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Physics Getting a physics job with a Ph.D in physics

  1. Sep 10, 2009 #1
    How easy or hard is it to get a physics job with a Ph.D in physics? I hear horror stories of having to work as a postdoc for 10 years after getting the Ph.D making 30k...are these true? Is it possible for a reasonably talented (on the Ph.D scale) physicist to make at least 70k 1-2 years after graduation, with a real physics job (not a postdoc)?

    I would greatly appriciate responses from people with firsthand experience.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 10, 2009 #2
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 24, 2017
  4. Sep 10, 2009 #3
    I was very exited about this article until I got to this sentance:

    "The American Institute of Physics reported a median annual salary of $80,000 in 2006 for its members with Ph.D.’s (excluding those in postdoctoral positions)"

    Post docs aren't included in this article. How hard is it to pull yourself out of postdoc-land?
  5. Sep 10, 2009 #4


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    It can be difficult. Doing at least one post-doc is more or less a must (meaning it is not a formal requirement, but unless you do one you will be competing for positions with people who have more experience) before anyone will ever consider you for a even a semi-permanent position at a university. It is essentially a "step on the ladder".

    However, there ARE physics jobs around in industry, some national labs etc that you can get (if you are lucky) without doing a a post-doc first (if you are lucky).

    Also, doing a post-doc isn't that bad (I should know:uhh:). It is the time in your career where you have enough experience to do independent research but haven't reached the point where people expect you to spend a lot of time on paperwork (writing grant applications etc) or teach.
    Most people who have reached the point where they have a permanent position don't have nearly as much time to do research as a post-doc (when was the last time you saw a full professor in a lab?). Hence, unless you really NEED a permanent position (e.g. because you have a family to support and can't move) doing a post-doc isn't a bad thing.
  6. Sep 10, 2009 #5


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    What is unclear [to me] is where you specifically want to be.
    Academia (Big Research U? Small College?)? Research Lab? Agency? Government? Industry? Other?

    What specific field of physics are you in?
  7. Sep 10, 2009 #6
    I'm not in physics. I'm a high school student thinking about majoring in physics in college, so I don't know what field of physics I would (hypothetically) be in the future, or what enviorment I'd want to (hypothetically) work in.
  8. Sep 10, 2009 #7
    As a third year PhD student, I myself would like to know the answer to your question. It seems like anyone can get a postdoc, but not everyone can make that much more difficult transition to tenure-track faculty. It's because of this that I've decided to basically ditch physics completely after I finish my PhD. But just in case my alternate plans don't pan out, I'm always interested to hear what people have to say about how physicists fare in the current market. I will watch this thread closely.
  9. Sep 10, 2009 #8
    I guess most physicists who don't make into software, finance, or teaching at small colleges.
  10. Sep 10, 2009 #9


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    That certainly depends on the field.
    I think that there are more opportunities for
    (say) a condensed-matter-experimentalist compared to a particle-theorist.
    Although it may be early in the season, have a look at http://careers.physicstoday.org/search/browse/

    With my visiting position ending, I'm back on the market... hopefully for a tenure-track.
  11. Sep 11, 2009 #10

    Dr Transport

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    Stay away from the more esoteric areas of physics ( string theory, relativity, high energy physics) and go into optical materials, condensed matter etc and go into industry. I started in the $60-75K range right out of school, no post-doc necessary.
  12. Sep 11, 2009 #11
    Well, I graduated a little over a year ago. I am a postdoc now and I make considerably more than 30k. I start a new postdoc at a national agency in January and I will be getting a very nice (20%) salary increase.

    I think considering a postdoc "not a real physics job" is wrong. I am a full-time researcher working on projects of my choosing 90% of the time. The drawback is that a postdoc is a contract worker basically. You are hired on for a contract and when that contract is up, you move on to a new one. In addition, a postdoc is a very nice job in my opinion. As has already been said by myself and others, you spend the vast majority of your time working on research you are interested in and spend minimal time doing the tedious administrative work that is required of most full professors/permanent employees. In addition, to be considered for most professor positions, you need postdoctoral experience.
  13. Sep 11, 2009 #12
    If one intends to do a physics phD just to go into industry and not academia, why not just do a phD in engineering? That way he'll get easier job opportunities, right? I thought you only had no trouble finding jobs since you picked up strong computational skills and multiple languages on your own?
  14. Sep 11, 2009 #13
    May I piggyback a tangential question onto this thread?

    What kind of opportunities are available for a person with a PhD in Mathematics? Relatively speaking, are they more numerous than those for someone with a PhD in Physics? I've read through the "So You Want To Be A ..." threads, but the math one is a bit... dense.

    Sorry for the side-track. :)
  15. Sep 11, 2009 #14


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  16. Sep 11, 2009 #15

    Dr Transport

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    That is a way to do it, but in my experience, if you do not have an engineering degree, going to school in engineering at the graduate level isn't as easy as applying. Most likely you'll have to go back and get an undergrad engineering degree before starting down the road towards a PhD in engineering.

    Where I got my PhD, an engineering PhD had many of the same courses as a Physics PhD.
  17. Oct 9, 2009 #16
    It depends on what you mean by a "physics job". I'm working in an investment bank on a floor with several dozen other physics Ph.D.'s and the job involves price modelling. The topic is finance, but the work environment is very similar to what I did in graduate school. Right now the job market is bad, but I suspect it will pick up in the next year. Also typical compensation for a physics Ph.D. + two years experience is around 130K in a bad year.
  18. Oct 11, 2009 #17
    Having a PhD in physics shows you're very inteligent and have insane mathematical skills. A lot of companies are willing to hire people who have advanced degrees, especially in mathetmatics, science, and engineering. It's not easy to get a graduate degree in physics, believe me. The curriculum for the bachleor's degree is pretty intense, imagine what graduate coursework is like. It's stressful, but rewarding.

