1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Finished PhD -- it's been one year and can't find a job

  1. Jan 31, 2013 #1
    Hi everyone,

    I completed my PhD in experimental low energy physics over a year ago and I still cannot find a postdoc position in my field. I have three papers published about my work, and passed my viva with minor corrections, and have good references, but again I just cannot find a postdoc position or indeed a position elsewhere. It has been so bad I decided to get a job driving a bus for my local public transport company around two months ago. I did not mention my PhD or degree qualifications when I applied I only mentioned the casual/part time work I had done throughout my time at university. To be honest I am so tired of applying for positions and getting told I was unsuccessfull that staying as a bus driver seems a real option to me now, which is not too bad as I am actually enjoying doing this job.

    There are just so many postdocs out there that stay postdocs for five plus years that new PhD graduates like me find it hard to be offered positions, hence, to me it seems a complete waste of time doing my PhD.

    Anyway I feel that people looking to do a PhD should be told the truth about the job prospects of PhD graduates becoming postdocs.

    Anyone else being in this situation ? I mean not being able to find a job after graduating ?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 31, 2013 #2
    I think there's a secret organization of physicists trying to encourage people not to go into the field since there is an over supply of PhDs (or there was) compared to academic jobs available. This organization goes online and makes threads like this.

    I'm not sure how likely that is... It is convincing though.

    Anyways, with a physics PhD you can at least apply to the HUGE variety of national labs. Bell Labs, Jet Propulsion Lab, etc... You could be AT LEAST a research assistant anywhere. You could even work in R&D for practically ANY company. Is it really that hard?
  4. Jan 31, 2013 #3
    I should say I am based in the UK, and I have applied for over 100 jobs in fields such as engineering, energy, statistics, computer programming, graduate scheme's, teacher, and even lab assistants at high schools, and on the rare ocassions that I get a reply, I am told that I am over qualified, or have too much experience or not enough. There just seems to be no one interested in what I have done or the skills I have gained at university.

    Yet all I hear about in the press is business complaining that there is a shortage of people taking physics and engineering at university; very confusing to me, but what can I do. Like I have said, I have just about gave up on applying for jobs suited to my qualifications.
  5. Jan 31, 2013 #4
    Business doesnt really ever have a reason to say there are too many science and engineering grads, do they? The more there are, the cheaper they are. All trained on the taxpayer and student's expense.

    I didnt get a PhD, but no career for me either.
  6. Jan 31, 2013 #5


    User Avatar
    Education Advisor

    To the OP:

    Since you have mentioned that you are based in the UK, have you actually considered emigrating and working in another country (either as a postdoc in physics, or working in some cognate field)? Because from what I understand, the British economy is in a deep recession, with little prospect for much job growth. And besides, the number of research opportunities in the UK will be limited even in comparison to what might be available in the US, just as an example.

    I would also suggest that you spend your current time while working on tailoring your resume specifically to positions that you think you have the technical capabilities for, as well as retooling your technical capabilities in such areas as computer programming/software development or statistical/data analysis (2 areas that many former physics graduates have ended up pursuing). Also remember that there is a difference between preparing a resume and preparing a CV, so talk to someone about having your resume reviewed -- I cannot stress the importance of really tailoring your resume to highlight your specific skills, as opposed to your education as a PhD in physics.

    But do not give up looking -- I have spent a period of 8 months of unemployment in between jobs (and this was prior to financial crisis of 2008), so I can with your difficulties.
    Last edited: Jan 31, 2013
  7. Jan 31, 2013 #6
    This is kind of depressing. All I can say to OP is that you're not selling out by going into industry.

    "Perhaps even more now than then, graduate education is an extended adolescence during which highly intelligent young people see their world shrink to fit the dimensions of their advisor’s laboratory. With their identities bound to the outcome of the thesis project, graduate students are socialized to view other options (teaching, industry, even changing to another type of work altogether) with contempt. Wanting a decent wage and meaningful work that occupies, say, only 50 hours per week are considered signs of selling out."
  8. Jan 31, 2013 #7
    I was in a very similar situation- after my phd I passed on a postdoc because I wanted more stability. I was never unemployed, but I did spend more than a year working as a bartender while searching for other work. My advice is as follows

    1. learn a new field/rebrand yourself- no one cares how much physics you know, find something useful and learn it. If you already know something useful (can you program?) emphasize it and let the physics stuff quietly slide to the back of your resume. I spent much of my time working through statistics, machine learning and programming references. Eventually an unexpected opportunity came up, but I was prepared to take it because I had been learning as much as I could about machine learning.

