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Dateline: Generic physics BS holder panics about career

  1. Jun 8, 2013 #1
    Dateline: Generic physics BS holder panics about "career"

    I am in big trouble.

    My undergrad physics experience was decent, but I was never convinced to keep going for a Ph.D. Instead, I decided the best thing for me was to become an entrepreneur. I'd be able to answer only to myself, and I'd wholly own my success... and failure. How exciting.

    That's how I ended up in one of those wacky science/business hybrid programs. After dropping out following a single semester, then realizing I work poorly in total isolation, I find myself in a dire situation.

    Here's the story: all I have is a bachelor's in physics. The only things going for me are that I got a 3.94 GPA (from Anystate University), I can move anywhere, and I could probably get two good (not great) recommendation letters. There are huge hurdles against me though.

    1. The economy.
    2. My physics education has been leaking out of my mind since my fall 2011 graduation.
    3. I never got very good at programming (though my skills in C++ and python are above zero--barely).
    4. I only did a little bit of research in undergrad. I did not enjoy myself there, and never ended up with a thesis.
    5. I did only slightly more than the bare minimum to graduate in terms of physics and math classes.
    6. I have done nothing other than part-time work (and that semester I mentioned) since getting out of school, and therefore could be classified as having "no job experience" (RED ALERT).

    What am I supposed to do? Do I start sending resumes out rapid-fire? Solicit a bunch of tech companies in person while selling my *ahem* problem solving skills? Bolster my programming skills for several months while living with mommy, then pray for a software job? Try to compete against people that were educated and credentialed as engineers for jobs that belong to them (gasp, he's stealing my job!)? Suck it up and take remedial classes and go back to school in physics... or get a second bachelor's?

    How do I prevent the sky from falling?

    I hesitate to make this post because I have never contributed to this community before. For that reason, I really appreciate any advice or input you can offer. Thank you.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 8, 2013 #2
    Have you talked to the career counselors at your school? Any decent university should have a few people on staff who's job is to help people like you to find jobs. They often have connections, and they can help you to organize your resume and skills to figure out what sort of jobs you want to target. And they should be willing to help someone who's an alumnus.

    For the most part, your hurdles aren't too bad.
    #1 you can't do anything about, except to suck it up and try to weather through the bad economy for the next few(?) years.
    #2 isn't that critical, since most industry jobs don't care about physics training, and few that do usually want someone with a PhD anyway.
    #3 means you don't have a good shot at getting a software job, but there are other types of jobs out there.
    #4 is not critical - if someone wants a physicist for a research job they want someone with a PhD.
    #5 - what other things did you do? did you have a minor? How did you meet the credit requirements to graduate?
    #6 - Part-time work is still job experience. And, at least you have something to put on your resume to show employers that you haven't been in jail or something.

    It won't be easy. One of the difficult things you will have to deal with is making a choice. You mentioned a few possibilities - going back to school, trying for an engineering job, work on your programming skills. There are many other options as well. The problem with this choice is you will have to spend a fair amount of time investing in one or maybe two approaches before you could expect to see any results, and there's no guarantee that any of these approaches will pay off. But most of these approaches can pay off if you put enough into them, so try to narrow down the list of options to things that might actually interest you that also have a decent chance of succeeding (ie. getting a research position in physics is not one of those unless you have a PhD).

    Soliciting tech companies trying to sell problem solving skills probably isn't going to be too successful. Tech companies are likely to have a good idea of what specific technical skills they want, and many people with such skills are also good at problem solving. So to be competitive, I would think you will need to have an appropriate background in something like programming, which it doesn't sound like you do.

    You can make yourself more competitive for entry level engineering jobs by studying for and passing the EIT exam. It will still be an uphill battle against people with engineering degrees and the EIT certification, but spending the time and money to study for and pass the exam shows commitment to the career path and that will help.

    I don't recommend going back to school in physics. You didn't enjoy research so you will not enjoy getting a PhD and there are much better ways to get a job.

    A second bachelor's is a decent option, if you're okay with taking on even more student loan debt and spending a few more years in school. Engineering, applied statistics or math might be interesting subjects for you.

    There are lots of other job options out there. The "real world" isn't much like academia. I know a guy who works as an accountant but doesn't have a degree in accounting. That severely limits his mobility in that field, but he at least is employed making decent money. If you can get an idea of which direction you want to go, then go back to your school and talk to the career counselors. It's their job to help you. Even if you don't get a good idea sitting down for an hour with a career counselor can help to organize your thoughts.
  4. Jun 8, 2013 #3


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    I think 2 years out is not too big a problem. I would say you are almost in the same situation as any other physics graduate. which is a good thing. it is better respected than most degrees. so I guess the question is what do you want to do. you said that you don't work well in total isolation. I don't think there are many careers like that, so I guess that's a good thing. even in academia, you must always be interacting with others in the field.
  5. Jun 8, 2013 #4
    Teach for America would probably take you. I think that would be the quickest way to get a career with benefits. Otherwise, just suck it up and do any generic entry level job. For a STEM career you would probably need to go back to school and get a more useful and marketable degree.
  6. Jun 8, 2013 #5


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    eh? why is physics not a useful and marketable degree? unless you get a degree which is specific to the job/research, surely physics is one of the best degrees for a general STEM career?
  7. Jun 8, 2013 #6
    In my experience on this forum, there are generally two minds about your statement above:

    Physics undergrads generally agree with you.

    Physics grads generally don't.
  8. Jun 8, 2013 #7
    I dont think so. Physics is not that useful or marketable because the only thing that a physics undergrad trains you for is doing physics graduate school. Otherwise, you go teach or re-tool with more training or a different degree.

    I dont think there is such a thing as a "general" STEM career. A STEM career needs specific skills and abilities. You dont get those in an academic degree program like physics, not unless you go outside or beyond the undergrad curriculum and get those skills on your own.

