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Physics Degree

  1. Oct 29, 2007 #1
    I'm a senior in high school, and I'm thinking of majoring in Physics in college. The only reason why I'm hesitant in going through with it is the question "What can I do with a Physics degree?" I mean I love the subject, but I was wondering what exactly one does with a degree in Physics aside from teaching.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 30, 2007 #2
    With just a bachelors you can become an engineer, among other things. You probably won't get the same starting salary as someone with an engineering degree, but you shouldn't have too much trouble finding a job.

    If you know some programming, you could become a code monkey, and I think you'd have a decent shot at some business stuff, like market analysis or something with lots of numbers and statistics. Still not much of a chance that you'd have "physicist" as your job title, though.

    With a Master's, it goes even higher, and with a Ph.D. you can become a physicist and beyond, an engineer, etc. But with a Ph.D. you'd pretty much want one or the other. I can't imagine someone wanting to go into law or something... :p
  4. Oct 30, 2007 #3
    Physics gives you a strong background working with analytical problems and learning how to learn hard topics. Many jobs exist where this is *very* helpful, e.g. no major is a thorough preparation for the position, you will have to pick up skills necessary for the job ASAP, and probably continue acquiring new skills over time. Lab/programming experience can also be a big plus in many of the positions that look at physics majors.

    No, you need a Ph.D for that...not a bad career goal, though.
  5. Oct 30, 2007 #4
    It's always important to remember that you don't have to work in a field related to your degree. A lot of businesses love people with physics degrees. They tend to make the big money. If business isn't your thing, you can move on into the industry. If working for the man bugs you, go to academics. You got plenty of choices.
  6. Oct 30, 2007 #5

    Meir Achuz

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    Take the major you like best, and a career will follow.
    Don't listen to vocational advice.
  7. Oct 30, 2007 #6
    This advice you are giving seems to be popular, but I feel it is best tempered with a bit of logic as well. I think it is a good idea to consider the implications of certain degrees. Particularly in the case of physics, if one only wants a 4-year degree, it can certainly be difficult to get a job actually doing physics. Things like this should be taken into account when choosing a major. Saying 'just follow your dreams' is great when you are in elementary school, but there comes a point when you have to be reasonable about things.

    OP, you may want to check out the following link, which contains a great deal of useful information by ZapperZ.

  8. Oct 30, 2007 #7
    Try to go to a college with a nearby cluster of companies that would make use of physics. That way, in majoring in physics at the nearby college, you have a better chance of getting a great job at the nearby area.

    Example: If you are into computer programming, try to go to a university near Silicon Valley.
  9. Oct 30, 2007 #8


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    True, but quite a few (most?) people that get a PhD in physics know that they are not really interested in working in academia afterwards anyway.
    Many go on to "engineering-type" jobs at various companies (telecom etc) but also to the finance sector. I know at least two people who got their PhD in physics only to be able to get a good job at a bank (and at least one wasn't even that interested in physics),

    When I started as a PhD student there were 7 PhD students in the group (we all started roughly at the same time). Seven (almost eight) years later only two of us are are actually doing research, one is a teacher, one works for a bank and three work in "engineering" (telecom/consultants).
  10. Oct 30, 2007 #9
    Well of course, I agree with you. In fact, I intend to go into industry after finishing my PhD. I suppose I just perceived the OP as asking about an undergraduate degree specifically. Certainly, with a PhD in physics, if you look outside of academia the possibilities seem endless. When I said 'doing physics' that was including the 'engineering-type' jobs, but not so much things like finance or computer programming.
  11. Oct 30, 2007 #10
    Hi Garen,

    With a degree in physics, your career choices are nearly endless. Physics provides a good foundational background for understanding the world and analytical thinking in general. If you decide to pursue a physics career, you have many more options than just teaching. If you decide to pursue other fields, a background in physics can help you in pretty much any direction you choose. A physics degree does not really limit you to anything.

    Check out http://www.astromiror.org/physicists.html. Interviewees all have physics degrees and have gone on to pursue careers in teaching, research, the medical field, business consulting, law, economics, finances, writing, and public outreach, just to name a few.

    Best of luck to you!
  12. Oct 30, 2007 #11
    The important thing to realize is that while physics is a great background for a great many careers, it will be tough to get something like an engineering job if you just take physics courses. In general, the requirements for a physics degree(bachelors) don't teach you enough skills to be useful to someone looking to hire an engineer. However, if you throw in some engineering courses during your time in school your chances will go up!

    This wasn't meant to discourage you from physics. Its just a word of caution that you may need to put in a little extra work in an area you would like to get a job in... engineering, finance, or whatever you choose.

    The guide by ZapperZ is top notch, I definitely recommend reading it.

    Good luck!
  13. Oct 30, 2007 #12
    Thank you so much everyone.
  14. Oct 31, 2007 #13

    The above quote is either untrue or misleading, depending on ones interpretation of the word "possibilities".