    2. There are negative associations with phd holders- be preemptive in your resume/cover letter. That myth of a scientist shortage? That means that every employer is suspicious that you'll jump ship to a science job very quickly. You COULD try to explain that there aren't really many science jobs, but you'll likely come off sounding a bit bitter. Its best to come up with positive aspects that draw you into this new field, and away from physics. "I was frustrated by the lack of real-world problems", or whatever.

    Also, they coupled with the idea of shortage, they may have wildly unrealistic ideas of what a physicist makes. I've heard anecdotes of phds applying for high 5 figure jobs and being asked "why would you take a pay cut to change fields?" I'm not sure how to combat this, but its worth thinking about.

    3. Find a support system to help you cope. I was applying for jobs for literally years, and it very much weighs on you, especially as an overachieving person. After being successful all the way through to the end of a phd, the feeling that you've done everything right and still don't have the job you want can be really hard to deal with. Find people who understand and can support you.

    My family, for instance, didn't understand how someone with a phd in physics could possibly have trouble finding something, and so on top of the job hunt I was constantly dealing with accusations of being lazy about the job search. A grandparent even suggested I get in to AA (apparently she confused working in a bar with going to a bar). I met another physics phd at a job interview, and we met up once a week at Starbucks to commiserate and swap job leads. I think without that, I would have gone insane before finding a job.

    This is unresearched advice- the thing to remember is that a physics phd is a specialist. Some national labs (btw, Bell Labs isn't a national lab, and hasn't done basic physics research since 2008, so you should strike that from your list- the story of Bell labs is being repeated everywhere, which is why no one wants physicists) might need something close to your specialty, but many will not. You might get unlucky, and none will. Even if they want someone with your skill-set, its very competitive- maybe 100 phds applying for each spot.

    No one will hire a phd as a research assistant- those jobs are usually for undergraduates, sometimes for masters. A postdoc is like a phd holding research assistant- such jobs are fairly competitive, but the big problem is they don't pay well and they are temporary (~3 years) contracts.

    Finally, most private companies do NOT do R&D that requires basic research, and as such they do not hire physicists. Some do, but they want a physics phd who has proven they can do such research during their phd. So if you did condensed matter research on silicon, you can probably step into a job at intel, but otherwise this is a hard transition to make. Most of my phd cohort had to leave science all together to get a job in 'industry.' (think insurance,finance,etc)
    Last edited: Jan 31, 2013
  9. Jan 31, 2013 #8
    These kinds of threads are so depressing. :|
  10. Feb 1, 2013 #9
    This is, sadly, exactly right. I work at an organization that does basic research and hires a lot of physicists. For every post-doc or scientist position we have open we probably get on the order of a hundred applications. Of those, usually 10-20 could potentially be good fits for the position. Of those, one gets the job. That's a lot of competition.

    The only piece of advice I would give physics PhD students is to be sure they are good programmers when they graduate. The advanced problem solving skills and ability to assimilate a large amount of knowledge quickly that physicists typically have are valuable in industry, but only if you're a good programmer.
  11. Feb 1, 2013 #10
    To answer a few questions,

    Like I said I am based in the UK, but I have applied for a lot of postdoc positions in the USA and Europe, and I always get the "Thank you for applying, your application was strong but ....."
    I do modify my resume to highlight the skills I have that are relevant to the job I am applying for. I also do the same for my covering letter. Again 99% of the time I cannot even get a reply saying that I was unsuccessful.

    I would like to say that I have an excellent understanding of java and c++, but every job I have applied for which requires computer programming never gets back to me.

    My family do put pressure on me, because they simply cannot believe that someone with my qualifications cannot find a job, and when I told them I had applied for a bus driver job they laughed at me, and told me that if I give up now, I was throwing away 10 years of my life, all that hard work I had done to get my qualifications. I don't really want to say that I wasted 10 years of my life studying physics at university, because I do love physics and have had some fantastic experiences attending and contributing to experiments in major labs around the world, and I will always be a keen amateur astronomer, so physics will be in my life for as long as I have a heartbeat.

    I am sorry if what I have said sounds depressing, but I should add that I am not down about this; like I mentioned earlier I found a job as a bus driver, and I feel somewhat content and happy when I do this, so much so that I am seriously considering, forgetting about my past in academia, trying to begin a career in academia or industry, and making bus driving my career. When you have applied for over 100 positions in academia and industry, it starts to hit home that, maybe its time to forget about physics as a career.

