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Physics Is it better to get a physics degree than a business degree to work in business?

  1. Apr 20, 2012 #1
    I was reading an article how the business degree (aside from accounting and perhaps finance) is considered by employers to be virtually worthless. The reasons for this are basically that the typical business student is not too bright and rather lazy, with virtually no math or computational classes required (baby calculus & statistics), leaving students who don't even have the critical thinking skills that at least a liberal arts education would give. Basically the employers are saying that whatever is learned in the typical business curriculum (again, aside from accounting and perhaps finance) can be learned on the job, and that it is better to have the folks who can either write very well (i.e., liberal arts degree) or deal with math (e.g., math or physics degree) very well.

    I suppose that the best of both worlds would be to get a degree in physics and a minor in general business, but even then, a degree in physics and minor in math would seem to be even better!

    Some folks might say, just work in physics, software development, or engineering, etc., but it seems like for folks from wealthy countries, it is poor career choice, since employers would rather hire folks from places like Kolkata, India or Cheungking, China at rock bottom labor rates. Some might also say go to work as a Wall Street quant, and while that may have some merit, it seems that the only way now to get work (and after the crisis, there isn't as much work) is to get a master's degree in mathematical finance from one of the top expensive schools and hope that work can be found to pay off that massive debt.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 21, 2012 #2


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    No, it's not.
  4. Apr 22, 2012 #3


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    I would greatly appreciate it if you could provide a link to the article you just mentioned (or mention which magazine or website you have found the article).

    I have always suspected that a general undergraduate business degree on its own (as opposed to an accounting degree or human resources specialist degree) is not particularly useful (the situation is different for MBAs, which deserves a whole other post).

    A combination of a business degree with either a liberal arts, science or engineering degree could be highly valuable. I know that a number of engineering departments in different universities offer a management science/business option or minor, and some schools offer special science and business double majors.
  5. Apr 22, 2012 #4
  6. Apr 23, 2012 #5


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    Could you care to elaborate further on this?
  7. Apr 24, 2012 #6
    I don’t know what fss might have been thinking, but I have a similar frame of mind. It’s hard to think of a position in most businesses where having a physics degree in physics wouldn’t be a huge liability, much less an asset. If some algorithm doesn’t pare you out, some tool in HR will. I know all our professors did their best to convince us that someone in middle management is going to be sifting through resumes for a lower middle management position, see a physics BS and shout to their subordinate “Physics! A real problem solver! Get me this candidate RIGHT NOW!”

    But they aren’t.

    The thing is, most jobs in business are less fun than cleaning zoo cages. I know it sounds super exciting to get to manage a bunch of angry failures grinding away their day at a customer support phone bank, but I just don’t think it lives up to the hype. I feel confident the answer to the question “Is it better to get a physics degree than a business degree to work in business?” is “no”. . . but what about working in business jobs that are actually worth working in? That I’m a lot less sure about.

    I really like my job, after all, and I do have a physics degree.
  8. Apr 24, 2012 #7


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    It's interesting that you seem to think that most businesses will identify a physics degree (for the purposes of discussion here, an undergraduate degree in physics) will be thought of as a liability. How would a physics degree be deemed worse than, say, someone with an undergraduate degree in a liberal arts field such as history or English, or a social science field such as psychology or sociology?

    Frankly, I don't really think that many HR staff or hiring manager in general business (again, not oriented to a specific skillset) will really care what degree someone earns at an undergraduate level, so long as someone earned a degree, had some work or volunteer experience, or what type of extracurricular activities they were involved in, and demonstrate good communication skills. Not to mention ability to network and know the right people.

    I agree with you that most business jobs that isn't oriented to a specific skill set is drudge work (think bank tellers, customer support staff, sales, etc.)
  9. Apr 24, 2012 #8
    I have no idea. But many people think so. Don’t believe me? Let’s ask typical middle manager person.

    Typical middle manager person, what do you think about hiring physicists?

    Well, there you are!

    Hmm maybe. But let’s ask our Local HR Tool just to be sure.

    Local HR Tool, do you care what particular degree someone earns?

    So you were right! They really don’t care. But the system does.

    Now that you’ve heard it straight from [strike]stuff I made up[/strike] the horse’s mouth, I’m sure you’ll agree with me.
  10. Apr 24, 2012 #9


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    *lol* Locrian, I see your point about the HR personnel tossing resumes regarding those who do not have a degree of accounting or related disciplines. But technically, someone with a BA in English lit would just as likely to have his/her resume tossed as somewith a BS in physics -- since any resume that doesn't have the word "accounting" would be tossed by the computer. So a physics degree wouldn't be any more of a liability than other degrees.

