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Job Skills Fields of Physics I'm Most Likely Able to Do Research In?

  1. Mar 19, 2017 #1
    First, a bit of background. I am currently in a Master's program, studying specifically particle physics and astrophysics. I've always wanted to do research in astrophysics, even from my first day as an undergrad. I've thought about doing research in other fields, but I've never really given it too much priority.

    However, after doing a lot of research in job prospects in the various fields of physics, I've found that I'm very unlikely to land a job that does research in astrophysics, be it at a university or a national lab. Instead, most people seem to think that I'm much more likely to land a job in oil and gas, finance, or defense. Is this true?

    For various reasons, I don't want to do a job in any of those fields. And, while I'd be comfortable doing a non-research job outside of those fields, I would still like to do physics research. So which fields (besides biophysics) am I most likely to land a research job in?

    I thought I had my life more or less on solid path, but mitigating circumstances and nagging doubts are ruining it, so any help here would be greatly appreciated.
     
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  3. Mar 19, 2017 #2

    Dr Transport

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    Numerous thread on this within this forum......

    The likelihood of doing astrophysics research is slim. Frankly landing a position in physics doing research full time is not high. A large portion of the people who get a PhD end up in industry at some point in time, the percentage is higher for a person with a terminal masters and even higher percentage for a bachelors only.
     
  4. Mar 19, 2017 #3

    Choppy

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    For some data, you might want to check out the APS Statistics. Here for example.

    The way I tend to look at this kind of question is to think about what kinds of things are people going to be willing to give you money to solve. The fact of the matter is that it's easier to convince people to pay you to help them discover a new reservoir of oil than it is to convince them to pay you to discover a new planet. A lot of people are "interested" in other planets. But a planet that's twenty light years away is not going to put food on anyone's table - at least not any time soon.

    Another approach that can be helpful in terms of survival is to get a job first, then worry about what field you want to work in. I recognise there may be moral objections to supporting specific industries, but blindly wiping them off the map as potential employers will quickly reduce your job options and getting into certain sectors may not be as much of a moral compromise as you might think. For example you could get into the defence industry to work on landmine detection, disaster relief, or the epidemiology of low levels of radiation.
     
  5. Mar 19, 2017 #4
    I'm aware of that, but none of the threads I found addressed my specific questions.

    Regardless of field? That's pretty depressing. Like I said in my OP, I'm not really interested in working in industry, and I'm definitely not interested in working in the industry fields that seem to employ physicists. I want to do research. I mean are the barriers that formidable?
     
  6. Mar 19, 2017 #5
    I may be missing what you're saying, but you didn't really answer either of my questions. I'm aware that the marketability of your skills is the determining factor in getting a job. And I'm aware that there are often "less objectionable" jobs in defense. But neither of those facts address my concern about the job prospects in astrophysics research, or more broader physics research in general.
     
  7. Mar 19, 2017 #6

    Dr Transport

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    I think we both of did, the prospects in the future are not good, astrophysics depending on the source, isn't a hopping field of en devour. Pure physics is a little better, but the chances are better in the more applied areas, semiconductors etc....but cogitating QFT theory in industry is not going to happen very often if at all. if I had a crystal ball, I'd look, but it would be for high return bets making a lot of money on sporting events.

    We can't forecast any real job prospects for the future. I told my college age kid when he was choosing a major, biomedical and environmental engineering are pretty safe bets, as long as there are people, they will be sick and they will pollute.
     
  8. Mar 19, 2017 #7

    Choppy

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    Well, the main issue is that the number of PhDs that are awarded in physics outweighs the number of academic research positions - probably by a factor of 3-10 (depending on how you define the details). How many PhD students will a typical professor supervise over his or her career? One only of them will replace that professor at his/her retirement and the field isn't growing all that fast. Hence you have an over-supply of PhDs and so they tend to spill out into industry.

    Fair enough. Are you asking about the prospects for an MSc grad in astrophysics? I'd say they are very small, unless you develop some very particular skill set that other researchers are willing to hire you on for as a research associate. Even then - you're probably not looking at "career" type jobs. You're looking at temporary contract work off of someone else's grant.
     
  9. Mar 19, 2017 #8

    StatGuy2000

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    As an aside, just because people get sick or will pollute does not mean that biomedical or environmental engineering are safe bets. For example, as far as I'm aware, there is little demand for biomedical engineering in Canada, particularly in comparison to the US.
     
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2017
  10. Mar 19, 2017 #9

    Vanadium 50

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    I think this is exactly backwards. The normal path for a PhD is to go into industry. As you say, the number getting academic jobs is small. The exception is to go into academia.
     
