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Physics Jobs for physics graduates

  1. May 17, 2004 #1
    In 1998 I got my bachelor's degree in physics. I was intending to teach high school, but after a year teaching (or baby-sitting) I discovered that was not for me. I found a job as an engineer at a thin films company where I got a chance to work on interesting projects, apply some of what I had learned in school, and learn some more. After about two years and a half I went to work for a company doing work on fiber-optical components. I lasted there about six months as the telecommunications industry was doing badly. This was some time after 911 and the corporate scandals. Then the war in Iraq started. I was thinking that sooner or later, the job situation was going to improve. Now that seems unlikely, at least in engineering fields.
    I see some positions that open, but they tipically require 5-8 years experience in very specific areas. I have though that the main reason for this weakness in engineering and computer programming fields is outsourcing to India and China. As I like physics, I have been planning to go back to school and get my master's in physics. But I am somewhat undecided, as I don't know if this will improve at all my chances of getting a decent job. I could instead get a master's in Electrical Engineering, which would entail some extra-effort as I don't have some of the undergraduate courses needed. But, again, what would I do with that degree, no experience and being over 40 y/o?.
    I have some experience programming, but with increasing programming jobs going to India, those positions open typically require many years experience.
    Some times I thought I could go for a Phd in physics, and then work in research or teach at a university. But I have read articles about a pyramid structure where there are many people seeking very few positions.
    Like two months ago, I applied for a position that appeared suited to my experience and it looked like interesting work. The problem: there were about 80 applicants. I think I made it to the last 5 or so, but finally didn't get the job.
    Four years ago, my future appeared much brighter. Now the world has changed, and my getting older is not going to help either. Very depressing situation.
    I wanted to share these thoughts with you guys, and see if any of you has experiences, opinions or hints about the prospects for work for those of us who have decided to study physics.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 17, 2004 #2
    dude go for your phD in physics and then if you dont get a job atleast you will get the ladies with a name like Dr. joe Bloggs.
    live it up because its only as good as you make it
  4. May 18, 2004 #3
    Im planning on takign a PhD, only it means 7 years of higher education, and im only in further education. what the heck, only a further 8 years to go :)

    These days we (students) are told that a physics degree will make you amung the most employable people in the world, in any job. So you could go for something a little less science based and still have a good job.

    I suggest doing a job search on somewhere like
  5. May 18, 2004 #4
    If I am not mistaken, the link you suggested lists mainly jobs in Biology and chemistry.
    As I can't expect to compete favorably with electrical engineers, I have thought in the past that optics was a good field to get into. There maybe some people training in optical engineering but not that many. That's in fact what I did. At the two places I worked, my job was related to optics.
    The problem is, with the slowdown in the telecom industry, (fiberoptical networks) most of those jobs dissapeared. Many companies have gone bankrupt, others have drastically reduced personnel, and many of the surviving companies have opened factories in China.
    Now, I would take with a grain of salt what they tell you at school about employability after graduation. Schools need students for their programs to survive. The people you talk to, need those programs in order to stay employed. When a program can't attract enough students, it may be eliminated and professors may loose their jobs or be relegated to teaching undergrads.
    This is not the only field in which there may be false rumors of a high demand for qualified people. While I was studying, I heard that there was a tremendous need for science teachers. When I started looking for work I found that was not true. For every job I applied to, there were many applicants and it took me some time to get a job, which ended up being in a bad district.
    I think there has also been a campain to convince people (in the US) that there was a defficit of computer programmers. That campain may have had as an objective to push the government to issue more visas to foreign programmers which would work harder for a lower salary. Now the situation has changed, as they don't even need to bring the programmers to the US.
    I have heard Europe is experiencing similar problems.
    So you see, it appears that some times there is kind of a conspiracy to convince people that if they study this or that, they'll be in high demand. That conspiracy does not happen because different institutions agree on this but because they all benefit from it.
    An interesting link on this is:
    I am not trying to disuade you from pursuing a phd in physics. But I think you should try to get information about your prospects from other sources, so that you have a more realistic view.
    Now, you know that often economic conditions change, and many of these changes are cyclical. So, you might say: things are not OK now, but by the time I graduate, the economy will have recovered and I'll have an easier time finding work. But the problem today is that the future of the world economy is uncertain, specially in the developed countries. Part of what we are seing may not be a cycle but permanent change. It is hard to tell.
    If you are young, that's in your favor. Even if you do have trouble finding the kind of work you were expecting, your PhD may qualify you for other positions. The thing is, after studying so many years physics, it would be better if you could work doing what you like (physics) or at least to get an engineering/scientist job where you have a chance to apply your math/physics knowledge.
    I think it may be true that with a PhD in physics, you may be more employable than with a bachellor's degree. But physics in general is not a profession where it is easy to find work. I have registered at several places on the Web where they send you notification of job postings when they appear. I use as keyword Physics and Bachellor's degree as educational level. I am not getting that many job opennings for which I qualify.
    If I can get a job close to the school where I am planning to get my master's degree, I guess I'll be OK. Otherwise, I may have to abandon my plans to continue studying.
    Oh, by the way, I am in California,USA. Where are you?
  6. May 19, 2004 #5


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    That's discouraging ...

