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Career advice for a Swedish undergrad physics student

  1. Dec 19, 2014 #1
    I'm a Swedish undergrad physics student who needs help to decide on possible career paths. I've read a lot of the threads here in Career Guidance, and it has been very helpful but some questions remain. I have thought a lot about what I want and why, and also what I don't want, but since I don't really know what opportunities are available for physicists, I'm a bit stuck. Can you help me with ideas and suggestions? I'll try to keep this short and elaborate later, otherwise you'd get to read a VERY long first post.

    First of all: why physics? Two reasons: I'm extremely fascinated by the question "what is everything made of and how is it connected", and I'm very analytical and enjoy the kind of problem solving I've encountered in physics so far.

    What I do want: a job where I can make use of my physics knowledge and my analytical skills, where I get to really focus on a subject and learn new things as I go. It's important that I'm allowed to learn new things and develop my skills continously.

    What I don't want: a job related to military, nuclear fission, finance, oil industry etc. A job where the employer's goal is to produce "stuff" for profit only ("stuff" produced with the goal to benefit the planet would be acceptable).

    I'm very interested in fundamental physics, but I think there are many other fields that would interest me if I only knew about them, or understood what a physicist can do in them. So far I have very little lab experience, so it's hard to say if I would want to work as an experimentalist or if I'm better suited for theoretical work. Which brings me to this question, excactly what does a person in theoretical physics do all day?

    Staying in academia is an option of course, but if I were to aim for the world outside instead, what opportunities are available then? I really want to do something that is mostly physics, not something that is mostly something else with just a little physics sprinkled on top.

    Suggestions, ideas, questions?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 19, 2014 #2
    Tough one. Most people who don't want to be involved in producing anything stay in academia.

    Your other big choice is government. If you think little of companies that are productive, a regulatory position may serve you well.
  4. Dec 20, 2014 #3
    Thank you for your reply! Staying in academia is obviously my first choice. But I know it's not an easy path, so I'm trying to widen my perspective and be open to other opportunities as well. There might be things out there that I would love to do, if I only knew they existed.

    Government would be an option. I'll look in to that, thanks.

    It's not that I neccessarily think little of companies that are productive, it's more that I need to feel that the work I do is meaningful in some greater context. I guess if the job was very interesting I could work for a while in such a company, but I know myself and I probably wouldn't last long there. It just doesn't feel right for me. However, if the production was for something that would benefit the greater good, for example renewable energy, medical supplies etc, then I would feel better about it.

    But what does a physicist actually do in the industry? I mean hands-on, daily work. I'm not an engineer, and I'm not particularly interested in turning into one. Simulations? Data analysis? What else? Do they actually need a physicist for that, or would they rather have an engineer?
  5. Dec 20, 2014 #4
    I have similar views. I also don't like traditional big industry and have ethical problems with the way most companies run their business. Which is a way they have to run to stay competitive.

    I also feel teaching is not my think and that eventually only producing information is going to get stale. I do think it would be fun to work on a product, see the product develop thanks to your work, and be able to see directly how it changes the world.

    I myself am in the life science field. So I see a lot of opportunities to bring in new forms of technology that are more environmental friendly and sustainable. In fact, this is the theme of the university I am at and they are world top5 in this field.

    But even in fields like pharmaceuticals, where you are developing life saving drugs, you have this problem where the laws of economy dictate the ideal price as reflected by supply and demand is such that it is more profitable to only sell the drugs at extremely high prices where only a small percentage of the people that suffer from the disease can afford it. And they have to do it that way or else they'd go broke trying, sometimes for a decades, to develop the drug. Thus, it would never have been developed and no people would have saved.

    Then you get these crazy drugs that cost the insurance company 100,000 to 500,000 dollar a year. And drugs get even more expensive each year. One million a year drugs are about to be put on the market. Of course these drugs cost only a fraction of that to produce once they have been researched on for years and years.

