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Physics Hands on Physics work?

  1. Feb 21, 2010 #1
    This is my first post here, but it looks like a cool place and a great resource, so here goes.
    Anyway, I'm currently a junior undergraduate physics major at a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania. I've got a 3.9 gpa. I'll be also getting a math minor, and my school's physics department also offers an electrical engineering minor that I could probably do.

    Here's my situation. Up until a few weeks ago, I had my heart set on a phd program in physics, and then working in academia. However, lately I'm thinking I may want to take a different career path. First of all, while I loved the first two and a half years of physics(basic stuff, modern physics, thermo, classical mech, optics), I am really not enjoying the abstract stuff. I've taken a quantum course and an astrophysics course, as well as an intro to nuclear and particle physics course, and while that stuff is cool, I don't really feel compelled to derive the specifics or do crazy abstract research in it. It just doesn't light my fire enough to do the work. Its too "out there" for me, and it seems too much like a chore.

    What has lit my fire, however, is hands on stuff. I helped the lab instructor at my school put together a lab for the modern physics class to demonstrate the zeeman effect, which involved building and setting up optics and circuits and magnets and things, and I just loved it. I also recently worked on a project measuring air resistance of bicycles, which involved riding bicycles and figuring out creative ways to measure things, and I just loved it.

    I worked as an engineering aide for the army the past two summers, in an optics lab calibrating and repairing optical test benches for night vision optics. While I didn't enjoy the defense industry, I just loved working with my hands, and using physics concepts to actually do something real and tangible. I got to use all sorts of amazing
    optics equipment, and was able to build complicated machines and solve problems.

    I'm extremely good working with tools, as I've restored several guitars and built a racing bicycle from scratch as a hobby. I'm extremely good at understanding how mechanical systems work, and at figuring them out. When I was a kid, I was into building models of airplanes and ships, legos, and taking apart everything in my parents house to see how it worked. Pure physics research wouldn't play to my strengths...but applied physics certainly would.

    The other reason i'm considering the no grad school thing is the work load. Now I don't want to sound like a cop-out, but I also have to be true to myself. I went to the APS conference in DC last weekend to present my bike research, and met a lot of physics grad students and professors. Now I'm not afraid of hard work, but frankly, I just don't think I'm into physics enough to spend the 80-100 hours a week they do doing their job. I loved my summer engineering job where I could work 40 hours, and then forget about work while I was at home. I certainly would work hard at work, but I also want to have a life. I'm an accomplished musician and an aspiring cyclist, and I've had to put all of that on hold while I'm in college. I also have a girlfriend with whom I spend a lot of time. Now, I don't have a problem working hard for a few years in college, but I absolutely do not want to give
    this stuff up for the rest of my life. I don't want to do nothing but work in grad school, only to get to academia and get stuck in the writing papers/getting grants/teaching/what ever else cycle that makes professors have no time. Thats great if all you're into is physics, but I'm just not a compulsive person. I don't need to live high and mighty, and really am fine with no money or prestige. I have to be true to myself here...I am extremely motivated, but also balanced.

    So, here's what I'm looking for, and why I'm posting on here. I'm looking for a career path after college where I can use the concepts and ideas that I've learned in physics in an applied way. I want a job that is hands-on...not a cube farm like so many engineering jobs are. I'd certainly be willing to get a masters degree in either physics or engineering. I want to work 40 hours, although I don't need to make a ton of money (girlfriend is looking to do secondary ed in math, so we'd be golden without huge salaries). Everything in academia seems to be done where there's really not enough time to do it right...I want to be able to focus, and do something completely and correctly. I'm not sure that I'd like to I'm willing to move of course, although I'd like to settle where I move, and I don't want to live in a city. I don't need to have a prestigious job...I just want to earn an honest living.
    Just for an example, I could soo see myself working for tesla motors trying to figure out how to get electric cars to be affordable and still have range and feasibility.

    So, I know my criteria are specific, but I feel like if I could find a job that matches me, I could do such a good job, and I'd actually enjoy going to work.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 21, 2010 #2
    A masters degree in engineering to get into some applied work may be your speed, though you may actually have fun in a photonics phd program. You may also want to consider skilled trades like electrician or mechanic, if you don't mind more school or apprenticeship.

    A totally left field option is teaching high school physics, which ends up with lots of applied stuff when you're first explaining the concepts to your students.
  4. Feb 22, 2010 #3
    one addendum: I probably came across as way too hard-line on the hands-on thing. I understand that most science work requires some desk time, and I'm not opposed to that. I just don't want one of those jobs where you never ever see hardware. Maybe the title of the post should have been "Applied Physics Work?"
  5. Feb 22, 2010 #4

    Andy Resnick

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    At NASA, we called people like you 'super techs'. Lots of jobs available, if you have some actual fabrication skills: machining, circuit boards, anything.
  6. Jul 5, 2010 #5
    By 'super techs', could you be a little bit more specific on education requirements PhD, Aerospace Engineering etc. and official job titles. I just ask as I too am trying to find a career with more hands on involvement. (BA in Physics , currently doing volunteer chemistry research)
  7. Jul 5, 2010 #6
    Sounds like you just arnt as interested in theory work, at least not exclusively theory work. Thats pretty normal I think. The weird thing is undergraduate physics degrees are nearly all theory, yet most physics graduates end up doing experiment, engineering or even teaching. There is a disconnect there that could have a thread in its own right. In your case, dont discount experimental research. Thats what most physicists do, and its probably very unlike your undergraduate experience.
  8. Jul 6, 2010 #7

    Andy Resnick

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    Supertechs typically have, at most, a BS. They have tons of experience.
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