I love physics, but I want more money and I'm considering a career change

  • #1
I am at a huge crossroads in life and in need of some guidance.

I graduated two years ago with a B.S. in Physics from an R1 university, and am currently in my second year of a physics PhD program at a different R1 university. From the moment I had my first research experience in high school, I knew I wanted to get a PhD. I love the research I do, I enjoy the academic environment, and the process of it all; However, since high school, I knew I did not want to go into academia. I don't want teach, but I love doing computational research. I knew my eventual path was in some form of industry, but getting my PhD has been a valuable experience that I am very happy with doing.

Additionally, I love traveling and experiencing the world. I have expensive hobbies that I love and want to pursue throughout my life. I have been very limited to do both within my student budget. I realized the life I want to live and the life I am set to live are very different, with the biggest difference is the money I am expected to make.

I have also found that I could be doing any computational research in the physical science realm, and I will probably enjoy it, regardless of the topic. This is where I am considering becoming a quant, but I am still trying to learn what that is, my chances for actually becoming one, and looking for other potential career options for me. I have even considered a PhD in finance or some sort, but that seems overkill for those types of jobs.

Looking back on it now, I should have minored in economics, did a master in data analysis, etc. I am considering leaving my program, working in one of these sectors for a few years, and getting a masters in a different field. But in order to do that, or even consider it, I need to figure out what my new path should be. Basically, I have no idea what I want to do with my life, just some general ideas. My biggest mistake was I had a plan of "get the phd and worry about it after," but I realize I need to become more aware and active to shape the future I want to be. Some things I have considered is working in intelligence (government work, CIA etc.), becoming a quant, data analysis, or finance. I have also considered administration and management, but in the field of physics and technology. Basically, become someone who can handle business side but understands the science side of things.

What options do I have with a PhD in physics looking to make money? What industries can I go into where my degree will be advantageous? I feel like I don't know what I don't know, so it has been hard to look into topics and plan ahead.
 

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  • #2
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How much money are we talking? $100K a year? $1M a year? How many years are you willing to wait until you make this much?
 
  • #3
berkeman
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I graduated two years ago with a B.S. in Physics from an R1 university, and am currently in my second year of a physics PhD program at a different R1 university.
What areas of Physics are your interests and specialties, and what is the subject of your PhD work now?
 
  • #4
How much money are we talking? $100K a year? $1M a year? How many years are you willing to wait until you make this much?
By the time I am in my late thirties, I would like to make at least 200k. Ideally, I would like to earn six figures straight out of grad school (don't we all) but if I'm switching into a new field I will probably be starting at the "bottom," and not making that much. $1M year would be great! But I am not sure what jobs I could get that would pay that much.
 
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  • #5
What areas of Physics are your interests and specialties, and what is the subject of your PhD work now?
I want to be a bit anonymous since it is a niche field, but very computational and involves a lot of visual modeling. I combine data and code to create physical models and simulations.
 
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  • #6
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I want to be a bit anonymous since it is a niche field, but very computational and involves a lot of visual modeling. I combine data and code to create physical models and simulations.
Let me get this straight. You are an expert in a field with niche skills? But, you have no idea how much someone working in this field might earn? And, without telling us the field, you want us to tell you how much someone else might pay you to work for them?
 
  • #7
Let me get this straight. You are an expert in a field with niche skills? But, you have no idea how much someone working in this field might earn? And, without telling us the field, you want us to tell you how much someone else might pay you to work for them?
Sorry, by niche I mean the subfield of physics I am in, like plasma physics, stellar astrophysics, etc. My field is not huge and I want to stay anonymous in that sense. I am by no means an expert, I have only completed one year of this program and going onto my second. I am not at candidacy level, which is why I am considering leaving this year with a masters and switching to a new field.

I know how much those in my field earn, which even long term would be no more than 160k-ish. I am not trying to do physics or even research as a career. I would switch to anything as long as a decent amount of my current skills are transferable, it pays well, and I can enjoy the work. I just don't know what I don't know at this point, and am looking to get more advice on potential career paths I can go on. Basically, what industries/jobs can I go into with a physical science background and some programming and data analysis skills?
 
  • #8
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My understanding is that six figures straight out of grad school is not impossible if you work in the right field.
I know of a few people (from Europe) who just finished their PhDs working on topics related to quantum computing and have been recruited by some of the major US tech companies (Google, Honeywell, IBM etc); the ones who have ended up in California are very well paid; but they will also live in very expensive areas.

