Employability with a degree in theoretical physics vs physics

  • #1
Hi! I'm currently in my second year of a five year integrated masters degree in physics. When applying, I chose to study just plain physics as I didn't really know what I wanted to do and I didn't want to limit my options. However, for the past year and a half, and honestly before that too, I've found myself hating and dreading the experimental physics that's required. Because of this, I'm considering switch to an integrated masters degree in theoretical physics, which I can do freely until the beginning of my third year. I really like the look of the course work, it's also accredited by the IOP and it would mean that this would be my last year with any lab work, however I'm worried it would limit my career choices at the end of it. I'm not 100% sure I want to go into research/do a PhD, and I'm not sure how attractive I would be to employers in other fields with a degree in theoretical physics vs physics. Does anyone have any first/second hand experience with this? I don't want to drop lab work now only to find my CV being far more overlooked because I lack skills that make other physicists attractive employees. If it helps, I'm particularly interested in teaching/lecture at high school level and above.
Thank you in advanced!
 

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  • #2
StatGuy2000
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To @LilyWillows ,

To determine employability of your degree program, it would help to know more about (a) what country you are located in, and (b) what the integrated masters program in physics involves, and what coursework you have taken thus far.

I'm based in Canada (in Toronto, to be more specific) and my alma mater does not have an integrated masters degree program.
 
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  • #3
Hi! I’m based in the UK. My integrated masters degree is just like if I did a bachelors degree and then a masters degree. So far I’ve done introductory mathematics and introductory classical and modern physics. I would imagine the first two years of a physics degree are much the same anywhere?
 
  • #4
StatGuy2000
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Hi! I’m based in the UK. My integrated masters degree is just like if I did a bachelors degree and then a masters degree. So far I’ve done introductory mathematics and introductory classical and modern physics. I would imagine the first two years of a physics degree are much the same anywhere?
Ah I see. The UK educational system at the university level from my understanding is quite different from the Canadian and American counterparts. From what I understand, in the UK, after completing your A-levels and O-levels, you complete a 3-year bachelor's degree. So the integrated masters degree would be a 4-year degree program, with the extra year to complete the masters degree.

It is also my other understanding is that in the UK, students have basically no option to take any elective courses outside of their main program, so a physics student can only take physics and mathematics courses. Unlike in Canada and the US, where students have considerable flexibility in their 4 year undergraduate degree to take elective courses beyond their stated major. For example, a physics student in Canada or the US can take courses in computer science to gain programming experience and thus gain marketable skills, which is something you are not able to do in the UK.

Am I correct about both of these?
 
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  • #5
jrmichler
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I'm particularly interested in teaching/lecture at high school level and above.
My advice applies to the US, you will have to filter accordingly. I don't know about the UK, but in the US, teaching at high school level is completely different from teaching in tech school is different from teaching in a university. To prepare for a high school teaching job, talk to the nearest high school principal (what we call the head person in charge). Ask them what they are looking for in physics teachers. I suspect that you will be surprised at how willing they are to help you. BTW, I was talking to a high school physics teacher an hour before reading this thread. He's been doing it for 19 years, and likes the job.

Same for teaching at a tech school (what we call a two year school where the students are working toward jobs as electricians, pipefitters, mechanics, millwrights, etc). When I was young, my father had a part time job teaching industrial electricity in a tech school. He really liked the job because the students all had day jobs, were attending school in the evening, paying out of their own pocket, so were a hard working dedicated bunch.

Teaching at university level has been addressed on other threads.
 
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  • #6
Ah I see. The UK educational system at the university level from my understanding is quite different from the Canadian and American counterparts. From what I understand, in the UK, after completing your A-levels and O-levels, you complete a 3-year bachelor's degree. So the integrated masters degree would be a 4-year degree program, with the extra year to complete the masters degree.

It is also my other understanding is that in the UK, students have basically no option to take any elective courses outside of their main program, so a physics student can only take physics and mathematics courses. Unlike in Canada and the US, where students have considerable flexibility in their 4 year undergraduate degree to take elective courses beyond their stated major. For example, a physics student in Canada or the US can take courses in computer science to gain programming experience and thus gain marketable skills, which is something you are not able to do in the UK.

Am I correct about both of these?
Ah, I didn't realise! You're mostly correct, yes. Two thirds of our first two years are mandatory classes on physics and maths, while the other third we can fill with optional courses. This means I have taken some classes in maths and other course areas outside what is strictly required for the degree. Additionally we are taught programming as part of our degree. It also should be noted that I'm studying in Scotland where degrees are slightly longer. For example, my integrated master's degree is a five year degree.
 
  • #7
StatGuy2000
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Ah, I didn't realise! You're mostly correct, yes. Two thirds of our first two years are mandatory classes on physics and maths, while the other third we can fill with optional courses. This means I have taken some classes in maths and other course areas outside what is strictly required for the degree. Additionally we are taught programming as part of our degree. It also should be noted that I'm studying in Scotland where degrees are slightly longer. For example, my integrated master's degree is a five year degree.
Ah I see. I wasn't aware that university degree programs in Scotland were different from those in other parts of the UK. I also wasn't aware that you still have about a third of your course load in your first 2 years can be filled with optional courses.

