Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

A Nonstandard Physicist Toolkit

  1. Aug 2, 2011 #1
    From what I've observed, there are several skills that many people with a physics background tend to have. Many of them can program in languages such as; c/c++, python, fortran, idl, matlab, maple, or mathematica, maybe MPI or OpenMP. Most of them can find their way from one end of a mathematical derivation to the other. Although I've also noticed that the skills tend to be biased towards one specific problem set.

    An acoustic physicist rarely cares about chemistry, for instance. An astrophysicist rarely cares about the specifics of economics (unless she desires to become a quant/actuary or somesuch). Could this be a mistake?

    How much would it hurt one's career prospects if they were to attempt to branch out into realms of study that are distant or unusual for the standard track of physics? For instance, learning the skills that are traditionally the realm of computer graphics may be beneficial for the plasma physicist in visualizing experimental results in a more useful way. Perhaps a a condensed matter physicist with an unusual interest in cellular automata might find a completely new method of predicting superconductivity in materials.

    Each subject has brilliant approaches to solving problems that hyper-specialists confined to their areas may never see. Should we leave fluid mechanics to be studied only by the mechanical engineers?

    I understand that it's not really possible for people to study everything that they find interesting in life, and that this is the reason we must specialize. But there seems to be an incentive for people in academia to not look beyond their immediate field of view. Even worse, in some cases; you find some people which believe that their little focus of study is superior to many others using arbitrary methods of currency to make their judgement.

    Would it be career suicide to study something that's outside of your immediate realm of expertise?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 2, 2011 #2
    I personally have seen and learned fluid dynamics. I was told it's pretty standard in physics education everywhere but the U.S. But I digress.

    We're not gentleman natural philosophers anymore. The types of questions that are being asked require immense amounts of hard work and time to even being to answer. It's more of a question of not having time to branch out than anyone actively discouraging you from it. Of course there will always be more incentive to progress in your own area than go out and learn a random, unrelated area but you propose to solve this by making one person straddle two fields. A more workable solution would be to encourage more collaboration and maybe a little wider of an education, but I don't think it would ever be possible that someone could master two unrelated fields at once and make much headway into using them both to solve problems. There's just too much out there.
  4. Aug 3, 2011 #3

    Andy Resnick

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    On the contrary, it's essential- as long as you are actually learning and not dabbling.
  5. Aug 3, 2011 #4
    I don't think it's particularly rare. I mean if you are curious about the world, then why are you trying to study physics in the first place. The problem comes in that you only have so much time, and there are too many interesting things out there in the world.

    It's pretty essential. For most people, the "standard track of physics" is a path that leads nowhere. One problem with doing this is that you go into the unknown. For example, It's not obvious to me how being an expert in planetary science and Armenian poetry would be useful, but I'm not an expert in those fields and if you became one then you'd tell me how they are useful.

    Yes and no. The problem is that if you want to go the post-doc/tenure track route, then there is a lot of pressure to specialize. However, once you realize that there is a 90% chance that you aren't going to get a job via that route, you have nothing to lose.

    Also you have to ask yourself why you got interested in physics in the first place. I got my Ph.D. because I was interested about the universe. If it turns out that being curious about stuff is "career suicide" then that tells me that I should change careers. I mean, if I just wanted money and wasn't curious about things, there are a lot of other easier ways of living my life.
  6. Aug 3, 2011 #5
    Speak for yourself.

    Chess boxing.

    You can be good but not stellar at chess. Decent but not incredible at boxing, but put them together and you end up being the world champion chess boxer.

    The trick is not to master two fields, but to create a new field that happens to require unrelated skills.
  7. Aug 3, 2011 #6
    -- From MissSilvy

    I agree that more collaboration would probably do a lot of good. One of the barriers to this is the jargon that accumulates in a specialists vocabulary over time. It can make communication between different skilled groups difficult.

    -- From Andy Resnick

    This is an encouraging thought.

    -- From twofish-quant

    Is the drive to overspecialize not present in all areas? In which is this not the case? From what I've seen, if you're curious about the world, physics doesn't seem like such a bad place to be. I have less experience than many of you, of course.

    It appears to me, the danger of overspecializing is that you may spend years doing something, only to find your skill set unnecessary one day. Like a rabbit that expends so much effort in avoiding the fox, that it doesn't see the hawk looming overhead. (I hope you'll forgive the analogy) In light of self preservation it doesn't seem like a wise thing to do.
  8. Aug 3, 2011 #7
    I think that's why the advice "do it for yourself and out of your own interest, not for the money" is usually considered as good.
  9. Aug 3, 2011 #8
    It's a lot worse in academia than it is in other places, which is bad because academia is where people learn things.

    One reason that it's bad in academia is that the jobs are extremely scarce. If you want to get a professorship through the standard route, then you basically can't make any mistakes, and if you spend time that isn't related to your field, you are going to get smashed by someone that is specialized. Also the structure is such that the people that do hyper-specialize are the people that make the rules for the next generation.

    Something that I like about industry is that there is a lot less pressure to specialize. To survive you have to learn a whole bunch of different skills, and as long as you can convince someone that what you are doing will make them money, then you can do what you want (and convincing someone of something is a skill in itself). Also people are a lot more tolerant of mistakes.

    In academia, you are dead if you are "average" but in industry, you can be "average" and survive. That means that you have more room to do new and original things without worrying that you are committing "career suicide."

