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Job Prospects in Physics - Will I get employed?

  1. Dec 1, 2015 #1
    I'm a student in Grade 11 with dreams of becoming a physicist. I've wanted to become an physicist or astronomer for a long time, but after going through other threads which exclaimed that the job prospects were low and not worth 10+ years of education with little pay, I'm becoming hesitant. The first essay that came up on google while researching job prospects titled "Don't become a scientist" written by Professor Jonathan Kant also played a role in scaring me out of my wits. I know that these comments shouldn't be a deterrent in my love for the subject; I am passionate about the field and I would not mind working my arse off to gain a phd, but it really wouldn't be worth it if I don't actually get to research physics as career with a stable pay. Is it actually true that there are virtually no careers for people with phds in physics? Do I have to pull a Feynman and learn calculus at the age of 13 in order to be a successful physicist?

    Also, I'm wondering what other careers you can get purely with a B.A in Physics. I'm not into computer engineering or being a project manger etc., so that would be a no-no. Do engineers study physics? What other jobs are out there that encompasses my love for physics and perhaps astronomy? What is the career path?

  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 1, 2015 #2
    No, and no. And the article you mention was written in 1999. That's 16 years ago. Economies can change a lot in 16 years.

    That said, and I really don't have much experience here, but I'm just going to point out that physics Ph.Ds have a fairly low unemployment rate--2.9% in 2013.*

    That's pretty good, especially since these things don't take into account people who are just between jobs. It is true that academic jobs are very difficult to get. Very few people will become professors (and that's true in any field). Still, physics Ph.Ds don't have to become professors. Now, to get a job doing actual astronomy is, just eyeballing here, probably very difficult. Working in industry as a physicist is likely much more feasible if you focus on gaining the right skill sets.

    Depends on the type of engineering, and it depends on the sub field, but in general, most engineering students will take one or two semesters of physics, and some plenty more. I'm an electrical engineering student, and I've seen Newtonian mechanics, basic and intermediate electricity and magnetism, some quantum mechanics, etc. and I can always go deeper depending on my specialty. The focus is on engineering new things, though, not on learning physics for the sake of learning physics.

    But really, don't worry about it. I know what it's like to be torn over what to study and whether or not you'll be successful/have a comfortable life. I guarantee you'll find that your interests change over time, you start to develop different priorities, and you'll find what you really like (which is always changing anyway). To paraphrase Feynman--everything's interesting if you get deep enough into it.

    *source: http://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/doctoratework/2013/html/SDR2013_DST4_1.html
  4. Dec 3, 2015 #3
    In the context of the rest of your post I take it you mean virtually no careers actually using the knowledge gained while doing a PhD. Certainly the chances of getting a job using your physics background depend on how flexible you are in your definition of what it means to be using your physics background and I'd also guess there's a fair amount of variation depending on what you specialize in. One more qualifier, things change with time, the market could get better, but I doubt it will get that much better

    Just to let you know my background so you can evaluate how relevant my experience might be to you, I have a PhD in String Theory/General Relativity (pen and paper theory) and after a stint as an non-tenured lecturer I went into software. So I do have a career, but it's the kind that you're not interested in. The work I do is completely disconnected from anything I did as an undergrad or in grad school. I was as prepared to do software the day I graduated high school as the day I got my PhD. I didn't really see any viable career paths in physics at the time, I might have been able to keep going as a lecturer, but I'm pretty bad at networking selling myself.

    I've had a couple of jobs in biotech and published a few papers in that area. For those jobs a science background was a "nice to have", but certainly not required.

    I'd speculate that if you did something experimental the prospects would be better, but I don't really know. I'd also guess that something involving statistical analysis of data, or big data, would also be better. However, most of those probably involve at least some programming.

    Suppose you visualize yourself 10 years from now with a physics PhD and a job that is unrelated to physics or perhaps only slightly related to it. If you imagine you'll be thinking "what a waste of time that was". IMHO you should really think it through before getting a PhD.
  5. Dec 3, 2015 #4
    It's refreshing that you answered the spirit of the question rather than the letter of the question. Often people reply with unemployment statistics but that doesn't address what the poster is getting at. Clearly, if you can get through multiple degrees and get a PhD you will be more likely to get some kind of job than the general public.
  6. Dec 4, 2015 #5
    With a B.A in Physics, you can get jobs in finance. Those guys are out on the prowl for people who have great analytical skills (if you're a physics major, tick) and mathematical skills ( also a tick). Basically they'll take you in and train you and get you to model financial markets and things. The money, i hear is quite good. But there wont be any physics in the job you do.
  7. Dec 4, 2015 #6
    I think the job prospects in finance (at least, good jobs in finance) for a BA in physics are really limited, and possibly nonexistent. PhD would be a different story, but BA/BS doesn't carry much credibility.
  8. Dec 5, 2015 #7
    I do have some doubts about that PhD, but are there any others that you know that also have a PhD in general physics that ended up with the career that they wanted? There are seriously no other jobs that out there that I can picture myself doing besides anything physics/astronomy related, so I am willing to put my all into going into that field. I would be unhappy otherwise. Regardless of the sacrifices I have to make, I just would like to know if it is possible that people actually do end up being general research physicist, astronomers, etc. and if those people actually exist.

    I've heard and seen a plethora of advice given to myself and others about it being virtually impossible to go into general physics research and to think twice about it, but it really is all I want to do. I absolutely have no interest going into business/finance, so it would be a shame if I do end up in that field. Do you know of others who went in to engineering, more specifically, aerospace?
  9. Dec 6, 2015 #8
    I wouldn't be so sure about that.

    Really, I felt the same way when it was time for me to pick my major. I picked electrical engineering instead to be safe. It took a couple of years of kicking and screaming going back and forth trying to decide what I wanted to do, but I'm quite happy with my choice of electrical engineering and the careers that can follow from it.

    What I mean to say is--don't worry about it. We all stressed out about careers and what we wanted to do. Just explore your options, and know that there's a whole lot you'll experience in the future that could completely change your interests and what you want out of a career--it'll happen to me again in the future as well I'm sure.
  10. Dec 6, 2015 #9
    I'll tell you what my experience is, but please keep in mind it's only one data point.

    I'm not really sure what you mean by a PhD in general physics, all PhD research I'm aware of is fairly specialized. Pretty much all my fellow grad students that I kept up with were theory (string theory/general relativity/particle theory) PhDs. In case you're wondering it was a top school for my area. I know one person that got a research faculty job (it was kind of an unusual situation) and a couple that got teaching jobs. I don't know what careers people really wanted, but I assume everyone wanted a research faculty job.

    There are a couple of people I know that got engineering jobs (technically I've had the title "software engineer" at various jobs, but don't think that's what you mean :) ), but I didn't really keep with them so I don't know the details. I don't know anybody that went into aerospace engineering.

    One friend of my from undergrad school did get a job at an astronomy institute. He also just had a BS in Astronomy. He started off pretty low, but worked his way up.

    If there's really no other jobs you want, I don't see the downside of trying, giving your all through a PhD and seeing how far you get. Sure research faculty are very hard to get, but they aren't impossible. It sounds like you know that it's a tough thing to do, so you'll be going in with your eyes open. Also, as I said in my first reply, there are probably areas of physics besides mine that will give you a better chance of staying in physics.

    One thing I'd suggest is make as many contacts as you can and build good relationships with them, both in undergraduate school and graduate school. I'd also suggest keeping an open mind, things might come up along the way you find interesting. I didn't even know what physics was when I started undergrad school. What I'm suggesting is, you'll acquire information as you go, that information might alter what you want to do, don't ignore that information.

    This isn't physics specific, but in general my biggest regrets in life have been from things I didn't try, not things I tried and failed at. While having a PhD and not having a physics job might be a drag, I think not trying and wondering what might have been would be even worse. Again, that's my 2 cents and it's only one data point.
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