Full Chapter List - So You Want To Be A Physicist... Series
Part I: Early Physics Education in High schools
Part II: Surviving the First Year of College
Part III: Mathematical Preparations
Part IV: The Life of a Physics Major
Part V: Applying for Graduate School
Part VI: What to Expect from Graduate School Before You Get There
Part VII: The US Graduate School System
Part VIII: Alternative Careers for a Physics Grad
Part VIIIa: Entering Physics Graduate School From Another Major
Part IX: First years of Graduate School from Being a TA to the Graduate Exams
Part X: Choosing a Research area and an advisor
Part XI: Initiating Research Work
Part XII: Research work and The Lab Book
Part XIII: Publishing in a Physics Journal
Part XIV: Oral Presentations
Part XIII: Publishing in a Physics Journal (Addendum)
Part XIV: Oral Presentations – Addendum
Part XV – Writing Your Doctoral Thesis/Desertation
Part XVI – Your Thesis Defense
Part XVII – Getting a Job!
Part XVIII – Postdoctoral Position
Part XIX – Your Curriculum Vitae
We are still discussing the final year of your undergraduate education. So far, we have covered what you need to consider if you want to go on to graduate school and prepare yourself as best as you can for that part of your journey. This is the “traditional” path that many physics students follow. However, this isn’t the only path one can take with an undergraduate physics degree. Many physics degree holders do not continue to pursue a graduate degree in physics. So in this part of our series, I will discuss this aspect of education or career beyond the traditional physics path.
If you have followed the series so far, you would have noticed that very early on, I emphasized one very important thing: the acquiring of a range of skills during your undergraduate years. This includes everything from computer programming skills to experimental skills. This is extremely important for any student, but especially if you end your physics education upon completion of your undergraduate degree. If you decide to pursue employment, your employability depends very much on what you can do. Let’s face it, not many employers are looking for someone who can ”do physics”. There are, however, employers who would like someone who can analyze numerical models and maybe write codes, or maybe someone who can work in an electronics industry doing thin film fabrication, etc. You will be surprised that some of the things you accidentally picked up in an advanced physics lab might be the very thing that gets you the job.
One of the most popular paths that physics graduates take at this point is to go into teaching at high schools. Most who intend to pursue this line of work usually were enrolled in a simultaneous education program while they were pursuing their undergraduate degree. That way, by the time one obtains one’s physics degree, one is also qualified to teach high schools. However, there are many graduates who obtain their teaching certificates after the fact. So it is never too late to decide that this is the profession you want. Keep in mind that different states in the US may have their own requirements with regard to teaching credentials. Some may even allow you to start teaching while you are in the process of getting your certification. So this advice comes with plenty of caveats.
One of the growing options for physics degree holders is to go into a graduate program in a different field of study. There is now a clear, growing need for physics degree holders to go into law. With the high demand for patent lawyers (not to mention very high salaries), there are many physics graduates who are pursuing their law degrees.
Another popular career change is to go into medical schools. This is very common to many students especially if they intend to go into medical physics research (note that one doesn’t need to go into medical school to major in medical physics). Again, there is a growing number of physics degree holders who are making use of their physics degrees in this field. One of the other ”untraditional” avenues being adopted by physics graduates is to go into either journalism or writing. There are schools now offering cross-disciplinary programs in which students majoring in areas of science or engineering can also augment their education with either a minor or even a double major in such untraditional subjects. Most are training either to go into mass media (science reporter) or even politics as assistants to various representatives in Congress. There clearly is a demand for scientists who can write and speak very well to the public, and programs such as these aim to produce such people.
A growing number of physics degree holders (with B.Sc, M.Sc., and Ph.D.) are now opting to go into industries and become “engineers”. This is especially true for the electronics/semiconductor industries that have hired many physics degree holders. It is often confusing and misleading to many because these people often hold the title of “engineers”, but with a physics degree. An industrial physicist is definitely a viable option for many as shown in the latest AIP job statistics:
There are many other avenues one can pursue with a physics degree. I have only listed just a few. However, in every single one of these, the preparation is still the same. One must have as wide an experience as possible as an undergraduate. This will allow for the possibility that something one did might end up being the useful skill that one needs for a certain line of career.
In the next installment of this series, we will finally graduate out of our undergraduate years and go into the dreaded first year as a graduate student and the nightmare of facing the qualifying exam!
Next Part Coming Soon: Entering Physics Graduate School From Another Major
Accelerator physics, photocathodes, field-enhancement. tunneling spectroscopy, superconductivity