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I've heard so many horror stories...

  1. Jan 1, 2016 #1
    All I can find about physics online is stories of how bad it is.
    The field is high supply low demand
    The pay is low for everything except the best positions
    The hours are excruciating
    You do more administration than actual physics
    You have no free time for anything
    There's no job security
    You have to take years of student debt to be able to do it

    These stories are really starting to discourage me from a career in physics, because a decent pay, reasonable hours and actually DOING physics are important to me. If these are true and to become a physicist I'll need to sacrifice my family, relationships, health and money to do it, I need another job where I can use my skills in physics and maths.
    Last edited: Jan 1, 2016
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 1, 2016 #2
    Its an idealized dream that only a few can ever get. Everybody else has to make do some other way. The vast majority of physics grads do not get a job as a physicist. Physics is not really a "field" as you describe it, its an academic subject. Its a fascinating subject to learn, lots of fun and lots of challenges. But its good to realize that a fun academic subject is not a job.

    What skills in physics and math do you want to use? Ill tell you, after all my undergrad and grad classes in physics and math - none of them imparted any useful skills for my job. Just interesting academics.
  4. Jan 1, 2016 #3
    I'm good at problem solving, physics and maths help. Physics also helps you turn a word problem into one which can be solved. I'm passionate about the subject but I don't want to do a job that I like, turned sour by long hours, low pay and being pestered to publish and get grants for research.
  5. Jan 1, 2016 #4
    Hello Greg

    I understand EXACTLY how you feel. When you have time , look up BS Physics : Debate on Career in a google search and my thread should pop up. My story is different in that I started as an engineering major, switched into physics due the the rigor of the programs, and ended up regretting my choice upon graduation. I managed to plan my last year well enough to get into another engineering school, but that is beside the point.

    I understand that physics is a very difficult subject to learn. There are some jobs out there that are willing to accept Physics majors besides education. However you will not be there first choice for jobs if they specifically want an engineer. Companies willing to hire physics majors will usually be specific about it or say something along the lines of "other technical fields". Going for your PhD is something I can not give advice on ( as obviously I switched fields upon graduation). I did do research work during undergrad and I honestly can say that it can rewarding but only to someone who truly values it.

    Now depending on what you specialize in with Physics, your career can be more/less properous. Advanced degrees in fields like Optics, Nuclear Physics, Health/Medical Physics, and Geology have actual ties in industry. You can do anything from research work to actually working with technologies applicable in industrial settings.

    I don't know how relevant this is, but what about your school. Is it well renown or simply known for being rigorous. If you can muster it , try getting a double major in technology, engineering, or computer science discipline. I really hate that physics on its own is not very well valued (although it is better off than its other science counterparts and in my opinion equal to math with employ-ability)
  6. Jan 1, 2016 #5
    I think you should forget the low pay... Physicists do not make low pay, they make above average pay. Many people, in my opinion, have unrealistic ideas of what high pay is. The median household income in the US is ~51k a year. Two physics graduate students can make that, or close to it. Even if you don't land a job as a physicist you will probably make more than most people eventually. I delivered pizza for a few years after graduating, I made relatively low pay but could still pay my bills. Now I have a career style job and my job alone pays more than the median household income. There are technicians with DeVry degrees at my job that hit their FICA limit every year...
  7. Jan 1, 2016 #6
    Funnily enough, I'm not actually in University yet. Not even College, (UK). I thought I had it all planned out, particle physics as a study or something similar, working through my BSc, MSc and PhD to a nice job with flexible hours and where I could have stimulating intellectual discussions with people just as passionate in my field as I am. I don't want a white collar job where I make spreadsheets for a company for an average pay in an average area and have an average family in an average house.
    I want to do a job which I like, with subjects I'm good at, and actually help society progress.

    Obviously it's a bit shaky now because of all the bad things I've heard, and yet I don't know what else I could do.
  8. Jan 1, 2016 #7


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    Physics is good for you; but it is usually the engineers, chemists, microbiologists, and people with great and in-demand computer skills who have an easier time finding jobs.

