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Is getting a physics degree a good idea?

  1. Jul 10, 2010 #1
    Hey everyone. I'm getting ready to start college in a few months, and I've started to get a little worried about what I'm going to major in. Right now, I've been thinking of doing a physics/math double major, as they're both complementary and easy to pull off (there's a lot of overlap for degree requirements). I've just been thinking about long term goals and I'm not sure if choosing such a concentrated degree choice is a good idea.
    I've been reading topics on this forum for a while, and I've come across two recurring opinions. One, that physics degrees show problem solving and that you're a smart person, and thus are relatively marketable in different areas. Second, is that physics research jobs are highly competitive to get into, and chances are I'm not going to get a job that I'm satisfied with for years, if at all. Now, at this moment, I'm interested in going into physics research, but the unsure likeliness of getting a decent job with it is making me doubt that. Now I'm also interested in maybe doing medical research, or becoming a doctor, or perhaps something else. I haven't completely ruled out many things. At this point, I don't know enough about any field to make an informed decision of what I want to do. But is the idea that a physics degrees are marketable in areas other than physics true? Would a physics/biology double major be better if I applied to a PhD-MD program? Basically, will choosing physics/math, which in my opinion is pretty concentrated, hinder me in the long run if I chose to not go into physics research? And if I do end up getting a PhD in physics and pursue physics research, will I probably not find a decent job?
    Thanks in advance!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 10, 2010 #2
    I'm an undergrad myself, and I just finished my Freshman year as a Physics/Math double major. I have spent tons of time thinking about it since. My major question was if I could get a job with these degrees, with or without graduate school. The general consensus I seem to have absorbed is:

    1. Physics/mathematics bachelor's degree(s) can get you an engineering job in some cases, but some won't even let you apply if you don't have an engineering degree, or they give higher preference to an engineering degree. Worst case scenario, I can take the teacher's test and be a high school physics teacher, since they are severely needed right now.

    2. I can apply to a physic MS or PhD program, and I should also stand a chance at an electrical or mechanical engineering MS, ME, or PhD program, though I might need a couple undergrad courses to catch up.

    3. If I go the Physics PhD route, I'm looking at probably working in industry. Programming, finance, engineering, management, and government positions are pretty common choices for a PhD in industry, and they have essentially the lowest unemployment rates period, with a pretty nice salary to match. Getting a position in academia is a dream job, and there is tons of competition for too few spots. And getting a PhD is essentially sacrificing six years of your life, and six years of earning.

    4. For getting into an MD or MD-PhD program, it seems like a Biology major really won't help too much. Just make sure you have the pre-reqs for whatever program you apply to. I know a physics/classical studies double major who recently got accepted into an ivy league MD program.

    Overall, I'm happy with my major. If I run short on time, I'll drop my math major to a BA track, or even a minor. I am planning on grad school, but haven't yet decided between physics and engineering. For now I'll just see where the degree takes me, and what the market is like a couple years from now when I apply to grad schools. If you love physics, go ahead and major in it. If all you care about is a secure job in industry, major in engineering. Don't plan on working in academia, but government labs can still offer a decent research environment if research is where you really want to work. For an MD, just take the typical pre-med classes (Cell bio, O-Chem 1&2, etc). A physics degree is really quite versatile, you just need to know how to work it.

    I kind of rambled, but I hope my wondering and wandering helps a bit. You certainly aren't alone.

    But I'm still an undergrad, and could be entirely wrong.

    Good luck!
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2010
  4. Jul 10, 2010 #3


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    I can tell you that you're concerns are pretty normal for someone thinking about going into physics or even for people who are already in it.

    I can't tell you that everything will be okay - that you'll have a perfect job waiting for you when you graduate, that it will be everything you want, that your degree will train you completely for it. No one can.

    What I might suggest is to keep your options open. Your major is just a placeholder in your first year for the most part. If you're following a science route, you'll generally end up taking a mix of first year science classes. This will give you another year to think about your options and see what university is really like - you might discover a new passion, or at least learn that you don't want to pursue one area or another.

    Physics degrees themselves aren't usually as marketable as professional degrees. But they are more marketable than other science degrees. What are significantly marketable are the skills that you learn.
  5. Jul 10, 2010 #4

    Andy Resnick

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    I completely agree with Choppy, and also commend you (both) for giving your long-term career goals some serious thought, most people either wait until the last possible second before they graduate, if at all.
  6. Jul 10, 2010 #5
    Thanks everyone for the replies.

    @chickenwing: Yeah, at least at this point, I don't think that I'll go engineering. Maybe this will change, but I'm really more interested in the science, rather than what we can make out of it. And yes, I really wouldn't want to make a whole major out of biology. It would probably be a pain. I do find it interesting that you know someone who double majored in physics/classical studies. I was seriously considering doing that exact combination a little while ago. Do you think that the classical studies major helped him a lot in getting into his prestigious med school, or do you think he would have gotten in anyways? Thanks for your elaborate response.

    @choppy: I'm definitely going to leave my options open. I think I'm going to try to take a lot of general science courses in the beginning so I wouldn't be too far behind if I decided to switch majors.

    @Andy Resnick: Thanks, I've gotten a little obsessive over it actually. I just don't want to end up doing something that I'll regret later on.

    What exactly are the opportunities for physics research in all places (academia, industry, government)? Is academia really that hard to get into? Not saying that it's an easy job market, but is it so hard to get into that trying would more than likely be a waste of time (time is probably the most important resource we have)? Is the market for government comparable?
  7. Jul 10, 2010 #6
    I don't know about government, but I do know a lot of physicists are employed in industry work and that work in academia is very hard to get into. Everybody wants in, and there aren't enough professorships and positions for everybody. Professors produce multiple PhD students, but the growth rate doesn't keep up.

    Personally, if you're worried about the job market, keep with the Physics, but fulfill the premed requirements on the side. If you want, you can add a minor in chem or turn the math major into a minor for more room (depending on how much room you have) but from what I've heard Physics majors do well in getting into med school. Pretty much everybody majors in Biology, so it helps to do something different like Chem or Physic.
  8. Jul 11, 2010 #7
    This all sounds rather calculating. Do you have a deep interest in any particular subject ? Follow your interests, since you will do best in something that interests you.
  9. Jul 11, 2010 #8
    There are thousands of different types of employers that like to recruit physics graduates. You won't necessarily be doing physics research - but the skillset you get from the degree is excellent and applicable in many different fields. For research, there are plenty of large companies, depending on what you want to do. There is room for physics research in things like electronics to oil to defence to aerospace.

    It depends what you mean. Something like a post-doc perhaps isn't that hard to get into - full time permanent positions however, are. So, yes.
  10. Jul 11, 2010 #9
    Well I'm definitely interested in physics, and not just the media glorified version of it. I think I have a decent understanding of what physics really is, and am interested in that. But I'm also pretty interested in biology, and think I would be just fine doing something medicine related. But I do really want to do research, which was why I was thinking about the MD-PhD thing. I just don't want to pursue something that I'm very interested in, and then end up having to do something that I'm not interested in, like business, when I can't find a job.
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