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Physics A physics major is not good preparation for a career in software development

  1. Oct 7, 2012 #1
    Whenever people ask what jobs they can do with a B.S. in physics (and to a lesser extent with an M.S. or Ph.D.), one of the first suggestions offered is that they can become a programmer. In my opinion, this is seriously wrong and harmful advice.

    Look at the standard courses that physics majors take. None of them have anything to do with programming! Most of them are pencil-and-paper theory classes, with a few lab classes thrown in for kicks. In my program, they suggested one, *optional* introductory-level class in programming. Would you tell someone that they were qualified to be an engineer, just because they had taken one introductory course?

    Some people do programming as part of research projects. Again, these are entirely optional, and not part of the standard curriculum. And even when they do, they mostly program simple number crunching algorithms in obsolete languages like Fortran. That kind of programming does not even come close to qualifying someone for a professional programming job. It can actually be *worse* than no experience, because it teaches bad habits that will have to be broken later.

    Meanwhile, the skills that are actually in demand for programming jobs, are not taught at all. I'm talking about skills like web and mobile development, server maintenance, or managing a database with SQL. Not to mention languages that are slightly more recent than Fortran (or even C++). Oh, and since so many programmers have CS degrees, they'll also expect you to know a fair amount about CS, even if it doesn't relate directly to programming. No one will ever ask you to calculate an electromagnetic field, though.

    As far as I can figure, the only people who are successful in landing programming jobs with just a physics degree, are the people who self-taught themselves programming (usually starting in high school or even earlier). Which is fine for them, but it doesn't really help the people who didn't do that. It's completely unrelated to the physics degree itself. It's basically like saying, that if you teach yourself piano very well, then you can become a professional piano player after getting a physics degree. Technically true, but misleading and unhelpful to anyone with a physics degree who is not a self-taught piano or programming virtuoso.
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  3. Oct 7, 2012 #2


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    By that reasoning a BS in CS is a waste of time for software development since so many CS BS people can't development software at all, and so many good developers do not have CS degrees. A college degree in a specific field guarantees no skills or job prospects. For better of worse college programs are customizable. Your complaint seems to be that very specific training is not forced on everyone for the benefit of the few people that need it.
  4. Oct 7, 2012 #3


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    You seem to view a CS degree as a vocational degree. If you want a vocational degree, get a vocational degree and some certificates, not a CS degree or a physics degree. They're completely different things.
  5. Oct 7, 2012 #4
    No, that's not what I'm saying at all. Of course no one majors in physics just to get a programming job. The problem is, everyone seems to think that they'll be able to get programming jobs(among others) with just a physics b.s. degree, just like they would with a cs degree, and it's really not true. A physics degree is totally unrelated to programming jobs. A cs degree also teaches unrelated knowledge, but it does at least somewhat prepare you to work as a programmer.
  6. Oct 7, 2012 #5


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    I don't think pi-r8 is too far off base.

    Someone who has a degree in physics with no programming experience (or just a rudimentary knowledge of it) has very little chance of getting a programming job. I don't know of any companies that would train someone how to program, just because that person has a physics degree.

    But - if a physics major has significant programming experience, their chances are greatly increased. I'd say the same for math majors, too.
  7. Oct 7, 2012 #6
    No, my complaint is that people are giving students bad job advice by leading them to believe that a physics major will teach them enough to get a programming job.
  8. Oct 7, 2012 #7


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    Yes that is bad advice indeed. A physics major is not (usually) enough for a physics job or a programming job.
  9. Oct 7, 2012 #8

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    It still looks like you see a BS as vocational training.
  10. Oct 7, 2012 #9
    I agree. I have seen some of my colleagues' programming and it's atrocious. One physics PhD I know doesn't even know touch typing! He's a hunt-and-peck typist. Personally if I was in a position to hire a software developer I would be very critical of someone with a physics degree, especially just a BS.

    Considering the way colleges market their degree programs, that's not such a strange thing. If getting a college degree wasn't at all relevant to finding employment then far fewer people would do it than there are now.
  11. Oct 8, 2012 #10
    Agree wholeheartedly with the OP. I wonder how many physics students are in school with the notion that a phd in physics is an attention getter in the "real" world because of so-called critical thinking skills.

    The elite make a big stink over math and physics skills as a primary indicator of competitiveness, and the pro-education shills rah rah on the sidelines, ...but but...

    It just aint so. Otherwise show me the respect.
  12. Oct 8, 2012 #11
    That's part of another issue: "not knowing what to do with young adults."

    A year or two ago, a poster here (it was probably twofish-quant, but I'm not certain) was saying that before, young men went to the army. Today, they go to college.

    Easy way to test this supposition. Simply cold-call 10 firms/companies, ask them if they're hiring, and in the conversation, mention having a physics degree. Note their reaction.