    As far as the middle manager is concerned, obviously who is looking at your resume matters a lot in terms of whether you'll be noticed. It may well be the case that a middle manager or senior manager will dismiss a physics degree (or any science degree) for the reasoning that your "fake" middle manager outlined. It's also just as likely that a middle manager may well be piqued with curiosity at the science resume simply because that resume is different from the stack of resume he/she sees (particularly if that resume in addition highlights projects demonstrating key analytical/problem solving skills, skills highly valued in business). And being noticed is often the first step in getting an interview.
  11. Apr 24, 2012 #10
    First of all, it's important to distinguish between undergraduate, masters, and doctoral degrees.

    Second, one can argue that if there aren't that many jobs available then any sort of degree is not going to be too useful.

    In fact, salaries for high end programmers in China and India are comparable to US salaries, so much so that there are decent numbers of people that are emigrating to those countries. The salaries that are low in China and India are extremely basic jobs, and 1) those jobs moved out of the US years ago and 2) you don't need a college degree for them.

    Or you could get a Ph.D. in physics and math or a masters in computer science. I'd actually advise people that want to work as a quant to *not* get a degree in mathematical finance. You are better off getting a degree in applied mathematics, computer science, or statistics.
  12. Apr 24, 2012 #11
    For some jobs, you can be overqualified. It's often the case that the employer wants someone that just shuffles paper and doesn't think too much, and for those types of jobs, someone that things about the universe will just go insane.

    The world of work is not like academia. It's often the case that being too smart or thinking too much will cost you a job. Not that it's necessarily a bad thing.
  13. Apr 25, 2012 #12
    In most bureaucracies, different is bad. People want exactly the same employee that they've hired a million times before. If you hire the same type of employee that you've hired a million times before, and something goes wrong, then it's not your fault. If you do something new and different and it blows up, then you are in big trouble.

    One other factor is that most middle managers feel extremely uncomfortable hiring people that they think are smarter than they are. If you have a position in which the middle manager can't do calculus, then either calculus is irrelevant for the job, in which case calculus is irrelevant for the job, or calculus is relevant, in which case you won't get the job because the middle manager doesn't want you taking over his job.

    Bottom line. If your main concern in life is to just get a job, then don't do physics or science. It doesn't make any sense. The trouble is that there is this notion that you should "work to live" and not "live to work." One reason that it's good to point out how crazy and ridiculous "work" is is to make the point that you should do whatever it it is to avoid starving (which isn't that difficult), and not structure your entire life around your job.
  14. Apr 25, 2012 #13


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    Your point will depend crucially on what type of business bureaucracy you are looking at. Some of the most lucrative positions in businesses often involve considerable technical know-how (your particular career field as a quant is the perfect example; others include data-mining, market research, etc.) and in those fields, a manager may well wish to hire someone who is proficient in that particular technical know-how -- a proficiency that the manager may or may not possess. In which case a science degree, in particular a physics degree or some cognate field, is certainly competitive, more than, say, a business degree.

    It's also worth pointing out that for many people, their main concern in life is to not just get any job to avoid starving, but to get a decent paying job so that they can afford to do the things they would really like to do, such as buy and own a home, travel, pursue hobbies, get married or raise a family. Let's face it -- almost everything in life that is worth doing costs money, and if you don't have it (or only have enough to avoid starving), it's difficult to impossible to enjoy life or to be alive.
  15. Apr 25, 2012 #14
    1) Physics is a particularly stupid way of getting into finance. Now that's great for me because I never cared particularly about getting into finance. I'm interested in physics and it turns out that finance pays the bills.

    But part of the reason I'm a bit cynical is the realization that 98% of the people in the company that I work for have no particular need for physics skills. Also the higher you go in the company, the less important technical skills are. On the Dilbert scale, my current job rates about 60/100. That's means that about 60% of time is spent on things that are basically non-sense. That's *really* good. It's enough to keep me from going totally crazy..... Most days.

    If you are interested in physics, and you want to make money off of it, I can help you. If your looking at what will make you attractive for most jobs, don't go into physics. Don't go into science. Go into business, because the way to make money in our society is not to do your own work, but to find clever ways of making money off the work of other people.