    Well, I'm not really sure what to say, but I suppose it is inevtiable. The world's population is increasing so quickly & there are roughly the same amount of emplyment positions open...

    I'm in Mechanical Engineering, and I was actually planning to switch to Physics in the fall. The employment rate for my school (Ryerson University) after graduation is ~ 100%, whereas Physics (I would take it at the University of Toronto) is ... iffy ... to say the least.

    btw, I'm in Toronto, Ontario Canada

    Would write more, but i've got to eat now
  7. May 19, 2004 #6
    If I were you I would stay in mechanical engineering (if you like it). Are you graduate or undergrad?.
    I don't think the employment rate for mechanical engineers in the US would be close to 100%. Maybe in Canada the situation for engineers is better.
    I think the present situation has less to do with population growth than with globalization and the liberalization of the economies of China and India.
    If you are young, you can finish engineering and then study physics at night while you are earning decent money.
    The articles I read about the low probability of getting accademic positions in physics I think apply mostly to the US. You might want to inquire more about this in Canada. But remember that school officials may not give you an impartial picture, as they have an interest in attracting you to their programs. You might want to talk to students who got their PhD, post-docs, etc.
    Keep in touch and let us know what you find out, and what decisions you make.
    I am presently inclined to continue with my plan of going for a master's in Physics, but that may change. I have been accepted and I am supposed to start next fall.
    Ah! take a look at the post "best way to..." by Rattis
    Good luck
  8. May 19, 2004 #7
    It is only when you get a teaching position that you get the ladies. (unless you drive an expensive car, you are really good looking or look like a thug).
    Once you are teaching, the young girls wearing skimpy clothes will get really close to you and ask you with a sexy voice: Dr. Funker, I don't understand this, could you explain it to me?. But they got more pretty women in Biology than in Physics. I remember a girl in my Genetics class doing something like what I described above to the professor. She was wearing a very tight top and had good cleaveage. I think the professor's chromosomes were starting to unwind.
  9. May 19, 2004 #8


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  10. May 20, 2004 #9
    Thanks for the link, although it just gives general information.
    You ask: Is this BS? I was pondering about the meaning of BS, would it be Bachellors in Science? Well, now that I think about it, did you mean bull ****?
    If that was your question, my answer would be NO. It is not BS, but they give you a rosy picture and don't tell you about all the negative aspects, such as having to take longer to finish your studies, having to stay in a post-doc position for a long time before you can get a teaching/research position, or having difficulty getting a job in industry after you graduate.
    Also think about the fact that everything you read today is based on experiences from the past. It is hard to know what the world situation and your country's situation will be by the time you finish your studies.
    I am not very optimistic today, after seing all that is going on.
  11. May 25, 2004 #10
    You have to select the physics tab, default is biology as it is alphabetically first
  12. May 25, 2004 #11
    I don't see a physics tab, Rattis. There is the biology tab and the chemistry tab, but no physics that I can see.
  13. May 26, 2004 #12


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    I haven't responded to this string till now, since I was curious on how people react or respond to this, especially from "career physicst", if there was any. Since I fall into that category, I think it is only fair that I give a bit of my perpective on it.

    The issue of becoming a physicist is something that I have a bit of an interest in. I started writing a series of article titled "So You Want To Be A Physicist" for a website that I run, mainly as a record on all the things that I WISH someone would have told me while I was pursuing my degree. No doubt that there were a lot of things that would have made my academic pursuit a bit easier, or less mysterious, had I known a bunch of things along the way.

    Part of the problem here is that a lot of incoming undergraduate physics majors have rather "lofty" ideas of what physics is, and what a physicist does. I lost count on how many undergradute physics majors I encouter lately who are enamoured by "String Theory" and "Quantum Gravity", etc., and want to "major" in them. Now, there's nothing wrong with those (crossing fingers), but to think that those are the only exciting areas of physics is taking a very jaundice view of what physics is (they're always surprised when I tell them that the majority of practicing physicists are in the field of condensed matter/material science).