Since that is the case, and since programming is taught as part of your degree program, that would change somewhat my advice for you in terms of your degree program. If your interest is in pursuing theoretical physics (with the ultimate goal of pursuing teaching at the secondary school level, or possibly above), then from what I can tell I don't think this would have a major impact for you in terms of employability. There will always be a need for teachers (although the demand may vary depending on the particular location in the UK, as elsewhere). One advice I might suggest if you want to go down the teaching path would be to supplement your math and physics courses with courses in areas like psychology to gain an insight to how people learn. Courses in public speaking or communication (or participation in debating clubs) may be useful to generally be comfortable in front of crowds and communicating, assuming these are available to you.

If however you want to expand your skill sets beyond teaching, especially in theoretical physics, I would see if there is some way to take courses that supplement programming that is being taught in your physics program, both for employability in industry as well as to enhance your ability to do research in theoretical physics and/or mathematics. Statistics courses may also be of use (not sure if these count as mathematics courses in Scottish universities).

Hope my advice is useful!
 
  • #8
PeroK
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Ah, I didn't realise! You're mostly correct, yes. Two thirds of our first two years are mandatory classes on physics and maths, while the other third we can fill with optional courses. This means I have taken some classes in maths and other course areas outside what is strictly required for the degree. Additionally we are taught programming as part of our degree. It also should be noted that I'm studying in Scotland where degrees are slightly longer. For example, my integrated master's degree is a five year degree.
A couple of observations. If you want to go into teaching, then I'm not sure you need a master's degree. In fact, when I studied (maths in Scotland in the 1980's) many teachers did what was called an "ordinary" degree, that was one year shorter than an "honours" degree. So, doing a master's degree doesn't seem to quite tie in with going into teaching.

Also, I sympathise with your travails on the lab work, but it seems to me that lab work might be very important in teaching - in schools and especially at a technical college. I'm not speaking through personal experience here, but I'd definitely check this out.

That said, if you do something you really enjoy, then there's a good chance of getting a better degree. Leaving aside the teaching issue, you have to balance coming out of university with a solid master's degree that you've enjoyed, against getting perhaps a lesser degree with more practical or relevant content but where the years have been a bit more of a slog.

I'm not fond of giving advice, as we are all very different. Let's say that in my experience you have people who can focus on a goal and, within reason, it doesn't matter what path they have to take, as long as they achieve their goal that is the main thing. Then, you have people who would rather take the most attractive path, wherever it leads. Perhaps you have to decide what type of person you are in this respect.
 
  • #9
George Jones
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I do not know about the present situation in Scotland, but I do know that eight years ago (early 2011) there was a real need for high school physics teachers in England. At that time, my wife was finishing an Education degree in Canada (she already had a B.Sc. and an M.Sc in Physics), and she was heavily recruited for teaching physics in England. Whether the prospective teacher had not taken any labs beyond second-year would have made no difference.

I was coming to the end of a university term-position in Canada, and I qualify for a British passport (my dad was from Wales), so we strongly considered moving to the UK. In the end, things worked out well here in Canada.
 
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  • #10
A couple of observations. If you want to go into teaching, then I'm not sure you need a master's degree. In fact, when I studied (maths in Scotland in the 1980's) many teachers did what was called an "ordinary" degree, that was one year shorter than an "honours" degree. So, doing a master's degree doesn't seem to quite tie in with going into teaching.

Also, I sympathise with your travails on the lab work, but it seems to me that lab work might be very important in teaching - in schools and especially at a technical college. I'm not speaking through personal experience here, but I'd definitely check this out.

That said, if you do something you really enjoy, then there's a good chance of getting a better degree. Leaving aside the teaching issue, you have to balance coming out of university with a solid master's degree that you've enjoyed, against getting perhaps a lesser degree with more practical or relevant content but where the years have been a bit more of a slog.

I'm not fond of giving advice, as we are all very different. Let's say that in my experience you have people who can focus on a goal and, within reason, it doesn't matter what path they have to take, as long as they achieve their goal that is the main thing. Then, you have people who would rather take the most attractive path, wherever it leads. Perhaps you have to decide what type of person you are in this respect.
My master's degree definitely isn't needed, but it's an integrated master's degree and only one year longer, so to me it made sense to get a masters's over a bachelor's degree. That way I will have more possibilities going forward.
Thank you so much for your advice! It's definitely an important thing to consider.
 
  • #11
I do not know about the present situation in Scotland, but I do know that eight years ago (early 2011) there was a real need for high school physics teachers in England. At that time, my wife was finishing an Education degree in Canada (she already had a B.Sc. and an M.Sc in Physics), and she was heavily recruited for teaching physics in England. Whether the prospective teacher had not taken any labs beyond second-year would have made no difference.

I was coming to the end of a university term-position in Canada, and I qualify for a British passport (my dad was from Wales), so we strongly considered moving to the UK. In the end, things worked out well here in Canada.
That's really good to know, thank you!
 

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