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Physics B.S. leaving me feeling unprepared for any job

  1. Jan 9, 2014 #1
    I'm about a semester away from graduating with a B.S. in Physics. While I have beome proficient in doing textbook problems and taking exams related to introductory classical physics and QM, as well as in pretty basic mathematical techniques (calculus, lin. algebra), I feel utterly unprepared to perform any actual job function. I have a certain amount of self-taught programming know-how, enough to get things done inelegantly, but certainly not any way comparable to the formal training CS majors get. I have a basic understanding of analog circuit theory, but again, I doubt it is enough for anyone to want to pay me to do anything over an EE major. I am confident in my ability to pick things up, given access to the proper learning materials, but why should any employer want to hire someone who will need to be further educated on the job? The prospect of me finding a job with my current skill set seems a little hopeless.

    I was involved in 'faculty research' last summer with a molecular biophysics lab, but all I ended up doing was technical gruntwork in Labview, and learned very little. Over the next semester I will be working with a professor involved in HEP and will hopefully learn something about the field, as well as work with ROOT framework. No publications to speak of.

    I do plan to go to graduate school, but not for a year or so due to having begun my physics major a year late and wanting upper-division physics courses to appear on my application transcripts. But I don't want to just sit around idle in the meantime. Anyone have any advice about the kind of jobs I should be applying to, given my situation?
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  3. Jan 9, 2014 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    If you started a Bachelor program in Physics in order to "prepare for a job" then you have been quite mistaken for sure. Physics is seldom a vocational field. You want a job, study medicine, law, engineering, architecture... see what I mean?

    It used to be that a science degree was a good prep for middle-management - today not so much.
    You are still better off with than without though ... the analytical and observation skills you have been trained in [1] are general and can be applied to many situations - including work at anything that requires being a self-starter, having focus and drive, and a certain amount of clear thinking.

    What can be useful is to do a summer job in something sole charge but non-technical - sell hotdogs or flip burgers or something. You know a lot of science without being conscious of it because, by now, it has permeated your being. You should already be able to see how you think differently from the average Joe on the street right?

    What academic work mostly qualifies you for is academia.
    That's been true for as long as Universities have existed... probably before.


    [1] provided you learned them and did not just concentrate on the minimum required to pass the course then forget it all... if you did that then you have pretty much scored an own-goal there. But if you did that, then grad school would also be out of the question.
  4. Jan 10, 2014 #3
    At this point, you pretty much have to take what you can get. Unskilled service jobs, private tutoring, etc. Stopping with just a BSc. in Physics in this day and age without a job actually lined up, some serious form of accreditation (ie: public school teaching license in your region), or at least internship pretty much limits you to jobs you could have gotten straight out of high school, in my experience.
  5. Jan 10, 2014 #4
    Did your adviser suggest this to you? Seems like an odd reason to put off your career for a year or so. Its normal for students to apply to grad school without their last term or two on their transcript.
    Last edited: Jan 10, 2014
  6. Jan 10, 2014 #5


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    True, a physics education is not a vocational education. But look again at what you wrote here. You present these things as if they are negatives, but you could sell them as a positive: I can't program like a programmer, but I can get it done; I can't do statistics like a statistician, but I can do some; I can't design a circuit like an EE, but I can do the basics; etc. All these skills in one package :smile:.

    A physics education is a general education. Unfortunately, in today's job market, this is a hard sell.

    Regarding your job prospects for the next year: look for temp agencies that specialize in science/engineering. Don't expect anything glamorous though.
  7. Jan 10, 2014 #6
    Well, I took Mechanics, Thermal, & E&M in one semester, which are pretty much the core of the physics curriculum. I also needed these classes to prepare myself for the Physics GRE. I would have been applying with pretty much only sophomore level classes in my transcript. I'm also a double major in English Lit., so I wasn't able to play catch-up as easily. It makes sense to me that beginning my degree a year later than most would delay my application process by a year.

    It is looking like I should go for whatever I can get. I can live with that, as it will hopefully be temporary, although it is somewhat disconcerting that the undergraduate degree doesn't seem to be enough to start a real career; not everyone can go to grad school, after all. Seems like the case for STEM degrees over a lot of the humanities/social sciences was overstated to me when I was in high school (at least the S part).
  8. Jan 10, 2014 #7

    Vanadium 50

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    I'm interested in why you think a Physics major is a vocational degree and an English Lit major is not. It might shed light on others' expectations. Can you elaborate?
  9. Jan 10, 2014 #8
    I think he already explained that,

    "Seems like the case for STEM degrees over a lot of the humanities/social sciences was overstated to me when I was in high school (at least the S part)."

    Students get taught it, so they think it.
  10. Jan 10, 2014 #9
    Well, in addition to what Modus has pointed out about (that it was always implied to me), it has always seemed obvious to me, on the face of it, that science has instrumental value. One studies English lit, or humanities in general, for the intellectual enjoyment, as well as to develop abstract 'critical thinking' skills. I've never doubted that English was a purely academic discipline.

