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Physics Essential skills for applying for Space Agency jobs as a physicist

  1. Feb 9, 2019 #1
    Hi Physics Forums community.

    Let me briefly explain my current state of affairs. Next season, if every goes as planned, I will begin my Master's in Physics. I have, what I call, a positive problem; I like lots of branches of Physics (I study Physics because of pure passion and not because I have any special talent) and do not really know where I will end up.

    One of the most preferable options for me is the study of the Universe and I am wondering what kind of skills I will need to acquire so as to apply for a job in, let's say, space agencies.

    I have the feeling that I will need to learn how to programme at a quite high level. My current and future study programmes do not include courses on programming, so should I focus on how to programme in languages such as Python or C++ at a high level?

    What other skills should I get?

    Any advise is appreciated.

    Thank you.
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 9, 2019
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 9, 2019 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    Programming knowledge is always useful. The language doesn't matter that much as long as it is not too exotic. Sure, someone who worked with C++ for years can start faster in a C++ project, but (a) many programming languages are used, often in parallel and (b) switching between languages is much easier than learning proper programming.

    Somewhat similarly: Physicists have a large range of jobs they can get. Not because all of them need their expertise in some field of physics, but because physicists learn how to solve problems in a systematic way. I know former particle physicists* who do business consulting, software development, IT support, engineering, ... No particle physics there, but problems that can be solved with similar tools and approaches.

    *not limited to them, but as particle physicist I just know more of them
  4. Feb 9, 2019 #3

    Dr. Courtney

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    Supply and demand are extreme for space agency jobs. Always more supply than demand. Lots more.

    Whatever you do, be demonstratably very, very good at it.

    Mediocre doesn't cut it. Good isn't good enough.
  5. Feb 10, 2019 #4
    I have been told Python is easier to learn than C++ so maybe it is better to learn the former (basically because I guess it will take me less time).

    Can I ask you how is a job day for you as a particle physicist? I am also interested in that branch.
  6. Feb 10, 2019 #5
    So you suggest is better to focus the vast majority of the work-time on my official studies, isn't it?

    My current idea is to focus on my subjects, of course, but at the same time I want to find time for learning another skills that I know would help me (such as programming).
  7. Feb 10, 2019 #6


    Staff: Mentor

    Oh, that varies a lot. What people call "experimental particle physics" is a collection of experimental particle physics, statistics, computing, but also detector development and other fields.

    An incomplete list of frequent tasks that come up:

    Data analysis:
    • Pen and paper to derive some mathematics needed for data analysis (not that frequent in experimental particle physics but happens)
    • Modifying software to include the result from above
    • Writing custom scripts for data analysis
    • Debugging said scripts
    • Running the scripts over various datasets and interpreting the results. Then running them through more scripts to get the numbers and plots you are interested in.
    • Repeating all that because someone important wants something changed in the analysis

    • Assembling some test setups in the lab or for the main detector
    • Assembling the main detector itself
    • Exchanging stuff that broke
    • Setting up a network to communicate with everything
    • Writing software to control the hardware
    • Changing some parameters on devices to keep it running
    • Writing scripts to take data. Then analyzing the data (see above)
    • Realizing something is wrong, trying to figure out where the problem is. For an hour, a day, a week, a month - who knows.

    • Meetings
    • Other communication with colleagues (direct, emails, phone calls, ...)
    • Documentation of the work
    • Making presentations for meetings with colleagues
    • Making presentations for a larger audience (e.g. for conferences)
    • Writing down results for publications
    • Explaining something to your "favorite" colleague for the 10th time

    Add detector operation shifts, travel (to meetings, conferences, to the detector, to other groups, ...), some administrative paperwork (not much for PhD students, more for postdocs, much more for permanent positions), and so on.

    Every day is different.
  8. Feb 10, 2019 #7

    Dr. Courtney

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    Employability in the space agency industry is strongly dependent on government funding and geographical constraints. But there is always a strong oversupply of very well qualified candidates.

    If you're at a top 50 school, a decent chance of a space agency job will still likely require a GPA north of 3.5 AND strong programming skills - completed projects in addition to course work. Even then, a "decent chance" might not get higher than 20%. You must have other industries you plan to apply for if the most likely outcome occurs and you do not land a space industry job.
  9. Feb 10, 2019 #8


    Staff: Mentor

    Space agencies are not the only employers for space-related jobs. The majority of jobs is elsewhere. Universities and research labs, contractors, private companies, ...
  10. Feb 10, 2019 #9


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    I worked at NASA for over a decade on various projects as a software and IT engineer several decades ago. As mentioned by others many, if not most, of the "hands-on" tasks were performed by contractors; the reason I emphasized the word "at"; to reduce the number of direct government employees while fulfilling increasingly complex missions. I worked alongside nearly every variety of scientist, engineer and mathematician during my career though physics and electronics focus was quite common, as were aerodynamics and CFD in my particular line.