That said, the financial sector will obviously be a safer bet if your goal is to make lots of money, but do keep in mind that "having hobbies" and "working as a well paid quant" are not necessarily compatible demands.
I know quite few people who work for investment banks (and related sectors) here in London and most of them spent the first 10-15 years of their working life working ridiculously long hours (80+ hour weeks are not at all uncommon and forget about taking more than a week off during the summer). I don't believe any of them had time to pursue any hobbies.
Moreover, while they are well off none of them are "rich"; you need a surprising amount of money to maintain an "upper middle class" lifestyle (4 bedroom house in a nice area, a nice car, a couple of kids in private school etc) in a city like London.
 
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  • #9
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By the time I am in my late thirties, I would like to make at least 200k. Ideally, I would like to earn six figures straight out of grad school (don't we all) but if I'm switching into a new field I will probably be starting at the "bottom," and not making that much. $1M year would be great!
OK, we're talking about the top 3% of the US population at $200K, by late 30's and more like 0.05% to get to $1M regularly. A physics professor at a flagship state school might hit $200K just before retirement, but probably not.

It's true that the very first quants made a ton of money. That's less true today.
It's also true that the very first data scientists made a ton of money. That's less true today.
It's also true that the very first quantum computationalists made a ton of money. It remains to be seen how long this will last.
My advice is to pick a topic that will become important and lucrative a few years from now. Or as was once said "Buy a stock and sell it when it goes up. If it don't go up, don't buy it."
 
  • #10
gleem
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I do not understand why a person who wants career advice for finance is using a physics forum.
 
  • #11
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Doesn't he say why? He wants to get a PhD in physics and he also wants to be a gazillionaire. Further, he doesn't want to give up one for the other.
 
  • #12
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By the time I am in my late thirties, I would like to make at least 200k.
Well, government/academia won't get you there. Govt tops out at 150k unless you make upper management/SES (late career), in which case, you might get to $200k at age 55-60.

If my goal were to have a salary in excess of $200k, I'd be looking for management tracks at medium to large private companies. A PhD in physics is a good way to get your foot in the door toward a senior scientist position at many places, which will generally land you a six-figure salary (maybe not right out of grad school, but probably within 5 years, depending on where you live). And if you find a good mentor and pursue the right career moves (and generally do well in your work), you can aim toward the managerial side of things, where positions usually have the title "Deputy Director" or "Director of xyz" or "VP of uvw." Those positions tend to have salaries+benefits in the multiple $100k's. Can you get there by age 40? It's possible; I have a few friends who have done it. It's probably realistic to say that this plan would lead to a salary of $150-200k by age 40. You certainly won't be doing physics at that point, though.

If you want to have a $1M salary, you might be better off starting your own business. It's the easiest/hardest way to get there.
 
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  • #13
I do not understand why a person who wants career advice for finance is using a physics forum.
It is not necessarily finance, could be anything where I have the decent potential to transfer in the field (e.g. software engineering). I have also mentioned my interest in going into a more administrative roll, but still within the field of science. I also read a ton of similar posts on this forum so I did not seem too far out there. Maybe there was a industry job IN physics that pays well that I did not know about. I figured that people in physics would have good advice on where other people in physics went for jobs outside academia.
 
  • #14
My understanding is that six figures straight out of grad school is not impossible if you work in the right field.
I know of a few people (from Europe) who just finished their PhDs working on topics related to quantum computing and have been recruited by some of the major US tech companies (Google, Honeywell, IBM etc); the ones who have ended up in California are very well paid; but they will also live in very expensive areas.

That said, the financial sector will obviously be a safer bet if your goal is to make lots of money, but do keep in mind that "having hobbies" and "working as a well paid quant" are not necessarily compatible demands.
I know quite few people who work for investment banks (and related sectors) here in London and most of them spent the first 10-15 years of their working life working ridiculously long hours (80+ hour weeks are not at all uncommon and forget about taking more than a week off during the summer). I don't believe any of them had time to pursue any hobbies.
Moreover, while they are well off none of them are "rich"; you need a surprising amount of money to maintain an "upper middle class" lifestyle (4 bedroom house in a nice area, a nice car, a couple of kids in private school etc) in a city like London.
I would agree with this. I think if I go that route, I would have to deeply consider the sacrifice I will have to make to accumulate and save my money for a decade or so just to then be able to settle into my hobbies and other life, but much later on. To be fair, unless I am an Elon Musk or get a lucky lotto ticket, this would be the case for any job that is considered 'high paying.'