    Also employers lie. Sometimes they lie to themselves about what they really want from an employee. We want an obedient slave doesn't sound too good in the brochures.

    Science gets no respect in the US. The people that make the money are people in finance, business, and marketing. Whether this is good for the US in the long run is something that I'm deeply concerned about, but in the short run, there's very little I can do to change priorities and I just have to do what I have to do.

    And what ends up happening is that as you make more money, you get tempted by more things, and strangely enough, the amount of money that goes out of your bank account at the end of the month is always just a bit more than what goes in.

    That's what they want you to think. The way that business works is to convince people that you are *compelled* to hand over money to the person that asks for your wallet.

    They are very clever, the people in sales and marketing.

    Some of the happiest people I know really don't make that much money. The problem with money is that once you have money, you move into a different social circle, and you feel poor because you make less money than everyone else that you know.

    But happiness or enjoyment was never high on my list of priorities, so it doesn't bother me that much.
  16. Apr 25, 2012 #15


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    twofish-quant, what you say may well be valid for finance per se, but in my particular field of expertise (pharmaceutical/health research) having some sort of science background is crucial to even have a shot at being hired in most positions. (as for me, my Dilbert scale is closer ranges around 30-45/100, in which I spend around 30-45% of the time on essentially non-sense -- i.e. unrelated to my expertise in statistics, my specialty).

    As far as science getting no respect in the US, that may well be true (at least in those who work in non-science areas). However, your contention that the money is made by those in finance, business or marketing -- this really only applies to a small minority of graduates with undergraduate degrees in business (I am not considering MBA's here, which is another discussion). Business is among the most popular undergraduate degrees in colleges/universities, which means that there is an excess in supply of business graduates -- do you honestly think that many of these graduates will end up working in a lucrative field in their field, especially in the current world economy?

    As far as your point about money, this perhaps tells me more about people with a lack of discipline in spending or have an excessive concern about social status. I have always believed (and was brought up to believe) that money is a form of security and placed a premium on saving money when possible. Which means that my current spending habits aren't substantially different from the time when I was fresh out of school, even though I earn considerably more now than when I was a recent graduate.

    One last point: earning more money may not bring you happiness, but many things that is enjoyable in life -- travelling, watching a play, reading, going to the gym, going to a good restaurant -- cost money (money to travel, money to buy that ticket, money to buy books or pay for Internet subscription). You may not need to be wealthy, but earning enough money to survive plus enjoy the extras in life, as well as work in a field that you find fulfilling most of the time, is a life worth living.
    Last edited: Apr 25, 2012
  17. Apr 25, 2012 #16
    I have found that, generally, those who studied science have a harder time getting established if they want to transition into general business careers.

    It has been said a few times already just in this thread, but HR people don't care what degree you have assuming it doesn't match the job posting. They have so much to sort through as it is, that being different will more than likely not help at all. If there is some sort of IT job open, even if you have A+ cert (which is worth about the paper it's printed on), and a physics degree with CS minor, you'll get your resume thrown out because there are more than likely 50+ guys who went to ITT who already applied for said job. The same reasoning goes for anything quasi-specialized in business (HR, accounting, marketing, etc...) When there are 100 people applying for 1 job and 20 of them have exactly what is outlined by the company's job posting, then guess what? If you aren't one of those 20, your resume has already been tossed.

    Most middle managers have no clue about anything in science or academia. I found Locrian's depiction of TypicalMiddleManagerPerson and LocalHRTool to be quite accurate. A conversation I have had several times during interviews:

    Middle Manager: "Could you tell me about a time you took a leadership role in your fraternity?"
    Me: "I wasn't in a fraternity, but I can tell you about the most recent time I have been in a leadership position if you wish."
    Middle Manager: "Oh, but your resume says you were in Phi Beta Kappa, I just thought you were a greek man, like myself."
    Me: "Ah, no, Phi Beta Kappa is one of the U.S.'s oldest honor societies, a dozen or so of our presidents have been in it, as well as many Nobel Laureates ... at least that is what it is typically known for." ... "Anyway, the last leadership position I was in ..."
    Middle Manger: "[interrupting] Never mind, [then, to the other people interviewing me] who has the next question?"

    That is usually when I lose their interest. Phi Beta Kappa has been off my resume for many years; it loses many more possible jobs than it opens doors for. I have also found that (this is just my personal experience) including simple things beside your education info (like GPA, magna cum laude, etc...) on my resume tend to kill many more interviews than they have earned me. Just some food for thought.

