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Job Market for Physicists in a Decade

  1. Dec 20, 2014 #1
    Hey everybody reading, this is my second thread! I must say this is a great website, I've read posts on it for help with some physics questions I've had in the Grade 12 physics course I am taking.

    Just two weeks ago, I applied to universities in Ontario, more specifically Laurentian University in Sudbury, Queen's University, and Waterloo. I had to order my choices of programs on my general application, and basically I chose physics at Waterloo first, then mechanical there as well, mechanical at Queen's, and then both physics and mechanical at Laurentian.

    Just to tell you how I feel about my future, I'm torn between physics and mech. engineering. It's definitely the hardest decision in my life, harder than what university I want to go to. My plan if I were to do physics is get a PhD in some field of theoretical physics, I'm not exactly sure what area, and become a professor at some college/university. Of course, this is not guaranteed and there is a surplus of physics PhDs in the United States from threads I've read. But I live in Canada. Does Canada provide better opportunities for physics PhDs? As with mech. engineering, I can see myself getting a job a lot easier. I would do a simple bachelor's and go straight to industry, perhaps a master's degree for higher recognition in the job market. Also, I feel for some reason I would be bored doing mechanical engineering because I want to deal with complex mathematics and the edge of scientific knowledge. Comparing the two, I feel I am deciding between a risk (physics) and a safety option (engineering). Part of me wants the risk, but I'm not so sure I am ready for it.

    I have analyzed the pros and cons of both these two careers, hurting some of my passion for them because one has more job security over the other, etc. To conclude this issue of mine, I don't want to care about money, but at the same time, I want enough to survive and actually earn money in what I got a degree in. I want to solve problems using math and physics. I wish it was easy to get a job in anything, but the world does not work that way. I just got to pick one and go with it.

    So... feel free to mention what I've said and give advice. I do have questions I want the ask. Do you think the physics job market will open up in a decade from now in North America? How about internationally, maybe places in Europe like Sweden or Italy?

    Also, is research in condensed matter popular? And what type of jobs does that lead to (it sounds cool, no pun intended)?

    Thanks everyone, I hope to hear answers from you in the near future!

    P.S. I literally did a coin toss earlier today between which one to go into, heads for physics and tails for mechanical engineering. I got heads!
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 20, 2014 #2


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    Your dilemma is a common one.

    The job market for physics PhDs in Canada is about the same in Canada as it is in the US. They face the same problems. Further, while it's certainly not possible to predict the future, I don't see the market changing a lot over the coming decade. One issue with physics is that it's academic in nature. In principle, as soon as something that's developed at the academic level becomes commercial, it gets taken over by engineers. A PhD in physics will teach you about physics and how to conduct research, but it's not professional training. The issue that faces most freshly graduated PhDs who don't go on in academia is how to transfer their skills (or pick up new ones) that are employable. That said, if you look at the available data, physics graduates end up doing quite well compared with engineers (look up the APS employment statistics for reference).
  4. Dec 20, 2014 #3
    Academic fields grow and shrink at different rates though. One of the best ways to become a physicist is to pursue an applied discipline such as mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, materials engineering, biophysics, theoretical chemistry, or just plain old applied physics. The demand for engineering professors is much higher than the demand for physics professors. That's not to say it's easy to become an engineering professor, but I'd think it's easier than in physics.
  5. Dec 20, 2014 #4
    I'm not in Canada, but I would be shocked if the academic market for PhDs was much different there. As to whether to do mechanical engineering or physics. Don't you have to start off university taking physics classes before engineering classes anyway? I did, and it showed me I liked physics way more than engineering. It wasn't even close. Maybe you can put off the decision for a year? On the job prospects of condensed matter physicists, you have excellent prospects at chip makers like Intel, Global Foundries and maybe Samsung (I don't know much about Asia). That is, if you want to get in to industry.
  6. Dec 20, 2014 #5
    Going to be brutally honest here but, at least in Canada, the job prospects for physicists and physics graduates are just going to get worse with each passing year. The reason for this is that all of the jobs that were once done by physics graduates and others are now starting to require relevant certifications/degrees, and the HR of a given company will deem anyone who doesn't have that piece of paper as automatically unqualified, even if they have enough skills to do the job. From what I've seen in technology here, there's very little research and development being done here. So, even if you do have directly relevant skills that would be useful in an R&D position, you're likely going to have to go down south to get any type of work. I don't think its inaccurate to say that the only physics that is done in Canada is, for the most part, done at universities.

    With all of that being said, I still think there is intrinsic value for getting a PhD even if that individual never amounts to working anything more than low-skilled labour. Certain individuals who reduce an education to an economic investment will not be convinced, but I think such people are helpful and good for society in many ways that are not exactly easy to quantify. If you like physics, want to study physics for some years and learn how the world works at the fundamental level and not so concerned with job prospects, then you should study physics, otherwise you might be better served if you stick with engineering. If, on the other hand, you are resourceful enough and practical, there just might be a way for you to get both ME degree and a physics degree within 5 or so years, though it will certainly not be a walk in the park as there is not that much overlap with ME and physics as there is EE and physics.
  7. Dec 20, 2014 #6


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    To the OP:

    You mentioned that you have applied to the physics program at the University of Waterloo. If you do decide there, then I would highly recommend that you pursue the co-op program in physics (for those of you not in Canada, the University of Waterloo is renowned for its co-op programs offering a chance at practical work experience to students who sign up for the program, which is open to students in all of the different programs, and is mandatory for engineering students). The practical co-op work experience should make you more employable than physics majors in programs that do not offer co-op.
  8. Dec 22, 2014 #7
    StatGuy2000 is right to point out that the University of Waterloo has excellent co-op programs, but often students applying to Canadian universities think Waterloo is the only place where this is the case. (I am speaking anecdotally, thinking of the many students I have taught that apply to Waterloo simply because they heard that the co-op program there will guarantee them a job). Many Canadian universities offer similar programs (generally in the form of an internship, often in third year), some of which are actually better in terms of depth of experience than co-op placements. I would still encourage you to do the co-op program if you go to Waterloo, but recognize that schools like Queen's will have similar programs: http://prospective.appsci.queensu.ca/Internship-Program.html This program actually has you in a single placement for a longer period of time than the typical Waterloo-style co-op placement. One of Waterloo's advantages is that you get breadth; internships like this seem to provide a bit more depth.

    In terms of physics, the Canadian Association of Physicists has this on their website regarding physics jobs in Canada: http://www.cap.ca/careers/home/employmentprospects.html The data is dated, and it is based on a survey technique that likely led to a lot of nonresponse, but the situation doesn't sound as terrible as many make it seem. I admit, though, that I am not a physicist, so I don't know what the prospects are right now. Knowing what I know of the current Canadian government, research in the pure sciences isn't really a priority, but governments change, and the next change in government will probably alter aspects of science research policy in Canada.

    My advice would be to do the one that you think you would enjoy doing. No one knows for sure what jobs will be needed in ten years. If everyone decides to study engineering in the next five years, the supply will go up and demand could diminish. Additionally, engineers who hate their programs generally aren't successful in said programs, and no one wants to hire those people. You are far more likely to be successful doing something you enjoy doing.

    On a side note, I have been told that it is far easier to switch from engineering to physics at Queen's than vice versa, but I don't know how accurate that is. I would encourage you to ask those kinds of questions of your guidance counsellors and the academic advisors at the universities to which you apply.
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