    Why is it that people don't know what to do with physics majors, but "they" know what to do with Slavic literature, history or politics majors?

    Check this out. It's the handbook for political science majors at a liberal arts college, which happens to be a very academically rigorous one. Specifically, read the section titled "Life after..." and the one about "summer internships." The department goes out of its way to pay its students for the internships they're doing. Summer internships are *part* of the degree, and that's at one of the most academic institutes (arguably) in the country.

    Sure, a college degree is not, and should not be regarded as a vocational course. Educating oneself is an end in and of itself, but if that was *all* that mattered, I'm certain lots of people wouldn't be getting into as much debt as they seem to. Certification (i.e, a bachelor's degree) is the de facto requirement for lots of jobs. I don't think there's anything wrong with jobs not requiring bachelor's degrees, and I really wouldn't mind doing one after getting any degree, but most people don't think that way. That's also because I probably won't go to a college that would require my getting too indebted.

    I've heard of people doing philosophy degrees and then going to work in a circus, which is pretty cool. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. What I find wrong, however, is that just about everybody around me (i.e, kids my age) think they're entitled to cushy white collar jobs just because they have a degree. I have friends studying civil engineering who already have plans of working "on the field" for a few years, and then going "into management or consulting" after, because that's where the money is at. And they're just freshmen...

    As far as I'm concerned, every academic department should have one such "major handbook" available to the their students. I've went over the webpages of at least 75 colleges' physics departments over the past year or two, and I've never seen one. At least, not one with specifics instead of "with the critical thinking and technical skills you earn with your physics degree, you will be qualified for a wide range of positions. Many of our graduates go on into fields such as management, software engineering, law, medicine or physics research." Caveat: a lot of them get further degrees for that. I haven't quoted this directly from any webpage but it's the same kind of generic "information" that I've seen in most places. I actually e-mailed a person who takes care of "what alumni are doing" at a college, and my e-mail was forwarded to a prof who responded with that same generic info. It was nice of him to take away 2-3 minutes of his time to reply to my e-mail, but he completely walked around my question and told me exactly what I found in the department's main website.

    That was an ivy league school btw. Another one, while not having any extensive info, did have some relevant stuff available. "X, Y and Z business consulting and investment banking firms recruit on campus. Many of our physics graduates have been hired straight out of college from them. Here are some of the questions you may be asked at an interview. Here is some further information on the nature of the job. While most of what you learned in your physics degree will not be directly relevant, these employers value our graduates." (paraphrasing here; been a while since I went on that page, but that was the gist of it)

    Now, *that* was useful! However, that's just for an ivy league college. And we know all too well that McKinsey doesn't recruit on campus at SUNY-Platsburgh, Arizona State or UMass-Amherst...

    Sidenote: Why are law, medical and engineering schools part of universities? Sure, people conduct research in those fields, but are those degrees not primarily vocation qualifications? The M.D and J.D are "vocational doctorates."
  13. Oct 8, 2012 #12
    Classes are only part of your education. If you are good with computers you can and will be expected to teach yourself the language of the day, which is one reason that being in an environment where you can teach yourself is a good one.

    Not true. Calculating field equations was something of a standard interview question for the jobs I was applying for. I also got questions on Green functions and contour integration.

    Well download a book from Amazon and figure out what it is you have to learn what it is that you have to do to learn what you have to learn. Complaining that physics classes don't prepare you for the "real world" is like saying that doing push ups and aerobic exercises doesn't prepare to you play football.

    It's not unrelated. Doing physics problems gives you the mental toughness that you can use to do other things, if that's what you want to do.
  14. Oct 8, 2012 #13
    It worked for me. It's not that people will fall over you if you have a physics Ph.D., but rather that if can figure out neutrino diffusion then figuring out how to write a resume shouldn't be that tough.

    Part of it is I think is attitude. If you are in the "pay X money to get Y degree to make Z money" then physics sucks. But I've been incredibly curious about the universe. I like analyzing systems, whether physical or sociological, and then figuring out how to make those systems work for me.

    Physics works for me because it's the hardest thing that I can find. I can have someone teach me physics, and then I'll figure out the CS and marketing stuff on my own. If I specialized in marketing, then I couldn't teach myself physics. So since I want the "whole package" I went into astrophysics, and then read everything that I could on stuff that has nothing obviously to do with astrophysics.
  15. Oct 8, 2012 #14
    One thing that I learned from sales people is that this is the wrong approach. If the company wants a computer programmer, then you are a computer programmer. If they company wants a salesman, then you be a salesman. If you can't give what the company wants, then shake hands, politely close the conversation, and move to the next person.

