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Physics Best physics branch to stay in science?

  1. Aug 13, 2017 at 8:00 PM #1
    I'm a Junior physics major, and right now my goal is to stay in science. I want to read physics papers, and go to conferences, and do research, the whole science thing. As of now I haven't specialized in any branch of physics, and I have no immediate qualms with any.
    So my question: What are some good branches of physics is to specialize in (for a PhD), if the goal is to not be a market analyst, or an IT guy, or a quant?
    Example: Particle physics. Very interesting, very fundamental, my first choice by the "cool" factor. However: Apparently, nearly everyone who gets their PhD in HEP ends up not in the field. I'm not putting down people who get good jobs, I just don't want to invest 6 years of PhD work into something I won't be doing for the rest of my life.
    Counter example: Solid state physics. Most of material science is based on condensed matter physics, and solid state is a major component of that. According to my professors and the internet, most people who get their PhD studying in this field end up working in this field.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 14, 2017 at 7:52 AM #2
    Some preliminaries: (1) What country are you in or plan to work in? (2) So, is your main goal to be a university research professor? Such positions do exist in industry and government labs, but are very limited (in the US).
  4. Aug 14, 2017 at 9:44 AM #3
    I'm in the USA, and plan to stay here.
    My main goal is not to be a university research professor (I'm not into teaching), but a research scientist at a government lab, sure. Though there are, I understand, plenty of industry research jobs outside of government funded labs. Is this not the case?
  5. Aug 14, 2017 at 10:04 AM #4

    Vanadium 50

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    These jobs are at least as competitive as university faculty.

    Depends on what you mean by "research". It tends to be more applied, and it tends to be more directed by the mission needs of the company. You might be interested in the spectrum of glopolium, but the company might want you working on thin films.
  6. Aug 14, 2017 at 12:03 PM #5
    Yes, and there is a fairly wide range of topics being studied across these industrial labs.
    You may want to look into biophysics or medical physics, both seem to be booming fields with plenty of research opportunities.
  7. Aug 14, 2017 at 7:45 PM #6
    Experimental biophysics or experimental surface/materials/solid state physics will probably give you a good chance of obtaining a job which gives you at least some of what you are looking for.

    EDIT: I looked at the job figures in physics and decided it wasn't for me, so I switched to device physics. The academic and industrial job market is significantly better. You act as an intermediary between engineering and physics. Numerous faculty I'm aware of have moved between industry and academia (very rare in physics), and several faculty have projects working with exotic materials. One guy works in EE and regularly publishes pure theory papers with a top theorist in a physics department (in some topological materials field), so if you're really good you can do both.
  8. Aug 14, 2017 at 11:44 PM #7


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    Best chance of continuing what you did in your PhD is to work as a postdoc for your PhD supervisor, except that will likely lead to an academic path and teaching. In the industry, research is done with different mindsets. Even when the general subject is the same field as your PhD research, you will most likely feel you are researching on something completely different.

    For a general example, your PhD research is about some new material or structure with excellent properties, better than anything else in the market, and better than anything proposed in recent papers. After getting your degree, you get a job in the industry with a description wanting something to develop new materials and structures, sounds good. You will soon find out, a lot of your work will be about, which of these materials will have a decent supply chain? Associated manufacturing, processing costs? Equipment costs and maintenance costs? Side effects that results in undesirable products? and I can probably make a list of 20 other questions.
    One day you will ask yourself, hold on a sec, how is any of this physics?

    My point is, while possible, doing something directly relevant to your PhD is not something that will reliably happen in the industry. Even in academia, research directions can change quickly when the funding organizations demand it.