    But leaving this tangent, finding a high tech job asking for a PhD degree researcher that also meets your (or mine) ethical demands is going to be hard. Might involve a lot of moving around. If your significant other is in the same situation, that can be extremely difficult.
  6. Dec 22, 2014 #5
    So, difficult, but maybe not impossible. Do you know what a physicist might do, in such a high-tech job? The hands on daily work so to speak?
  7. Dec 22, 2014 #6


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    Just to mention something on the Swedish system for continuing in academia: It is not very different from the rest of Europe. The big difference is that we tend to have a longer PhD (4 years in comparison to 3 in most of Europe). Once you have your PhD, you are essentially required to do one or more post docs abroad. It is worth knowing this from the very beginning and be prepared for it if you are considering continuing in academia.
  8. Dec 22, 2014 #7
    Thanks for the input! Yes, I am aware that after the PhD you are supposed to move somewhere else. Did you do a few post docs abroad after your PhD?
  9. Dec 22, 2014 #8


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    I did four and a half year of post doc abroad in different German cities, 3.5 years in Munich and 1 year in Heidelberg, before I returned to Stockholm. I was lucky to get funding for two post-docs in the same place in Munich. A more common thing is to move in two-year-cycles (three if you are lucky). My position in Heidelberg was a priori a 3-year position, but I left it as I got a tenure track offer.

    Other PhD students of my supervisor are currently doing postdocs, or went to industry (one into finance and another to Comsol). This is only a small sample of PhD students though, most of which also had an engineering physics.
  10. Dec 22, 2014 #9
    I'm aware that Sweden is a very anti-nuclear country. This hysteria is largely based on fear and is completely unfounded in reality. As a physicist you should be aware of this. I'd urge you to reconsider nuclear as a possible career path. Not a single person was killed at Fukushima. The U.N. Scientific Committee found that there is no danger of possible radiation effects killing people in the future. Nuclear energy is really the only reliable way that we are going to be able to power a world of the future with 10+ billion people, and it produces practically no carbon emissions.

    However thousands die every year due to effects of the coal industry and directly in coal and oil accidents. The BP Gulf oil spill alone killed almost as many people as have ever been killed in nuclear reactor meltdowns.
  11. Dec 22, 2014 #10


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    I would not say that this is true a priori. We get almost half of our power from nuclear power with most of the other half provided by hydro power. From a world perspective, this is a very high percentage of nuclear power. Sure, some parties have closing the nuclear power stations on the agenda, but others do not. I believe people who are anti-nuclear exist everywhere and Sweden is no exception to this, I just do not think it is justified to call us a very anti-nuclear country.

    This might or might not be true. I used to be very pro-nuclear but lately I have started to re-evaluate this. Germany is seriously looking into more efficient ways of storing energy, which would be an avenue for using renewable energy to a larger extent. There is also the question whether or not nuclear power can be built fast enough for meeting the world energy needs. The question is whether or not we have any way of sustainably producing enough power for a world with 10 billion people. In particular as the world grows increasingly industrialised.
  12. Dec 22, 2014 #11
    Thanks Orodruin for the info.

    Hercuflea, I appreciate that you wanted to give me another perspective, after all, that is what I'm looking for in this thread. Although I disagree with some of the things you said, I don't want to turn this into a discussion on nuclear power. Let's just say that nuclear power is not for me. Neither is the oil industry. Any other suggestions would be more than welcome, thanks.
  13. Dec 30, 2014 #12
    Hi Anna,

    I found this leaflet useful: http://www.naturvetarna.se/Global/Jobb_karriar/Arbetsmarknad/Arbetsmarknadsbroschyrer/Arbetsmarknadsfolder_fysiker_sjukhusf-meteorolog_2014.pdf [Broken]

    There are definitely physics jobs out there, for example in materials science and condensed matter physics, where you could develop new kinds of solar panels. Medical physicists and radiation specialists are sought after in health care. If you want to work in national laboratories there's Max IV and ESS currently being built in Lund, abroad you could find work in places like CERN, ESA, and DESY.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
  14. Dec 30, 2014 #13


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    Just one thing to be aware of here: The medical physicist programmes are separate from the pure physics programmes (generally studying together for the first two years or so) and the medical physicist degree (sjukhusfysiker) is necessary for working in hospitals although it seems thaf medical physicists are also very employable outside of the healthcare system.
  15. Dec 30, 2014 #14
    Thank you, that was very helpful! I'm going to contact Naturvetarna to see if they can help me with more career ideas.

    I keep hearing about condensed matter physics, and I think there might be things in this field that interests me. It's hard to know though if you're interested in a specific field of physics when you haven't encountered it yet. Next year we will take a course on solid-state physics, so I'll get to know more then.

    MAX IV and ESS are on my list to look into. It's very convenient that they're building ESS here. :) CERN would be awesome of course, and if I don't make it to Geneva there are groups in both Lund and Stockholm that collaborate with CERN. Maybe at other universities as well.

    I'm also interested in radiation, but I'm not taking the medical physics route since that's a different degree. And I suppose any radiation specialist jobs outside of hospitals will go to the medical physicists as well (they are, after all, the specialists).
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