  11. Mar 19, 2017 #10
    While I prefer theory, I'm aware that applied physics is much more marketable. Could you tell me which fields of applied physics I could study where I'm most likely to land a job doing research in that area, be it at a university, national lab, or industry?
     
  12. Mar 19, 2017 #11
    I think there's a bit of a misunderstanding. While I'm currently doing a Master's program, I'm still going to go on and do a PhD. Does this significantly increase my chances of landing a research job in astrophysics?
     
  13. Mar 19, 2017 #12

    StatGuy2000

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    The problem with your assertion above is that many research areas within physics don't immediately lend themselves to direct applications in industry (e.g. particle physics, cosmology). And physics PhD program were, for the most part, not designed to really provide the type of training that could facilitate a direct, visible path to industry -- the PhD program was designed specifically to train someone to pursue physics research, most naturally in an academic or similar setting. So even though most physics PhD graduates may ultimately find their way into industry, in essence many of those who do so are in reality leaving the physics field entirely.

    Of course, this issue isn't unique to physics, nor even essentially to science. But it bears repeating.
     
  14. Mar 19, 2017 #13

    Dr Transport

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    much more safe than trying to go into academia as a theoretical astrophysicist....
     
  15. Mar 19, 2017 #14

    Dr Transport

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    Again, we are not in the business of forecasting the future job market, I mentioned semiconductors, there are others, accelerator science has been mentioned here in the past.

    My degree is in pure semiconductor theory, have not worked in it ever since graduate school, no jobs in industry in it, but I have used my knowledge in the lab helping to characterize materials.
     
  16. Mar 19, 2017 #15

    Choppy

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    Of course it does. I don't know what the odds are for an MSc getting such a position, but they are probably small enough that assuming they are zero is not unreasonable. And then, as I mentioned above, you're looking at a 1 in 10 chance if you successfully graduate with a PhD. So sure, graduating with a PhD drastically improves your chances. But they're still small, and you need to account for that as you plan out your transition from education to career.
     
  17. Mar 19, 2017 #16
    You can always get a faculty job at an institution that focuses on teaching and do (unfunded or self-funded) research on whatever you want while you earn your living meeting the teaching requirements of the job: usually they amount to teaching 10-15 semester hours each term.
     
  18. Mar 19, 2017 #17

    Dr Transport

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    Even those are very selective and far between....
     
  19. Mar 19, 2017 #18
    I've been on enough hiring committees to know that a PhD in the discipline and a history of teaching success (even as a TA) gives one a really good shot.

    Seen a number of jobs at community colleges without any applicants with a PhD in the discipline.
     
  20. Mar 20, 2017 #19
    So what you're essentially saying is that, if I want to do research in astrophysics, I'm just up a creek? God this whole thread is horribly depressing. I want to make contributions to science, not be a cog in the wheel of industry, especially the industries I'm being pushed towards.

    Sorry if I seem stubborn. I'm just uncertain about a lot of things right now.
     
  21. Mar 20, 2017 #20
    Not at all. You are free to research astrophysics to your heart's content. It's just unlikely that someone will be willing to PAY you for doing it.

    To get a paycheck, odds are you will need to produce a work product that has more value than astrophysics to whoever is paying you.

    Well grow up and join the real world.

    This is the logical fallacy known as a false dichotomy. For most of my career, there has been enough time in the week and year to both earn a paycheck contributing to industry AND make contributions to science.

    See: https://www.physicsforums.com/insights/science-love-money/

    The more constraints you put on things, the harder life is. Most teaching jobs will leave more time for research than most industry jobs. A broad geographic search for teaching jobs that includes community colleges and lower tier teaching schools is more likely to be productive than one subject to narrow geographical constraints.

    If you feel like you are being pushed toward industries you don't like, read, "What Color is Your Parachute?" and identify alternate industries that are a good match for your skill set. Still stuck? Figure out how to broaden your skill set for jobs you like more. Usually teaching and programming are the skills most likely to lead to greater employment options for a young PhD.
     
  22. Mar 20, 2017 #21
    Alright, thank you (and everyone else) for your help. One last question - Let's say I'm expecting to work in industry and do astrophysics research on the side. Should I do my PhD in astrophysics, or some other marketable field and learn astrophysics on the side?
     
  23. Mar 20, 2017 #22

    George Jones

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    I think that you should do a PH.D. in astrophysics while trying to pick some marketable skills, e.g., programming, numerical methods, statistics, PDEs applied to finance, etc. This keeps all options open. You might find that you are good at research, and that you want to try a postdoc before making a career switch. You might find that you dislike astrophysics research, and that you really want to make a career switch.

