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Post-B.S. Struggles

  1. Mar 4, 2014 #1
    I'll just launch into it: I graduated recently from Temple University with a B.S in Physics, GPA 3.83. I worked in three labs, one semester each, during my studies: one for pay, one volunteer, and one for credit. In the first, I did analysis for Mossbauer spectroscopy; in the second, I produced and set-up graphene samples for electron tunneling tests; in the third, I did some experimental design/construction and a dose of programming.

    Now, with all that lab experience, I was really hoping that I had set myself up for a research assistant gig or something of the sort. Unfortunately I've been applying to a variety of jobs, from research assistant to market analyst to whatever (pretty much anything that I can squeeze my background into sensibly), using databases (monster, indeed, joule), going through university/company sites (Temple/Penn, Lockheed, Boeing), etc., with absolutely no luck whatsoever. I literally haven't heard back from anywhere. It seems to me that the area around Philly is poor at best for Physics research, but I didn't expect to be unable to find anything.

    Anyway, I'm at a bit of an impasse right now, because I'd like to stay in Philly but can't find any decent work here. I don't know if I'm looking in the wrong places, but most everything I see is focused on chemistry, biology, or engineering. Although physics relates easily to all of those topics, it feels like I'm being passed over just because of my degree. Does anyone have any advice for where or what to look for, or has anyone been in a similar situation? Should I send my resume directly to HR departments and avoid job postings, or just hold out and keep applying for bio/chem/engi openings? I need to be building my resume right now...but the baser concern is paying the bills.

    Anything would be greatly appreciated. I seriously know no one in the sciences, partly because of being a transfer student, who has a clue what I should be doing.

    (Some other considerations: I'm not interested in grad school because I want professional experience before I decide on any further specialization, and I'm trying to avoid teaching because I've generally disliked academia and the education system. My one decent thought has been to join the military, likely the Air Force, as it's an easy way out and would likely train me in a market-valuable way - but I really, really do not want to go down that road and put the rest of my life on standby for however many years. Finally, in terms of interests, I'd like to align myself in a direction that ends up in, near, or around the rapidly developing space programs, but that is a goal for much later. Right now, I just want work.)
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  3. Mar 4, 2014 #2


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    One thought is to really look at what you're doing to apply for positions.

    In my experience applying to posted positions is a craps shoot and the odds are often stacked against you - even if you are perfectly qualified for the position and have a perfect resume.

    What I've found that really bridges the gaps is making a personal contact. Even if you don't get the job, having a person to talk to on the other side can really take a lot of mystery out of the equation. Simply getting an answer to "is there an internal candidate" can save everyone a lot of time and effort. But on top of that, from talking to someone in the know for even a few minutes I find it's easy to get a pretty clear picture of the type of person they want or are willing to settle for. This also helps you to assess whether or not the position is a good fit for you.

    You can make these kinds of contacts by calling or emailing the company. You can even start by asking if they ever have an open house, or give tours. You can approach people at the company at trade shows and conferences. If you're a little more brave you could try to arrange a job shadow. Remember, even people from companies that don't currently have a posted position can be helpful. Sometimes they hire in waves and simply by talking with someone who works there you can get an idea of when the next wave will be. Or they might know who else in the industry might be hiring, where the industry typically recruits from, etc.
  4. Mar 5, 2014 #3
    I'm completely on board with everything you just said, but I still don't know where I should be aiming for personal contacts. Should I bite the bullet and approach biotech companies directly who've posted for bio/chem majors, walk into a college's physics department and randomly look for professors, or start calling engineering companies and talking to HR? I think my main difficulty is that, after all this dancing around trying to find something, I no longer know what the market thinks I'm qualified for, and so I don't know what jobs to shoot for, thus what companies are promising, and so on.

    For instance, I have a family friend who runs a helicopter parts manufacturing company - engineering and aerospace, two things I'd like to be involved in and shouldn't be far out of the spectrum of physics - who had not a clue what kind of work I should be looking for, even within her field. Similarly, my old research professor could only suggest that I look in business journals and try to track the money, which led me down the rabbit hole of biotech and engineering companies. These are just a couple of the dead-ends I've run down trying to play the personal game.

    I guess the root of the issue is I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing. Should I aim for chem, bio, or engineering positions? If so, what sorts are more open to including physicists rather than their natural majors, and are thereby worth pursuing? Are there any specifically physics-related careers suitable for a B.S., outside of teaching, that I can aim for?
  5. Mar 5, 2014 #4
    With a BS in physics, I probably wouldn't hire you for an entry level chem or bio position. The vast majority of these that I know of are wet lab testing positions where you want someone to just run the same test over and over and over again. A job is a job, but for this kind of job I would want someone who already knows the procedure in question, western blot, gel electrophoresis, or what have you. I'm sure you could learn it, but it is my interest to hire someone I don't need to train. From your description of your experience, I think you may be a poor fit for this kind of job from the hirer's perspective.

