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Physics Physics a worthless degree?

  1. Jan 11, 2011 #1
    After reading some posts here is seems that the general consensus is that if one is interested in physics and math then one should be an electrical engineer unless one wants to teach and make around $30k/yr which is Wal-Mart cashier pay where I live(New Mexico). Is this really the case? Is getting a degree in physics essentially mental masturbation or is one able to gain employment with the degree and attain a salary greater than that of a janitor? Also I don't really understand the low salary quote often posted around $30-40k/yr when the wsj posts incomes that are comparable to EE degrees.

    Electrical Engineering
    starting median:$60,900.00
    mid-career median: $103,000.00

    starting median: $50,300.00
    mid-career median: $97,300.00


    Bottom Line: Is Physics near worthless compared to EE post graduation if one wants to work in industry?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 12, 2011 #2
    If you are in it for the money...
  4. Jan 12, 2011 #3
    Well I think that is what I'm not understanding. I can't feed my family on hopes and dreams. I don't really like this argument "well not if your in it for the money." We work to get money to pay bills, eat, enjoy life. Are you saying that one should get a degree in physics for the love of physics and just deal with being on welfare?
  5. Jan 12, 2011 #4


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    The salaries you quoted are nowhere near welfare-level.

    It's unusual for someone to go into science for the money. If you don't have a passion for it, you'll likely hate it (it really is a *lot* of work) and end up switching to something else, anyway.
  6. Jan 12, 2011 #5
    So where did you get the 30-40k number which is in direct conflict with the WSJ numbers? The WSJ numbers seem in line with what I have seen. People seem to have this erroneous idea that physics is useless, maybe because most people don't even know what physics is.
  7. Jan 12, 2011 #6
    I come from experience. My parents supported three children living on $35k/year living in a decent neighborhood and going to an actual good school (No welfare, ever). So, living off of $50,300/year is good. You just have to know how to budget. $97k/year? That is a lot of money to live off yearly. I honestly would not know what to do with most of it.
  8. Jan 12, 2011 #7


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    Some subjects by themselves can be useless - depending on what you think is and is not useful/useless. You want other skills to be able to get a job. Physics major can study other things than just Physics. Needed is to know how to operate equipment, know how to handle devices and machines, but at least Physics can help you think about how to study and find solutions for problems or objectives.

    Study and get training for more than just one major field; there are useful and related courses to make a person marketable.
  9. Jan 12, 2011 #8
    These salary surveys are almost all worthless.
    The starting salry ones are compiled by the university depts to encourage students, they are a lot more diligent in tracking down students who started as graduate trainees at $MEGA-CORP on high salaries than they are at including those who are taking a year off or unemployed.

    The mid career figures are compiled from industry bodies, so the E-Eng one includes lots of certified engineers now working as middle managers while the physics one will include lots of postdocs and junior professors who are members of the AAAS but will miss those working as traders on wall st at 10x these figures.
  10. Jan 12, 2011 #9
    So you throw up some random number you cooked up from nothing and then ask why that number is right and the WSJ numbers are wrong? Is that what's going on here?
  11. Jan 12, 2011 #10
    Nope - that's complete nonsense. And I don't know where you're getting that 'general consensus' from - I spend a lot of time in these parts of the forums and I definitely wouldn't say that. The "physics and maths is only useful for high school teaching" is an opinion normally only held by people that don't know anything about physics or mathematics. I wouldn't expect anyone else to be so naive.



    Nope. Actually, a physics graduate qualifies for most of the same jobs electrical engineering graduates do as well. They have a similar skill set. You're confusing working *in* physics with jobs that a physics degree enables you to do. A physics degree is one of the most versatile around - if you want to work in any of the major engineering disciplines, you can find a way to do that as physics graduate. If you want to make a lot of money, you can find a way to do that. It just depends how you prioritise everything.

    To be honest, these posts are quite tiring. I say in all of my responses to questions like this that for work in industry, a university degree is about the *skills* that you learn. Physics, maths and engineering all require similar technical skills. If you go and work for some company, there's a good chance they want to train you (and will need to train you) from the ground-up in the work that they do. Sure, you might find some mech-eng job that requires knowledge of finite element analysis, something that a physics graduate might not have - but it's something that is easily learned for one that is familiar with how maths and programming work. So, you graduate in physics and find that the only jobs out there need finite element knowledge. Go get a book on it, and read it. Voilà, you can now apply to those jobs.

    As for actually working in physics post-degree, it isn't so easy. Academic research is tough route - it's hard to get in to and the pay isn't great but like twofish-quant always says, you won't starve. There are national labs in most countries, and lots of industrial jobs that carry out physics related research, however. The difficult thing post-degree for any student is finding the job that you *want* to do. If you end up enjoying something extremely specific and won't settle for anything else, then you'll find it extremely difficult to get a job. If you can market yourself, and want a job that challenges your mind and you can work on interesting problems, then you shouldn't find it too bad.
  12. Jan 12, 2011 #11
    Its sad when people look/say to me "well what are you going to do with a physics degree." I wish people had the slightest idea of what someone with a physics degree is capable of(in my opinion). I think someone with a physics B.S. would be skilled to handle just about technical task, or at least be trained fairly quickly in it. Some of the problems we solve in this major are incredibly difficult, and if someone can make it through it I know for a fact this person has discipline, persistence, abstract/creative thinking. Almost half of the freshman physics class has switched out of the major since I started because it was too much to handle.