    Sorry that I am not able to answer your question. I do like the way you are still having an open mindset. One of things I wish I had.
  9. Aug 15, 2017 at 12:10 AM #8


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    At least in high-energy physics, this would be the equivalent of an academic suicide. The postdoc period is generally seen as the time to develop yourself as an independent researcher and to pursue and define your own line of research, preferably somewhat distinct from that of your supervisor. No high-profile university that I know of would give you a tenure track position if you had just been working for your PhD supervisor.
  10. Aug 15, 2017 at 12:57 AM #9


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    Most likely true for all fields of research.
    Something disturbing happening is postdocs being hired and given no freedom to define their scope of research. Basically hired as research assistant. I heard a lot of complaints about being tasks replaceable by undergraduates from my relatives and friends. Hopefully that isn't a trend.
  11. Aug 15, 2017 at 8:28 AM #10


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    As someone who has hired a post-doc, the main issue here is that when I applied for the grant that funded the position, I had to be pretty specific about what the position entailed. I couldn't just say "Give me a pile of money so I can hire someone to do what he or she wants." So while I encouraged this person to take advantage of the opportunity and branch out, there's only so much time in the day, and I needed to get the proposed project done.

    One key to independent development is to get the post-doc involved in the grant application process. Ideally the post-doc gets a PDF grant on his or her own, but there's only so many of those types of grants to go around.
  12. Aug 15, 2017 at 8:37 AM #11


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    As more of a response to the original post, I can say that in medical physics there is a very high probability that you'll end up working in the field if you do your PhD in it. It's not a meal ticket, but I think relative to a lot of the more academic branches in physics, you've got a good chance of staying in it. The caveat of course is that it's primarily the clinical work that's in demand. Radiation therapy facilities need medical physicists to operate safely and effectively. The research element, tends to come second, at the end of a rather gruelling and stressful day.

    Something else I would consider if I was looking to do a PhD is the details of the specific project itself. Is there, for example, any opportunity to take the work and develop it commercially? If so, then you'll have a chance to stick with it well into the future - you just might have to handle the business side of things as well.
  13. Aug 15, 2017 at 9:28 AM #12

    From your previous posts, I gather that these are your goals:

    (1) You want to perform academic-style scientific research in which the primary output is research papers and conference talks.
    (2) You do not want to be saddled with the sundry burdens of a university professor; in particular, teaching.
    (3) You want a stable, life-long career in the field in which you pursue your physics PhD.

    Your assumption is that, if you pick the right field of physics, you can achieve your goals by working in an industrial R&D lab. My response is that you are not likely, as a matter of course, to achieve these goals in an industrial R&D lab ... with the usual caveat that there are fortunate outliers.

    (1) Prior to ~1990, industrial jobs such as you desire did exist; although I would not say they were ever plentiful (but certainly more available than they are today). Many large corporations funded core R&D labs. Some funded basic research labs that conducted academic-style scientific research. Of those that hired physicists, the top two were AT&T (Bell Labs) and IBM (Watson Research Center). Even then, funding for development work was greater; consequently, a larger number of physicists were hired into development organizations. The era of large corporate R&D labs that hire large numbers of physicists is pretty much over (especially for basic research). Many articles and books have been written on this topic; you should read some to understand the unpredictable factors at play. That doesn’t mean that there are no jobs for physicists in industry; there are; but, compared to pre-1990, the demand is less; the research is more directed; the opportunities for basic research are scarcer.

    (2) It’s really naive these days to expect to stay in one career for life. It’s not impossible, but it’s not the norm anymore. The job market can invert within a period as short as two years (e.g., at the end of 1999 there was a shortage of R&D scientists and engineers in optoelectronic devices; by mid 2001, there were massive layoffs in that field). It’s really important to be multi-disciplinary, flexible, and adaptable.

    (3) I worked in industrial R&D for 20+ yrs after I completed my physics PhD in experimental solid-state physics. I experienced in person the semiconductor meltdown of the early 1990’s, the InterNet Bubble Burst of the early 2000’s, and the financial meltdown of 2008. Some of my colleagues were obstinate in remaining approximately close to their chosen technical field, and did so by moving multiple times around the country in a short span (one colleague moved from NJ to AZ to CA to MO to FL to MA within ~12 yrs following successive layoffs; a real strain on his family). I didn’t want to disrupt my family; so I changed fields as needed [I worked in solid-state physics only for the first 8 yrs of my career].

    (4) As I discussed in a separate thread, if you want near-guarantee of a life-long career in the same field upon completion of an advanced degree, get an MD (if you are suitably qualified and have the desire, of course).
    Last edited: Aug 15, 2017 at 10:28 AM
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