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Physics BS Grad Undecided about Career and Grad School-help

  1. Jun 1, 2015 #1
    I was wondering if anyone could help me with the job search and deciding what graduate degree to pursue?

    Last night, my mom said something along the lines of, "It's such a shame that you got such a great scholarship (graduated with barely any debt) and studied physics in college. I should have pushed you to study something reasonable, I was too easy on you." It got me thinking, did I waste all that time and money at a great institution, but a tiny physics program, earning a useless degree? Through most of undergrad, I really thought I would want to go in for a PhD and go into academia, but it wasn't until senior year that I was debating between that, getting a job, and grad school in another field. I think I have begun to accept, to my dismay, that the PhD route isn't right for me. I didn't end up applying to grad school, but I am feeling the pressure to choose a program and apply for the following year in order to 1) Do something and 2) Open up my career prospects. Possible programs include:
    • Law school (for patent law)
    • Master's in physics, medical physics, comp sci, or engineering (but I hear that's difficult without a degree from undergrad)
    • MBA
    All of these seem interesting, but I just want to ensure that the next investment I make doesn't put me in this position again.

    I've applied to a number of different job titles (analyst, consulting, museum jobs, science-related jobs in the government). So far, I haven't had any luck with even getting an interview, even though I feel I'm decently qualified and write a tailored cover letter for every position (maybe I'm doing something wrong?).

    I've been really down lately, thinking about all of this has been the source of a lot of sleepless nights. Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful to have been able to study something I like and have gotten amazing opportunities through the department (research opportunities abroad, being a TA, professors I admire). I want to prove that earning a Physics BS was not a waste of time.

    Have any of you been in this position? If so, what did you do to figure out what you wanted to pursue? Do you have any tips for choosing a graduate program or applying for jobs? Thanks in advance!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 1, 2015 #2
    My background: I got a BS in physics, worked in a private sector job as lab-tech/researcher for a few years, then got my Masters in physics, then changed careers entirely.

    The cynical side of me wants to remark that this could be challenging, but the truth is it's not: you got a college degree for low cost. You will get a better job now than if you hadn't. Now, was it the best possible degree choice? I think definitely not, but you got it the right way, and of all the youthfull discretions there are, getting a BS in physics is pretty forgivable.

    Bad news: I fell into a job after getting my BS and it was awful. Then I fell into another job after getting my Masters (different career) and it was great. Some of that is because lab-techs are treated like garbage and actuaries are treated very well, but some of it was also luck. I don't think there was a good way to for me to know ahead of time that I would enjoy health insurance work as much as I do.

    I think calls to "figure out" want you want to do or be are kind but misguided, because I think it's really hard to know how you'll respond to different job situations. So, IMHO, the only good way to know what you want to do, is to do things. Ouch.

    Choose a graduate program that's industry funded and has practical applications.

    As for jobs, that's a huge discussion, with many threads in the forum. My limited experience is that physics grads interview VERY poorly. Hopefully you're in a better spot. Start from scratch and learn how to interview well.

    Best of luck.
  4. Jun 1, 2015 #3
    When I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in physics, I also found that I didn't know what to do. I had picked physics because it was fun, it was challenging, and I was pretty good at it. But I didn't really like school, so grad school seemed out, but I also wasn't really qualified for anything else based on my degree, and I didn't know what I liked. Thinking back on the confusion I experienced around that time, here are the things I would have wished I had known:
    • I like engineering. The complexity of solving a technical problem with the added constraints of time and money just makes it more fun for me. I also like seeing the thing I helped build become reality. I had lots of unrealistic ideas about what engineering is like.
    • Lots of people end up outside their disciplines. There are lots of reasons for this. Some careers have no degree programs designed for them. Sometimes, people discover new things they are interested in and make a transition when they have enough experience to do so. Other times, your job or field goes away and you need to do something different just to get by.
    • There are definitely paths are will be forever closed by the lack of a credential. If you really really really want to do something that requires one, you better get it.
    Now, that being said, here are some random comments on your options. I know people who have taken all of these paths, and any of them can work. That is quite different from saying they will work.
    • Patent law can be interesting, and it pays really well. You have to have the right kind of mind to enjoy it, and you should understand that jobs in law firms are jobs. They have the same kind of BS as any other kind of job. Starting your own practice and working for yourself is both difficult and rewarding, if you like that kind of thing.
    • A master's in a technical discipline can be just the thing to break into a targeted industry. If you want to try this, try to get someone else to pay for it, and try to find the shortest program possible. There is no benefit for a 2-year program [or even longer, in some of the pure sciences] compared to a 1-year or 18-month program.
    • An MBA is the thing if you want to move to the business side, or be a manager. Here, it really depends on what you want to do. Typically, an MBA signals a willingness to move away from technical matters into money and people matters.
  5. Jun 1, 2015 #4
    Locrian, I was afraid someone would confirm my suspicion that I made the wrong choice, but I know I can be pretty hard on myself when I make mistakes. You are right, I do have a Bachelor's and that puts me in a better position than many. I feel that I'm drawn to lab tech positions, one example being the Discovery program at John's Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (a two-year rotational program that allows you to experience doing jobs in different industries). However, I didn't think about how I would be treated and what exactly I would be doing. Probably not the type of research/camaraderie-type relationship with the supers I'm used to. If you don't mind me asking, how did the career change process go for you? What do you do in health insurance?

