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Finishing physics PhD: broad interests, few jobs!

  1. Jul 8, 2013 #1
    Greetings Physics Forums,
    Yes, checking for typing errors apparently is not my strong point! I'm a few months away from my defense, and have been considering the next step for a few months now. My PhD will be from a physics department, but I have been doing what amounts to biological engineering work (making and using devices for measuring cellular forces and all the associated imaging and analysis). So while nearly all of my course work has been physics, I found an atypical lab to work in because I wanted something new and as "applied" as I could find. I'm a fellow with the university's institute for nanobiotechnology, so my PhD comes with a cert. of advanced studies in nanobiotechnology.
    Moving forward, I have no interest in continuing in academia (I prefer to work to live). Looking around for jobs, I see very little that fits my skills. Most biotech companies are doing nanomedicine or otherwise biochem related work, of which my research required very little. I'd have no issue working in a more entry level position doing something like electrical engineering and working my way up from there, but getting one of those spots with a PhD will likely be tough (overqualified, under-experienced). I'm interested in almost any interesting science work and a field change would be no issue, so I'm trying to sell my PhD as "Look at how dedicated and independent I am! Look how I did interdisciplinary research, I can learn anything!". It just seems like a field change once you have a PhD isn't so easy, especially when I'm not technically an engineer.
    One big point that I keep rolling over in my head would be a software job. I did a bit of C in undergrad and grad courses, and I use an analysis suite (Igor) that is basically C based. I love to program and I'm good at it, I just haven't spent all my time doing it. I'll likely teach myself C++ prior to my defense just to add to those skills. While I would certainly miss doing hands on lab work, I realize that it may simply not be an option.

    So what's my question? I'm not exactly sure. I guess I'm looking for general advice from anyone with experience in this type of situation. I'm a smart guy with broad interests and I love to learn, but my current skill set isn't leading me in any clear direction.

    Thanks for taking a look!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 8, 2013 #2
    I have no overall message to convey, but a few random remarks:

    - I wouldn't focus on what a generalist you are. In fact, I recommend to get the very idea of being so interdisciplinary/versatile out of your head. You may be somewhat interdisciplinary measured by academic standards. But the average janitor is more interdisciplicary than an experimental bio-nano-physicist comparing simulation results to theory. Real-world versatility doesn't mean to be adept in electrical engineering and in math, but to understand bureocratic processes, have technical knowledge of a field, understand economy, be a good negotiator, have an overview over the market, be able to organize work and prioritize tasks, have a basic understanding of the laws applicable to your business, be effective in discussions with colleagues, ... . Hence, I believe you should sell your PhD as being an expert in physics and biotech labs.

    - "I can learn anything" doesn't really make a good selling point, either. Unless you are the only applicant. No one applying for a job would add "... but I am probably too stupid to actually do the job" to their application.

    - Don't underestimate the value of your PhD's hands-on experience. When applying for a lab position, I would consider it on-par with the same amount of job experience (in terms of technial skills, of course).

    - Another strong point for a PhD, in my opinion the most relevant for industry, is that it demonstrates having learned (or naturally being able to) to work on non-trivial tasks without the need for constant supervision and -it gets better- to actually get something done. I hadn't thought this was so important until I joined a research institute for very applied industry-affine research and realized that there is a remarkable correlation between people's ability to work properly and the person having a PhD.

    - You programming skill are not sufficient for a programming job. That said, many jobs require some programming (e.g. a project manager of us lately put together some Perl scripts to get at least some preliminary data analysis in a project that ran into problems).

    - From the time I was looking for jobs I remember that I found almost-suitable offers for lab managers ("Laborleiter"), which asked for a person with lab experience and a PhD in a related science, but not for insane amounts of industry experience (the "almost" was because as a theoretical physicist my lab experience was limited to undergrad training, and I quickly found a more-suited job). From what you write above, such a position may be a interesting for you (the company in question was BASF, btw, but I don't think they are particularly special in this respect).
    Last edited: Jul 8, 2013
  4. Jul 8, 2013 #3
    I did my phd in theoretical physics and I wasn't ever able to get any lab/science/engineering work. Its very hard to convince a company to take you!

    After about a year of this, I gave up and retooled myself as a statistician/machine learning specialist. You need to learn some statistics and methods, but you need less programming then most software development jobs (and its a bit closer to science in that you use data to predict stuff).
  5. Jul 9, 2013 #4
    What did you do during the intervening year? Did you have support from somebody else, or a temp teaching job?
  6. Jul 9, 2013 #5
    I did a number of odd jobs, but mostly I worked as a bartender. If you have service experience, waiting tables or tending bar in a high-volume establishment makes pretty decent money and the jobs are always available.
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