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Is it too late to start in Phyiscs?

  1. Nov 30, 2012 #1

    For the last 10 years I've been a web developer and for a few years now I've really wanted to look into moving careers. I have a keen interest in physics ever since school and I wanted to ask people's advice on whether there is a point where it is too late to move into a physics related career seriously.

    I'm 30 years old, passed GCSE and A-Level physics (a fair while ago!) and also done a couple of short courses with the OU. I have seen that you can do degrees that are part OU and part local university which I think would maybe suit me quite well.

    Would there be any point though or would employers in this industry not even look at someone my age?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 30, 2012 #2
    If you really want to change career go for engineering degree. Physics degree will get you back to the IT field.

    Tbh there should be sticky thread "Job prospects after physics degree" or sth like that because people are too naive. They really think that it's so simple "I will get physics degree with 4.0 GPA and then I'll work as physicist at academia or industry". C'mon guys wake up. It's like saying "I will get music school degree and then I'll work as rock star".
    Last edited: Nov 30, 2012
  4. Nov 30, 2012 #3
    Well if you are going to have a shot at actually doing anything physics related, you’ll probably need a Masters, and a PhD might be advisable. People often point out on this forum that there are lots of jobs available to physics BS’s, and it’s true, but I just don’t think they’ll be an improvement on what you’re doing.

    So I think you’re looking at 5 to 10 years of education. Then you’ll get to compete with vast numbers 29 year olds with PhD’s.

    You can probably do it if you are really good and choose your areas of study very wisely. If you’re single and have no obligations, maybe go for it. But understand that it’s a big financial loser; there’s no way you’re going to recover the opportunity cost. So if you have a family, it would probably be irresponsible to take this route.

    The bigger problem in my mind is what you’re expecting from it. Studying physics probably will be more fun than your current job. Actually doing it for a living? That’s another matter entirely. . .
  5. Nov 30, 2012 #4
    It may be kinda dangerous to get a Ph.D. right now. I mean, like Locrian said, they're a lot of people who are only a couple years younger than you that have a Ph.D. If you don't have any financial problems at the moment, then you could give it a go. If you have a family, in debt, or just not sure. I don't suggest you should go for a Ph.D. Either way, good luck my friend :)
  6. Nov 30, 2012 #5


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    Age is unlikely to be a factor in hiring decisions for you unless you're close to retirement. I have served on several hiring committees (in healthcare, but that came with academic appointments) over the past few years and age has never been an issue for us while assessing candidates over a range of ages. I'm not sure where this idea comes from that a 29 year old has some kind of advantage over a 39 year old, or even a 49 year old for that matter. There are exceptions such as military or police service work where they have maximum ages for the various entry programs, but most of the time it just doens't come into play. In some ways, you can spin it o your advantage. An older worker is often more mature and brings more life experience to the table. Sometimes that can be invaluable.
    Last edited: Nov 30, 2012
  7. Nov 30, 2012 #6
    I would go for an engineering degree.
  8. Nov 30, 2012 #7
    I've only been involved in the interviewing/hiring process one time from the employer perspective (very recently), but after a round of candidates for an analytics position, people were concerned with candidates who "might not be aware of the latest developments in the field", which appeared to be code for " older than 40." This was especially obvious given that the person we DID hire has no experience doing this, but is young.
  9. Dec 3, 2012 #8
    Thanks for the responses.

    Why do you say this? In all honesty I am probably a little guilty of the whole idealization of physics. I.E Hoping that I could sit around performing experiments with interesting materials and spending the rest of my time just theorizing about stuff. But, surely it's not just all IT?

    I don't mind competition :)

    Thanks :)

    Thanks - that's encouraging.


    What kind of role was this for? In my experience the best person for the job often doesn't get the offer, but it's usually the person who sells themselves best. I guess you could have just had poor candidates for that job?
  10. Dec 3, 2012 #9
    No, certainly not all, but Rika's right that you're a lot less likely to end up doing physics than you probably believe.

    Honestly, given your recent response, it sounds like you've already made up your mind and aren't all that interested in what others have to say. So just save everyone the time and go for it. After you graduate, let us know how it went.
  11. Dec 3, 2012 #10

    That seems a bit harsh.. I've read all the comments posted and, to be honest, I'm not that much clearer on the whole situation. There are contrasting views on whether age plays an important role and then there's the uncertainty about what kind of jobs would be available to me. So, in short, there's not really anything that's persuaded me or dissuaded me either way yet.

    Could you elaborate on what you mean by saying I might not end up doing physics - what kind of thing would I be likely to end up doing?
  12. Dec 3, 2012 #11
    I interpret "physics" as an academic position. Here is how I have come to view the academic job market from what other people have told me.

    Let's say you are able to enter and complete your graduate degree. What you are looking at is spending 10 years of your life + tuition and living expenses (you probably won't be able to keep a job beside your studies) on a lottery ticket. If you win the lottery, you will earn a postdoctoral job somewhere in the world and enter the academic rat race. Stay ahead in the game (for 5-10 years?) and you may get a permanent position somewhere.

    In other words, the job prospects are dim, you probably have to be the world's leading authority on some field to get a job, and you cannot choose where in the world you will work.
  13. Dec 3, 2012 #12
    Strongly disagree. The recruiters I talk to disagree as well. So does http://www.pbs.org/newshour/businessdesk/2012/11/ask-the-headhunter-1.html [Broken].

    He gives some useful tips on dealing with it.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  14. Dec 3, 2012 #13


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    I agree that age discrimination exists, but it is probably highly sector-dependent, and is probably most prevalent in entry-level technical positions. I would think that those seeking senior managerial roles should not experience much in the way of age discrimination at all.