    *To the OP: If you really want to get into business and still want to do physics, just double major, but make sure to spend more time networking the other business classmates. They'll most likely peg you as "that guy who's really smart ... he's a physics double major" and that may play in your favor down the road when somebody you networked has an "in" for you at a company managing a group of engineers or something.
    Last edited: Apr 25, 2012
  18. Apr 26, 2012 #17
    There are two numbers

    P(making big money|business degree)
    P(business degree|making big money)

    The odds of making big money with a business degree is low because the odds of making big money is low to begin with.

    A lot depends on how the world evolves over the next few decades, and looking back at history, I've found it wise not to make too many predictions. My personal observation is that people entering the work force right now are screwed. My hope is that if this goes on for too long, people will get fed up and demand that something be done about it. However, in my more depressing moments, I worry that people will just get used to 8% unemployment, and think "we'll that's just the way that the world works."

    The problem with excess supply is that it's major independent. If you have X people and 0.9 X jobs, then it doesn't matter whether you study business, physics, or French literature. You are screwed. You may be slightly less screwed, if you choose major A over major B, but that's a second order effect.

    That's the beauty of the system. Not only do people convince you to spend a ton of money, but when it all blows up, they can even blame it on you and not feel guilty about taking your stuff.

    Sure, but the marketing people manage to hook me anyway. If you try to get me to spend a ton of money on a fast car, that's not going to work. However, if you whisper in my ear, and make me feel guilty about not being a good father for my kids, then my wallet starts to open up. If you talk about the value of an education, then you really do have me hooked.

    Show me a picture of a nice house with a backyard in a place with good schools and low crime, and then show me another picture of a run down neighborhood that looks like a war zone. Then you whisper in my ear and say "your choice."

    Salesmen are very clever. Hit someone in the right pressure points and their money will come out. Oh, but you hate spending money, and want to save. Well, let's talk about mutual funds and retirement account options. You give me your money, I'll invest it in stocks that will make 10% and I'll take 2% of that. BTW, if the stocks go down, I'll still be getting 2%, but that's in the fine print.

    But it's a funny thing. Anyone in the US has more stuff than 95% of the people in history, but I don't think that people are happier. My theory is that it's because of how human psychology and sociology works. If everyone suddenly said, "we have enough stuff", I think the economy would collapse. So the system is set up so that you are always a little hungry and left wanting a little more.
  19. Apr 26, 2012 #18


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    You know, I just had to quote that for not only how true that statement is, but how scary it is as well in the grand scheme of things.
  20. Apr 26, 2012 #19


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    Your quote above tells me a lot about you more than anything else. It seems to me (based on your quote) that you are especially susceptible to the tactics of marketing people. Remember, the whole purpose of marketing people is to sell you something, whether you actually need it or not, so by nature I am deeply suspicious of anyone who is a marketer or someone with a marketing background. Call me stingy or stubborn if you will, but that's my nature.

    As far as your example about the choice between a nice house vs a run down neighbourhood -- that is a false choice in many parts of the world. There are many places in the world where a nice home or house is easily affordable, and there are other places where those homes are available for rent.

    On the other point about not spending/saving money -- I don't really see your point. Sure, if want to save your money and you decide to put it into mutual funds or retirement accounts, a 2% management fee is to be expected (or something along that line) since your funds are being managed by a financial advisor. That's just the way things work, and I'm fine with that. The alternative is for me to directly invest in stocks and bonds (cutting out the middleman altogether) with the risks that come with that, or just stick my money in my bank account or buy US Treasury bonds -- low return, but safe.

    The point I'm making is that in the balance of spending and saving, I err on the side of saving when possible, and do my utmost to keep my spending on firm check. I really don't give one whit what anyone else says about my spending habits -- if I don't dress in the latest Armani suit, that's not important to me.
    Last edited: Apr 26, 2012
  21. Apr 26, 2012 #20


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    I have a BS in mathematics and a MS in statistics (both areas I consider to be science), and I can tell you that in my own personal experience, my skill set has been considerable demand by a wide range of businesses. I still continue to get constant calls or e-mails from recruiters/headhunters about positions in various businesses in both US and Canada related to my analytics skills, even in the current weak US economy.

    So I don't really buy this notion that a science degree is somehow an impediment to entering business anymore than any other degree. Of course, anyone who is newly entering the current job market will face a tough time finding work (at least if you only look at positions in the US), but that is true regardless of what field you study.
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