    Also, if you look at the statistics from 2009 physics graduates that someone posted not long ago, almost none of them didn't have a job. Its not a dead end, and its a great foundation for anything in my opinion.
  13. Jan 12, 2011 #12

    Andy Resnick

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    I spent about 7 years in industry doing physics with my physics degree, getting paid good money. YMMV.
  14. Jan 12, 2011 #13


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    Archi - you're possibly confusing typical post-doctoral positions with the median salary for someone beginning work with a physics degree. Post docs tend to start in the $30-40k range, but they aren't the only jobs available to someone with a physics background.

    Physics graduates work in a broad range of fields. As a result the distribution of their starting salaries tends to be broader than that of graduates of a professional field like electrical engineering.
  15. Jan 12, 2011 #14
    Physics degrees are in high demand and very useful to do stuff like build airplanes, cars, tons of uses for physics, unlike sociology, english, psycology, history...the list goes on.
  16. Jan 12, 2011 #15
    Kind of. Going through several posts in the academic advisement forum one will often see the number $30k a year given when asked what a physics PhD will make usually in reference to a postdoc.

    The reason I'm asking this question is mostly, because I love physics, but everyone is telling me that you will make less money, have a harder time finding a job and an even harder time finding a permanent job. That if you want to go into industry than an EE will get the job over a physics major except for an extremely small number of jobs. What I would like to hear is: "With Physics you'll make enough to support a family, more than a wal-mart cashier."

    With respect to the wsj numbers, that doesn't make sense to me. The pay is nearly the same, so I don't get the "be an engineer if your only in it for the money" remarks. Also, I don't know how many times I have to say it, I LOVE PHYSICS AND MATH. That being said I also love my son, and being able to feed my son. Apparently that makes me money hungry?
  17. Jan 12, 2011 #16
    I didn't just decide it for you, I have been reading these topics as I try to decide between EE and Physics and the underlying opinion from those topics I have read seem to point to EE being more employable.

    "...A physics degree can be a tougher sell than, say, a professional degree in engineering, but that doesn't mean there aren't opportunities. It pays to develop some marketable skills along the way such as programming, network administration, technical group facilitation, electronics, mathematical modeling, teaching, etc, that can transfer directly into the workplace. If you explore some threads around here or poke around on the AIP website, you'll find lots of possible avenues for exploration. "


    "...I really wish I had done that EE degree, because there are so many jobs that require it. Almost no employers ask for an EPhys degree by name, because it's so rare. And if you're applying for employment at a large corporation, a resume with "BSc EPhys" might not even make it past an automated filter. "


    "...After getting my BS in physics and being unemployed for a few months, I finally got 2 job offers from aerospace/defense companies, one of which is EE/ME-related. However, it took me about 5 months to get these offers. BUT, I did get plenty of interviews for software engineering/analyst/programmer positions, because I had listed I used C++ on my undergrad physics research projects. I could've gotten those jobs if I had a stronger C++ background.

    So my point is that while its much harder for physics majors to get jobs in say EE or ME than engineering majors, its not impossible. It's all about how much programming, experimental/lab skills, powerpoint presentation skills, and other skills you have that matters. I've written an article about this.


    Again I'm not just pulling stuff out of the ether. I love physics, I just want to make sure I'll be able to work outside of an academic setting, i.e. I don't feel like being a postdoc for 5-10 years.
  18. Jan 12, 2011 #17


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    Any applied science training should give you decent opportunities out there in the workforce and physics is no exception.
  19. Jan 12, 2011 #18
    Im 13 and love physics even we don't do in school, but I really want to get my PhD, sit around and think while getting sponsored by someone. Can that work? Because for me i just want to answer the thoughest questions and come up with theories. Is there a job like that?

    Someone please help.

  20. Jan 12, 2011 #19
    That's true, but you have to look at what the trade-off is. If you make $10K less a year, but you end up enjoying life, that seems to me to be a good trade off.

    I almost certainly make less money with a physics Ph.D. than I would if I got a finance masters, but I make more money that I know what to do with, it's worth the trade off.

    The problem with a physics degree is that you need to be a bit entrepreneurial. You have to figure out for yourself what you can do with the degree, but for me that's part of the fun.

    Have them contact me. Starting salary for a physics Ph.D. quant on Wall Street is $120K, and it goes up from there.

    Unless things fall apart (which they could), you aren't going to starve with a physics degree.

    Also, you need to confront an even deeper problem. American society is rapidly dividing itself into winners and losers, and everyone is terrified of being a "loser", and one problem that people are going to have to confront is that as long as people don't basically change society, then you are probably going to end up in the loser category no matter what degree you get.

    If that's the case, then get the degree that makes you feel good.
  21. Jan 12, 2011 #20
    The Pure Sciences are just like the Humanities: primarily preparation for academic careers. You may still find jobs outside academia with those general degrees, but you should expect to be at a disadvantage when competing against an engineer who is better trained for industry work.
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