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Best specialities for employment after physics Ph.D

  1. Nov 26, 2015 #1
    Hello everyone! I am finishing up my junior year as a double major in electrical engineering and mathematics plus a physics minor. I have done a summer REU in experimental particle physics and am currently writing a physics paper with a professor at my university. I think this up and coming summer I will do another physics REU. Can someone tell me, based on your experiences, what physics PhD speciality will give someone the best chance of staying in physics for the long term? When I say "staying in physics for the long term" I mean getting a spot at a national lab or even in a high tech industry and not being stuck on the post doc wheel that ends up spitting me into the insurance industry, not that there is anything wrong with working for that industry. I know from reading on this forum that the common response is experimental condense matter and accelerator physics. Can someone give me some specifics, such as if going into accelerator physics you could study beam dynamics or even work on making the hardware that actually detects the particles, but are one of these much more employable than the other? Basically, which subfield within a subfield are going to lead to someone being in high demand within the physics market place?

    Thanks for taking the time to read/respond!
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 30, 2015 #2
    Employment markets are local and regional. Your answer will depend a lot on your geographic constraints.

    Your answer will also depend on how applied you are willing to be. Other than viewing insurance industry as overly applied, what industries are sufficiently appealing? Communications? Defense? Aerospace?

    You might consider looking at some of the job web sites that meet your geographical constraints and seeing what's out there.
  4. Nov 30, 2015 #3

    Vanadium 50

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    It kind of sounds like you think there is. You need to reconcile yourself with the fact that you're going to have to put food on the table, and that for the vast majority of physics grads, it's not going to be self-directed physics research that does it. You can say "I don't want to do X", but you can't say "I don't want to do finance or big data or computers or defense or insurance or technical writing or..."

    Anyway, the problem is that you need to finish undergrad, then grad school, then a postdoc or two before you're ready for full time employment. That's 10-15 years down the road. The world will look different then, and it's not simple to predict how.
  5. Nov 30, 2015 #4
    I'll be honest, yeah, I don't want to work in insurance helping rip people off. But the question I was getting at is what is a physics specialty that seems like it will keep me working in pure physics? For example, a string theorist seems to be at a disadvantage to an accelerator physicist when staying in pure physics. What is, in your view, an in demand speciality of physics.
  6. Dec 1, 2015 #5

    Vanadium 50

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    You do realize that many of the largest and best-known insurance companies (State Farm, Liberty Mutual, New York Life) are owned by their policyholders. How do you rip off yourself?

    As far as the second half of your question, the answer is the same - the subfields that are in demand today may not be the same as the ones in demand 10 or 15 years from now.
  7. Dec 1, 2015 #6


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    As Vanadium has said, it is difficult to predict what will be in demand by the time you graduate with your PhD. That kind of a time frame in the future is pretty far and a lot of things can happen.

    However, if we go by with what we have seen the past 2 decades, there are areas which have greater "employability" than others IF one is aiming to stay loosely within physics/engineering. Certainly, accelerator physics has been mentioned, especially by me in another whole thread dedicated to it. Since you are also an EE major, this will be a very comfortable fit. Another area that will also be quite a good fit is detector physics.

    Experimental condensed matter physics has consistently been able to produce graduates that have a greater chance of getting employment both in academic and industrial sectors. This is especially true if you gain valuable skills in thin film deposition, x-ray characterization technique, especially if it is done at a synchrotron beamline, etc.. In other words, the nature of your experimental skills can easily dictate how much in demand you might be.

    The fields of biophysics and medical physics have also been blossoming, at least until recently. During the heydays of the doubling of NIH budget, many physicists migrated into these fields because funding was numerous.

    The best thing to do for you right now is simply to browse through all the job ads on the APS/AIP websites, and various other physics-related sites, and look at the nature of the jobs being advertised. You should only take this with a grain of salt because these are jobs that are opened now, not by the time you graduate. But it should at least tell you what is consistently in demand.

  8. Dec 1, 2015 #7
    I've been in insurance seven years now and never felt like I was anything but an advocate for our members.

    Furthermore, being staunchly pro-member has been completely uncontroversial with both my peers and my leaders, who typically strive to be the same.

    In short, the above quote doesn't reflect the reality of what I do in any way.
  9. Dec 1, 2015 #8
    In fairness, there are a lot of insurance companies out there ripping people off.
  10. Dec 1, 2015 #9
    I really didn't mean for the insurance comment to go too far. What I was really getting at when making that comment was I don't think it would be worth it for me, personally, to obtain a PhD in physics if it is very unlikely I will directly be able to do physics or at the least, research in a high tech applied field. Since I am already getting an electrical engineering degree, I would rather just go straight into being an engineer and study physics on the side, rather than do a physics PhD for the next 5 years, then not do physics professionally, and not to mention the opportunity cost involved is nothing to be overlooked.
  11. Dec 1, 2015 #10
    Well, our competitors, of course. That goes without saying.

    The others are doing the best they can.
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