    Now at some point, the "employability" of these physics graduates would come into play - like 6 months before graduation. I can relay an anecdote that I personally encounter. Back in the early 90's, during one of the economic slowdowns in the US, there were stories of theoretical physics Ph.D's having to abandon their field and go into other areas for employment, even a story of one ph.d having to drive a bus to make a living. At the same time, I personally know of at least 2 ph.d candidates in the field of Medical Physics and 3 from condensed matter who, even before they finished defending their ph.d theses, were already getting ~$70,000 job offers from various companies. ($70,000 back in the early 90's was a LOT of money, especially for fresh graduates). What was the difference between them and those ph.d's who couldn't find jobs? Their EXPERTISE!

    Those people were either in a high demand area (Medical Physics), or they were experimentalists who possessed SKILLS (thin film fabrication and characterizations) that not only are marketable for an academic track career, but also in so many other industrial sectors. Yet, when we asked the new incoming physics majors at that time what area they want to specialize in, they STILL pick theoretical particle physics, String, etc...

    Your employability as a physics degree holder depends VERY much on what area you specialized in, and what skills you possess. I will right off hand say that these two factors are very limited if you stop at a B.Sc level. At the doctoral level, if you majored in String theory, or other similar theoretical areas, then you can expect that your employability is highly limited in scope, and this would predominantly come from educational institutions. Considering the rate that they are hiring, and the number of graduates that is being produced, a person with this major should not be surprised if offers are very scant. On the other hand, if you're an experimentalist, and you know (i) ultra-high vacuum systems (ii) pulse laser ablation thin film deposition (iii) x-ray diffraction and electron beam diagnostics systems (all these may appear to be different areas, but when you do an experimental work, you don't just do one thing), then by golly, you have the skills that companies as varied as Intel, Applied Materials, .. all the way to National Labs and of course, academic institutions, are looking for! Furthermore, experimentalists are more desireable to academic institutions because of one important thing: they tend to be able to bring more research grant money than theorists.

    If there's ever a "moral" to this story to potential physics majors, it is that while you're pursuing your physics degree, never lose sight that eventually, you will leave the secure comfort of an academic life. When that happens, think of what you know and possess that someone else might find of value. Hopefully, this will influence on what kinds of choices you make along the way.

    Last edited: May 26, 2004
  14. May 26, 2004 #13

    Chi Meson

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    I would like to plug the idea of reconsidering HS teaching. The BS in this job is "babysitting" which you already have experienced. BUt, if you are actually holding a degree in physics, you are a hot high school commodity. YOu get to choose. Send out lots ofapplications and choose the job that allows you to teach only honors students. Every state is desparately seeking physics teachers.

    You could consider private schools where obediance is better, or choose the high paying states (NJ and CT are the highest at about $70,000 after 13 or so years).

    Then, when things look bleak, repeat "13 weeks of vacation per year...13 weeks of vacation per year..."

    I tell you, I love it; and I started at 35 y/o.
  15. Jun 1, 2004 #14
    ZapperZ and Chi Meson,
    Thank you for your perspectives on this subject. I hope we get a few more posts on this thresd. It is interesting to see different opinions and experiences.
    I see that both of your posts are very upbeat. I would not say that I am normally a pessimistic person. On the contrary, I think that I have normally been optimistic, but after pursuing different potions I have found that what it is said and the reality are quite different.

    Chi Meson:
    I had been taking classes for some time and had completed about two years of my college education when I decided to attend school full time and get my bachellor's in physics. What gave me part of the motivation to do this (besides the learning experience) was my intent to work as a high school teacher. And, yes, the long summer vacation was part of the attraction in this career. On the other hand there were news everywhere about a shortage of teachers in California (that's where I live). So I was pretty optimistic about my prospects after graduation. If I didn't like it I could always do something else later, but at least I was confident it would be easy finding work with the teacher shortage.
    My first surprise came when I started looking for work. I applied with a lot of school districts, and in all af them there was a lot of competition for the jobs. Most of the positions open were to teach physical science, not physics, and there were people applying who had all sorts of degrees, not always in a physical science. School administrators were more concerned with having teachers who would keep the kids entertained than to have people who know the subject they are teaching. You may say there is a logic to this, and I am not going to argue. They must have their reasons. I was just not expectig that.
    After applying at a lot of places, and at the last minute, I got a job to teach physical science with a district that had a bad reputation, but which paid pretty good compared to the others.
    There was a teacher next door who was teaching the physics classes. He had a degree in Teology. Well, at least he got a chance to study Espinoza.
    Before getting to teach Physics, he had to teach physical science and his contract had not been renewed in two occations after teaching one or two years at other districts. So I learned that you get to teach physics after you get tenure.
    Also, I found the there wasn't enogh money for books and materials for experiments. The administration was expecting us to buy supplies from our own pocket. We were also expected not to fail any more than 10% of the students. Even I didn't like many of these things I tried to make the best out of this situation and comply with the administrator's expectations, which were not always clear.
    But after a year passed, my contract was not renewed. I was given an option to resign, so that it wouldn't stain my record.
    If I had gotten a job at a good district, perhaps my experience would have been different, but some of what I saw at this school I figured would be endemic in California, regardless the school distric I went to. On the other hand, now I knew that getting job in a good district was not easy and it paid less. So I decided to forget about teaching high school and went into industry, which I enjoyed much more for the time it lasted.