I was given a great idea yesterday by someone I know that I could combine physics and computer science to work on physics engines or 3D rendering software, which is something that sounds really interesting.
 
  • #15
OK, we're talking about the top 3% of the US population at $200K, by late 30's and more like 0.05% to get to $1M regularly. A physics professor at a flagship state school might hit $200K just before retirement, but probably not.

It's true that the very first quants made a ton of money. That's less true today.
It's also true that the very first data scientists made a ton of money. That's less true today.
It's also true that the very first quantum computationalists made a ton of money. It remains to be seen how long this will last.
My advice is to pick a topic that will become important and lucrative a few years from now. Or as was once said "Buy a stock and sell it when it goes up. If it don't go up, don't buy it."
Yes, thats true. I think that is what AI and machine learning is becoming the new hot topic now and I am seeing much more jobs open in that area. I am wondering how long that will last and if it will still be hot 8-10 years from now. There is a ton of machine learning happening in my field of physics now, which might be a really lucrative option as it is not as competitive as the machine learning computer science programs, but will give me the same general skillset to be hired.

My monetary concerns are also not totally having money to spend, but having it to save for retirement and emergencies. Putting bare minimum into my Roth every year has been stressing me out a bit, but I am probably not as far off from my monetary goals as I thought.
 
  • #16
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So some thoughts:

1) Finishing your PhD is probably a wise choice if you can manage it in 2 years. The work you're doing builds skills that have applications lots of places, and having that PhD on your resume will have value.

2) Bailing out with a Masters is not a terrible idea if you could do so immediately. The NPV of your total income with a PhD 2 years from now and a Masters now are probably pretty close. I'd think the Masters would be higher, but it's probably by an amount that isn't life changing.

3) Making $100k two years from now - whether by grabbing a masters and getting 2 years exp or by finishing PhD - is imminently doable, if you look in the right places. $140k 5 years from now should be doable, too. $200k by your late 30's is tougher, but doable. In my experience, and given the people I've talked to, there comes a point somewhere between $125k and $200k where if you want to go higher you pay a price. Given that taxes start taking a solid chunk of your earnings, and that last $50k may not be worth it. Make sure you know what you really want. So for instance, the 80hr work weeks mentioned above are a price some fail to value properly. Or, alternatively, moving into management pays more, but can be super un-fun.

4) An important note about machine learning/ai/data science/etc: about 90% of the time it doesn't work nearly as well as sold, but 10% of the time it does at least as good or better*. Most large projects fail. For every happy news story you read, there's a pile of corpses. Sometimes that happy news story is actually a corpse. The good news from that is that there's real value there, and folks will be working for at least a quarter century trying to extract it (meaning those of us who work in that space have jobs). The bad news is that it means that you end up being a part of lots of failures. It can be demoralizing.

*Those percentages come from my personal experience, but there's solid evidence out there that will put you at 60% - 80%, and failures are under reported.
 
  • #17
Joshy
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You could probably get a six figure salary as an entry-level RF engineer with a bachelors degree and there is a lot of overlap with physics.
 
  • #18
radium
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The starting salary for a quant at a hedge fund can be in the $300,000-$400,000 range not including the bonus. With bonus, you can often make over one million a year within a few years. Many of these hedge funds (DE Shaw for example) have summer internship programs that you can do during the end of your PhD.
 
  • #19
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By the time I am in my late thirties, I would like to make at least 200k. Ideally, I would like to earn six figures straight out of grad school (don't we all) but if I'm switching into a new field I will probably be starting at the "bottom," and not making that much. $1M year would be great! But I am not sure what jobs I could get that would pay that much.

Really??? Six figures out of grad school?? I work in industry, we don't hire people without significant experience in the 6 figure range, high 5, but not 6 at all. and 200K in your late 30's, go into quant if you want money and get out of physics.
 
  • #20
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My understanding is that six figures straight out of grad school is not impossible if you work in the right field.
I know of a few people (from Europe) who just finished their PhDs working on topics related to quantum computing and have been recruited by some of the major US tech companies (Google, Honeywell, IBM etc); the ones who have ended up in California are very well paid; but they will also live in very expensive areas.