    Ben, are you me? That is exactly why I chose physics, I wrote down a list of possible majors and through process of elimination found physics because I'm really interested in it and I like the work despite its challenges. I wish I realized I liked engineering earlier, because I probably would enjoy doing more hands-on things than the programming I've been thrust into throughout undergrad.

    As for patent law, everything I've read about it sounds like great work. I've even looked at a few patents and found them to be interesting to look through. Law school debt irks me, though, and there's no guarantee I'll be paid highly unless I work insane hours (so I've read). Also, this degree wouldn't be as malleable as a master's in another topic, because all I can do is be a lawyer (but then again, I did make the mistake of pursuing a degree I thought was malleable). I really need to talk to someone who works in the industry to confirm if the lifestyle is for me.

    I'm curious about the industry-paid technical degree programs. The reason why I was weighing the PhD programs over master's was because of the tuition waivers and funding. How would one go about finding these short programs, paid by someone else?

    Thanks for the help so far!
  6. Jun 2, 2015 #5
    Have you considered the patent examiner route? You might well be able to get your law degree paid for that way.

    Have you read the patent lawyer sticky in this forum?
  7. Jun 2, 2015 #6
    I have read through most of the thread, and I think OP says no one will pay for you to go to law school. One of my plans consisted of studying and taking the patent bar to become an examiner to see if I liked the work, and tacking on law school if I decide to get a law degree.
  8. Jun 2, 2015 #7
    Well, it looks to me like the USPTO will pay some tuition reimbursement. Whether that's actually a good deal is another question, and the OP of the patent attorney thread definitely knows much more than I do.
  9. Jun 15, 2015 #8
    If you graduated with a decent GPA (> 3.2, let's say), you're almost definitely smart enough to pick up enough programming and computer science in 6 months to get a decent paying job (> 70k) as a software developer. You'll have to spend about 4 hours a day studying / practicing programming over those six months. It won't cost any money, since there are plenty of free resources on the web.

    If you'd like more details, you can PM me. I'm a computer science major going into my senior year, but I have about three years of paid work experience. Employers in the software industry don't care what you majored in..they just want someone who they know is smart, logical, and capable of learning on the job. Your physics degree shows that you have all of those traits, and with six months of study you should be employable as a programmer.
  10. Jun 29, 2015 #9
    I'm currently doing a summer studentship at CERN where I'm doing analysis and picking up C++ and object oriented programming quite rapidly. I'm just concerned they wouldn't think I have enough in-depth knowledge of programming, which is why I thought they would prefer CS degrees over physics. What companies did you work for, and how did you apply?
  11. Jul 11, 2015 #10
    Hey I felt I should add my 2 cents in if you dont mind. Look I got a Physics BS because I just sort of .... fell through the cracks at my Engineering program. And like you I had regrets by the end of graduation. Matter of fact the only thing that kept pushing me was thinking I may qualify for a Medical Physics or Nuclear Physics/Engineering program. I had even considered the Finance MS or pursuing the Actuary route (which I never really learned all the steps for).

    In the end, I got an acceptance letter to a MS in Electrical Engineering program (and this was with a sub-par GPA). It wasn't at a prestigious school, but neither was my original school since I never cared about academic pedigree. So I want you to know that you have potential and thee are opportunities out there for those willing to get their hands dirty and do what it takes to make it happen. No one is going to make it happen for you, and that is what I had to learn.

    I wish you the best at your internship or if you finished it I hope it went well. If you choose the software or other industry, I wish you the absolute best in your endeavors.

    Thinking out of the box can be most crucial for your success.
  12. Jul 12, 2015 #11
    For grad school you should probably not go into physics (although don't completely disregard it), with engineering its a matter of taking complementary classes and tutoring to catch up from a foundation in physics and with computer science it depends on how well you can teach yourself an introductory full stack (intermediate level understanding of a handful of programming languages like matlab, python, fortan, julia, java and advanced understanding of c++ which you should start with as well) and enough theory to fly through the preferred prerequisites in about 6 months of self study prior to masters for CS or you'll also have the opportunity to put that degree to work in computational physics; the invisible software on super computers acting as a intermediary between applied/experimental physics and theoretical physics.

    Either way you have to learn programming for engineering too. For example Lynda will surprisingly get you up to bachelor level standards programming wise.
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2015
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