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How can I make physics part of my career

  1. Dec 16, 2008 #1
    I don't think I will be accepted into graduate school because of my very low GPA. Is it still possible to make physics a big part of your career for the rest of your life? I want my career to be physics related. Could I perform my own experiments like designed a cyclotron outside a university? I will have no problem obtaining physics graduate books to study on my own , since I live near a college library that holds all the physics grad books that I am interested in . My own problem would be conducting physics experiments off campus, since equipment needed to conduct the physics experiments you want might be expensive. What kind of advice would you give to a person who wants a career in physics, despite not being accepted into grad school.
    Last edited: Dec 16, 2008
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  3. Dec 17, 2008 #2
    Is my post not clear to most of the users? I will sum up what I am trying to convey: I don't think my future looks bright as a future physics grad student admittee...however I still want to have a physics career and I want physics to be a big part of my life. Meaning , I want to conduct my own research, designed and performed physics experiments, and write out my own research results. Is it possible to achieved those goals outside the university, meaning without the guidance of a physics advisor?
  4. Dec 17, 2008 #3
    Everything is possible, but only a few things are likely. This is probably one of the unlikely ones.

    I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss grad school though. If there was some reason why you failed to perform well as an undergrad *and* you've done something to fix whatever the problem was, you might want to try for an MS program in a less selective school. If you kick *** there, you can move on to a Ph.D. program.

    But going back to the original question, learning how to do publishable physics research is hard enough when you have teachers, equipment, and guidance. It is very unlikely to do on your own.
  5. Dec 17, 2008 #4
    What kind of GPA would you have to have to get accepted into a MS program? What type of research experience would you have to have?
  6. Dec 17, 2008 #5

    Andy Resnick

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    Sure- tinker in your garage. Do what you like. Lots of tech start-ups happened that way.
  7. Dec 17, 2008 #6
    Are you serious? You think I could build a cyclotron without a research grant?
  8. Dec 17, 2008 #7
    Physics isn't all high energy, ya know.

    NBC just had feature on a guy here in TN making ethanol fuel from kudzu in his garage. (Go figure... the process isn't that different from making moonshine! :rofl:)
  9. Dec 17, 2008 #8
    Let me be clear... I am talking about less competitive schools. But to give an example, the school I am currently attending wanted a 2.5 GPA out of the last 60 semester or 90 quarter units. They also allow taking up to 2 graduate and 6 undergraduate courses without being formally admitted, and these credits could be used to raise your GPA if you have less than 2.5.

    No research experience required.

    (I had no background beyond freshman physics when I decided to pursue physics many years after graduation. Schools like this one very much cater to "nontraditional" students... ones who are returning to school after a long absence, or are trying to overcome weak academic histories. I'm sure you could find a similar program near you.)
  10. Dec 17, 2008 #9
    If you do stellar in an MS program at a lesser known school, is it possible to bee admitted to a pHD program at a competitive school thats probably most likely to have the program of my interest
  11. Dec 17, 2008 #10
    May I asked you this if you can't reveal anything else about your school to PF: Does your school have physics professors who conduct their research while teachiing physics courses?
  12. Dec 17, 2008 #11
    There have been one or two graduates in the last 5 years who have been admitted to UC Berkeley. So again... it's not beyond the realm of possibility. But most of the students either go straight into industry or into more competitive, but not top tier, Ph.D. programs.

    There are definitely professors doing research and publishing at this school. The majority of them would be willing to work with MS students. It's more of a problem the other way... most of the students already have jobs, and are attending the graduate classes after 4PM. Many of them don't have the time to commit to doing research.

    I'm not saying that this is an easy course of action... and if you had said you wanted to be an inventor, I would have just encouraged you to tinker in your garage. Similarly, if you had an interest in astronomy... amateur astronomers make interesting discoveries all the time. But physics research... it's almost impossible without formal training.
    Last edited: Dec 17, 2008
  13. Dec 17, 2008 #12

    Andy Resnick

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    Why not? Ernest Lawrence did.
  14. Dec 17, 2008 #13

    Vanadium 50

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    But Lawrence also had the full resources of the physics department at Berkeley at his disposal - a machine shop, glass blowers, vacuum pumps, RF power sources, etc.
  15. Dec 18, 2008 #14


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    With a BS or MS in physics you can get a job as a technician or research assistant in a research lab (university lab, national lab, private research institute).

    Technicians and research assistants in research labs run the equipment and carry out experiments under the instruction of the PI (whether professor or senior staff scientist), and may also work with grad students and postdocs.