    I agree with what you say about a degree which is specific to the job/research you are going to do. If you want to do engineering, an engineering degree is the way to go. If you want to program or do software related things, a computer science degree is the way to go. If you want to be a physicist, then get an undergrad physics degree. But of course that is only the first step.

    edit - heh, in response to the post above mine, I am a physics grad. I have been for years. I never so much as got an interview at any of the many STEM careers I applied for.
  9. Jun 8, 2013 #8

    I don't really understand, given your post, what it is you want to do. If your goal is to get any job, then you might consider some of the following:

    Underwriting, either at a bank or insurance company.
    You might be able to get into low level business intelligence jobs.
    Look for government jobs as well - usajobs.gov, for instance.

    There are opportunities in the military. Maybe check the coast guard - it has many of the benefits that come from being in the military, but without that pesky war business.

    There are a number of physics PhD's in this forum who are now in a statistics/analytics role. If you have some experience in stats, consider looking into that.

    I became an actuary. It's a very specific kind of work, and may or may not suit you, but you could check into it.
  10. Jun 8, 2013 #9
    If you want to go to graduate school, then yes I would agree with that statement.

    By itself on the job market, however, employers aren't going to pay you to calculate the electrical field around an infinitely long cylinder uniformly distributed with charge Q, real world problems aren't like that.

    ModusPwned is misrepresenting the employability of a physics degree though, government and military contrary contractors do like physics degree holders because they are known for being able to run simulations better than engineers (what I have heard from representatives at Lockheed Martin). If you don't mind that kind of work, that avenue is open to a physics degree holder but you need to put yourself out there and go to where the jobs are.
  11. Jun 8, 2013 #10


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    Check out this map -


    I advise looking at the larger companies where you are or where you're willing to move. Check out their job pages, send in some resumes and get things moving. Don't despair, who ends up doing Plan A anyway?
  12. Jun 9, 2013 #11
    Thanks for the responses everyone. My despair has lifted a bit.

    Davey, speaking with my alma mater's career center sounds like a good idea. I presumed that they would have little idea what to do with me, but it can't hurt. The advice that I could really use from a place like that is finding out what prospective employers want to hear. Anyway, narrowing my options to just a few seems like a very good piece of advice. Thank you.

    Speaking of prospective employers, Locrian is wondering what my goal is. Do I just want to get a job? Essentially yes. I realize that I must not be picky. "Ideally," I'd like a job with a technical flavor, as opposed to something in sales or marketing. I don't particularly want to teach either, but maybe I should get over it.

    Locrian, if you've got some more time to spare I'd be interested to know about your path to becoming an actuary. Maybe you've written about it before and can link me to a previous post? Also, when you mention USAjobs, do you recommend the types of jobs that engineering students primarily get, or the more generic ones? For example, there are many listings on that site that have the following requirement (my degree is of course not in professional engineering, but I meet all the requirements of point 2):

    ModusPwnd, I imagine that you'd say I have not got a chance here. You mentioned that you applied at plenty of STEM positions without getting so much as an interview. Stories like yours make me cringe at my situation. However, Clope notes that some representatives of Lockheed Martin might look at me. Clope, can you recommend anybody for me to speak with? How would I find out where to go and maximize my chances at a position? I have wheels, and time!

    Lisab, thank you for the encouragement. Though there have been plenty of physics bachelors on PF and elsewhere on the internet saying that they can't get anybody to look at them, seeing that in fact some of us have been hired is a good sign. I suppose that I'll have my old school's career center look at my resume, then start firing it off after polishing my interview skills.

    Bruce, I feel that I am well-respected by my uninformed peers when they see me as a "physics guy," but I also anticipate a lack of respect from hiring managers when faced with the question of what to do with me. But who knows--maybe I'll get a satisfying job anyway!
  13. Jun 9, 2013 #12
    Not long before getting my MS I took an actuarial exam and began looking for work. I was lucky enough to find a job with only one exam passed at a time when entry level employment was even harder to find than it is now.

    If you were interested in going the actuarial route, you would take the first one to three actuarial exams and begin looking for work after passing the first one. It is not impossible to get a job with only one exam passed, but each exam makes it easier, and the average seems to be three these days. To get credit for those exams, purchase the ASM study manuals from the actuarial bookstore and then sign up for the exams, and hopefully pass them. Between the exam fee and the study manual, expect to pay $350ish for each attempt. If that sounds like a lot, compare it to taking the first couple of CFA exams.

    Experienced, credentialed actuaries are in short supply and great demand. Entry level actuaries are in great supply and low demand. Whether this presents a problem for you depends on how you compare to others entering the market.

    I think you may be qualified for many jobs, though I don't know anything about their quality or your odds of getting them. The most important thing you should know about federal jobs is that being hired is an entirely different game than being hired in the private sector. There are extensive articles and even books written on the subject of obtaining federal jobs.

    Goodluck with whatever route you choose and keep us at physicsforums updated on how it goes.
  14. Jun 9, 2013 #13
    The problem with a generic physics B.S. is that it doesn't prepare you for the S, T, or E parts of a "STEM career."

    Technology and Engineering jobs are going to be looking for people with specialized credentials, and there are virtually no science jobs available for those with only a B.S. You might make it as a lab tech somewhere, but most places are going to want a PhD.

    What this means is that your primary asset on the job market is actually your math skills - so look for careers where you can utilize those. This means considering places (like finance, or insurance) that you wouldn't normally think of as STEM jobs.

    Basically, don't try to compete with the engineers, because you'll lose out every time. Try to compete with the mathematicians instead, because your math skills should be every bit as good as theirs, and (believe it or not) you'll actually have more experience with practical applications.
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