    PHYSICS GRADUATES: If you found employment, what besides Physics alone made you attractive or appealing to those who hired you?
  9. Jan 1, 2016 #8

    Vanadium 50

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    This is the thing I don't get. What you are turning your nose up at is what most people would consider a pretty good job. Two-thirds or three-quarters of the country is aspiring to a job like that. The sort of job you describe, where you are able to spend your days thinking deep thoughts undistracted by other responsibilities, essentially doesn't exist. Maybe a Nobel prizewinner can get a gig like this. For the vast majority of ordinary - and even outstanding - scientists, there simply are not jobs like this.

    Related point. There's a reason they call it "work". Every job has its bad points. That's why they have to pay you to do it, and that's why they call pay "compensation". You can try to find a job with no bad points, just like you can hunt for unicorns.

    Next related point: A job is not a reward for a degree, or for being smart. Jobs exist for one reason and one reason only: someone with money has a problem they need solved. Maybe it's that the coal is in the ground and needs to be on the train. Maybe it's that the train is here and needs to be there. Maybe it's a new locomotive that needs to be designed, and maybe it's a new generation of locomotive designers need to be taught physics. Whatever it is, the reason the job exists is something needs to be done. Not that someone just graduated.

    The problem doesn't seem to be physics. It seems to be unrealistic expectations.
  10. Jan 1, 2016 #9


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    This is hard for the younger students, especially the uncertain-decided ones, to manage. One way to decide the question, "what should I study?", is to see what companies want people to solve. Then ask self, "Which of these problems do I want to solve?" After this, ask yourself, "What major field of study will make me able to solve those problems?".

    Physics includes much much much problem solving. So does engineering.
  11. Jan 1, 2016 #10


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    A PhD in physics makes you very employable (outside of academia). When you have a PhD in physics, people assume you are smart and have great quantitive skills. They are often more than happy to hire you since they know you have the problem solving skills to learn very quickly on the job.

    From what I have heard, it is quite easy to find work as a data scientist, at a place like Intel/IBM, startups, and definitely in finance and consulting. In fact, several companies in the areas above will even have recruiting events in physics departments (we regularly get emails from consulting firms, etc).
  12. Jan 1, 2016 #11
    This is so true. I can't even quantify the number of college graduates I have seen complaining that no one is handing them a job on a silver platter simply because they have a degree. Or, rather, the job opportunities that are presented to them do not meet the six figure income goals they had that were placed in their mind by what I call "degree salesmen".

    I blame colleges for not giving students updated and realistic information about how the real world works for most people.
  13. Jan 2, 2016 #12
    I'm no stranger to hard work, and if it all fails miserably you learn a good deal of programming and problem solving skills just for doing physics so there's that, and I could get a reasonable job as a programmer or an accountant.

    I know a job should be something you love, not just for the money or you'll never be happy, but when the pay is that meagre compared to the ridiculous hours and unstable jobs, alongside constant pressure to be publishing and grant searching, It doesn't really seem worth it when I could get a job that I didn't mind such as programming, do fewer hours, for more money, with less pressure and much more job security.

    Oh and also, about the idea that 3/4 of the country wants to do a job like that, I think is a bit fabricated. "I hate maths" "I'm not good at maths" "I don't like Maths" or the same arguments for science is one of the most common sentiments when people come out of education. Most people don't want to think. (Funny hearing that but this IS a community of intellectuals after all) which is why reality TV and accountants who do taxes for you exist.
  14. Jan 2, 2016 #13


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    Well if you want to earn a lot of money with a physics degree, just go into consulting/finance after your PhD. There are tons of physics PhDs (many of whom are former string theorists) who work as quants for hedge funds and make quite a nice living.
  15. Jan 2, 2016 #14
    Well if I really wanted money I could go into banking. Mathematically heavy, High pay, lots of concepts similar to physics but it doesn't really appeal to me. Maybe I'll change my mind in the future but its not getting lots of money which I want, I just don't want to work my socks off to get a bad paycheck.
  16. Jan 2, 2016 #15


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    I suppose it depends on your background and what you consider to be a "bad paycheck."