    It gets worse. You'll find your skill set unnecessary the same day that everyone else with the same skill set finds those skills unnecessary.

    Also for entry level people, you might find that your skills are obsolete or unnecessary the second that you get your degree.

    But people are adaptable. Unless you are a small number of very skilled and lucky people, you'll find that the golden road leads nowhere.
  10. Aug 3, 2011 #9
    Twofish I think you make academia out to be more cut-throat than it really is. If you have the talent you will probably get a tenured position.
  11. Aug 3, 2011 #10
    Yes, since you really can't predict what is going to happen next. There is a non-trivial change that the world economy will collapse, and I'll be selling apples or washing dishes in the next few years, but if that happens, I can think about neutrino physics in between fares.

    Something about physics is that you meet lots of people from different backgrounds. While I was being trained as a Cold warrior by the US military-industrial complex, there were people like me in Russia being trained as cold warriors and when the Soviet Union collapsed, they had to do that sort of thing. And I knew a reasonable number of people from the former Yugoslavia that went through even worse.
  12. Aug 3, 2011 #11
    To paraphrase a quote from another thread where a certain someone was on his high horse trying to get onto highschoolers' backs:
  13. Aug 3, 2011 #12
    If someone is that delusional, I'd really prefer if they speak up rather than be quiet.

    One reason for that is that someone that thinks that a tenured faculty position is somehow possible with reasonable amounts of work is such a *dangerously wrong* idea that if someone believes that, I want to know how they got that idea into their head, so that I can get it out of their head and trace down the source of the misinformation.
  14. Aug 4, 2011 #13
    As I mentioned to Ryker, this is so dangerously wrong and delusional that I really need to find out where you got this idea from.

    What if you don't have extraordinary amounts of talent?

    As a theoretical astrophysics Ph.D., I'm at best "average." Heck, as far as mathematical skills and talent goes, I'm probably below average. Given the number of talented people that are coming out, I wouldn't hire me if I was on a search committee.

    So what then?

    Also it's like a video game. If you are good, they just bump you up to the next level, and then at some point you reach a point in which you are just average or below average.
  15. Aug 4, 2011 #14

    Andy Resnick

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    Academia is highly competitive and intolerant of failure. Talent is no guarantee of anything.
  16. Aug 4, 2011 #15


    User Avatar
    Education Advisor

    I have often been told by my friends who have pursued physics that academia is highly competitive if not downright cutthroat (at least for those pursuing mainstream research in physics).

    I have also been told that the situation is different among those physicists who decide to pursue academic work outside of physics (I know of one individual who, after completing a PhD in physics, proceeded to research in statistics, and are now gainfully employed in the statistics department).

    And I know that the situation is not as cutthroat for those in the statistics field (still competitive, but those with PhDs still have a reasonable chance to finding decent academic positions).
  17. Aug 4, 2011 #16
    -- Andy Resnick

    I just realized that of all the people I've seen here... you should know. Having started in Optical physics to studying physiology(!!??). Do I have you identified correctly?

    And you too, Twofish... As you make it no secret that you did come from an Astrophysics background and became a Quant.

    If so, then I think I'm seeing a few diverging claims here. Twofish mentions that there is a lot of pressure to overspecialize in academia. And furthermore, that to not do so is a great way to get squelched by the competition. And yet, at least, in Dr. Resnick's case, he has not hyperspecialized in the sense that I imagined one might need to in order to be successful in academia.

    -- twofish-quant

    Perhaps the claims don't diverge... It looks like Dr. Resnick went from specializing in optical probes/tweezers to applying them to medical or biological applications... to studying aspects of the cell's sensors.
    -- To me this has the appearance of specializing, then applying it to something outside of your original realm of expertise. (I hope you'll forgive my placing a magnifying glass over your career --> I've probably made some egregiously false statement somewhere in here... feel free to correct me)

    After spending much time reading the career advice on this forum, I've come to a few conclusions. It's wise to pick something to study in graduate school, stick with it till you get your phd. In the meantime, prepare for oneself a back door in the form of applicable skills outside of physics to fall back on. (In my case, I have my eyes set on applications to high performance computing -- for some reason I like the algorithmic thinking and the puzzles that come with it). Are there any potential issues with this conclusion -- barring world economic collapse?

    Thank you, everyone - for responding to my thread.
  18. Aug 4, 2011 #17


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

  19. Aug 4, 2011 #18
    Thanks lisab. :)
  20. Aug 5, 2011 #19

    Andy Resnick

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor


    Twofish and I agree about many things (and disagree about many things), I would say we have agreeing on this thread.

    To some degree, in order to have a successful technical career you must specialize in *something*- otherwise, why would someone hire you when they can get someone else for less money? That said, it's possible to go too far and overspecialize (for example, by doing the same thing for years and years), which will eventually limit your career.

    In order to make yourself attractive to an employer, you need to have skills that your competition does not have. That doesn't mean being the world's expert in something, it means just what it says. In my case, that meant having some biomedical experience *in addition to* physics. I wouldn't call it a 'back door'- my overall expertise forms a coherent whole, as opposed to a loose agglomeration of unrelated skills.

    This is why I emphasize having a long-range (7-10 years from now) career plan in addition to a short-range (1-5 years from now) plan. The long range plan provides a path, while the short range plan provides specific goals to meet along the path.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook