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Physics Alternative careers for a physics PhD?

  1. Feb 7, 2011 #1
    What sort of alternative careers have people with physics PhD's gone into? I no longer wish to continue in physics research, but I am having trouble finding any jobs I can actually apply for. Most listings I am finding have very specific experience requirements which don't even resemble anything in my background. I get the feeling that I'm just not looking for the right kinds of things.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 8, 2011 #2
    For astrophysics, the big three are oil/gas, finance, and defense. Also, since most physics Ph.D.'s won't end up as research faculty, you shouldn't think of these as "alternative" careers.

    If it goes to a headhunter, then send in your resume anyway. It's like going to a mall. The job in the store window might not be something that fits you, but there might be something else there.

    One thing that you learn about job requirement is not to take them too seriously because the stated requirement may have nothing to do with the actual requirements.

    Job hunting is something that you do with a shot gun and not a sniper's rifle.
  4. Feb 8, 2011 #3
    Meaning that you're not looking for that one specific job in a certain company but rather, a range of jobs at the said company?
  5. Feb 8, 2011 #4
    Meaning that you are not looking at any one company but rather will considering anyone that will give you a job. Something that throws people off people treat finding a job a lot like applying to a university when its a lot more chaotic and messy,
  6. Feb 8, 2011 #5


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    Depends on the job and the industry. For a lot of jobs in the defense sector, a security clearance is usually not negotiable. If you don't have one, you're not qualified. These days there is a large enough pool of cleared individuals looking for work that motivation (and funding) to pay OPM to conduct an additional background investigation is lacking.
  7. Feb 8, 2011 #6
    There are many other areas than those mentioned so far, off the top of my head: teaching, IT support/management, publishing, journalism, abstracting, programming...
  8. Feb 9, 2011 #7
    True. Also citizenship/work visa requirements are usually non-negotiable. If the employer is not willing to sponsor a work visa and you need one, then there is nothing else that can be said.
  9. Feb 9, 2011 #8
    Can you be more specific? What does it mean to "go into finance?" I hear that a lot but a lot of the jobs I see require degrees/certification in accounting. What are those jobs like? Do they exist outside of New York and California?

    On the other hand, I keep hearing advice about how I should tailor my resume and cover letter to the position I'm applying. This ends up being quite time consuming, and especially confusing when I see job title like "Finance Systems Analyst" and requirements like "3-4 years of finance/accounting/systems experience, with 2+ years of experience in a financial analysis role." Obviously I don't have that experience, and there's not much I can do about that.

    How do I tailor a resume to apply to finance jobs? What skills should I emphasize?
  10. Feb 9, 2011 #9


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    Can i recommend that you do a forum search for posts/threads made by twofish-quant? He comes from a background in physics and is working in finance; i find his posts to be very informative and i think you could learn a great deal about working in finance from reading what he has to say.

    EDIT: Here is a search query that should hopefully provide some good reading:

    https://www.physicsforums.com/search.php?searchid=2532620 [Broken]

    EDIT: Hahaha sorry, i feel like a fool now. Didn't realize that he had already posted here :tongue: Not quite sure how i overlooked that one :blushing:
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  11. Feb 9, 2011 #10
    Yes, you should do that. You should highlight the skills you have that are relevant to the position. Not all skills are relevant. If you put too many irrelevant skills on your resume, it will drown out the relevant ones and make your resume less attractive. Someone in finance doesn't really care that you can build and operate a superconducting magnet for example. Your resume for a finance position should not be the same as your resume for a technical position at a superconducting magnet manufacturer.

    The skills listed in the ad should guide you in figuring out what kind of skills they are looking for, but just because you don't have every single skill in the ad doesn't mean you shouldn't apply. Of course the company is going to list every skill they could possibly hope for. It's their ultimate wish list.

    EDIT: another thing is that the skill list may be edited by the doofus in HR. So some skills may not even be on the wish list of the person who will hire you.

    I don't have experience with finance myself, but I'm guessing math, programming and numerical modeling skills?
    Last edited: Feb 9, 2011
  12. Feb 9, 2011 #11
    For a physics Ph.D., it usually means working on Wall Street solving diffusion equations in an investment bank and babying sitting supercomputers. The world financial system is built on top of supercomputers that do pricing and risk management calculations using diffusion-type partial differential equations.

    Right now a lot of the hiring is in risk management. What that involves is taking a model that consists of ten pages of integrals and differential equations and convincing the Federal Reserve that said model will not destroy the world financial system after convincing yourself that it won't. The reason that banks like physics people for this job is that it basically involves asking two questions 1) how does this model behave and 2) is this model a reasonable description of reality.

    Different set of jobs. One problem that you'll find is that the jobs that are aimed for Ph.D.'s are buried in those that aren't. There are probably 10x as many jobs that aren't set up for Ph.D.'s than those that are. The good news is that there are very few physics Ph.D. One statistic that I'd like to quote is that Harvard graduates about 800 MBA's each year, whereas the US puts out a total of only about 1200 Ph.D.'s per year. By contrast, the US puts about about 120,000 MBA's each year.