    A couple of years after I finished my Ph.D., I went into one of the lower tiers of long-term academic physics jobs: a tenure-track, teaching-oriented (no research) assistant professor level position at a small liberal arts college in the boonies. My starting salary then would be about $45K today, after adjusting for inflation. From what I've heard, that is in fact about what we offer new assistant professors nowadays.

    Since then, I've never gotten close to six figures. But... costs of living are low here. You can get a decent 3 bedroom 2 bath, 2000-2500 ft2 house for less than $200K. We live within walking distance of campus so commuting expenses are zero. My wife has had a similar salary to mine. Together we've had no trouble buying a house, paying our bills, traveling (budget-type, not expensive Caribbean or ski resorts), and saving more than enough to keep a similar lifestyle in retirement. No kids, although we could have afforded it.

    Compared to my parents (a firefighter and a school secretary in a midwestern steel-mill town who saved enough money to retire to a modest condo in Florida), I did all right. If my parents had been investment bankers pulling in $250K+ per year (today's dollars), I might feel differently.
    Last edited: Jan 3, 2016
  17. Jan 2, 2016 #16

    Vanadium 50

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    Gregy, I think your recent messages amplify rather than counter my point.
  18. Jan 4, 2016 #17
    You should realize that physics (and scientific research work in general) is not really like what they show in the documentaries by Brian Cox, Neil Tyson, Michio Kaku and such. Don't get me wrong there's plenty of room to have stimulating intellectual discussions with peers and I can understand wanting to do work of significance that's more than just making some company a buck but at the same time it is still work. You've got to provide some worthy problem that needs solving, the money that's needed to do the work to solve the problem, convince the funding source why you're the person that should get the money to solve the problem (not to mention back up plans in case funding doesn't work out), and then do the work of solving the problem (before competitors possibly do and publish the paper that could discredit your work first). I work in engineering research and there's plenty of non-scientific, non-intellectual, non-stimulating work that needs doing to support the research; which could involve filling out spreadsheets like a data entry clerk in a more basic job, hell there's been months where I was doing nothing but writing reports and making figures in Visio. You can have a happy medium though.
  19. Jan 4, 2016 #18


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    I am not sure where you got the idea that physicists are not well paid. Even a post-doc will make more than £30K a year, and a senior lecturer at a university will make well over £40K. There are quite a few professors in the UK with salaries in the £60K-70K range (not to mention vice-chancellors!) .
    This is much, much higher than the average annual salary in the UK, and well above what e.g. a teacher or a nurse would ever make.

    Now, that this salary might not be enough to buy a nice house in London has nothing to do with the salary as such, this is more a reflection of the fact that the housing market has gone absolutely insane in the UK. There is also a relatively large minority who work in finance and related sectors are making silly amount of money; but they are still a minority and you can't use their salaries as a baseline.

    Also, if you believe scientists have to work long hours you should talk to someone who works in finance or law?:)
  20. Jan 4, 2016 #19
    "I don't want a white collar job where I make spreadsheets for a company for an average pay in an average area and have an average family in an average house."
    Hate to break it to you, but if you're here asking this question, I don't think you're that 1% with an IQ over 150+ that everyone is looking for to plan the next Mars flight. I make spreadsheets for a company at significantly more than average pay in an average area, and have an average family in an average house. Which beats the heck out of starvation wages doing grunt work while living in a rented slum and wondering if I'll have enough food for the week, much less for electricity and heat. I understand that higher education in the UK is more geared toward career tracks than the laisse-faire U.S. system, but it seems to me that there are a lot more physics majors making good incomes than there are economics or finance majors making anything.
  21. Jan 4, 2016 #20
    This is a pretty ridiculous line of reasoning; there's nothing wrong with seeing average careers in your day to day life and wanting something better or intellectually fulfilling and trying to plan for that does not imply that you won't get it.
  22. Jan 4, 2016 #21
    Here is my story. I'm 62 and a retired engineer. In the 70's when I first started college I was very interested in science and math, especially physics. But I reasoned exactly as you are now - what is the most practical path figuring in job demand, family, pay, etc. I chose engineering and it paid well. But in hindsight I wish I had chosen a branch of engineering that would have required more physics courses, e.g. electricity and magnetism, Maxwell's theory, quantum physics, etc. I look back now and think wow - I missed experiencing some of the most exiting decades in physics advances. So my advice is: you can study these courses as requirements in engineering but you need to do some research on curriculums for various branches (of engineering) to see if they align with your interests.
  23. Jan 4, 2016 #22
    There are merits to both lines of thinking. If someone wants to be the next Paul Erdős but doesn't have substantial mathematical talent they need to readjust their planning. On the other hand, you do not need to have an IQ in the 150 range to have an above average salary. Electricians pull in anywhere from 40k to 100k depending upon their area of work and where they live and I assure you they're not all geniuses and typically they have no degree.