    I understand that if you choose the right branch of physics, and if you are good and stick to it, eventually you'll get a good job. Now, in other fields, such as engineering, it used to be that it was not necessary for you to have a PhD to get job in your profession. Physics is different. To be considered a physicist, you must have a PhD. To be a "career physicist" as you say, implies to go for your PhD. Nothing wrong about that, but I am just pointing out the difference, and the fact that to "make it" in physics involves a higher commintment and effort than other professions. Well, medicine might be a similar case, except that I am sure once you got your MD, you can go and work at any hospital or clinic.
    Now, I wonder if it is sufficient to choose the right branch of physics to be employable after graduation. Assuming you can choose the right field, and that that field is still in demand by the time you graduate, I wonder if it would be easy to get a job or there would be additional experience reguired, which you typically get at the postdoc level.
    You mention Applied Materials and Intel. From the news I have been getting, these companies have reduced personnel and have opened manufacturing plants in other countries. Now, it may be that they still need some very specialized people with many years experience in a very narrow field to work in the US, but I would seriously doubt they may be hiring fresh physics PhD's in this country.
    You see that my perspective with respect to physics employment is more pessimistic than yours. But looking at the labor market, I also see a crisis for new engineers, as those jobs are being outsourced to China and India. I think that is going to put a downward pressure on salaries for those positions that do open in the US. I understand there always is a need for seasoned engineers to kind of supervise or control from here, operations overseas.
    Example: the company Fluor, which used to hire lots of engineers and drafters, now has most of it's design work done in China. But they always need people here in management, and they have retained some of their old engineers and drafters to check the plans and calculations that come from China.
    Well, regardless of all this, I am always planning to continue my studies to get at least a master's in physics and take it from there. But I am not counting with an improvement in employability as a motivation. It is just the love for knowledge. On the other hand, having the MS won't hurt, and it might even help a little.
    On the other hand, I may be forced to change course if I can't get a job. I may be able to teach some labs in school but the money is not enough.
  16. Jun 1, 2004 #15


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    Unless I am wrong, most of us went into physics early on in our educational life not because it is a field in which we can become rich. If making money is a major goal, most of us won't be doing this. It is too long, too difficult, and too demanding, with uncertain rewards at the end. I mean, just look at all those starry-eyed undergraduates (even graduate) students who have aspirations of doing particle physics, string theory, astrophysics, etc. I bet they didn't think about what kind of job prospects that are facing them after they graduate.

    Having said that, I think that it is imperative that these students are made to face reality sooner than later. This doesn't mean that they have to abandon their aspirations of becoming a physicist, but at the very least, they won't look with disdain at doing extra experimental courses, electronics, computational physics courses and projects. Again, these are the type of skills that may be marketable upon graduation, in addition to the paper degree. Pad your resume by applying to all those NSF and DOE internships at the various US Nat'l Labs. It doesn't matter what area of physics you came from, or want to concentrate in. Idealism ("Oh, I am a theorist and I don't need to know anything about UHV systems") can only go so far before you realize you have to earn an income pretty soon to pay off all those student loans.