    However as a technician you will probably not have autonomy to design your own experiments as usually your job is to carry out someone else's ideas. You may be listed as co-author on publications, but probably not more than that. Then again it depends on the heirarchichal culture of the lab. Senior technicians or those with many years experience can be seen as experts and given more autonomy. If your boss thinks highly of you and is not too set in the job descriptions they may allow you more autonomy as you prove your capabilities and gain experience and knowledge.

    You could also get a job as a technician in a tech company's R&D department. Companies usually have limits on publishing though, they tend to patent more than publish. Technicians may be included on patents depending on individual circumstances and company culture.

    You can also work at a high-tech startup company. (but this depends on the field of physics you are interested in, there aren't a whole lot of startups doing high energy physics! but there are companies that make use of atomic physics, and many companies that do solid state physics). Small companies are usually a lot less heirarchichal and have more fluid job descriptions. For examples, I know of some small high tech companies that often apply for SBIR grants ("small business innovation in research" program) and where the PIs can be employees who have BS or MS degrees and many years of experience. (whereas in a university or national lab you do need a PhD to qualify for PI status on a grant proposal)

    I should also add that if you work for a company in their R&D department, it will most likely be applied research as not many companies do basic research. If you are interested in basic research then your best bet is probably to get a staff job in an academic or national lab.
    Last edited: Dec 18, 2008
  16. Dec 18, 2008 #15
    What kinds of additional skills do you have to have besides a BS in physics to become a research assistant or technician? Could I get a job as a research assistant at a university?
  17. Dec 18, 2008 #16


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    Getting a job as a research assistant at a university probably isn't that realistic of a goal - I have a few friends who have gotten temporary (several year) research positions with just a BA or MS (at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) but this is pretty rare, since most universities will first hire their own graduate students for the job, and many graduate professors already have too many of their own students to even take on more, much less an outside research assistant.
  18. Dec 18, 2008 #17
    So a career as a lab technician out of the question? :(
  19. Dec 18, 2008 #18

    Andy Resnick

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    I hear what you are saying, but that's not really the point- the OP wants to know if (s)he can "conduct my own research, designed and performed physics experiments, and write out my own research results." without the benefit of a formal physics education. The answer to this is yes, with the obvious caveat that most likely whatever (s)he does is not going to be very interesting to anyone else.
  20. Dec 18, 2008 #19


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    I think it depends on the individual lab you are applying to. Generally I *think* this is sufficient but any hands-on experience would help, such as an internship in industry. For example labs may give you a higher salary if you have previous technician experience like if you are coming from industry. Without such experience they may still hire you but just at a lower salary until you are more experienced. It just depends on the individual situation.
  21. Dec 18, 2008 #20


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    I disagree somewhat.. at the national lab where I work, there are several career technicians who have been here 15, 20+ years and who are the foundation of their research groups. They have far more job security and career mobility than I (and many other postdoctoral researchers) do or could hope for. They are included on publications and patents as well. however these positions involve a lot of maintenance work as well, because the lab tech's job is first and foremost to keep the lab running such as repairing equipment, keeping track of inventory etc. Not just helping out with the cool experiments. Again, I think it varies a lot with the individual lab and boss.

    These positions are not abundant by any means, but they are there....

    In a university setting a lab tech position is more likely to be career level if you work for a large university "center" rather than just one individual professor's own lab.

    An individual professor who doesn't have much funding will probably just have his students do the work of technicians. But better-funded professors, or those who work as part of these multimillion dollar centers, do appreciate the greater efficiency that comes from a professional ongoing staff - students have high turnover so constant re-training of brand new students when previous ones graduate, is less than ideal for a lab/center that has the resources to avoid this. When I was in school our lab had a professional lab tech, he was the foundation of the group, he did everything from keeping the lab running to helping students with their experiments to training students as well. But because he was working for one professor the job wasn't 'permanent' but dependent on the professor's amount of grant money. after a few years he left to work for a high tech startup where, with his 20+ years of experience, he was the technical lead on several of their research contracts. In his absence, we (other students and me) took on his lab tech duties and learned a great deal from doing that. Even when he was still around there was often so much work that needed to be done in maintaining the lab that we students had to do a lot of it and he trained us.

    I think if you want to try for a career as a lab technician, it would be a good idea to look up the large research groups and research centers in the field you are interested in, that have a lot of funding. Those are more likely to have the need for ongoing technicians. Sometimes if you go to the websites of these national labs or university research centers they will post job vacancies and you can use that as a starting point - even if they don't have what you are looking for you can ask around from there to see who else to contact.
    Last edited: Dec 18, 2008
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