    The professors in the physics department may know someone in industry responsible for hiring. That was certainly the case in my department. You should ask and see. You may want to go back to your friend with the helicopter company and ask some questions about what their entry-level technical hires *do*. From the market's perspective, a physics degree doesn't qualify you for anything. However, you are probably capable of doing some of the same things an entry-level mechanical engineer or electrical engineer can do. Turning the conversation to skills and experience may be more useful.

    I have been able to successfully transition myself from an applicant with a BS in Physics into a medical device engineer. It was honestly a tough sell at first. Lots and lots and lots of people think you can't do what needs to be done because your degree has the wrong words on it. This is something that will be hard. Personal contacts are the way to start to break down this barrier, because you can start to convince someone that you *can* run a compression tester and analyze the data, or you can do a Fourier analysis on their signals data.

    As a final thought for you, you may try looking at my own field, medical devices, rather than biotech. From the outside, you might think these fields are the same. They are not. Medical devices is a much bigger industry than biotech, and it relies far more on traditional technical skills. Most of the technical folks in medical devices work in manufacturing support, because you need to make stuff to make money.
  6. Mar 5, 2014 #5
    Thanks Ben. If you don't mind elaborating further, it'd be helpful to hear the step-by-step of how you turned around that stigma. I guess that's what I'll need to be doing.
  7. Mar 5, 2014 #6
    Maybe consider doing a terminal masters degree in physics. Or even in engineering or chem. It'll open a lot of doors for you.
  8. Mar 5, 2014 #7
    Either of those alternatives....professional experience or teaching.....ARE forms of specialization. So you'd be specializing perhaps without even intending to. Are you in search of something that excites you??

    How about stock analysis? I know technical people can transition to copmany evaluations as they have the math skills and the technical insights to probe a company's prospects where pure financial people would not.

    What's your resume read like?,,,passive and boring....or active and positive about what YOU like do do....for example, maybe emphasize any people skills "I've enjoyed being a member of [blank] team as well as leading groups in laboratory settings...or.... I communicate easily in both large and small groups and break down the complex to concepts easily understood by non technical participants. I enjoy helping others......etc.

    I'd also echo the 'personal experience' of talking directly whenever you can....don't companies come to Temple to interview?? As noted, maybe professors have contacts....those personal interactions are critical....

    and perhaps, an unpleasant reality: maybe'youll have to move....?? Do you have the flexibility to adapt to unforseen circumstances employers like to see?

    Here is some personal experience that still holds:

    I've interviewed dozen's of engineering graduates for possible hiring and one thing of course I would look for is good grades like yours. But equally important is the enthusiasm, confidence, communication and people skills evident from an interview. You'd be amazed the high proportion of people who go into interviews and utterly fail to sell themselves...I don't mean bragging, but rather not knowing what they enjoy, such as working alone or working in groups, not actively engaging in conservation, not asking questions or not asking relevant ones.

    When I was interviewed for a possible position at North American Phillips many years ago, I was given a conceptual technical problem to solve. Know what the guy liked about my solution??: It took me a while, as it was supposed to do, but the feedback I got later was that he liked the fact I solved the problem myself, not get the answer from him when he offered. [Seems that might have gone another way...'too stubborn to take help'.] DETERMINATION but not stubborness....

    Not long after, I interviewed at AT&T for a management job....they liked getting people with technical training into management training....Later, when I started work there, the interviewer with whom I became friends told me he wondered during the initial interview if I had been coached by someone who knew what they were looking for during interviews: an inquiring person, that I liked working with students and helping them [also via lab experience from an assistanship] and also that I was a self starter....I sought opportunities on my own.
    See the connection between helping students in a lab and helping subordinates at work in achieveing their objectives.....So they were looking for a lot more than my just technical training.

    So consider broadening your appeal....not just technically comptent...but also as a PERSON.
    good luck....
  9. Mar 5, 2014 #8
    Yeah, I get that experience in any field is a form of specialization, but it's a much smaller step than grad school and far easier to undo or alter if I feel it's a bad fit. I will go through my resume and spice it up a bit, though - I've got some good not-Physics experience in training (Muay Thai/Crossfit), performance (music), and communication (studied NLP as a pet project). I just always fear that when people see those sorts of things on a resume, they roll their eyes and laugh a bit. But I guess even that response is better than being ignored.
  10. Mar 5, 2014 #9
    Is that the kind of place you'd want to work? Cross them off the list!!!

