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Physics degree. Which career has the highest earning potential?

  1. May 31, 2013 #1
    I'm half way through a physics undergrad degree. I have yet to decide exactly which field I'd like to study in more depth, or even which career to try and get into. I'm leaning towards nuclear power. I'd like to be honest and say that the potential to make money is a huge worry for me and something I often think about. I don't want to finish this undergrad and fight my way through a masters/PhD, only to find that I end up making the same amount of money as if I had just stopped at undergrad. Or even worse, I can't find a job at all.

    I know there are many knowledgeable people on this forum from all sorts of disciplines, so I hope someone is able to address a few of my questions:

    1) What are the best (most in demand/highest paid) career options for someone with a degree in physics? I do plan on getting at least a master and possibly a PhD, but in which field is pretty much dependant on the answer to this question.

    2) Will being competent in programming increase my opportunities? I can get around in Matlab but nothing too impressive, but as I'm in my 2nd year it's something I could work on before I graduate if needed.

    3) How useful is knowing a second language? I know Mandarin to a decent level right now, but it will improve a lot more before I graduate.

    Thank you for any input and advice. I know it's a few years before I have to worry about this but I'd like to at least have an idea of what I'm doing with my life.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 31, 2013 #2


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    1. One option for people with a physics background is to go into the more professional branches of physics such as medical physics or geophysics. In medical physics the pay is fairly decent but because of this it's a rather competative field. You're basically looking at a PhD and then a two year residency.

    2. Competancy in any skill that is marketable will increse your opportunity pool. So of course programming will help you. Many physicsts go on to be programmers of one type or another.

    3. This really depends on the field you go into, I believe. If you want some kind of government position it can help tremendously.
  4. May 31, 2013 #3
    If you want to be a programmer, your earning potential will be much higher if you switch to computer science right now so you can start working when you finish your bachelor's degree rather than waste 5+ years doing a PhD to get a job that you could be done training for once you finish your bachelor's.

    Learning a second language probably won't be too useful, unless you get a job where it is useful then it will be extremely useful. Most technical jobs don't benefit much from knowing a second language. In particular, a second language really won't help much with programming. There are always exceptions though.
  5. May 31, 2013 #4
    One thing you can do with all the math you've picked up is to become an actuary. High pay and actually a large demand for them currently (projected to stay that way for awhile). If you don't know, actuary is essentially a risk-analyst
  6. May 31, 2013 #5


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    Well, this is very obvious, but you could get a professorship in a university. I find that academia is less competitive than the 'out side world'. You won't make a lot of money, but is a good amount and you'll be dedicating your time to physics, and I'm assuming that's the goal of your whole graduation. But tell me one think, did you go to physics to get money?
  7. May 31, 2013 #6
    Are...are you serious? The ratio of open tenure-track positions to recent PhD graduates who would like such a position is insanely low. In high energy theory, for example, in 2012 there were 11 first hire faculty positions filled. In all of the United States and Canada.
  8. May 31, 2013 #7
    I've been looking into medical and geophysics quite a lot, even things like petrophyics. BP came to my university to recruit a bunch of 3rd and 4th year people into petrophysics careers, but I was only in 1st year at the time. It's always an option though.

    Can you tell me more about what this job is or where I can information on it?

    Not at all, I'm studying it because it's the only subject I enjoy and have an interest in

    I have one further question. How common is it for people with a master or a PhD to be asked for their A-level grades (from secondary/high school)? I've noticed a frew graduate programmes run by banks that require only an undergrad degree, but also a certain performance in exams from high school. I find it frustrating that I can't even make it past their screening process because I lack a decent grade in A-level English and math, yet I've been getting straight As at university. Surely that's more important?
  9. May 31, 2013 #8
    Just google search "actuary"
  10. Jun 1, 2013 #9
    That looks like an interesting job. There seems to be plenty of graduate schemes that only require an undergrad and they allow you to study for the actuary exams along the way, so I'd be working and gaining experience a lot sooner. Thank you.
  11. Jun 1, 2013 #10


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    Have you ever consider going to other contries? Here on Brazil get tenure is very easy you just have to have a PhD. Yes, I know it's not a contry with good sciences programs but nowadays it's the right place to get a decent job as a professor.
  12. Jun 1, 2013 #11
    A note about the actuarial profession: the career track, amount of job opportunities, type of work and pay vary greatly by country. Don't use the US as your benchmark, make sure you're looking at information for the country you plan to work in.

    In the US, experienced, credentialed actuaries are in great demand. However, it can be hard to get entry level work (very competitive). In the US it helps to start taking exams, networking, and getting relevant exam experience as quickly as possible.
  13. Jun 1, 2013 #12
    I live in the UK. I've been looking into the profession and requirements all morning and things also seem to be extremely competitive, but also extremely rewarding. A university near my home also offers a master degree that's accredited by the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries in the UK. If I do this it would take me through two of the exams, which would help with finding an entry level job.

    My only worry is the level of math needed. I feel pretty comfortable with the linear algebra and calculus 1-3 that I've studied so far in my degree. I just started with differential equations and I'm finding some of the concepts very difficult to master, but I still have a few years yet to work on it.
  14. Jun 2, 2013 #13
    I work in the actuarial field in the UK. I wouldn't worry about the level of maths if you have a physics degree. The maths used in the actuarial exams is broadly A-level further maths standard, with a few extras but is nothing too advanced. Your day-to-day work may involve more mathematics if you are involved in a specialised area, but this is not generally the norm. I would advise you to research the field a little more though. The actuary profession shouldn't really be thought of as a mathematical career, but more as a business career with a mathematical leaning. Too many people enter the field thinking they will be programming/solving equations all day, whereas this is not really what your average actuary does (though there are actuaries that do this). Have you considered doing an internship over the summer? This is probably the best way to get an understanding of the role.

    Companies will regularly hire undergrads and PhDs in Physics, so you definitely have a good shot at landing a job if you chose to go down this route. If I were you, I wouldn't bother with the masters in actuarial sciences. They do get you some exemptions, but for a year of your life, I don't think it is worth it. Personally, I think it is better to start working and take the exams as you go along. Most employers will give you study days (roughly one a week) so studying while working isn't too bad. Also, many of the big actuarial companies will even pay for you to do the MSc in actuarial science in your second year while working, so it can be win-win.
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