    Firstly, those who get a PhD in highly theoretical (and non-computational) areas of physics often find the opposite is true - the possibilities are limited, sometimes completely. Often they are lucky to get a temporary postdoc position, and employment outside academia (or education) is almost impossible. Tales of these people running off to wall-street to become quants were spawned by the stock market boom of the 90's. It still happens today, but not much, and certainly not enough to be considered a career option.

    Secondly, even those with a PhD in highly applicable areas of physics (magnetism, semiconductors, etc) have very limited options. Of course, they don't necessarily have a hard time finding a job. Those jobs pay very well and can lead to a great career. But make no mistake, those jobs are with a select few companies. Whether the "possibilities" are endless is an interesting question - one can certainly be hired at any number of retail outlets with the degree. However, we can say without hesitation that opportunities in science are not endless.

    None of this is to suggest you shouldn't get a degree in physics. I'm generally happy with mine (my career outlook seems reasonably good). Physics is a difficult degree that teaches a wide set of powerful skills. It is entirely possible for one to get the degree and end up very employable. However, it is also entirely possible to spend 11 years in school and find oneself biting and clawing for a poor paying temporary position. The difference is largely planning.

    I should also note that similar statements can be said about many other degrees, including engineering, law and medicine.

    Whatever you choose to do, play a tight game or suffer the consequences.
  15. Oct 31, 2007 #14
    Naturally, I assumed an experimental physicist going into industry. Of course a theoretical physicist would have trouble outside of academia, but it is not impossible. In particular, if you pick up computer programming and/or modeling skills, you would probably be fine. As an experimentalist (especially in condensed matter), there are a great many possibilities outside of academia, I do not see how you could so strongly disagree with that. The only 'evidence' you offer is saying that these positions are with a "select few" companies, which is quite untrue.

    I definitely agree with what you say about planning, and there do seem to be many people that are very determined to do theoretical physics, with no thought to their future career.

    I stand by my original comment.
  16. Nov 6, 2007 #15
    I realize there are a lot of options, but which areas have more job opurtunities? And which ones make more money?
  17. Nov 6, 2007 #16
    Medical physics is probably the fastest route to cash. I worry though, since it is a comparatively small field and while there is great demand now, a surge of new recruits could satiate that for decades.

    Next to medical physics, condensed matter has good employability and income. However, stick to studies that are important technologically to really get mileage out of it.

    In truth, a better answer to the questions
    is "an MBA". . .
  18. Nov 6, 2007 #17
    As I know quite a few people who are pre-med but physics majors for undergrad, then perhaps another answer could be:
    those jobs which EVENTUALLY pay more once you pay off undergrad and med-school may have and M.D attached to them, which may downplay the B.S Physics in the long run

    that being said I sure there are physicists out there that make more than some doctors, depends on your job
  19. Nov 6, 2007 #18
    I think he means medical physics specifically. See the link below.

  20. Nov 6, 2007 #19
    Medical Physics will probably remain a field of interest for as long as 1) people care about not dying (or just not becoming/remaining diseased) and 2) the field continues to churn out new methods for 1). Since both of these are true for the foreseeable future, it will remain a field of interest for quite a while to come. Whether it can bear the surge of interested graduates depends on the rate at which new directions of inquiry pop up (at this point, I believe it's much faster than they can be investigated) and how well funding and facilities keep up with the supply of interested researchers. Right now it's not perfect, but it's increasing and easier to get money for than many things because of the whole medical angle. It also sees much more private funding interest than, for example, astrophysics. Really the current trend is to try to increase the number of physics grads in general...some specific popular areas of study suffer from crowding for a small number of available positions, but physics as a whole has no such problem. Anything medical will probably not have an overcrowding problem for a good long while thanks to the 6.5+ billion people around wanting better health care, and in the next few decades particularly thanks to the nice bulge on the age graph that is the boomers.

    Particularly them such as don't have an M.D.'s insurance issues to contend with. But I believe there tend to be more highly paid M.D.s than physicists, at least looking at gross income. But anyone going into either field as a way to make easy money is an idiot.
  21. Nov 9, 2007 #20
    I'm currently a junior in college and had the same debate with myself before deciding to settle on physics. I'm glad I did, the majority of college's will help you find a job after you graduate. Also, I decided I was going to settle for a smaller salary and just get my bachelors before I got to school, and now that I've interacted with people who have gone through graduate school and see that amazingly interesting things they do I've completely changed my mind.

    If you think it'll make you happy I highly suggest picking it as your major.
  22. Dec 9, 2007 #21
    I would urge extreme caution when considering a physics bachelor's with the intent or idea that you can find employment in engineering.

    Fifteen or twenty years ago, it was apparently common for physics bachelors to be hired on in an engineering role. Now, it is remarkably difficult to even successfully submit an application for an engineering position if you do not have an engineering degree from an ABET accredited institution. The people who WOULD hire you--the engineers--won't even see your application, because the HR people filter out anyone who does not meet the "standards of education and experience" listed for the position.
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