    Anyway, thank you all for your replies and advice, its appreciated.
  12. Feb 1, 2013 #11


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Can you apply to a job on a university? This seems to me the best option nowadays.
  13. Feb 1, 2013 #12


    User Avatar
    Education Advisor

    I have a few additional questions. When you say you applied to over 100 positions in academia and industry (in the US and Europe -- have you considered applying to places such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, even Asian countries such as Singapore or China), how precisely are you applying for them? Because one thing you need to keep in mind is that many jobs these days are found through networking rather than through formal job postings (online or print). So it is really important for you develop some key networks.

    Have you considered attending conferences (not just those for physics, but for industry conferences)? Have you considered preparing your own business cards and introducing yourselves to people? Do you have a profile on LinkedIn (or even Facebook), highlighting your skills and experiences?

    Furthermore, as ParticleGrl has stated, no one cares if you graduated with a physics degree because physics degrees have never on its own been particularly marketable -- it's the additional analytical skills that you gained through getting the degree that makes you marketable. And selling yourself is critical.

    While I have nothing against being a bus driver, and ultimately it is your choice what path you wish to take, I personally feel that you are making a mistake settling for less. You had invested over 10 years with a higher education, and it is a waste to throw it all away, which is essentially what you are doing.

    And as an aside, applying to over 100 positions in 1 year is nothing. I have applied to over 100 positions in 3 months during spells of unemployment.
  14. Feb 4, 2013 #13
    Hi StatGuy2000,

    to answer your questions, yes I have applied for a few positions in Canada, however, in my field of nuclear physics there are very few opportunities available in asia, australia, new zealand, none that I have seen anyway.
    I apply for most positions via job sites such as jobs.ac.uk, cv-library ... or via information from my friends who work in physics. I would love to attend conferences, but I simply cannot afford to do so, I had been unemployed for a long time, and money is tight. As for business cards, facebook linked etc etc, I have to say that I am not a member of facebook or linked, and I have not printed any business cards. I do however have my own website, which states my qualifications and interests. I am not really a big fan of facebook though, a complete waste of time and energy in my opinion.
    Lastly I simply could not apply for more jobs than what I did. They were the only jobs I was interested in, and I refuse to apply for jobs just for the sake of applying for jobs. I have no intention of working in a position that I feel I would not like and have no interest in doing. I would rather stay working as a bus driver; sure the pay may be worse but at least I would have a higher level of job satisfaction.
  15. Feb 4, 2013 #14
    You are in a tough field. I received my PhD in low energy nuclear physics (LENP) 6 years ago and the field has only gotten worse since then. In US universities LENP is all but disappearing except for groups that do exotic particle searches and neutrino physics. The US national labs used to sweep up LENP physicists but due to budget problems they are not hiring and in some cases, like Oak Ridge, actually reducing staff and closing facilities. The postdocs I currently work with seem to be having difficulty getting their next positions.

    ParticleGirl's advice is useful. Have you looked into radiation oncology programs? It is possible to do a residency in one of these programs with a PhD in nuclear physics.
  16. Feb 5, 2013 #15
    I finished up my PhD in experimental high energy physics in June of last year. I didn't have tons of trouble finding a job, but I had absolutely no luck with jobs related to physics. I didn't apply to any academic postdocs, but I did apply to some industry jobs that were physics related.

    I really wasn't qualified for those industry jobs though, so my lack of success was no real surprise. The issue was that all the physics related jobs I saw wanted skills you'd pick up during a PhD in condensed matter experiment or an EE PhD. I don't have those skills. High energy experiment involves far more software development than it does physics in a lot of ways.

    I was able to get a job as a software developer because of my skill set. The actual PhD was a hindrance though, since I am doing a job most people with an undergraduate degree in CS degree could do. Despite this I was still able to find a job even though I limited my search to a single geographic area (San Francisco Bay Area). Most of the 'work' I had to do in interviews was not convincing everyone that I could do the job, but that I actually wanted that specific job. I also heavily tailored my resume to emphasize the software development work I had done during graduate school. It didn't even mention my dissertation topic (it did mention the sub-field of physics my degree was in though). I just talked about the software work I did for the experimental collaboration that I was a part of.

    My advice would be to only concentrate on jobs for which you have concrete skills that would be useful to the job. Also remember that 'over-qualified' is code for 'I think this individual will quit in six months when they get the job they really want'. You need to be able to convince the hiring managers that this is really the job that you want.

