And apparently there has been a sharp uptick in the number of physics majors in recent years. Last year's graduating class was around 12 or 15 people. This year its around 30, and it has apparently stayed around that number. In fact, they just decided to scrap the sophomore atomic and nuclear physics lab that they started a few years ago because they don't have enough resources to provide that class to 30-something kids a year. Which makes me really angry and sad since I won't get to take it, but I suppose I'll have to deal. So whether it's that TV show or not, something caused a sharp influx of Physics students at Western.
DeepSpace9
#101
Jun27-12, 12:56 AM
P: 57
How come people who major in physics go into so many different job fields? My major is astrophysics, and I want to do nothing but independent research, working in labs, and being a scientist. Why go into another field of work? Why major in physics if you want to be an engineer?
daric soldar
#102
Jun27-12, 01:00 AM
P: 41
Quote Quote by DeepSpace9 View Post
How come people who major in physics go into so many different job fields? My major is astrophysics, and I want to do nothing but independent research, working in labs, and being a scientist. Why go into another field of work? Why major in physics if you want to be an engineer?
There aren't enough pure physics research positions in the world for every single physics graduate. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that's just the way the world works. Supply and demand. There are many more positions in engineering to go around. Once you get outside the comfortable halls of academia, sometimes you have to take a job you weren't aspiring for in order to pay the bills.
X-rays
#103
Jul1-12, 09:10 AM
P: 6
I read this thread now and I am too bit confused about the job opportunities.I would like some help from sir(PF Mentor).As I am new as a member of PF,I don't how to contact Mentor directly,so I am replying by this thread.Basically, I am also doing BSc in physics(in India) and now I am in second year of it.I am often discouraged by saying that "you won't get a good job",but my parents support me inspite of the comments given by others.I love physics and plan to do my career in research field if I have the opportunity.But incase if I fail to fulfill my dream,I would like to know the job opportunities for an MSc in Physics.I like Astrophysics.I would sincerely need your guidelines,because even if I am a girl,I don't want to be dependent and I want to prove to those who discourage me that, this line is not bad as a career option too.They prefer Engg.to my choice.But I personally like what I have chose and I want to prove myself and make the best of it.Please help.
X-rays
#104
Jul1-12, 11:10 AM
P: 6
Quote Quote by ParticleGrl View Post
A large part of it is the uncertain career outlook. If you are an engineer, you can almost certainly get a job in a technical field right out of college. Physics majors, on the other hand, end up all over the place (insurance, finance, teaching highschool, programming, etc). If you want a job in a traditional technical field, engineering is a much safer bet. For most people who have an interest in physics, an engineering degree is a better path to their long term goals.

Of course, if your goal is to learn some physics (and who cares if you never get a chance to do anything with your knowledge), then its a great major. Its a good stepping stone to lots of other graduate disciplines (lots of physics majors get engineering or economics masters degrees), and its an interesting field of study.
In later posts you are saying that physicsts don't get a good job and likewise.If you are so negative about physics you rather don't study it.Because after all its the principles of the scientists that you engineers have thoery material for your machines. If scientists can discover such brilliant theories they can very well make machines.Also how are institutes like IISC,NASA,IIA(India)etc. running very well.Its all about how you see at the things,if you decide something's not good in your mind,then even the god can't change your opinion let alone humans.
I am just telling that look around yourselves there are vacancies in Universities like IISC,IIST,(INDIA) and also in abroad for professors ,because as everyone is running after Engg. there are no one left to teach .How can you say that there are no jobs.And if you are thinking that the job of a professor is not a good one,you are mistaken.
Karimspencer
#105
Jul2-12, 04:35 PM
P: 117
Quote Quote by R.P.F. View Post
It depends on which school you go to, doesn't it? If you were at Caltech, then the statement would no longer be true.

Glad you are enjoying Newtonian mechanics. Physics didn't get fun for me till E&M and quantum.
I agree with R.P.F , it depends on the colleges, caltech and MIT are full of physics and mathematics majors.
thegreenlaser
#106
Jul2-12, 05:06 PM
P: 465
The reason I picked electrical engineering with a physics minor rather than a physics or math major was almost entirely because of career outlook. I talked to people in all three departments, and the answers I got in the math/physics departments to "What can I do with this degree?" were sketchy at best. The impression I got was that while there are great career paths, you'll have to work your butt off for them, and even then you can't be certain you'll end up doing something directly related to your major. What solidified my decision was when I realized there are some very physics/math heavy areas of electrical engineering. I realized that just because most engineers shy away from theoretical physics and math doesn't mean that that's a requirement for engineering. So in engineering with a physics minor, I get most of the theory that I'm interested in, but because I learn how to apply it to design problems, I'm more marketable to an employer. That's not to say that it's impossible to get a good job as a physics major, it just seems like an engineering degree is much safer career-wise. (If you're looking strictly for technical positions)
HallsofIvy
#107
Jul2-12, 06:00 PM
Math
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Quote Quote by genericusrnme View Post
You've got no idea how many times people have said I must be able to do sums in my head because I've told them I study maths and physics -.-
One of the signs of a good mathematician is a complete inability to balance his checkbook!
adianamonet
#108
Feb22-14, 02:11 AM
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P: 8
Quote Quote by Herricane View Post
I agree. People always tell me that I must be good with numbers.
Yes! It's the same with me. I usually just look at them with a blank stare lol. There are a lot of numbers to remenber though, so I guess a person would have to be good with numbers.


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