Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Is Physics the "Liberal Arts of Science?"

  1. Aug 20, 2015 #1
    I stumbled across an article the other day that referred to a bachelors degree in physics as the "liberal arts degree of science." Initially, I started cursing student loan debt for a "liberal arts degree" and thoughts of launching my laptop across the living room came to mind... but I decided to read further.

    Here's an excerpt:
    "Physics is sometimes referred to as the ‘liberal arts degree of science,’ because unlike some other fields in the sciences, physics isn’t vocational in nature. With that said, even though studying physics doesn’t directly prepare students for any particular type of employment after college, it’s still an incredibly valuable field of study. The truth is, physics is a great major that provides students with an opportunity to develop many highly marketable skills. While in school, physics majors learn how to use mathematics to develop solutions to complex problems. This is a highly valuable skill set in every industry, and having a degree in physics opens up many opportunities in occupations related to finance, programming, healthcare, and engineering. In the end, every business runs on math. If your intention is to attend graduate school or medical school after earning your bachelor’s degree, there’s good news there as well. Physics majors are great candidates for all sorts of graduate programs, and are even able to satisfy medical school requirements by taking just a few biology and chemistry courses along the way. With so many options available, you can probably guess that very few physics majors actually go on to become physicists. According to recent surveys, less than thirty percent of physics majors end up working in an occupation that is closely related to the field of study. And that’s not a bad thing! It means that the degree leaves graduates with many options."

    Okay, the article did KINDA redeem itself. But does anyone else have any thoughts/feelings on this?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 20, 2015 #2
    In my opinion, education is only as good as you want it to be. I mean, if you want to major in physics and only take really advanced astrophysics courses, then by the end you will have an amazing knowledge of astrophysics, but nothing else that will land you a good job. On the other hand, you could be taking several very employable courses like programming. And you could be making contacts or doing internships. This will increase your chance of finding a good job.

    I don't think any physics major will be out of a job. But the question is whether you will be able to land the job you would like to do. And for that it really depends on you. Going out of your way to make yourself employable, or having a Plan B in mind is never a bad idea.
  4. Aug 20, 2015 #3


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    This really doesn't compute, to me. A degree in any science prepares one to "do" that science. Maybe the issue is more that there isn't much commercial physics research, unlike, say, biology and chemistry.
  5. Aug 20, 2015 #4
    I think everything that you've mentioned can be summed up as "a good game plan." I mean, what the heck else are those college counselors getting paid for, right? :)

    I was hoping someone would touch on that whole "physics is not vocational in nature" thing!!! I agree with you 110%. And isn't that a bit disconcerting? You find what you're passionate about, you trudge through endless years of school, and then you have to think about what ELSE you want to do with your degree because only 30% of graduates become physicists? I call shenanigans!
  6. Aug 20, 2015 #5


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    It could be worse: one could be an *actual* liberal studies major! And I suspect that physicists would quarrel with that 30% number because my understanding is that a number of physicists go into related fields that might be counted separately.

    The "issue" I perceive with physics is that it is older and more fundamental (and more macroscopic in our day-to-day lives) than the other sciences, which also makes it more mature -- more of it is "figured out" than the other sciences. As a result, it has spun-off the practical disciplines of engineering, where people apply physics but don't generate new physics. The other sciences still operate more like pure research; the "research and development" done in industry looks a lot more like the pure science research of academia than engineering development type research does. Think pharma R&D (scientists) vs car R&D (engineers).
  7. Aug 21, 2015 #6


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    2017 Award

    Physics students typically have a much stronger background in quantitative data analysis than students of other sciences (biology or chemistry). Given that that many technology companies are looking for people with the skills to handle and analyze large datasets, physics students can often more easily translate their skills to other areas of employment. For example, many finance firms have hired physics PhDs from top universities to work in their quantitative finance divisions.
  8. Sep 2, 2015 #7
    As a young man heading off to university for physics I really hope this is true.
  9. Sep 2, 2015 #8
    I personally think that this is the direction that science is heading in. Let's just call it "informatics."


    You can add whatever prefix that you want to it; "bio-informatics," "neuro-informatics," etc. There's tremendous capital in having an ability to sort, sift and abstract from large data sets, as you mentioned. The problem isn't that there isn't enough data, it's that there's way too much data. One of my favorite quotes from Walter Freeman in his book, Societies of brains is "The problem isn't information overload, there's always been too much information." Maybe there has been historically, but (especially) with the internet, it's gotten waaaaay out of hand. On the other side of the coin, though, we have a powerful tool now that they didn't have then that can help us manage this data, it's called the computer. So I don't see the barrage of information pouring down on us abating anytime soon--in the future it's going to be those that are skilled at managing that data that are going to have the edge.

    One of the PhD programs I'm looking into is at the University of Memphis. It's ostensibly a cognitive science program but it's listed under and part of the "applied math" department. I never in a million years thought I'd be applying to graduate school as an applied math candidate. I'm terrible at math. The point, though, is that this is where everything is heading. It's instances like these that show how it is creeping in under the radar. Stay tuned..

    This trend is also sneaking in under the scientific discipline called "complexity." If you want to see a cool lecture, check this one out by Geoffrey West I watched recently:

  10. Sep 2, 2015 #9
    I think this might just be it. "Doing" science doesn't mean the same clear thing in terms of one's job as "doing" engineering or "doing" music or accounting or what have you. It's a degree designed to teach you a set of skills and impart a body of knowledge, not to provide a set of qualifications. "Doing" physics could mean everything from studying subatomic particles at CERN to programming graphics engines for video games.

    So in that way it could definitely be thought of as like a Liberal Arts degree, but then again so can the other sciences.
  11. Sep 3, 2015 #10
    Liberal arts are the arts of leadership. They are ways of using ideas to control or influence others. They are incredibly useful for those seeking political power.

    Since there are limited job opportunities in the evil dictator :devil: field, Liberal Arts degrees don't pay very well. Minion :sorry: degrees like hard sciences or engineering pay better. (Or democratic scion :woot: and stalwart scientist companion :rolleyes: if you prefer. (Which is which is a Liberal Arts question and outside my field.)

    Having ideas and manipulating them are two different fields of study.

    IMO, significant Liberal Arts training should be required in democracies. If a group of people don't have it, they are not free.

    Minion training should be optional.
  12. Sep 3, 2015 #11
    Yes, let's control people with my musical arts degree.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook