7 Keys to Success with a Physics Degree

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7 Keys to Success with a physics Degree

As spring approaches and new graduates will begin their job search, once again we are hearing alarm bells ringing about the risk of getting a degree in physics and then facing the unemployment line. It is true that getting a physics degree is less of a sure thing than say becoming an electrical engineer. This is because electrical engineering is something that gives you a specific skill set that is in demand by industry while physics could be said to be a degree that creates a generalist with a lot of problem solving skills. However, rather than panic or lament having studied a pure science, there are steps that students can take to ensure they will be employable both inside and outside of academia. Having spent many years working in industry and the national laboratories, I have come up with 7 keys to success with a physics degree that I believe will help graduating physicists maintain employability.


The first thing I have noticed in the “real world†is that the bottom line is WHAT you get your degree in isn’t all that important. Now let’s not to carry this too far, getting a Ph.D. in English is certainly not viewed as equivalent to getting a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering. What I am saying is that basically, it doesn’t matter all that much if you get your degree in math, physics, or engineering unless you’re hot on some specific niche career. So-if learning MRI or condensed matter physics isn’t your bag-don’t worry about doing something like that simply so you can get a job after graduation. What people really care about is what type of skill set you have. Many skills you can learn in school can be applied in a wide variety of areas. This leads us to key number two.


While in school, students are primarily focused on completing their degree requirements and getting out as soon as possible. This is a mistake. While satisfying degree requirements and making sure you complete that physics degree in a timely manner is important, you should take advantage of the fact that you are in school and therefore have access to a wide pool of knowledge that can help you in the work world. As a physicist, by the time you finish your junior year you are prepared to do well in just about any technical discipline. Take advantage of this fact to learn at least two subject areas related to physics that are of use in industry. For example, you might consider taking a look at the electrical engineering department and taking focused courses in a particular subject area, such as signal processing, optics, or semiconductors. Let’s consider signal processing. A student could take courses in signals and systems, digital signal processing, random signal processing, and circuit analysis. Then take courses in Fourier analysis and wavelets in the math department—making sure to take a course that included some study of Fourier analysis and wavelets using a computational tool like MatLab. As another example, instead of taking a minor in math, take a minor in mechanical engineering. Heat transfer and fluid dynamics aren’t required for a physics degree, but take an extra semester and take them anyway.

There are also several options right in the physics department that students interested in astronomy or theoretical physics might be avoiding. Take courses in optics, laser physics, and computational physics. Do some laboratory work in optics. By taking courses like these, the student will put him or herself in a position where they are viewed as worth hiring in industry “despite†having a physics degree-even if you specialize in something as esoteric as quantum field theory or astrophysics.


No matter where I have worked, whether it’s been at Sandia National labs or in industry, doing some sort of computer modeling has always been part of the job. If you start to learn this while in school, you will have a leg up in your employment search and add to your skill set making you more secure. The first step is to learn how to do computational math. MatLab and MathCad are the most widely used tools, so while in school you should get very comfortable with using them. Don’t just dabble-make sure you master them Start by learning how to enter equations and do plots, how to solve differential equations and how to do linear algebra computationally. It is also a good idea to get familiar with Mathematica.

However, these computational math packages are only the start. There are many modeling programs that are in wide use in industry that basically solve the equations behind the scenes. Your job as a working physicist is to design models and interpret the results, and suggest new approaches based on those results. In short you are conducting experiments on the computer. One popular package that models electromagnetic phenomena is OPERA, a very impressive package sold by Vector Fields. While working on the ITER fusion project and while doing ion engine design I used this package extensively to model experimental scenarios. CF Design is a widely used package used to study fluid dynamics. FEMLAB is a more general modeling tool that can be used to study everything from quantum phenomena to heat transfer. Find out who is using OPERA or a similar package at your university-this probably means going to the engineering departments. Learn how to use a CAD or drawing program like CATIA. Take courses where learning these packages is part of the class.


This is related to step #3. In this day and age, it is vitally important to learn how to code-and to do so beyond an introductory level. This doesn’t mean you need to become a computer scientist, it just means you need to be able to write, successfully compile, and debug programs. You don’t want to make yourself so diverse that you’re paper thin shallow, rather what you’re interested in doing is complimenting your physics degree. If you ask the question “how would a physicist be more useful in industryâ€, one answer is going to be: be able to code scientific and mathematical algorithms in C/C++ or FORTRAN. So—we aren’t talking about learning how to design web pages or write Java. Instead, as a trained scientist, it is important to know how to code numerical algorithms. Pick up a copy of Numerical Recipies-and yes-learn FORTRAN. It is still used in many large codes because it’s lean and mean-and therefore very useful for getting numerical results.


Writing up reports and documents is going to be an important part of your job. Take some advanced writing courses including a technical writing class. Learn how to use Latex even if you aren’t planning on writing a scientific paper in the near future. Familiarize yourself with the correct way to put together a bibliography.


While working in the neutrino lab over the summer might be exciting, you might be better off spending at least one summer working in industry. Chances are your first job won’t amount to much, the honest truth is I haven’t seen students being given many substantial tasks. But the important thing is to start to build a resume and to begin making contacts. In the real world or in the academic world for that matter, who you know is going to be as important as what you know. You’ll be in much better shape if you are able to put a 3 month internship at NASA or at Intel on your resume-and you will be able to call on people you worked for as future references.


When all is said and done, we aren’t talking about abandoning your dream of becoming a string theorist. Rather, if you take the steps outlined in this article, you can do that string theory thesis and not worry about a thing-because you know that while you have mastered string theory-you also know how to work with several computational modeling packages and have that on your resume you’ve prepared for industry just in case those post-doc jobs aren’t coming. Finally, keep in mind that getting your foot in the door at a lab can be the first step to doing some interesting physics. So while taking a job in modeling shock waves from explosions might not be your thing-keep in mind that once you get on as a staff member later on you might be able to work on say, quantum computing. Good luck!

-David McMahon

Answers and Replies

  • #2
kinda doing this myself for engineering:

trying to learn the programming core (OOP, data structures, algorithms) and plan to take more applied math classes as my masters electives since that stuff will apply towards everything.

so programming + applied math + engineering
  • #3
That is great advice. I think a lot of people tend to miss these concepts when our more experienced peers pass them on. Thanks for taking the time to put all this in one post. Really helpful for those of us just getting started.

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