    Physics, on the other hand, while certainly enjoyable to study, also seems amenable to applications. There is a lot of overlap with what the Engineers study, but with more emphasis on fundamental principles and derivations. In fact, undergraduate physics appears to have a lot more in common with the humanities than I thought, teaching one how to think rather than how to do.

    Of course, I underestimated the depth of the field, and how much one needs to study to even develop an introductory understanding. The undergraduate physics degree seems to prepare one to begin a serious study of physics, and little else. This is clear to me now, but I can't say that it was ever stated to me explicitly in the past--in fact, I have more often encountered nearly the opposite idea, that the broad base of skills one picks up from studying physics will open up many different career options in varied fields.
  11. Jan 10, 2014 #10

    Vanadium 50

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    The thing I am trying to understand is how the ideas of "STEM opens more doors than humanities" and "a physics degree helps build one's 'employability toolkit'" evolves into the idea that a physics degree is a vocational degree. It's this jump that I want to better understand. Why do physics majors make it when English Lit majors don't?
  12. Jan 10, 2014 #11
    It doesn't seem to be a very extraordinary leap. I realize that I am not attending a trade school, and do not expect to find a job as a 'physicist' fresh out of undergrad, but a university education should improve one's career prospects. I don't think that is a very controversial statement in of itself.

    As for the difference between the study of physics and that of literature: natural science concerns itself with the understanding of material processes, while English lit. has more to do with critical analysis of cultural production. One would assume, naively, that knowledge of the first will have more economic value in the labor market than that of the second, by virtue of its relevance to nearly any productive process. The second has a much narrower applicability. You don't dispute that physical knowledge can have applications?

    I suspect your question was meant Socratically, but is it really so surprising that someone just out of high school (which is when one is expected to decide their course of study) would think about it in the way I have outlined?
  13. Jan 10, 2014 #12

    Simon Bridge

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    I didn't get that from anything demoncore wrote.
    There is a difference between a course having a higher probability of a positive impact on employable skills and actually being vocational. I have not found the word "vocational" in demoncores writing and I think he's done well to explain himself. my 2c.

    This seems to be a different question ...

    I remember lawyers telling me that the LLB/BSc is more likely to get into a blue-chip firm than the LLB/BA ... and the BSc(phys) is the most sought after of science degrees, by law firms - particularly for litigators. What they value, apparently, is the reasoning/analytic skills.

    But it may be more that there are just so many more arts grads than science grads - supply and demand.

    Anyway - maybe the question, " Why do physics majors make it when English Lit majors don't?", deserves it's own thread, you know, to avoid cluttering this one?
    Perhaps we should ask a mentor? Oh wait...
  14. Jan 11, 2014 #13
    People get this impression because you keep hearing about a STEM shortage from politicians and ceos.
  15. Jan 11, 2014 #14
    I'm afraid science is becoming seen like an Arts degree - not job focused. If you want a job study nursing, teaching, medicine, etc.

    I've been out of a job and just completed a 1 year teaching degree. I'm now looking seriously at a Master of Engineering Science in Electronic Engineering - it sounds fun & there are opportunities to earn $150K from mining companies in my area.

    Going back to study physics would be fun but I cant justify the time if there is no clear job path. I think a lot of STEM majors are facing similar issues & being far more outcome focused.
    Last edited: Jan 11, 2014
  16. Jan 11, 2014 #15

    Vanadium 50

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    No, you were the first one to use this word.

    But it is entirely possible that these CEOs are looking for people with STEM degrees for "businessy" positions. (Actually, I know it to be true. I regularly get offers to manage large technical teams. There is a certain skill set in making a million of something. There is another skill set in making one thing - especially if it's never been done before.)

    We get questions here a lot that start with "how is my degree of any use to business?" Everyone who wants a job needs to explain how their skill set can make their employer money. This is true whether they majored in history or English or physics.
  17. Jan 12, 2014 #16
    Yes, Simon Bridge used the word "vocational" first, but he was clearly stating that it wasn't vocational. When you said,

    This was clearly pointed at demoncore. But demoncore never suggested that physics is a vocational degree. I think you've misrepresented demoncore in an unfair way.
  18. Jan 12, 2014 #17
    For other posters, this conversation has been going on with Vanadium 50 for a long time. See this thread for part of the discussion, and links to prior ones.

    Vandadium 50 has, many times (see the links), responded to those who graduate and feel their degree did not afford good job prospects by telling them their degree was not vocational. This doesn't make the slightest bit of sense, because there are plenty of degrees that are not vocational and offer excellent employment opportunities. Computer Science and Statistics both come to mind as degrees that cover many topics, are not designed to prepare one for a very specific trade or craft, yet still offer excellent job prospects.

    So next we should ask ourselves why any physics student would possibly think that a degree in physics offers any job or career opportunities? One possibility is that the student/recent graduate just made it up, or convinced themselves of that without any outside help.