    It doesn't matter if 9, 99, or 999 or nine million people say no. All you need is one person to say yes, and you are golden. One thing that sales people do is to figure out very quickly if they can't make a sale, and if they can't they politely end the conversation and move to the next person.

    Also, cold calling is usually a waste of time. Large companies have all of these systems in place to prevent people from getting any useful information. That's where conferences and head hunters come in. If you have the e-mail address of someone that will write back, that's gold.

    I think this is cool, because the part of my brain that I used to figure out how a big bureaucracy works is the part of my brain I use to figure out the big bang. It's a big puzzle.

    Because people in those majors *talk* to people. You need to network. You can make a very simple model of how the world works, and that gives you the number of people you need to talk to get a job.

    I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

    One thing that I learned is that most people want the easy way. Most people get more stuff the easy way. If I wanted the most money/respect/toys, no way would I go into physics. If that's what you want out of life, don't do physics.

    It's not what I want. What I want to frankly to die satisfied that my life was worth it.

    Or not. One of the cool things about my teachers if you went up to them and asked what you could do with a physics degree if academia didn't work out, they'd answer that they hadn't got a clue. COOL!!!!!

    No one *could* have written a "handbook" for me. Most of the careers that I've been working in are things that did not exist when I was an undergraduate. I really have no idea what I'll be doing in a decade. I'm sure it will be interesting. It will likely involve something that hasn't been invented yet.

    I'm always learning new stuff. Right now, I'm trying to teach myself how to write low-level video drivers for GPU's. I'm doing it because I think it's important and useful.

    Because they haven't got a clue.

    OK, then scratch McKinsey off your list if you go to Arizona State. Who is next?

    People need to justify themselves, so one way you can justify spending money on something abstract is that you can say that it's because of "deep stuff." But so what?
  16. Oct 8, 2012 #15
    One other thing undergraduate is very different from graduate school. For example, one thing that was on my resume that made me attractive was that I had programmed on supercomputers. Now my supercomputer programming was "self-taught" in that I didn't take a course on supercomputers. However, through the good graces of my adviser, I got free supercomputer time that I could use to "play" with.

    Now there aren't that many situations outside of a physics department where someone will just hand you the keys to supercomputer and let you take it out for a spin. (One funny thing though is that the computer I'm typing with now probably has more horse power than the supercomputer I used way back when.)
  17. Oct 8, 2012 #16
    I actually only took one engineering course, Intro to Design. As it turns out, I am qualified to be an engineer. In my case, what was really important was my understanding of science and mathematics in a general sense, because the ME curriculum, for example, has very little relevance to my job. I've never needed to calculate the stress of a beam or quantify convective heat transfer. I also never need to do many of the things I learned in my physics program either.

    As I've noted before, not every physics student makes a good engineer. It really does depend on the individual, their interests and capabilities. It also depends on the position. Some engineering jobs require professional registration. Some engineering jobs require field specific knowledge that is taught in specialized programs. On the other hand, some positions require neither of those things. Software jobs are similar. Some physics students will have the proper skills and interests, and some will not. The physics curriculum in and of itself does not provide those things.
  18. Oct 8, 2012 #17
    The point is college freshman has no idea about networking and learning stuff on his own.

    College freshman thinks that if he/she study hard and do all that teachers are saying, he/she will get a good job.

    Because of that young physics majors are doomed.

    I truly belive that academic degree becomes useful with certain amount of wisdom and experience of it's holder. Because of that it's better for older people while young should get vocational training first.
  19. Oct 8, 2012 #18
    Has anyone in your programming classes taught you that 90% of programming problem is solved precisely with pen and paper before the actual programming is undertaken?
  20. Oct 8, 2012 #19
    If your goal is a job in software development, you should get a computer science or computer engineering degree.

    If your goal is a job as an engineer, you should get an engineering degree.

    Of course it's *possible* to get a job as an engineer or software developer with a physics degree, but honestly, that's doing things the hard way.

    You should study physics if your goal is to be a physicist. You might not get there (it's a long, tough road!), but if that's not your goal, you should be studying something more appropriate.
  21. Oct 8, 2012 #20
    The "real" world wants the cheapest on-demand problem solvers, not people mistaking paper degrees for licenses guaranteeing long term professions like a medical doctor. someone out of university with a CS degree won't have much large scale design experience or domain knowledge. They are essentially trained for niche employment in operating systems and compilers.

    Makes no sense to be sacked down that long, except HR departments demand it. Go figure.

    As for physicist, I think the naive notion from employers is that an engineer is one by default. They don't want physicists on staff as physicists.

    So that leaves engineering, often promoted around here as the upcoming nirvana. Of course, chemistry was once a darling too, with all the opportunities in bottom-up nanotech, medicinal chem, etc. Now chemistry is just one of those farm-it-out non-professions.
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