    The bad news is that there are about 20 times fewer jobs in finance for physics Ph.D.'s than MBA's. The good news is that there are about 100 times fewer physics Ph.D.'s.

    Physics Ph.D. level finance jobs basically only exist in NYC, London, and some Asian centers (Hong Kong, Singapore or Tokyo). A lot of whether or not you would be happy doing finance or not boils down to the question of whether you like NYC or not. Some people do. Some people hate it.

    You aren't qualified for that job, however, if you keep shooting resumes, then eventually one of your resumes will end up in the hands of someone that is looking for physics Ph.D.'s. Most of the jobs you will see on www.dice.com[/url], [url]www.efinancialcareers.com[/url], or [url]www.phds.org[/URL] are from headhunters, and they'll often have another job that is tailored for a physics/math Ph.D.

    [QUOTE]How do I tailor a resume to apply to finance jobs? What skills should I emphasize?[/QUOTE]

    The main thing that you will need is to give a technical description of your dissertation, designed to be read by someone else with a Ph.D. There are two people that read the resume, the first is either a headhunter or someone in HR that knows zero physics, but it's not hard to get past them. Just use big words that they don't understand and include some of the major buzzwords (which are finite difference, stochastic differential equations, monte carlo, high performance computing, c++).

    For finance positions the person that actually decides whether they can use you or not is usually someone that has a technical Ph.D.

    The skills that you should emphasis are the ones that you have. If you have heavy HPC experience, talk about your C++ or Fortran coding skills. If you are doing analytic models, then you need to emphasis your mathematical expertise. If you are an experimentalist, things that would be useful are experience with time series, any experience with MATLAB or R, any statistical experience, and anything involving microcontroller programming.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
  13. Feb 9, 2011 #12
    The problem with finance is for Ph.D. applicants is that they don't have enough information to know what skills are relevant or not. For physics Ph.D.'s applying for financial firms, the two most relevant pieces of information are that you have a Ph.D. in physics and you did something for the dissertation. Since you don't have much information about what is or is not relevant for finance, it's much better not to try to make the resume "relevant."

    Yes they do. (Or more precisely, yes I do.)

    If you are a theorist that means that you've either done work with the physics of phase transitions which could be useful in modelling defaults in mortgages. Or maybe you've written software that calculates field equations, which means that you are familiar with finite element models. Or maybe you've done microcontroller programming, which means that you could be really helpful programming algorithmic trading platforms. If I know what your dissertation was on, I can figure out whether or not our firm can use you, and if we can't, then someone else might.

    If nothing else, I can be reasonably sure that I can hand you six pages of integral equations involving a series of Laplace transforms, and you won't run away screaming, and after about a year or two of learning about how markets work, you can start writing models that consist of six pages of Laplace transforms.

    Actually for Wall Street positions, it probably should be.

    For finance positions for Ph.D. physicists that's a bad idea. Part of the reason is that the person offering the position may have no idea what they are looking for. For example, suppose you did your dissertation in the physics of superconductors. My Ph.D. wasn't in the physics of superconductors, so you know more about it than I do. Now what could happen (and what does happen) is that while I or one of my co-workers are writing your dissertation work, it becomes obvious that you've done a lot of work on some bizarre equation or mathematical technique that we just happen to be interested in. At that point you become interesting to us.

    It's a little Kafkasque. There are reasons for this. Let's suppose for example (and I can use this example because it's not true) that we are really interested in techniques for numerically solving Volterra equations of the second kind in order because we have this new nifty model for soybean contracts traded in Brazil but it's too slow. If this were true, we certainly wouldn't be putting it in a want ad. Also since I have no expertise in condensed matter physics, I wouldn't know if those equations are useful in superconductors.

    Be nice to the people in HR.

    I have experience in finance. If you mention what area your Ph.D. is in, I can give you a flavor of how it could be useful. This information can and will change from month to month, but I can tell you what's hot this month.
  14. Feb 9, 2011 #13
    Well here's my mini-resume. My PhD was in theoretical condensed matter, with a focus on methods for strongly correlated systems. I've done a lot of density functional theory calculations, some work with Green's function methods, and a lot of programming. Some projects were pen-and-paper, deriving an effective Hamiltonian or analyzing functionals used in DFT. Some projects were calculating thermodynamic properties of materials. Some projects were done using Monte Carlo methods, both quantum and classical. Several projects involved programming in a variety of languages, including C++ and Fortran.

    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
  15. Feb 9, 2011 #14
    That's typical of the background of people that get hired by investment banks. A lot of the code that needs to be "babysat" is monte carlo. A typical problem is that you have a basket of a horrendous number of instruments, and you want to write a monte carlo simulation of that.