    THAT's what I'm talking about!. Omit everything personal and you are 'just' a physics geek!
    I had NO music interest no skill of any sort...could not even play the Harmonica in grade school...but gues what my best friend did as a hobby thu his twenties...sany OPERA!!!

    I really like boating all my life. But when given the chance I did not stop there:

    Grew up on a floating houseboat. SCUBA, fishing, sunfish, owned good sized cabin cruisers all my life....etc. first wood, then fiberglass....Where I learned diesel mainteance, woodworking, old style cotton caulking of underwater wood seams, alarm systems for generators, firefighting alarms; engine coolant, lube oil and fuel technology, navigation electronics [depth sounders, radar, different GPS systems, backup systems, refrigeration systems]...

    see the difference when you explain??....and I had a USCG Captain's license....all that stuff because it was fun....
    just do embellish, don't falsly exaggerate.....
  11. Mar 5, 2014 #10
    good. build on stuff like that..... here is an example....
    let's say you go to an interview with a female company representative....Let's say she asks you what Muay/Thai is.....Tell her what you learned, say "determination" for example....
    Then work in something like "Do you know who Ronda Rousey...Misha Tate...Gina Carano is?"

    She will either know and be impressed or won't know and will be slightly ill at ease....[likely the latter] ... Either way is a WIN for you....YOU will stand out later in her mind either way....the follow up....." I really learned the importance of determintion from Muay Thai, but THOSE MMA [female] fighters are unbelievable. My favorite fighter is XYZ (maybe Anderson Silva] but I'm not sure he has the raw determination some woman do.]

    So now that interviewer knows you respect females....how many 'physics geeks' convey THAT during an interview!!

    What do MMA fighters do...role play.....imagine winning in their minds, right??? Try short stints at practicing interviews out loud to yourself if you think you will feel ill at ease. My approach was "They'll be lucky to get me, will that be a good enough place for me to work." But of course I never expressed that out loud.

    Finally, when you sense an interviewer is interested in something, expand on that a bit....let slide perhaps something else when you sense the interviewer isn't...

    And you can always ask a few tough questions.....I gave my daughter some suggestions a few years ago and she says got the job [opthalmic technician] because the interviewer said she was the only person to ever ask them....She was a nervous wreck before hand....I explained why she was the exact type candidate they would look for....good with people, good verbal and written skills, good first impression, experience at the front desk of an opticians practice, expert on contact lenses [from ordering the, fitting the,etc]......
    Turns out with a few weeks later people in the office who had years experience were asking her about contacts!! So don't underestimate what you bring to the table....

    questions showed common business sense I guess...... probably stuff like

    How long have you worked here? What major impressions did you get the first year ore two?
    Would you be hiring me or will I be working for someone else?
    What are a few things you think this company values most?
    How will I be evaluated? How often? Are evaluations shared with employees?
    Has the company downsized recently....is it now?? How was that done...employee reaction?

    hope that conveys some ideas you can use....

    PS: How about asking friends/classmates who got jobs if their companies are hiring...get the name and telephone number of a hiring person....get permission to use the friends name......set up an interview if you are interested....practice makes perefect.....
    Last edited: Mar 5, 2014
  12. Mar 5, 2014 #11
    You really can't limit yourself to the the "area around Philly" if you want these kinds of jobs, unless you get *very* lucky.
  13. Mar 6, 2014 #12
    Step one of the process was applying. And then also step n+1. I got a break when someone my father knew helped me with a recommendation that helped me get an interview. The interview was for a manufacturing engineer position. My task was a little easier, since the skill set for a manufacturing engineer is something that isn't really taught in engineering programs. Engineers from many disciplines are hired to do the same basic work. Once in the interview process, I was able to answer general technical questions well, which allowed me to demonstrate that I understood the physical and mechanical fundamentals of engineering work. These were the same questions that would have been given to any new grad engineer, as a baseline evaluation of technical knowledge.

    However, technical skills alone will never be sufficient. One also needs to demonstrate the soft skills that are so important in working with others. The ability to solve personal conflicts. The ability to work in a team, especially a team with non-technical folks. The ability to communicate well. Ensuring you are well-spoken, and know what kind of things interviewers commonly look for is a vital part of this process. Finally, you need to appear to the interviewers to want the job they are hiring for. This is a major fear of interviewers when you are outside of your discipline. Will you leave in a year or two because the job you really wanted opened up?
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