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How to change my career to one in physics?

  1. Oct 15, 2009 #1
    hi, i've been software engineer for the last 3 years. I graduated in industrial engineering with average scores in 2006. i was always passionate about physics, but it took me a while in knowing what my true calling is (i am 27 now!). but now that i've got myself into a mess, i am eager to change my career for what its worth for - study physics. I know that i have a lot of catching up to do, but i am looking forward to do BS or MS(if eligible) in theoritical physics. please advice me on possible career paths that can end in becoming a physicist. all my education has been in india. i checked out options in colleges in us and with friends of mine at MIT etc, they tell me its pretty competitive to get into good colleges. I am not sure if i'll be able to get into the average/poor ones either and cannot do without a scholarship.
    i have at any rate started learning physics on my own, but a formal education will help me greatly in catching up and also gibe me more time for studies. please advice me of any options that you guys know of.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 27, 2009 #2
    Hi there,

    I'm in a similar situation myself. I have an engineering degree in Comp Sc plus I did management after that. You will need some proof of your ability in physics so you should take the GRE subject. Apart from that you will need a couple of letters of recommendation and would need to tip the scale with a convincing SOP. Good luck!
  4. Oct 27, 2009 #3
    thanks collectedsoul, i had almost given up hope on any replies since i posted this some time ago and did not get a single response. you have made a very usefull suggession. u said that you were also in a similar situation. does that mean that you are also thinking about moving into physics?
  5. Oct 27, 2009 #4
    Er... doing well on the physics GRE doesn't really let you test out of a 4-year undergrad degree. Without some actual track record in physics classes and research, I can't imagine you'll be admitted to any graduate program.

    If you really want a career in physics, you should focus on getting a physics background then... either take individual courses and hope to build up enough background to be admittable to a graduate program, or just bite the bullet and go back for a bachelor's degree.
  6. Oct 27, 2009 #5
    TMFKAN64 , do universities have such criteria that they admit only people only if their bacheors is in physics? doing a full time degree is no option and "taking up courses" system is not available in our country...its a full degree or nothing. some other alternative?
  7. Oct 28, 2009 #6
    You can get away with more at lesser-known schools. I know of some schools that offer a terminal MS and will admit people without a BS in physics, conditional on them passing a few upper division undergraduate courses first. However, then you run into the problem that such schools usually have fewer financial resources available.
  8. Oct 28, 2009 #7
    looks like a no way out situation. let me look into this. thanks for the response.
  9. Oct 29, 2009 #8
    Well there are people who don't have a BSc in Physics and have been admitted to PhD programs. In fact there are some on this forum itself who could provide a better answer to the original qs. You're obviously at a disadvantage if you don't have direct background in Physics but Engineering bachelors can get admitted, and for them it is essential to do well on the subject test.
  10. Oct 29, 2009 #9
    Why do I suspect that these were mostly electrical engineers or people who had already studied more than the usual amount of physics as an undergrad? (Or took classes to bulk up their physics background after graduation?)

    I'd love to be proven wrong and hear about someone who was admitted to a Ph.D. program in physics without taking upper division physics courses, but learned the material through self-study.

    I believe it's possible to change your career, and I don't want to discourage the OP there... but while I think self-study is valuable, I don't think it's a direct path to graduate school.
  11. Oct 29, 2009 #10
    I just want do get into a post graduation program. I do not want to get into a Ph.D program right away because I feel P.G will give me enough time to catch up. I know that many universities do not give a terminal MS, but at least an integrated MS-Ph.D program where MS is via coursework would be ideal for me. I don't mind self studies and I am not doing degrees for job. I don't mind joining any university that can give me a scholarship or a bare minimum to live. The problem is that I am unable to find enough time to study with a regular job. Its just that I may get more time if i get into a college and I don't mind cutting expenses or throwing away my job for that. I just need a lot more time for it, and companies don't give you much, thats all... The worst part is time is running and I have only one life!
  12. Oct 29, 2009 #11
    I'm in a similar situation as the OP, so I can tell you that it can only help to know the facts about the situation and you're not being discouraging at all. I know that the better schools require you to have taken some quantum mechanics, thermodynamics and statistical mechanics courses, and certain schools admit non-physics majors provisionally and make them undergo some classes in these fields before they can enter the actual masters/doctoral program. So if you learn anything further about the engineering to physics path shift please let us know.
  13. Oct 29, 2009 #12


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    Against my better judgment, I'm going to add my 2-cent to this, because I've seen such repeated issues being brought up, and I'm just completely puzzled and aghast at such extremes.

    You have a background as a software engineer. Typically, I associate an engineer as someone who can make practical and useful things. And then, you want to swing all the way to the other side and do "theoretical physics"? I've seen this quite often on here. You have, for example, someone with an engineering background, such as electrical or mechanical, and want to do physics, but not just any physics, but "theoretical physics" in particular, and sometime, even (ugh!) string theory!

    Holy Cow! Is this one of those "theoretical physics or bust!" situation, where either you will do, and ONLY do, theoretical physics, or you won't do physics at all? Is there nothing in between? Is there not a "continuous band of subject matter" between "engineering" and "theoretical physics"? Do you have such a narrow view of what physics is? Does the fact that this year's Nobel Prize in physics actually went to the practical inventions of useful stuff is completely lost? What about doing experimental work? That is physics as well, and in fact, a LARGER part of physics deals with either dealing with running an experiment, or dealing with experimental results!