That said, the financial sector will obviously be a safer bet if your goal is to make lots of money, but do keep in mind that "having hobbies" and "working as a well paid quant" are not necessarily compatible demands.
I know quite few people who work for investment banks (and related sectors) here in London and most of them spent the first 10-15 years of their working life working ridiculously long hours (80+ hour weeks are not at all uncommon and forget about taking more than a week off during the summer). I don't believe any of them had time to pursue any hobbies.
Moreover, while they are well off none of them are "rich"; you need a surprising amount of money to maintain an "upper middle class" lifestyle (4 bedroom house in a nice area, a nice car, a couple of kids in private school etc) in a city like London.
Their job is part of their "hobbies".

But I believe it's hazardous if they don't have a physical exercise a few days in the week... for the heart!!! :-)
 
  • #21
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By the time I am in my late thirties, I would like to make at least 200k. Ideally, I would like to earn six figures straight out of grad school (don't we all) but if I'm switching into a new field I will probably be starting at the "bottom," and not making that much. $1M year would be great! But I am not sure what jobs I could get that would pay that much.
Where do you want to live? If you don't specify a location, then these salaries aren't telling us much about the standard of living that you desire. And if you don't think you particularly care where you live, then specifying dollar amounts doesn't make much sense. 200k in Manhattan supports a different lifestyle than 200k in Richland WA (site of Pacific Northwest National Lab).

From personal experience, if something is important to you (hobbies, people), then the plan to delay spending time on those in order to accumulate wealth first is a kind of gamble. I have a friend who was working crazy hours with the goal of retiring early so he and his wife could pursue other dreams. Just a few years before retirement he died unexpectedly. In my mind, it isn't worth it. I can respect other choices, but you should at least think a little about what your priorities are and what risks you are willing to take.

Jason
 
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  • #22
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My very good friend from grad school got his PhD Astronomy (because he loved it and had a good tutor to get him through E & M !). He founded four companies because he loved that. The last one did well and he was on the Forbes 400 at one point, He will never worry about money......

I think you need to think about things other than starting salaries.
 
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  • #23
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You should look into working at a hedge fund if you want to make 200k per year. They get paid a good salary plus a lot of bonuses. Some skills I see for hedge funds is C++, Python, web development, analytics, machine learning, trading experience, finance knowledge, mathematics and either a PhD or an advanced degree. It seems like these sort of "data scientist" or quantitative analyst jobs are looking for renaissance men, so the bar is pretty high. Yet, I only have experience with Python and managed to get an interview to work for a hedge fund once. A PhD in physics may actually help you get there, but it would depend on what you studied and worked on.
 
  • #24
rkr
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This is where I am considering becoming a quant... I have even considered a PhD in finance or some sort
I don't think I've ever encountered a quant with a PhD in finance. Most of us have backgrounds in physics, economics, CS or mathematics.

Looking back on it now, I should have minored in economics, did a master in data analysis, etc.
In any case, it seems a significant part of your post is rooted in the assumption that your degree choice has predetermined how much you can earn, which I disagree strongly with. As far as I've seen, one's choice of degree option only provides strong explanation for the first $100k in annual income, thereafter most of it is determined by other factors - cross-disciplinary skills, soft skills, personality traits, job choices, personal relationships etc. - and of course, luck.

I've seen peers with physics and math degrees make $200k per year working for Burger King, consulting for mining companies, running a bakery, organizing talks, making YouTube videos, managing a gaming team, modeling and so on. A physics degree does not preclude you from any of these career paths.

I love traveling and experiencing the world.

Basically, what industries/jobs can I go into with a physical science background and some programming and data analysis skills?

Basically, become someone who can handle business side but understands the science side of things.
Maybe a consulting firm like Palantir? There's also similar roles in McKinsey/BCG/Bain where you basically work as a software contractor at upcharge. There's also consulting parts of large firms like E&Y that hire physics PhDs. You'll most likely get better travel opportunities through these than finance, though it really depends what types of projects you're posted to.

I think people don't point out that there's also a tail in finance jobs. Sure, you can nab $300k in your first years out of a physics program working for a respectable firm like Rentec, Citadel, GSA etc. But like anything that pays $300k, these roles are highly competitive and selective. For every one of these roles, there's many more pedestrian roles at lower tier firms that pay at significant discount to finance/business departments of tech firms and startups and will probably continue to underpay for the next few years with the current trend.

You can also go through an investment banking track starting with a physics PhD and breach $300k when you hit VP level or switch to a private equity firm before that. But this comes with significant opportunity cost because the hours are long and the skills are less transferable.
 
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