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Career choices after a physics PhD?

  1. Aug 5, 2014 #1
    Dear all,

    I am currently a physics PhD student and will finish my PhD at a quite respectable university (top 25 in world rankings) soon. Therefore I have to think about my plans for after my PhD.
    And here comes the difficulty. I don’t really know what I should do (actually I really don't know what I should do).

    When I was in school I decided to study physics because I was interested in science and was told that with a physics degree one has also good changes to find a job in another field (now I am not so sure anymore if this is true). I decided to do a PhD in condensed matter physics after completing my undergrad studies, since I was sincerely interested in my field and I looked forward to the challenge of a longer research project.

    So this is nearly done now. And I have to decide what to do now.
    I am not even sure if I should stay in science. I love the constant puzzles, be they small and unimportant, I can solve with my research. But on the other hand my work seems often quite unimportant to me (because it is fundamental science). And I am not sure if I want to do this all my life.
    But I am also not sure which other ways are open for me and, most importantly, if I would like them more. Actually at the moment I am spending too much time surfing on the internet reading about possible careers for physicists :frown: But most jobs I see require a BSc or MSc and I don’t want my PhD go to total waste. Also I don’t want to do programming as a main occupation and this seems to rule out quite a lot.

    What are your experiences? Did some of you change their field after their PhD or leave science at all? And what are you doing now and what are your experiences? How did you find out what was right for you?

    Thanks for you help already in advance :smile:
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 5, 2014 #2
    I stopped at a Masters, so dont have relevant experience. I hope those who do offer their thoughts.

    In the meantime , search for posts by ParticleGrl and Twofish-quant for some relevant examples.
  4. Aug 5, 2014 #3
    I think it depends on what one means by this. If one means: people that have the ability to get a physics degree likely have the ability to do well in jobs outside of physics. Then I think it’s true. If one means: the specific things one learns while studying physics are useful for jobs in other fields. Then I think it’s false, I’m not saying no other fields at all, just not many.

    I left physics after a PhD to write software (which I had no background in), so I don’t have much specific experience that would be useful for you. In general, if you pursue jobs outside of physics, it might be that just getting your foot in the door is the most difficult part, or at least it’s the part that you have the least control over. So don’t get discouraged if it takes awhile.
  5. Aug 6, 2014 #4
    Hi Elise,

    I have also done a PhD in applied condensed matter physics - superconductors and laser physics. After a stint in a large research lab, doing contract research for steel industry, I transitioned to IT: I was not so much a programmer but did IT support, training, consulting, finally also IT management, but then went back to more technical work and specialized in a niche in IT security.

    This was 15 years ago, and I think it was easier back then as employers and clients today are more interested in formal credentials in computer science / engineering. I had none - my PhD wasn't even extremely computational or IT-heavy. I would not have needed a PhD in physics, or actually any degree at all to do those jobs if I make the typical - clichéd but existing - self-educated hacker my role model.

    Though I was a technical consultant and more of a firefighter (a job role often called "field engineer") the career track I am a bit familiar with is that of a management consultant - not an uncommon option for physics graduates. Typically, you would be employed by a large consultancy and work onsite with their clients - large enterprise customers. So the downside is that you are traveling a lot, and this is the sort of job you only want to do for some years.

    You would work with clients on their "business processes". This is either really as vague as it sounds; consultants have their infamous reputation for just presenting slick PowerPoint slides for a reason. On the other hand there are consulting roles somewhere in between high-level stuff / management and working on technology ("software architect" and the like). Above all you could specialize in a specific industry sector.

    A typical career as a consultant starts with embarking on a trainee program run by large consultancies (google e.g. for Accenture's and McKinsey's programs).

    On a personal note - as you mention you don't want a job that requires "only" a bachelor or master's degree: I found that difficult to overcome, too, in particular as so much people said that to me. Today I don't care at all about that and I can relate to much more that the community of self-educated hackers who aren't interested in degrees but only in the skills you can demonstrate in front of them.
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