    Many of us were offered direct government employment as positions opened but after eight years in military service I preferred the freedom to change positions and practice new skills on new installations with less exposure to political winds. One downside was that my name was removed from most publications and documents I authored a/o contributed to, replaced by the contracting company name or an administrator. Teaches humility.

    Contracts were renewed on a fairly regular basis. Most contract bids were written with the expectation of retaining key people. We would joke about learning the name of our current employer from the W-2 tax forms. Contractors often hired while in competition. Like the OP I wanted to work at a space agency so answered an add in the local newspaper placed by Informatics, later bought by Sterling Software.

    My advice is to network with your fellows, advisors and professionals, as you are doing here. Remain flexible. Determine who is likely to hire on the projects that interest you. Be persistent. Expect to continually upgrade your skill sets. As always, social contacts help find new positions.
  11. Feb 13, 2019 #10


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    What is it that interests you about space? I work for the US Air Force on some space-related things and would say experience with python would be very helpful, as would learning something like C or C++. Your question is a bit too vague to provide any more details than that.
  12. Feb 14, 2019 at 3:48 PM #11
    The theoretical study of the universe is what attracts me the most. I would be so happy if I could work in a place where I could do both theoretical and applied work on the study of the Universe. And the job that fits greatly with that description is in a Space Agency. I know it is going to be really tough to get it, but I am truly committed and if I ended up not achieving it, I would have no regrets as I am working hard.

    Yes, so programming skills are important. Now I have put that on the back burner but I may take a course on Python or C++ if I have the opportunity.
  13. Feb 14, 2019 at 5:53 PM #12

    Vanadium 50

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    This is a little like saying "I want to play quarterback for the New York Giants." You can want to play quarterback, or you can play for the Giants, but the Giants are a baseball team and don't have quarterbacks. Similarly, NASA funds cosmology, but they don't do cosmology.

    I'm sorry, but this is not realistic. Theoretical and experimental work (I am not sure what "applied cosmology" is. It reminds me of the old joke "Question 1. Define the univere. Give three examples.") requires different skill sets. And, as discussed before, you need to be at the top of your field to get such a job - and to be at the top of two fields? How likely is that?

    In short, I think you need to focus and winnow your options. Or at a minimum, understand that you might only achieve a single one of the things on your list.
  14. Feb 15, 2019 at 5:05 PM #13


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    I agree with this. The "theoretical study of the universe" is incredibly vague and no one does everything. If you can narrow what you would like to do a bit more it would be easier to hone your skills, but being both a brilliant experimentalist and theorist is unlikely - most breakthroughs/big studies are team efforts between theorists with a more math-heavy background and experimentalists that are very good at actually designing the experiment to get the data that the theorist needs - along with armies of technicians.

    For example:
    I'm not great in the lab, but I code very well in Matlab and pretty well in python, so I do a lot of computational projects, where I develop the math for an application, code it, and test it out using some sort of simulation. This is sort of a combination of theory and application, but I work mostly on terrestrial space projects (satellites and satellite data) which makes it much more applied. I'm doing things in space instead of studying space itself. There may be a similar niche where the focus is on cosmology, but I can't help you there. All I can say is I know of no physicists that don't code at least a little bit. It may be as basic as reading in and plotting data, but because of the complex math involved, coding is almost always needed. Python is good because it is similar to Matlab but open source. It is easy to hack together some rough code to test an idea - which is often what physics coding is, the faster you get a working version the better, the priority isn't usually on the code being well designed and thought out, it is usually more of a means to an end. If the code turns out to be a breakthrough in itself, I work with a programmer to shore it up.

    I should also add, that if you want to do theoretical physics, a master's is probably not enough, you will very likely need a PhD. The physics community doesn't see a master's the same way the engineering communities do.
  15. Feb 16, 2019 at 2:12 PM #14
    More theoretical than experimentalist but I do not want to discard options.
  16. Feb 16, 2019 at 2:14 PM #15
    Why not?
  17. Feb 16, 2019 at 3:12 PM #16


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    This may be country dependent, but the reasoning at least in the US has to do with the relative specialization. Engineering master's degrees are generally much more specialized than their physics counterparts so an engineer with a masters is more of an expert in their chosen field of engineering than a physicist because of the broader range of topics covered in a typical physics masters program. This is a little program dependent, but since physics degrees aren't broken out like engineering degrees, it is less clear how deep vs how wide a given physics degree is, and your average physics masters is pretty wide and only a little deeper in whatever area the thesis is done in. That being said, experience can certainly make up for a lot, so a masters degree paired with an entry-level job could potentially work, it's landing that job that will be difficult.

    I could be off on this, but this is my impression from about 6 years of working with many different kinds of engineers as well as physicists. Someone else can correct me if they have had a different experience.
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