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Physics Advice on Unorthodox Physics Job Search

  1. Dec 7, 2009 #1
    I am a senior thesis away from completing a B.S. in Astrophysics. I am very interested in a career in Plasma and Fusion Physics, and I live near 2 national labs where such research takes place. However, I have decided not to go to graduate school. I'm poor and I already owe over thirty thousand in student loans from my undergraduate career, I'm about to turn 29 and I don't want to spend the better part of another decade in school, and I've always found self-study to be more effective for me anyhow. Anyways, my GPA isn't impressive and I don't really know anyone well enough to get a reference letter out of them.

    I think my career would move a lot faster if I jump into working right now, even if I start off doing relatively menial things. I can be learning from textbooks I buy myself and picking up things at work in the meantime.

    I got this idea from a physics listserv I was subscribed to, in which a physicist described an international student who convinced a university researcher to hire him as a lab assistant despite not being a physics graduate student (sounds somewhat romantic, I know). I am hoping that I can communicate so much interest, prior knowledge/relevant skills, willingness to learn, willingness to work for peanuts, and willingness to assist with just about anything even remotely physics related, that I can convince someone in the department to hire me as an assistant, then move up to more responsibilities as I learn more.

    The really good news is that I have previously applied to one of these institutions for an internship, and they were so impressed with my resume that they encouraged me to apply for something in the future. I did not get the job because I was not enrolled in college at the time, and since I don't ever plan to be enrolled again, I'm guessing I won't be eligible for any other internships, either, especially once I finish my degree (which will be soon, I hope). I'm also not qualified for any of the regular jobs they have posted (most are for professionals), so I see my idea as my only hope.

    I know this idea is a little unusual, but I was hoping that someone could give me some advice on how to approach it so that I have a better chance of being hired. For example, how should I begin this communication - email, phone call, letter? Should I go directly to the department I'm interested in, or try to go through the person who interviewed me for my internship, being that he's familiar with my qualifications and was the one who specifically encouraged me to look for more job opportunities at the lab? I'm sure that going through Human Resources is the worst possible point of contact. What entry level tasks would a professional physics lab need done that I can mention being able to do (so far I've thought of coding and typing up/editing papers)?

    Thanks so much for any ideas you can give me.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 7, 2009 #2
    The main trouble that you will have is you've just described graduate school. Physics and mathematics departments have graduate students to work for peanuts as teaching and research assistants. If you have interest, prior knowledge/relevant skills etc. etc., that's the type of stuff that you put in your application for graduate school.

    The big stumbling block that you will have to explain is why aren't you applying to graduate school?

    If you aren't applying to graduate school, I've known of a few people that have ended up being teaching lab assistants or system administrators with physics bachelors, but in pretty much most of those situations it was in the university that they were part of.
  4. Dec 7, 2009 #3
    I don't understand why this would be a stumbling block to explain. I gave what seem to me to be sensible reasons in my original post.
  5. Dec 7, 2009 #4
    You do realize you get paid a stipend in grad school right? An amount that would most likely be comparable to the peanuts you want to earn as a lab assistant...
  6. Dec 7, 2009 #5
    Yes, but don't graduate students have to compete for that? Also, I'm sure the stipend isn't going to cover all my costs as a graduate student. I have no money of my own and no outside means of support if I stop working to go to graduate school.
  7. Dec 7, 2009 #6
    Grad students in physics don't compete for stipends. As far as I know, it's virtually unheard of for grad students to pay their own way. The stipend is small, but it's enough to cover one person's living costs. Also, as long as you're a student you don't have to pay off your student loans. So you probably could go to grad school even in your situation.
  8. Dec 7, 2009 #7
    Ok, thanks. I'm re-considering it, now.
  9. Dec 8, 2009 #8
    darkchild -> The stipend is not big in grad school, but unless you spend 1k+ a month, you should be more than able to cope with it. Don't know how things are in the US, but I can tell you that in Europe if you have a stipend, or better a studentship (which can be a bit of a problem to get), you can live pretty well off it. Not only, one could save money off it, which I understand would really help you. So by all means, go and have a chat about the possible funding options for grad school. I think you'll find out that if you get one, you'll be happy with it. Of course, you'll have to compete for it, but then you might ask the enthusiastic guy at the lab who encouraged you to apply for internships to write you a reference letter.
  10. Dec 8, 2009 #9
    The other thing that makes graduate school attractive is that while you are in graduate school, the government will pay interest on some types of student loans. It's generally the case that physics and math departments guarantee support.

    This is also why it's going to be rather difficult to get a lab assistant job outside graduate school since departments usually reserve those jobs for graduate students.
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