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A Physicist's Job

  1. Dec 30, 2011 #1
    Where does physicist work? What do they actually do?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 1, 2012 #2
    Where? Industry, government, or universities. Some physicists work in hospitals, others work in research labs, for example. I even know one physicist who works as a science advisor for a U.S. Congressman!

    What? Some do experiments. Others doing modeling and simulations on the computers. Some write theories. Some teach. Just depends.

    What are *you* interested in doing with physics?
  4. Jan 19, 2012 #3
    What's the difference between theoretical physicist and cosmologist then?
  5. Jan 19, 2012 #4
    Either a lot, a little, or nothing at all.
  6. Jan 20, 2012 #5
    A theoretical physicist is a person who approaches physics from a certain perspective; namely the theoretical side. This involves chalk-work and what-not. An experimental physicist is a person who approaches physics from the experimental side which involves performing, well, experiments and analyzing data.

    Thus, a cosmologist is general for both theoretical and experimental cosmologists and it doesn't make a lot of sense to say there is a difference between theoretical physicists and cosmologists since cosmologists are physicists of the theoretical or experimental variety that study the large scale structures of the universe and its origins and theoretical physicists are just a categorization of a larger set, namely, physicists.

    Short story, what you said doesn't make any sense and you can't compare the two because they aren't mutual.
  7. Jan 21, 2012 #6
    Of course it makes sense!

    If a child asked: "What's the difference between an "uncle" and a "fireman?" you wouldn't say the question didn't make any sense. It makes sense to the child because in his "world model" uncle and fireman are separable categories. It's just that instead of answering the question the responder needs to fix the model. Which you did very well, but you shouldn't go around accusing people of not being sensible. Then they might stop asking interesting questions. Then where would this forum be?
  8. Jan 21, 2012 #7
    If theoretical physicists write theories, how do they get paid? Do they get extra for a complete theory or something?
  9. Jan 21, 2012 #8

    Dr Transport

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    No theory is ever complete, there will always be open questions to be answered. As for getting paid, your employer pays you, whether it be an agency grant, etc.....
  10. Jan 24, 2012 #9
    Who employs theoretical physicist? I still don't fully get where they work...
  11. Jan 24, 2012 #10
    Mostly banks, insurance companies, and management consulting firms. Most people who get phds have a career in science that lasts about 5 years, then they do something else.

    Trainee scientists make about as much as full-time McDonalds employees. The median scientist makes about as much as a mid-sized McDonalds manager.
  12. Jan 24, 2012 #11

    Dr Transport

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    How can you say this? almost every Physics PhD I know is still working in science, many of them 10 years or more....
  13. Jan 24, 2012 #12
    As far as I can tell, it seems to depend a whole lot on what sub-field the PhD is in. Based on what I know of previous graduates from my department, people in condensed matter tend to end up in jobs still doing science. High-energy both theory and experiment that leave academia seem to need to make more of a transition. Most seem to get jobs in the categories that ParticleGrl listed plus software development, so unless generic software development is counted as science most don't end up in science.
  14. Jan 24, 2012 #13


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    Universities. Most people who would fit the common definition of "theoretical physicist" hold academic positions as post-docs, lecturers, or professors.

    Once you complete a PhD, if you are destined to become a professor, you generally work as a post-doctoral researcher on a particular research project (or series of projects). Then you get a job as an assistant professor, where you can start to lead your own research projects. You are paid by the university and generally take on some teaching responsibilities. You also obtain grants to fund your research projects. These are often handed out on a competative basis by federal agencies.

    What PartcleGrl is pointing out is that many people who obtain their PhDs who would be capable of working as "theoretical physicists" don't end up actually working as professors. The above process is highly competative and doesn't pay well and so these highly intelligent, highly qualified people end up working in other fields and applying their skills to solve problems that someone has a financial interest in solving.
  15. Jan 24, 2012 #14
    I imagine once you get a job in industry, you tend to meet other physics phds who also got jobs in industry? Could this be biasing your sample?

    The only person I know from graduate school who is still in science now (about 3 years out) is a condensed matter experimentalist who got a job with intel. The general path seems to have been one postdoc, then software, insurance,management consulting, etc. Two astrophysicists, a quantum computing guy, a quantum gravity guy, four condensed matter theory guys, all out of science in less than 3 years. I did HEP theory, so I know maybe a dozen hep theory phds who are all out of science now. Some did two full postdocs, most only one. Another four or so HEP experimentalists are out of science. Two biophysicists are now on their second postdoc now, so they have some hope. Its possible the recession has hit my cohort particularly hard, but from my perspective, a science career seems to last about as long as a postdoc.

    I'm fairly sure all of us would take sizable paycuts for a potentially permanent industry job with room to move up where we could use some physics, I know I would.
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2012
  16. Jan 25, 2012 #15

    Dr Transport

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    My sample isn't biased, I interact with both academics, people who work for national labs and industry employed physicists and most of them are still employed doing some type of science after 10 or more years.

