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Employability in physics after PhD

  1. Jul 23, 2015 #1
    I'd like some of your honest opinions about the outlook of employability in physics after getting a physics Ph.D. Would you advise someone who is a double major in electrical engineering and physics to go after a Ph.D in physics; assuming they want to end up working in physics, academia, national labs etc..., or is it more than likely that this person will just end up back in industry working as an engineer, but now at a much older age and with opportunity loss?

    Thanks for your responses!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 23, 2015 #2


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    You employability after your PhD depends significantly on your area of expertise AND the skills that you have. A physics PhD with background in electronics, detectors, RF systems, thin-film fabrication and characterizations, etc...etc. has a wider range of employability than someone with a background in string theory.

    If you haven't seen my thread on Accelerator Physics, you may want to browse through it. You have just the background for it.


  4. Jul 23, 2015 #3


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    This is a difficult question to answer without a lot of specifics about you. But please don't give them. I will give you some advice on how to answer your question.

    The folks who become profs or researchers at big labs are usually extremely dedicated. They usually cannot imagine doing anything else, and will work on this stuff as much as they are metabolically capable of doing. And they are usually at or very near the top of their class in the subject, at least at the undergrad level. The "solid B student" usually does not become a prof, though it does happen.

    Competition for these spots is keen and not always directly and openly objective. For example, your ability to schmooze at parties may be very important. That is true in industry also, but with different emphasis.

    Whether you prefer academia or industry is also a difficult one. Even if you have your PhD you might prefer industry. Academia is about research. You would be working on problems that nobody is really sure if there even is an answer. You might be spending 20 years nibbling at a question only to find that the answer is that the entire approach is wrong and should be abandoned.

    In industry the usual task is more one of constructing the details of a solution that is known to exist. Or it is thought extremely likely that it exists. And all that is required is to put flesh on the bones. So we know we can build jet engines. Can we make them more efficient? That sort of thing.

    The academic culture is very different from the industrial culture. Industry tends to be divided into companies that share information internally a lot more than they do outside. The desire is to keep information proprietary to make money off it. Academic culture tends towards publishing everything they can in order to get their name on it.

    Funding in academia and industry is very different. Academia these days tends towards government grants. Industry tends towards investing profits from the previous products or services.

    There are a lot less people in academia than in industry. When I finished my PhD I sent out 178 applications for post doc positions. I got one reply that basically said, sure, we have no money, but if you want to come and work here great! Then I got a post doc through word-of-mouth. Then I went to industry after having sent out exactly one job application to a company that I got the name of off the university jobs board. An actual cork board with notices tacked to it. And I have been in that industry since 1990.
  5. Jul 23, 2015 #4
    You get a PhD to be more emplotable, not less. If you think you are going to end up in a job/career for which a PhD is surplus, don't do a PhD.

    There's industry jobs that ask for a physics PhD.
  6. Jul 23, 2015 #5


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    Have you considered a PhD in Electrical Engineering? If not, why not? I know it is a common trope on here to "want to do research and not product development". I often wonder how many of the people that say that actually have product development experience (let alone research experience). While the grinding pressure of high-volume products didn't turn out to be my cup of tea I must say that I have had much more personal satisfaction doing advanced development than I ever did doing research.

    While I enjoyed my time in research (I will define that as activity for which the final deliverable is a conference or journal publication... or even an internal report) I am much more excited about my time in low-volume advanced development. Basically, you have a significant problem to solve in order to advance the state-of-the-art in some area and you have to figure out how to get it done by hook or by crook. It's a blast. Also, I get immense satisfaction knowing that systems I helped develop are on the front line of cancer, pharmaceutical, and materials research. And I still publish a paper or so a year.

    My point is to have a look around before you get too focused on roles and what degree you should have for what. There are a lot of amazing opportunities out there and you can contribute in a variety of ways. There are some areas in electrical engineering where a PhD is a big plus and more importantly the jobs available for PhDs tend to be more interesting (in my opinion).
  7. Jul 23, 2015 #6
    Thanks for the response analoqdesign. I have a lot of math and physics courses completed but will just be getting into my junior level electrical engineering courses in the fall, namely signals, electronics 1 and intro to microcontrollers. You bring up a great point and I can honestly say I haven't really given an electrical engineering Ph.D much thought because my mindset has been so "Physics Ph.D or nothing!" I agree that it would be great to do some low volume advanced development on some fun high tech things and actually see your product being used. You mention that there are some areas of EE where a PhD is a big plus, could you elaborate a little on which areas you are speaking of? I'd really appreciate it, thanks!!!
  8. Jul 23, 2015 #7


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    Well I can tell you from experience that the PhD is well-regarded in the analog/mixed-signal IC design world. This is because increased levels of integration require design leads to have a much broader range of knowledge and experience (circuits, digital logic, signal processing, semiconductors, and electromagnetics) than in the past.

    Other areas with a lot of interesting work at the PhD level are in materials/devices (for example research in semiconductor lasers) and DSP/communications. There is a lot of really interesting stuff out there.

    If you enjoy your signals and electronics course you might be a good fit for a PhD in those kinds of areas. There is a lot of variety in EE and often at least one area really captivates a person.

    By the way, in my opinion it is easier to get into a national lab as an engineer than a physicist.
  9. Jul 23, 2015 #8
    Thanks for the information. I'm sure the classes will be interesting and maybe I'll do an EE REU over the summer to see if it is something that would fit me well for grad school!
  10. Jul 23, 2015 #9


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    Be sure to look into the SULI program for summer internships at the DOE National Labs. There aren't ever enough engineering students to go around.
  11. Jul 24, 2015 #10
    There are also PhD programs that are hybrids of physics and engineering, such UMich's Applied Physics program or UW's engineering physics:

    http://www-applied.physics.lsa.umich.edu/ [Broken]

    https://www.engr.wisc.edu/ep.html [Broken]

    UMich's program is very interesting since you're taking all the standard physics grad courses (Jackson E&M, Goldstein Mechanics and such) but you're specialty courses and research are in your choice of engineering. I have friends there who came from pure physics backgrounds but are now doing electrical engineering research in this program, probably worth looking into given your interests.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
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