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Physics Computational Condensed Matter Physics

  1. Nov 2, 2012 #1
    Hi, I'm in my senior year, planning on going to grad school and get a PhD. At this point, I'm pretty much set on computational and/or theoretical condensed matter physics (with an emphasis on computation).

    However, two people have given me the impression that experimental condensed matter is where all the jobs are, and that I should consider experimental over computational.

    I'm wondering if anyone on these forums has an opinion about this? Maybe people who've already gone down this path or know others who have.

    My goal is to get a PhD, and given the opportunity I would like to have a career in physics, but I understand this may not happen. I want to choose a field where, even if physics doesn't work out, I'm still valuable to people other than physicists. I thought condensed matter was a good field for this (as opposed to say, astrophysics or theoretical particle physics), but maybe I'm wrong.

    Any opinions? Thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 2, 2012 #2
    There are LOTS of opportunities for computational work. Don't worry about that.
  4. Nov 2, 2012 #3
    What have you heard about exp. CM physics jobs, if you don't mind me asking?
  5. Nov 3, 2012 #4
    Just that there is a lot of demand for experimental positions, and very little for computational/theoretical.
  6. Nov 3, 2012 #5
    Demand is relative- demand for any kind of physics work is low, but people with computational experience can find their skills rewarded in finance, insurance, IT, numerical programming, etc.

    Most of the physics phds I know left academia after one postdoc (I did particle theory and didn't bother to do even one postdoc), and this includes the condensed matter experimentalists. Some (maybe about 1/3) of the experimentalists who left were able to find work in the semi-conductor industry or some engineering type position, and pretty much everyone else left science all together. Everyone else is out of science all together. In my experience, the computational guys have an easier time transitioning to outside of science work than the experimentalists (more coding experience).

    I should mention that most of my cohort finished their phds around 2008/2009, and wrapped up their first postdoc relatively recently, so our job hunting experience might be uniquely bad. However, talking to older people, it seems like most people with physics phds will be leaving science shortly after their phd, so it might be best to think in terms of what sort of outside of science job your phd can prepare you for.
  7. Nov 10, 2012 #6


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    Just out of curiosity, among the physics PhDs that you know who left science altogether, not counting yourself, do you know where each of them ultimately ended up working (btw, I would argue that numerical programming is a science-related field)? Specifically, what percentage ended up in say, (1) finance & insurance, (2) IT, (3) numerical programming, (4) management consulting, (5) other types of high-end jobs (you can list what types of fields), or (6) unemployed or underemployed (part-time temp work, sales, bartending, etc.)
  8. Nov 10, 2012 #7
  9. Nov 22, 2012 #8


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    DrummingAtom, this link was quite interesting, at least in terms of illustrating the employment trends of physics graduates.

    That being said, I was hoping to hear directly back from ParticleGrl about the physics PhDs that she knows personally and where each of them ended up working (since she had alluded to the fact that most of her fellow PhDs have left science altogether, she could provide insights to where each of them actually ended up working).
  10. Dec 19, 2012 #9
    Re: Computation vs Coding?

    I suspect that the parenthetical term refers to the computational physics rather than the experimental physics. It may mean that the computational physicists (by the nature of their field) do more coding than experimenters and coding is more marketable (in the sense that there are more job opportunities).

    In the good old days (whenever they were) you could do computation with analog devices (eg, electronic integrators, things with cogs, bits of wood or plastic that either counted or slid (usually logarithmic) scales around, by making patterns on compressed wood fibres or even connecting some synapses together).

    A coder won't necessarily have the faintest idea what they're coding (monkey see design, monkey code design), whereas a computational physicist ought to be trying to compute something that they have some vague notion about.
  11. Dec 19, 2012 #10
    I think it might pay to see how you can sell yourself and the skills you have gained over the course (first degree to PhD) (even though you may not think of them as such).

    I left university with an astrophysics BSc in a "poor" job market, but managed to get my pick of jobs where my much better qualified CS and Engineering friends had great difficulty (ah, the irony of the BanTheBombers taking jobs in the defence industry because there were no 'ethical' jobs around). I, somehow, managed to convince my potential employers that I had the best engineering degree there was going - we did maths (try doing astrophysics without it!), computing (try analysing your results without learning to program!), mechanics, optics, circuit electronics, semiconductor physics, quantum mechanics, etc plus experimental and machine shop skills, a fair percentage of which wasn't actually taught. The 'radio' bit of radio astronomy was useful as was the ability to understand the various types of detectors (x-ray, IR, etc). Employers then, and I strongly suspect now, value flexibility and lateral thinking just as much as they did 30 years ago. Oh, yes ... the ability to fill in a form correctly is probably helpful, and don't mumble into your sandals during the interview.
  12. Dec 19, 2012 #11
    Sorry, I didn't spot this until today. As I said, a handful of people are working for the semi-conductor industry. .

    For people who left science the big employers are finance with five people I know of, insurance with four people, consulting with four people. Two more describe themselves on LinkedIn as 'big data specialists'. After that its more eclectic I know individual phds who work as- programmers, nurses (went back and got an associates in nursing), carpenters, technical writers, web developers, tour guides, actuaries, patent clerks, and one who enrolled in seminary right after the phd is now a priest. Many people did brief stints in various service industries while getting their bearings, but no one stayed there.

    For people who stayed in science, you can add various medical related fields as the big employers.

    I also know a few people who are currently back in school after their phd. One is getting a math phd as a sort of back-door postdoc, one person is three years into an econ phd program, and two more are getting masters degrees in engineering.

    Edit: I just saw that one colleague did stay in the service industry- he bought a restaurant in a university town, which he owns and runs.
    Last edited: Dec 19, 2012
  13. Dec 19, 2012 #12
    I graduated in the mid-nineties in experimental condensed matter physics in Austria - superconductors and laser-matter interaction.

    A part of my colleagues specialized in similar fields or in semiconductor physics and worked mainly in engineering positions, and now many of them hold a (project) management position in engineering, manufacturing or research.

    Another part (me included) turned to IT - I am aware of one programmer, the others were finally in consulting or IT management. Some of us became entrepreneurs (me included), one even founded a successful software startup in the USA.

    Some others were in internal services departments in engineering or manufacturing companies, such us: Head of procurement or quality management.
    Last edited: Dec 19, 2012
  14. Dec 19, 2012 #13
    ... and for the graduates in comp. condensed matter physics my evidence is extremely anecdotal. Some of them became high school teachers, but I found some other in positions very similar to the experimentalists actually (Job title "Engineer").

    My impression was they had a bit harder time to find a job first, but finally it worked out fine.

    But take this with a grain of salt as my primary cohort were mainly experimentalists.
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