    Yes. If you know the details of the specific job that you are targeting then you can tailor the resume, but usually you don't. I have two resumes that I use. One is the one I send to financial firms in which I emphasize the physics Ph.D. The other one is for generic programming jobs outside of finance, in which the Ph.D. is mentioned but not heavily, and I talk more about my coding experience. For each job, I might change a sentence or two.

    If you know something specific about the job, then yes, but you usually don't. For example, if you happen to know that the company is very interested in monte carlo simulations, then you can talk more about that. The trouble is that you usually don't have that information. The job listings themselves are useless, because they have no information other than "we have a job."

    This is one reason that people from certain schools do better at getting jobs. If you go to a school where you have lots of working Ph.D.'s and they tell you that putting monte carlo code onto GPU's happens to be "hot" right now, that's very valuable information, since you can figure out a way of working the term GPU into your resume.

    Been there. One important trick that helped me a lot was to not think of the resume as an autobiography. If you think of the resume as an autobiography, then it's really psychologically difficult to write it. Think of a resume as a 30-second commercial or movie trailer.

    The other important useful bit of information is that there really isn't that much point in getting a perfect resume. Once you get the interview, then no one cares about the resume, so if you are getting interviews then the resume is "good enough."

    The big determining factor is the number of resumes that you can spam. If working on resumes makes you send out fewer its a bad trade off. Also, a good resume should get you rejected for some jobs. If there is no chance that you are going to get hired, then it's good that you end the process early rather than waste anyone's time.

    The problem with a lot of career counselors is that they are used to dealing with MBA's and that's a *very* different job market than Ph.D.'s. Also with one exception (and you can contact her at Martingale International) headhunters and career counselors are not physicists or mathematicians that this can create problems.

    One of those is that our group just can't communicate our job requirements to the people that make the first pass on resumes. HR and HH are nice people, but I'm just not going to be able to explain to them the mathematics of Banach spaces, because they really aren't interested in Banach spaces. So what ends up happening is that they get instructions it look for certain things, and if they are looking for "Banach space" and you write Lebesgue space, they aren't going to know that the two are related.
    Last edited: Feb 9, 2011
  16. Feb 9, 2011 #15
    Yes it is. At first. But eventually you'll have a resume for each type of job and you can recycle those.

    Semiconductor industry. I never had to leave the technical field. I consider myself lucky, but others most likely like working in finance. I probably wouldn't. With your background, I think you could go either way (technical or finance).
    Last edited: Feb 9, 2011
  17. Feb 10, 2011 #16
    I think we are using "working in finance" in very different contexts. If you are in an oil company, you have the management track and the technical track. If you are working in an investment bank, a lot of those jobs would be considered "technical" in other industries. Most of the work that I do is pretty similar to the work I was doing in graduate school.

    One of the reasons that I like Wall Street is that while there is still something of a "glass ceiling for geeks" it's much, much higher than in other places.
  18. Feb 10, 2011 #17
    So what sort of things do you do in the semiconductor industry? What is your day-to-day like? Is your background theoretical or experimental?
  19. Feb 10, 2011 #18
    What sort of buzzwords go along with numerical modeling skills? I'm drawing a blank on how to succinctly emphasize this on my resume.
  20. Feb 10, 2011 #19
    Don't be too succint. For Wall Street resumes, assume that you are writing a paragraph to another physics Ph.D. explaining your research. The buzzwords are for the person in HR or HH that knows zero physics so that they see the keywords and forward the resume to a Ph.D. Work on writing a one paragraph abstract of your research and then you can modify it to include the buzzwords.

    stochastic differential equations
    monte carlo
    Finite difference
    high performance computing
    real time systems

    For example one thing that I have on my resume is that I have experience with neutrino radiation hydrodynamical equations that are similar to Black-Scholes. It's true, but the important thing about this is that I mention Black-Scholes so that someone in HR that has no clue what radiation hydrodynamics is sees that it's "like Black-Scholes".

    A physicist would see

    neutrino radiation hydrodynamical using multi-group flux limited diffusion methods similar to Black-Scholes.

    The HR person would see

    big-word big-word big-word blah blah blah Black-Scholes blah blah

    This is important because without the buzz-word, the HR person might see

    blah blah blah blah blah blah
  21. Feb 11, 2011 #20
    I have an experimental background.

    I've essentially done 2 kinds of things: develop equipment for wafer metrology and inspection, and manufacturing process development (basically applied R&D). Both kinds of work include a lot of physics, experimental as well as simulations, and statistical analysis.

    Day to day can vary a lot. I could be at my desk writing a semiclassical model or do QM simulations one minute, then 5 minutes later I'm wearing a full-face hazmat respirator with SCUBA gear because a maintenance tech paged me, then I'm discussing contract negotiation for a $2M piece of equipment with procurement, then I'm on the phone with a wafer manufacturer in Germany talking about bad XRD data. Finally, I'm back to my model and it's only been one hour.

    There is a lot of interaction with technical and non-technical people, within the company, with suppliers, customers, and even competitors. It keeps things interesting. I don't spend much time in formal meetings. I've turned down so-called promotions because I didn't want to do that.
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