    There may also be discomfort in younger managers supervising older workers, under the (perhaps mistaken) impression that the older worker will be more likely to resent their status.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  15. Dec 3, 2012 #14
    Most of the physics phds I know work in insurance,programming,finance,IT, etc. Very few got jobs in a scientific or engineering field. Most physics undergrads who didn't pursue a phd pushed into various business-related jobs (sales, putting together financial spreadsheets, etc).

    Usually what happens is that after a phd + a postdoc, a person scrambles into whatever they can find. This usually means that you use other skills you have to retool your resume. I suspect, after hitting wall in physics positions you would fall-back on your IT skills.

    You might be able find a university that needs IT work that is willing to let you do some research and publish some papers on this side- but ten years seems on awfully long time to spend to develop a physics hobby.
  16. Dec 3, 2012 #15
    Dude, wake up. Not only too many PhDs were "produced" (from 1970) but we also have huge economical crisis out there so every government and every company is cutting their funds for R&D or fundamental research. So no job for you and everyone else. Sorry.

    Like ParticleGirl said people with physics degree work as:

    - programmers (IT, finance etc.)
    - medical physicists
    - teachers
    - sometimes industry

    If you don't want to be a programmer (and I assume you don't since you want to change career) and you don't want to teach then the only reliable career route with physics degree is medical physicist (but you need to stick to medical field then and get PhD).

    It's true that some physicists end up in industry but you know what? They do excactly THE SAME stuff that people with engineering degrees do and they have much more trouble to get a job.

    If you want to have interesting job and do some kind of a research and build the cool stuff - get engineering degree (with minior in physics if you want). This is the only reliable route. Physics degree will be useless peace of paper for you.
  17. Dec 4, 2012 #16
    Is this the same everywhere? I am in the UK. Why would anyone at all bother to do a physics degree is there's absolutely nothing available for them at the end of it? It doesn't make sense.
  18. Dec 4, 2012 #17
    I understand what you are saying but this wouldn't be the usual scenario really. I would definitely not be looking to scramble into the first job that comes my way. If I could do a part IT role / part research role in a University that would be awesome.
  19. Dec 4, 2012 #18
    I can think of three reasons. One, they simply want to learn physics. They are often interested in quantum or relativity and want to know more about it. The other is they think they have what it takes to go all the way and get the PhD. Much like attempting to be a rock star or football player people often over estimate their abilities and think they can actually be a physicist. Of course some do make it, but most dont. The third reason is that they have the wrong impression. They convince themselves (with the help of others) that their physics degree is highly marketable and sought after by employers.

    I would say all three applied to me. I wanted to learn physics, I overestimated my ability and I thought that an employer would want somebody with physics degrees. But I failed at becoming a physicist so I retreat to taking solace in the first reason I listed, I actually do treasure my limited physics knowledge and would not want to live life as ignorant of physics as most people are.

    If I had to do it over again I would choose engineering and try to get a career. But I would dual major or minor in physics, or at least take some physics classes because my interest is still there.
  20. Dec 4, 2012 #19
    Yes, it is. Its what happens to most physics phds. Most physics phds cannot find work doing science and are forced to reinvent their resume to get a job in another field (usually one where knowing physics isn't necessarily helpful).

    Look at this article for specifically UK numbers:


    If you don't want to register to get the article, here is take away


    After a phd+some postdocs, just under 80% of UK physics phds have left science all together (people in insurance,finance,IT,etc.) 3.5% are in academic research positions, and 17% are in industry jobs (mostly engineering type positions).

    Compare this to an engineering degree where most undergrads are able to get work as an engineer.
  21. Dec 4, 2012 #20
    It's the same reason why people do literature/social science degree.

    I did physics degree because I was sure that I want to have career as researcher but I was just pop-sci books wiz. Reality - doing mundane grunt work destoryed my passion.

    And it's not about talent or ability. There are not enough jobs for all talented people.
  22. Dec 4, 2012 #21
    It was the same for me.
  23. Dec 4, 2012 #22
    Very good description! All three applied to me. There's one additional reason I can think of: They get a wrong impression of what doing scientific Physics is like in reality. I went into experimental HEP and came out, degree in hand, completely disillusioned.

    I personally would have done Physics + CS, minor or dual major or whatever, then went to grad school in CS. But since I already made the jump to CS... not looking back.
  24. Dec 5, 2012 #23
    Sorry. What I meant to say was that my situation wouldn't really be the norm.
  25. Dec 6, 2012 #24
    Discerning - I agree. Unfortunately I need to second the other posters:

    I was in experimental condensed matter physics, so it might have been less difficult to find an academic position (as in HEP). However, I was extremely reluctant to relocate every 2-3 years and live the nomadic postdoc life.

    Actually, when I started to study physics I had no clue about the mobility that would be required, and I was not aware of my reluctance either. I needed to get a taste of it to take the decision to leave academia.

    I had fully bought into the "If you are smart enough you make it" mantra. However, I after my PhD I felt that I had now proved already for many years that I am smart enough (in terms of grades, number of papers etc.) and I deserved a stable job and decent income.
    No kidding - I was that immodest and naive.

    However, I sympathize! I have worked in IT but started dreading it (all of a sudden actually - I really thought it was my new passion). Currently I am in a transition phase - from IT consultant to consulting engineer in renewable energies. I am also going for another master's degree. But it took me several years of preparation - I redesigned my business (I am self-employed) to support that transition properly.

    So in a sense it may not be too late, but I believe the later you start 1) the more creative you need to be to carve out a niche, an "alternative career" in science or 2) the more lucrative your pre-science career needs to be to back-up the transition.
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2012
  26. Dec 6, 2012 #25

    George Jones

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    These jobs do exist, but they are not very plentiful. Also the two people of which I know that had jobs like this (two different universities) both left their jobs at universities for straight IT/management jobs with companies.
    Why not?
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