    Whatever you choose, you are going to have to demonstrate that you can be a benefit to a potential employer, whether it's research and teaching in academe, or whether it's research, or analysis, or programming, or ... outside of academe.

    Don't blindly follow what I wrote above. This is your life, not my life. I find it very scary to give advice in these types of threads. Whatever you do, try to be optimistic and realistic at the same time. Life is not enjoyable when one spends too much time being bitter.
     
  24. Mar 20, 2017 #23
    Good question. I think your prospects of employment in other areas are pretty good with a PhD in astrophysics if you are diligent to pick up marketable skills along the way. (Since completing my PhD in atomic physics, I have not earned a penny doing it.)

    On the other hand, what are your prospects for publishing productive research in astrophysics if your PhD is in a more marketable field? I've published productive work in lots of fields other than my PhD specialty (including astrophysics), but astrophysics and atomic physics are tough areas for amateurs to work in productively without collaborating with pros. So, what are your prospects of a productive collaboration with professional astrophysicists with a PhD in another discipline? And what are your prospects of productive work in astrophysics on your own or in collaborations without pros on the team? (There is a lot of productive amateur astronomy that is possible without a PhD, but if you honestly want to be doing astrophysics, that is harder.)

    Colleagues and I have managed to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps in blast physics, traumatic brain injury, ballistics, applied mathematics, acoustics, and fisheries science. Bootstrapping productive research programs in atomic physics and astrophysics seems a lot harder to me.
     
  25. Mar 20, 2017 #24

    Choppy

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    As others have suggested, the situation doesn't have to be all that depressing.

    It's important to know how it all works though. In the North American system I think we're brought up to think that if you keep your head down, focus, and work hard, there's going to be an awesome payout at the end of all that education. And when people find out it's not all that straight forward, sure, it can be depressing - at least in the short term.

    But that doesn't mean you have to give up on your dream. First, 0.1 does not equal zero. It's still possible to have a research career doing exactly what you want to be doing. It's just that from the point of view of planning your education and career, you need to have a solid backup plan so that you can survive if things don't work out.

    From an historical point of view I could point out that up until about a hundred years ago, the probability of a career in the sciences was virtually impossible unless you were born into the world's aristocracy. Following the second world war we went through a brief period where the sciences "boomed" and if you could get a PhD, the odds were better that you could get into an academic career. But remember, there was a big "if" attached to that PhD. Education wasn't nearly as accessible back then as it is today. Today the starting line is more equal than it ever has been (though still not perfect). So you could look at your situation as one where you actually live in a time and place where a career doing research in astrophysics is possible for someone born without the "right" last name.

    Something else I've discovered on my own path is that it's important to keep an open mind about the problems that are out there to work on. I started out hoping to get into astrophysics myself, but that was largely influenced by popular science. I didn't know much about other branches of physics because I'd had virtually no exposure to them. As I learned more about physics sub-disciplines, my interests changed. Now I have a career as a medical physicist where I get to do both clinical work and research.

    I think that's up to you. One thing that might help is to pay attention to what happens to graduates of the program that you're hoping to go through. Where are they ending up and are those places appealing to you?
     
  26. Mar 20, 2017 #25
    I finished school at a Master's and went to work, so I don't have PhD. But here's my take on it. For what its worth...

    It seems there are two views of what a PhD means.

    1) A PhD means you have done independent research and are essentially the most knowledgeable person in a small (tiny?) specific area. Your path forward is to continue to push the bounds of knowledge in this area.

    2) A PhD means you have done independent research and are essentially the most knowledgeable person in a small (tiny?) specific area. This demonstrates that you have the intellect and motivation to figure things out for yourself, no matter how "hard" they might be.

    I think many potential PhD candidates, especially when they are undergrads, see themselves as type (1) above. Unfortunately, there are very few paying spots for those who hope to continue on in a small area of expertise. On the other hand, people looking to hire PhDs in industry are looking for people who see themselves more like type (2). We want smart, independent thinkers who can take an idea or problem, and run with it, unsupervised, and produce results.

    Look at Dr. Courtney's description of his career. I see varied, interesting, and productive work. Probably makes a good living at it too.

    The OP may be "the next Einstein," or Feynman, or Dirac. A lot of smart kids hear this kind of thing from their parents, teachers, and friends. So they tend to think that's their goal. A vanishingly small number are "the nexts," like a few per century. But if it turns out you're not Dirac reincarnated, that certainly isn't the end of the world.
     
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