    This is why I currently do PLC programming / controls work and want an EE degree. Even if I don't get the EE degree a PLC programmer / consultant can earn 6 figures.

    People should remember that having a high IQ does not automatically mean you'll make it, so to speak. Look at all the people like Nikola Tesla, Grigori Perelman, Srinivasa Ramanujan, etc. Their genius is undeniable and their legacy eternal, yet they didn't/haven't obtained a lot of wealth.
  24. Jan 4, 2016 #23

    Jano L.

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    I don't think that a decent pay and doing physics with career in academia/research is impossible, if you can find a great boss for Masters thesis and PhD. You can get above average pay on your own quickly if you can win lots of grants, get abroad, get into international team and get a lot of stuff done and published in journals (focus on quantity, not quality).

    However, despite my love of physics, I personally didn't want to do that, so I left academia. Best decision of my life. Got a job at a medium size web company. Not doing physics intensively anymore, but I find with change of environment, one finds other interests that are just as interesting and rewarding. And without constant pressure to churn out dud papers, write over-hyped proposals for grant money and maintain workable relations with people and system that are full of it, I have now a much more relaxed way of life. I can do some quality independent thinking without feeling guilty about wasting time and I actually again enjoy thinking and chatting about physics.
  25. Jan 4, 2016 #24
    I was curious what your source is for this information? I am not saying whether or not it is valid, just that blanket statements are seldom true.

    I am graduating this spring with a BS in Physics from a school with a top-tier undergrad physics program, and I will have less than $10k in debt, so you do not have to take years of student debt to do it (to be fair, I am in the US and from a lower-middle class family). Also, why would a physics degree incur more debt than an engineering or other degree? If your argument is that an EE degree will earn more than a Physics degree upon graduation, check this out:


    As you notice, the high earners in the physics field make just as much as those in EE. If you want to make money in physics, look at something like this:


    If money is your motivator, getting a graduate degree would boost your salary for sure:


    I also wanted to say that you may be concerning yourself prematurely. You haven't even started college yet! While it is very important to take choosing a major seriously, you will still likely have a chance to change majors without big repercussions within your first year or so, especially between fields such as physics and engineering. It may be worth it to choose the major you feel most strongly about, and start on it, then see how it feels and go from there.

    Part of what I love most about physics is its universal applications. Though my physics undergrad program hasn't taught me fluid dynamics, it has taught me differential equations, mechanics and, most importantly, the skills to piece things apart into understandable segments (as you put it, problem-solve); therefore I feel confident that fluid dynamics is something I could understand with some time and effort. To me, that is what makes physicists powerful; it's not that they know all the answers, it's that they can figure out a way to find the answer. "Figuring things out" through perseverance and struggle is what builds your skills and problem-solving power (ask anyone in research!). If you are the kind of person who sees no value in struggle, than perhaps physics is not the right subject for you.
  26. Jan 4, 2016 #25
    I often hear stories of those (usually in the chemistry field) making the transition from the private sector to academia and being much happier, but this is the first I've heard of someone moving the other direction. Thank you for sharing your experience!
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