    You can get a job as a physicists, astronomer, engineer, mathematican, professor, or teacher. If you care about making the big bucks, you might want to try being an astronomer or physicists because they make around 80k a year. Mathematicans make good money also, but I don't think you would want to study mathematics for the rest of your life. Anyway, there was a teacher at my old high school who had a PhD in physics and taught AP calculus BC and AP physics. You could teach at high school level if you want to, but you won't make nearly as much money as you would being a physicist or astronomer. Getting a job into the science field is very competitive, and if you have a master's degree and going against someone who has a PhD, more than likely the PhD will win.

    As I said earlier, it's not easy getting a degree in Physics. If you really enjoy the subject and REALLY REALLY REALLY want to pursue it as a career, then go for it! I would keep in mind that you have to take a crap load of math and engineering courses, and you will study mathematical equations for the rest of your life. If you love to challenge yourself and enjoy math and science, then physics would be a great career for you!

    I reccomend taking the astronomer route because astronomy is more interesting than physics and there's more branches of astronomy(astrobiology, astrochemistry, astrophysics, etc...)

    I thought about majoring in physics, but I decided not to because I'm terrible at math and I don't think I could handle calculus one, two, three, and differential equations!

    So I'm majoring in congintive science
  19. Oct 12, 2009 #18
    Thanks for posting. However, you didn't actually address the OP's question. For a decade (or more) in this forum there's been discussion on physicists in financial jobs. What no one seems to know is what the probability is that a physicist can actually get those jobs.

    It's actually my personal opinion that most physicists couldn't get a job as a quant if they wanted. It appears to be a rather small pool of jobs and typically is looking for a very select group of candidates. I could be wrong.

    Do you have a feel for the number of jobs vs. the number of candidates? Will a typical phd grad at a good (but not stellar) state university be seriously considered?
  20. Oct 12, 2009 #19
    I feel strongly that the first three lines quoted above are either completely wrong or merely misleading.

    The last two lines explain why.
  21. Oct 12, 2009 #20
    Locrian, I have a friend who is an astrophysicists and makes around 94k a year. He started out making 65k. I don't think the person who started this thread really cares about misleading statements. He's probably more concerned about getting an accurate answer about job oppurtunities for someone who holds a PhD in Physics. I answered the question as best as I could, sorry I mislead myself, I didn't mean to. I actually knew I mislead, but I was too lazy to correct it.
  22. Oct 13, 2009 #21
    I have a pretty good sense of the pool of jobs.

    Most quant jobs are essentially glorified numerical programming positions. Right now the market is thin, but I think the situation will improve next year. One reason for this is that there is likely to be a massive amount of new regulation that is going to result from the financial crisis, and more regulation means more paperwork which means more jobs for computer programmers.

    A typical investment bank has about a thousand or so programmers and about 100 or so physics Ph.D.'s. Typical starting salary around 90K + 20K bonus in a bad year. 50K bonus in a good one.

    Also, physics Ph.D.'s in investment banks tend to be from state universities. One reason is physics Ph.D.'s from "big name" universities tend to end up in academia rather than Wall Street.
  23. Oct 13, 2009 #22
    Also financial programming is just a subset of general numerical programming. There is a huge pool of jobs for those. The important thing is during the Ph.D. to work on programming skills. The depend is for people with lots of computer experience. There is much less demand for people with "pencil/paper" skills.
  24. Oct 15, 2009 #23
    Thanks twofish, that really helps. Let me prod you further though - I still don't have a feel for how many entry level quant openings there are compared to how many qualified applicants there are. That's really the key, being able to compare the supply and demand. Do you have a feel for this?

    I hope I'm not making you repeat yourself.
  25. Oct 18, 2009 #24
    It changes from month to month. Right now it's bad. Six months ago it was really, really bad. A year and a half ago it was decent. Two and a half years ago is was crazy.

    Personally, I think that there is going to be a lot of demand over the next few years. Curiously the fact that the industry is going to be heavily regulated is going to increase demand, because all of those reports that the regulators will want need to be generated by some computer geek.

    One thing about finance is that it's sort of like the top of the mountain in a flood. I can imagine things that could happen that could kill jobs in finance over the next few years, but it's hard for me to imagine something that would kill finance jobs, without killing the rest of the economy.
  26. Oct 18, 2009 #25
    That's not considered "big bucks", and secondly there is more demand for physicists than astronomers. Reason being, "physics" includes condensed matter, which is a huge field and people do work on things like new materials, their properties, creating things with those materials, etc. Sounds lame, but that's because I squeezed it into three terms. Go look around.

    Here's my school's condensed matter faculty page:

    http://www.physics.uci.edu/NEW/cmexpt.shtml [Broken]

    And these are just the experimentalists. Unlike the field of high energy particles, condensed matter is generating a LOT of data, so there is a need for theorists to try and figure out how all this stuff works.

    If he loves astronomy, then it won't matter -- he'll go for astronomy anyway. But just based on the number of jobs available and their salaries, vanilla physics beats astronomy.
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