    Do you have lots of programming experience? It's surprising to me that you had no luck with programming jobs. What sorts of programming jobs did you apply for?
  17. Feb 5, 2013 #16
    Wise words from gbeagle, especially about how to tailor your resume and interview to the particular objections you will face.
  18. Feb 5, 2013 #17
    Tell me about it ! the funding was slashed a couple of years ago, though funding for particle physics remains constant in the UK; anyway one consequence of this was a massive reduction in the number of postdoc positions, however the number of funded PhD's in my field remains constant, so I guess my situation is a consequence of this also. Plus I have a postdoc friend who is in his sixth year as a postdoc ! so what chance have new PhD grads got when they are up against a postdoc with six years experience ?
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2013
  19. Feb 5, 2013 #18
    I hear what your saying gbeagle, and I do try to change my cv to match the job I am applying for, and I get the same kind of the response that you have had for positions in industry. I agree also it is hard to convince employers that you want the job and you won't just up sticks and leave when a better offer comes along. For instance for my job as a bus driver, if I even mentioned my first degree on my application I know for a fact I would not have got to the interview stage never mind get offered the job.

    As far as computer programming goes, well I think I have a decent level of understanding of java and c++, but by no means would I consider myself an expert. Therefore, I have limited my applications to graduate level positions when applying for computer programming vacancies, but still I have not been offered a position.
  20. Feb 5, 2013 #19


    User Avatar
    Education Advisor

    Having a website stating your qualifications and interests is fine, but I cannot stress enough the importance of networking, especially if you wish to move beyond physics into finding employment which incorporates skills you gained in your graduate program or skills that you are willing to learn and retool in to be more marketable, such as programming, statistical analysis, or quantitative finance (3 common areas in "industry" for former physics PhDs).

    I strongly recommend that you set up a LinkedIn profile, outlining your skills, education and experiences. It's a great resource to both get your skills known to the wider community, search for positions that may not be posted in the sites you looked at, and connecting with both recruiters and employers as well as other people with your background. You really should take full advantage of it.
  21. Feb 6, 2013 #20
    You mention you applied to be a teacher. I'm very surprised it didn't go anywhere as I've been led to believe they are crying out for physics teachers here in the UK (the IOP magazine has adverts every month and there's usually lots of posters around if I visit a physics department).

    There's some more info here:

    I know it's probably not ideal but surely it's better than becoming a bus driver!
  22. Feb 6, 2013 #21

    George Jones

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    My wife and I live in Canada. After getting an M.Sc. in Physics and an M.Eng., my wife decided to do a B.Ed. Near the end of this program (in Canada; two years ago), she was recruited fairly aggressively for UK teaching positions. The recruiting firms led her to believe that, because of the shortage of physics teachers in the UK, her lack of UK citizenship would not be a problem for initial placement.
  23. Feb 6, 2013 #22

    Yes if you have a B.Ed then this will be the case. However, I don't have this and I really do not want to go back to university for another three years to get this either. The alternative to this is a one/two year Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE), which is what I applied for a while back. However, I attended the interview and was told that having a degree in physics it is not that important, all you need is a first degree in any subject to teach physics, as the course covers all the subjects that will make you ready to be a physics/science teacher (which makes a mockery of the IOP's claim that physics graduates are in high demand for teaching positions), in fact they said they were more interested in the amount of experience I have teaching at this level and my motivation to be a teacher. They said that the competition is such that they only offer places on such courses if you have had at least 100 hours experience in a secondary school environment.

    I did not have this much experience, so no surprise that I was not offered a place on the course, and to be honest I am not sure that teaching at this level is what I want to do, if I was going to teach I would prefer teaching in an adult environment in a college or something similar.
  24. Feb 6, 2013 #23
    A bus driver is not as bad as you think ! In fact it's quite an enjoyable job in my opinion.
  25. Feb 6, 2013 #24
    Hmm, well there goes my backup plan. Given the advertising campaign I thought it was a sure thing!

    I'm sure bus driving is fine but, as you said, doing a PhD to do it seems a little wasteful. Of course, if that's what makes you happy, you shouldn't let a guy on the internet tell you what to do!
  26. Feb 6, 2013 #25
    Problem with advertising campaigns is that they are not guarantees.

    Like the "shortage of engineers" call coming from industry that can never be satisfied because the more engineers they get the more talent they can take the top X percent and pit them against the (1-X) percent to lower wages then let the remaining (1-X) percent worry about finding jobs outside of engineering wherever they can.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?
Draft saved Draft deleted