    Another possibility is that they were told that. In the above linked threads I give two examples where departments clearly suggest that there are job opportunities for physicists. Since those apparently haven't been convincing, let's add more:


    (If you read the rest of the page, it is clear the page is directed towards undergraduate students)

    http://physics.missouri.edu/undergraduate-program/program-overview/ [Broken]

    http://www.physics.fsu.edu/undergrads/WhyYouShouldMajorInPhysics.htm [Broken]

    Would it really be irrational for someone reading those blurbs to conclude they had a reasonably good chance at employment after graduation?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  19. Jan 12, 2014 #18
    In conclusion, I think this is a reasonable response to Vanadium 50's posts:

    The question is, what does demoncore do now. I really think the first few replies answered this about as well as anyone can. Go to grad school right away (may have missed time for that) or get a relatively unskilled job for a short time to hold yourself over. The only thing I might add is to get a low-level office job. It will be a horrible, horrible job, but could prove useful on your resume later, and may lead to something better.
  20. Jan 12, 2014 #19


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    Most if not all employers expect that there will be some on-the-job training.

    Usually one's undergrad program prepares one for a more advanced degrees, MS and PhD. The undergrad program should enable one to develop the necessary basic skills that one continues to develop in the more advanced programs or a career.

    Has one tried APS - http://www.aps.org/careers/ or http://www.aps.org/careers/employment/

    When I was an undergrad, I read trade journals in order to understand what companies were doing and what type of jobs were being offered. I read technical journals to understand the problems/challenges that industry was facing. In later years, I've learned that students reading trade journals is rather rare! Why is that? What ever happened to curiosity (about the professional world) and initiative?

    When I was an undergrad, it was made clear that being proficient in mathematics and programming was a necessity, in addition to mastering the material in physics and engineering.

    Consider - Professional Development Topics

    •Follow Current Events
    •Hone your Communication Skills
    •Know Your Potential Employers
    •Learn to Self-Advocate
    •Network Effectively
    •Prepare a Well-Thought-Out CV
    •Practice Presentation Skills

    from http://www.aps.org/careers/guidance/development/index.cfm
  21. Jan 12, 2014 #20
    In my experience trying to get a job/career, that is not the case. They want years of experience doing exactly what they want you to do. That's where the joke comes in that entry level positions require 2 or 3 years experience.

    The physics graduates I have seen go into industry (at the MS and PhD level) all had very industry friendly and industry specific skills going in. For example, they trained on a specific electron microscope and then they go work for TriQuint using that exact electron microscope. Or they got experience characterizing thin films in their education and then get hired to characterize thin films in industry.

    The graduates who graduated with no skills were not and are not able to get industry jobs. They are stuck teaching public school or doing whatever they can get.
  22. Jan 12, 2014 #21
    This was probably the case ago in the past but with the recession I think you are right because there are enough experienced people unemployed that companies can be picky and put experienced people in entry level.
  23. Jan 12, 2014 #22
    There has been a change over the years in the way many employment ads are worded.

    Advertisements often have a laundry list of requirements. They refer to "experience in XYZ", not knowledge of how to perform XYZ. Too bad if you took a training course & were top of your class, that is disregarded.

    Education is often disregarded as well, so going to a top college means nothing if you don't have "experience". If you have "experience" you dont even need a degree.

    On another forum there is an onging discussion on how to "play the current system". People have altered academic transcripts, got fake referees, etc. to get jobs. This has happening more & more, along with proactive career development.
  24. Feb 15, 2014 #23
    When I was jobhunting 30 years ago I was lucky. The US govt (DOD) hired a lot of Physics Bachelors as long as they were US citizens with the ability to get security clearances. If you did not mind weapons work you were all set. The typical attitude for these employers was we need 5 engineers, but if 4 engineers and a physicist applied, they would reason : our last group had a physicist and that worked out well.

    Today it seems the employers can wait for a left-footed engineer with a broken right toe if they want one.
    I worked on many teams of EE's, Aeros, Computer Engineers, etc in the past. With no exception did the team consider me in any way deficient.

    It is likely your general facility across a spectrum of fields makes you a good candidate. Weapons work required people that needed to know almost as much statistics as a statistician, almost as much EE as and EE, almost as much math as a mathematician, etc.

    I know it is difficult (I am currently unemployed with a physic PhD) after leaving the govt for the doctorate.
    Try not to let it influence your self-worth. Go in with the attitude and convince your future employer your team better have a physicist on you project or the Mar's lander will crash, the missile will blow up on launch etc.

    By the way 30 years ago my engineer roommates said the same about physicists. TOday I talk to them and they know physicists are as capable as any of their engineer colleagues. Hiring is just tough right now.

    This message is already too long. Best of Luck.
  25. Feb 17, 2014 #24
    Looking through trade journals sounds like a good idea. Could you explain how/where to find them(internet/library) or some interesting industry/topics to focus on? Maybe specific journals.

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