    As for your High Energy Physicist friends who got out of science, a co-worker who was a high energy experimentalist (accelerator science) is still a very productive scientist. Your sample is kind of small, and you are correct, the economy has hit people hard and may have contributed to your thoughts that a career lasts less than 5 years. It also appears that your friends may have left science because they thought that doing anything outside of High Energy wasn't worth doing ( I have seen this many times).

    As for taking a paycut, if I left industry, I'd take ~40% paycut to work at an academic institution. As a matter a fact, I now make more than my former adviser or many of the professors I had in graduate school do now. I was able to hire an academic away from his university by paying him what he was worth and he was completely vested in his retirement after 5 years and never had to worry about not getting tenure and being laid off. Very few universities pay comparable to industry after the same amount of time. I think you might have it backwards.
  17. Jan 25, 2012 #16
    The last sentence quoted is a little off in my opinion. At least from the prospective of my friends in the field and myself (high-energy experimentalists who worked on Tevatron and LHC experiments), its more that we often have no clear sense of what useful contributions we could make to science outside high-energy, and not that other fields are worthless.

    Working one of the big Tevatron or LHC experiments, a large portion of the work for your PhD often involves something like working on a neural net for picking out b-jets from light quark jets as part of top quark cross section measurement, understanding the tails of the missing transverse energy distribution in multi-jet events for a SUSY search, etc. The common theme is tons of programming, statistics, and data analysis. Seemingly lots of banks, insurance companies, consulting firms, and certain tech companies want people with those skills.

    On the other hand it seems to me that switching to a post-doc or in another field is a comparatively harder path. You have to convince your potential new PI that you can contribute to their research despite the lack of domain specific knowledge in their field. It's probably possible if a skill you have perfectly matches up with something the PI's group needs, but that seems even less likely than getting a post-doc doing high-energy.

    Maybe it's easier if you picked up some non-standard skills during your detector service work. This is assuming that your advisor let you work on that more than the bare minimum needed for authorship qualification because doing more would distract you from your physics analysis. I have definitely seen that.

    This perception that high-energy physics have to leave science could be totally flawed of course, but this is at least the reason why the fellow grad students I know left science after finishing.
  18. Jan 26, 2012 #17
    Right, but what about all those former grad students who couldn't get jobs in industry doing science, or at national labs or academia? A very small portion of phds will get academic or national lab jobs, and it appears to me that many subfields of physics have no industrial demand at all. Sure, some condensed matter experimentalists can get jobs with semi-conductors, but what industrial demand is there for theoretical physicists outside of the non-science jobs I listed?

    I think you misunderstand my contention- I agree that IF you get a potentially permenant position doing science, you'll have a nice long career. My contention is that most people can't get those jobs, so they end up out of the field and working for a bank or some such after maybe a postdoc. How many bank employed, management consulting employed, software employed phds do you interact with? How many postdocs? The stumbling block seems to be the transition from postdoc to potentially permenent position where you actually do some science.

    Do we agree that if more phds end up in management consulting/finance/software,etc after doing some postdocs than end up in science/engineering, national labs,academia then most scientific careers effectively end after the postdoc? According to a large financial firm I interviewed with, they employed more physics phds than intel. I have no way to fact check this.

    I don't know anyone who thought this way. Everyone's preference was to get a job doing some sort of engineering or science work in industry. No one was able to get those jobs, so after several months of searching, they moved on to who was willing to hire them.

    I'm still holding out for that traditional technical job, so I've been working as a bartender for the last few years and pumping out resumes. The only job offers I've had have been from banks, but I'm not quite willing to relocate to NYC for a non-science/engineering job quite yet. If you know of industries that want theoretical physics phds to actually do science/engineering work, let me know. I'm always looking for new places to send resumes.

    I wasn't talking about academic work, I was talking about phds who end up in banking and insurance. In my experiences, phd physicists don't end up in banking/insurance/management consulting because they want to leave science or are lured by higher pay- most physicists who work for banks would take paycut to have a job where they get to do some physics. They end up at banks because engineering/tech type companies simply won't hire them.
    Last edited: Jan 26, 2012
  19. Jan 26, 2012 #18


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    @ParticleGrl: Why don't you consider insurance/finance to be physics - especially theoretical physics?
  20. Jan 26, 2012 #19
    I realize that I'm not the person you were addressing, so apologies for that. However, working in insurance, I'll give you the following answer:

    Because it isn't.

    People use math for all kinds of things. There's a great deal of overlap in the mathematical tools. However, what the math is used for differs. When a statistician uses a projection matrix we don't say they're "doing physics" any more than we say a physicist is "doing statistics" when they a projection matrix in QM.

    Physicists don't have a claim to solving differential equations; other people can do it too (such as black-scholes type equations), and not be doing physics.

    Physics aquired many of its tools from mathematics, but when you have a sample container machined that will be used to house low temperature ices for spectroscopy, you're clearly not doing mathematics, even though you are working in physics.

    Physics is physics because of its subject matter. On the rare occasion I use a tool I learned in physics in my job I don't say I'm doing physics, because I'm not.
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