    The other thing I cringe is that in cases like this, no one seems to realize that one can use one's existing background as a strength instead of a liability. I've seen engineers especially not realizing that their background in mechanical design, electronics, etc. can actually be quite useful when they want to go into physics. In experimental work, we ALWAYS need engineers, and a physicist with an engineering know-how is such a valuable resource! I've lost count how many times I've had to do a mechanical design of a vacuum chamber, or make a triax circuit to have a floating anode to collect all the photoelectrons. I would love to have an engineering background considering that almost 50% of my time is what I consider as engineering work! While that engineering degree may not make you a physicist yet, that expertise can be used to make you a better physicist when you get the necessary education. So USE that! But of course, if all you care about is to be an "theoretical physicist", that may not be as useful!

    Software engineering? Look at how many areas of physics that actually require someone with an intimate knowledge of software and programming. In accelerator physics alone, there's a huge area of study that does nothing but numerical simulation to design everything from accelerator structures to particle beam dynamics. In fact, I'm currently involved with a detector physics project where we are trying to simulate the electron cascade through a multichannel pore plate to find the gain, all in an effort to build a faster and bigger photodetector. And yes, THAT is a part of physics as well!

    Moral of the story: If you choose wisely, your background can be an ASSET, not a liability, when you want to study physics. Whether you make a career out of it is an entirely different matter, and maybe if you don't think of it as a career change, then maybe what I've mentioned here is irrelevant. But for many others who have posted similar questions (and I've seen more than enough), it's about time this particular aspect is brought up.

  14. Oct 29, 2009 #13
    Appreciate your perspective. Please share more. :)

    The thing is, for me at least (and possibly others who want to switch from engineering), I didn't enjoy the engineering discipline I was involved in. In my case Computer engineering. And even if I thought of getting involved in parts of physics work where that came in handy, to get into a Ph.D. program I'd still have to show prowess in all the core physics parts. Will admission committees look at my grades in computer courses I took in college in lieu of a quantum mechanics course? If I was looking for that I'd probably be asked to try for an engineering masters.

    The other thing you have to consider is why people want to take up academics after spending time working in some industry. I feel its because these people realise they like to think more than do (something mundane and repetitive). Which makes them want to engage in solving thought problems and therefore dealing with theory, a la theoretical physics.
  15. Oct 29, 2009 #14
    If I can attempt to paraphrase ZapperZ's post, he was suggesting that instead of jumping straight into liontaming from chartered accountancy, perhaps we should make the transition through easy stages, such as insurance or banking instead?

    In case it wasn't clear from previous posts in this thread, I am also a software engineer with physics aspirations. In my case, I'm a little further along (just received my MS in physics), but rather than theoretical physics, my goal is to get into a lab somewhere and try to apply what I know, both about physics and computers. Not that I don't feel the lure of theoretical physics... but it's a very difficult field, with very few realistic job prospects for people who aren't insanely talented.
  16. Oct 29, 2009 #15
    The problem here is that people outside of physics tend to have some wildly incorrect ideas about what theoretical physicists do. If you look at what a day in the life of a theoretical physicist looks like, most of it involves staring at a computer screen trying to figure out what is causing this #$@$#@ bug in the computer code. Other parts involve writing grant proposals, grading papers, editing papers, etc. etc. There is creative thought involved, but there is also a huge amount that is boring and repetitive.

    The other issue is that most people with physics Ph.D.'s *don't* end up as theorists in academia. Most of the people I know with physics Ph.D.'s ended up as computer programmers.
  17. Oct 29, 2009 #16
    There are also few realistic job prospects for people who *are* insanely talented. A lot of whether you get a job in physics depends on funding, political connections, the topic of your dissertation, and about a dozen other things that people normally don't think of as "talent."
  18. Oct 30, 2009 #17
    Well, as far as job concerns go I know I won't make as much money as I was making. And if it comes down to desperate situations of needing a job I have the qualifications and the work experience to get a decent paying job (as do most others who quit to pursue physics).

    And if I have to draw an analogy like the one TMFKAN64 did I'd probably say its the lion taming I've quit to get into accounting. Besides, that idea of step by step transformation is probably better suited to comedy skits than real life.

    I'm not saying I'm committed to doing theoretical physics or nothing else, I just want to be immersed in a physical sciences learning environment.
  19. Oct 30, 2009 #18
    My main concern here is that I'm not quite sure what you are looking for, and since I'm not sure that the jobs that really do exist in physics and related fields are anything like what you are looking for.

    Most astrophysics nowadays is very heavily computational, and a lot of physics is applied computer science. The good/bad thing about dealing with nasty computer code is that you end up with the same sorts of issues (both political and technical) you do in standard computer programming jobs.

    Also, if you improve your math/physics skills so that you can do differential equations, this greatly *increases* your employability and expected salary. There are a lot of positions open in investment banks for this sort of thing. I do know people that have gotten really good at C++, gotten jobs in investment banks, and then moved into something more heavily mathematical.

    But I think the bad news is that you'll find that jobs in physics are like jobs anywhere else. You work with a group of people under a supervisor, trying to ship some product which is necessary in order to get the funds to pay for your salary, and a lot of the "daily grind" involves similar political and technical things that you find in non-physics jobs.

    The easiest way of doing this is to get a job at a national lab, university, or large "learning corporation" (Google or IBM for example) as a system administrator or a software developer.
  20. Oct 30, 2009 #19
    The other thing that is useful is to think about learning math as something akin to learning a new language. If you can get yourself to the point where you can read/write partial differential equations and linear algebra, then that will qualify you for about 90% of the jobs in physics. If you can get to that level, then reading an academic paper or textbook in most physics related fields should be more or less like reading a newspaper in a foreign country.
  21. Oct 30, 2009 #20
    But that's a technical learning environment.

    The daily grind and delivery of content is a format that exists in every case where remuneration is received. Its the content I'm interested in. If the content is engaging and satisfying then politics etc become non-issues really, or at worst small annoyances.

    What I am looking for in the long term is to get into research in an area I like and/or teaching. But for that I first need to convince an admission committee to let me in to a Ph.D. program.
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