    My examples of Intel and Applied Materials were not meant to imply one can walk up there and get a job. It was meant to convey the BREADTH of the employment sector available for a physicist with the appropriate skills. Given an appropriate training and background, a physicist need not be restricted to only the traditional research/academia track of work. In fact, if you read journals such as The Industrial Physicist,[1] you'll see a huge range of areas that are applicable for someone with a physics degree. The sad thing here is that a lot of these positions, although filled by physicists, are typically given the official name of "engineers" such as process engineers, industrial engineers, materials engineers, etc. So most people do not even realize that some of these "engineers" are actually physicists. [Interestingly, the same can be said about the field of Quantum Chemistry - it is populated by a lot of physicists]

    My view on employment for physicists probably is more optimistic than yours. So there's a good chance that the "reality" on average is somewhere in between. I certainly know that I'm lucky enough to do what I like, and to be in the situation where I usually look forward to coming to work each morning. I credit that to the various mentors that I had along the way who not only made sure I fulfill all the academic requirements, but also equipped me with all the stuff they don't require, but are immensely as important, if not more, for my career as a physicist in whatever branch I end up in. I have never lost sight of that and I always try to convey the same sentiments to all these bright-eyed, bushy tails students while they are still in the position to do something about making themselves more "desirable" for employment.

    For the statistics on Physics employment, refer to the AIP website.[2]


    [1] http://www.tipmagazine.com/ [Broken]
    [2] http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/emptrends.html
    Last edited by a moderator: May 1, 2017
  17. Jun 1, 2004 #16
    Thank you for your insights and information. It was all very instructive and I guess it balances my point of view, which was probably too far to the pessimistic side.
    Thanks again,

  18. Jun 1, 2004 #17
    I have to agree this has been an eye opener for me.

    I am a starry eyed undergrad on a long treacherous journey to PHD. I'm very aware what idealism can do. You rarely see this in engineering. Most my classmates weren't looking to work at NASA upon graduating.

    I love Physics to death. If I can't find work then teaching it is what I'll do. I've had the opportunity to teach environmental science and seeing those little lightbulbs come on was the best. I will say getting trapped in the bad district can kill any aspirations only if you let it. Get your masters and you can teach anywhere you want and the salary gets a big boost.

    Doing the "Discover magazine" physics is cool but it seems very limiting. I don't want to overspecialize its not for me. I have some electronics enginering courses and I will take some more advanced math. The degree I'm working on is Physics and Astronomy. I'm leaning toward the experimental/applied side. The lab is love. :biggrin:

    Outsourcing is something to fear only if your'e rigid.
  19. Jun 2, 2004 #18

    Chi Meson

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    Sorry to hear about your fate in California. I think it might be the case that the tech centers there are flooded with scientists so it's a buyer's market even for physics. So unless you want to move to another state ...
  20. Jun 2, 2004 #19
    Chi Meson,
    I am pretty much established in California. I guess my situation would have to get pretty bad for me to decide to move.
    Today I went to a job interview. It is for an optical engineering job. Let's see what happens, they'll let me know in two weeks. The thing is that those jobs don't appear that often and when they do there are many applicants.
    If by fall I don't have a job, I'll be able to teach one lab at school. That won't be enough, but is something. They told me I might be able to get to teach two labs in my second semester, wich is still not enough but would cover a great part of my expenses.
    As far as teaching high school, that is something I would rather not reconsider. Just thinking about it makes me kind of depressed. But I can understand how you may have had a good experience with it and now love it. In my case it may be a combination of things that determined the way I feel. On one hand ending up in a bad school district in California may not have been very helpful, but on the other hand, probably interacting with high school kids was not such a strong motivator for me as to give me strength to overcome all the difficulties and persevere in that field.
    Talking about teaching, I think I might feel different teaching at a community college. I haven't inquired into that, but I think they hire people with masters degrees.
    Well, Chi meson, I am glad for you that you found an occupation that is secure and which you feel good about. If you are married, your wife must be happy about it too.
    Last edited: Jun 2, 2004
  21. Jun 4, 2004 #20
    non outsourced jobs

    I haven't been able to read everything that has been posted so this may have been stated already. But... Jobs for defence contractors and other federally funded research labs cannot be outsourced because they typically involve a security clearance. So companies like L-3 communications (where I used to work with a BS in physics), Boeing, Lockheed, Honeywell, Northrup Grummond (sp?), Raytheon, Litton, and many many more, plus Los Alamos (LANL), LLNL, PNNL, Fermilab, BNL, ORNL, etc. typically hire physics BS holders.

    The AIP had a page that listed the top industrial companies for hiring physics phd's, most do contract work for the Gov't and I'm sure most would hire a BS holder for a less specialized position (software engineer for example).

    Another thing to consider, if you aren't insisting to remain in physics and if you plan to go back to school, is to go for a professional degree. Standardized tests like the GMAT (MBA type programs) and LSAT (law school) are cake walks for physicists and physicists typically do very well in such programs. I seriously considered law school, but have remained in my phd program.
    Last edited: Jun 4, 2004
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