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Physics Programming or EE with physics degree?

  1. Nov 13, 2011 #1
    A while back I made a post here:


    detailing how I got kicked out of grad school for physics and whether or not I can ever hope to get back in. Long story short, I decided to get a job for now and possibly go get a Master's in EE later when I can get my life together. I have to support my family for a while (mom got a divorce) and have student loans from undergrad.

    Anyway, I'm trying to figure out how to apply for jobs. I am obviously not a typical applicant for EE or programming jobs. I've took a few EE courses as well as E&M + electronics during undergrad, but that doesn't match up to a real EE grad of course, right? How do I spin my physics background into this, if at all possible? Or am I just dreaming here and should forget about it? I know EE is about more than just circuits of course, but I'm way behind on that probably as well.

    As for programming, it's what I've been doing for the past year. I've been developing a program for the lab I'm at that takes data from a detector, analyzes it in real time and displays it, let's the user save and process it in real time, etc., all in C++. That's real programming. I know that. But when I look at job ads... well, they look like this:

    http://jobview.monster.com/Jr-Computer-Scientist-Job-HANOVER-MD-103021882.aspx?fwr=true [Broken]

    They throw all these terms I've never even heard of and it's just intimidating. Makes me feel that no matter how well I've been programming this past year, I'm so behind that it's pointless to even try.

    I'm just starting to doubt that I'm qualified for *anything* at this point. Should I be applying for aerospace engineering jobs or something maybe? Finance?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 13, 2011 #2
    You have a better shot at engineering than you do programming imo.
  4. Nov 13, 2011 #3
    I'd much prefer an engineering job, as I think it would utilize my physics education more than programming, but I don't even know if I have half the requirements necessary for an entry level job. I don't know how I'd write my resume, either.

    I've been looking at sample resumes online and if I try and copy their format, I find my resume looking very lack-luster. I have some undergrad research experience in which I used some electronics knowledge plus a few electronics classes and three quarters of electromagnetism. I've taken a fluid dynamics class and classical mechanics. I've taken solid state physics and loads of quantum mechanics and statmech. I just don't know to turn that into "I can do things" for an employer. Basically, I don't even know what I know or how to sell myself.

    Any kind of help would be appreciated.
  5. Nov 13, 2011 #4
    I went into game programming after a BS/MS Physics and just one CS course. But since I had done high energy physics, I had been programming in C++ for 2 years when I graduated. I also had a lot of domain knowledge, since I was always curious to how games technically worked. All that combined was just enough for me to begin somewhere.

    What I got from that experience is that a pure physics graduate:
    is good at numbers
    is good at programming computers to crunch those numbers
    lacks vital theoretical foundation and its vocabulary (data structure, algorithm, operating system)
    lacks exposure to domain-specific technology and its vocabulary (openGL in my case)

    I would suggest looking at areas where numerical results are the important product. Specifically, many areas that do simulations are good, such as game physics/AI/gameplay/audio. Game graphics certainly is good, but you need to learn the technology first (openGL or DirectX). I believe finance is also good, and a high frequency trading shop told me they hire physicists without PhD's, too. I also have physics friends in semiconductor factories programming etching or circuit simulation. My guess is weather/economics are also good fields, but that's just my guess. Mostly, you'll have to spin your math/analysis/simulation background more than physics. I really don't think that anything related to "IT" or "web" will be suitable.

    However, once you begin somewhere, it is important that you make up for the lack of theoretical knowledge. I don't think you can go very far in numerical programming/simulations if you don't learn at least data structure & algorithms. The domain knowledge you'll have to pick up on the job.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  6. Nov 13, 2011 #5
    So you're saying people would be willing to hire me despite having those gaps in knowledge?

    Mind you I only have a bachelor's. I know a Master's goes a long way.
  7. Nov 14, 2011 #6


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    Hey Mistake.

    Sorry to hear about your PhD, but I'm sure you'll pull back.

    In terms of programming, if you haven't written code on large repositories with different code-bases (think repositories with say a few compiled libraries, or even different code-bases written by different groups integrated together), I would not suggest applying for a job.

    It doesn't have to necessarily be really complicated code, but this is the kind of thing that you will do in software development: typically you are told to do X and you are given A,B,C libraries/documentation or code-bases and you do X which makes use of A,B,C. This is how complex projects get written: lots of different groups write specific parts and you have to integrate them together to get stuff done.

    You did say that you would prefer to go into programming, but if you do change your mind, this should give you an idea of what to do (you could even find a course of study where you do an integrated software project for a year, and put that on your resume if you wanted to).

    Also just a point: if you have done any work where you are given a problem, you analyze it (often with a computer package), and you write a report or recommendations, note that in any interview you get if they ask what you did in course X,Y, or Z.
  8. Nov 14, 2011 #7
    For the current programming project I am working on, I've had to use SDKs provided by the hardware manufacturer, as well as libraries for things like networking (I have to use ethernet to communicate), the GUI, OpenGL for displaying on screen, etc. So it's not just me starting out from scratch, but I do see what you are saying. I do not have any experience writing code in a group, and that is one of the things I'm afraid of people asking about.

    Thanks for your advice. I appreciate it.
  9. Nov 14, 2011 #8
    I don't really know about "people". Sorry about that. A programmer from 343 industries, who's making HALO, told me they have physics grads there. He himself has BS in CS. I don't know if you can extrapolate that to physics BS, though.
  10. Nov 14, 2011 #9
    I 100% agree. Specifically, Data Structures taught me so much and was really the turning point that I felt I knew enough to get a job in programming from a physics B.S.

    To Mistake:

    There comes a point with physics education that one must specialize. I would pick whatever you're more interested in and pursue that full on. I feel there's a danger with physics degree holders because we know a little about a lot and that can sometimes come off cheesey to employers. In my experience, employers like physics/math kids but only if they have ventured out into another field. Unless you're doing physics as a job, no one cares if you took a graduate quantum class in industry. For that reason, I would recommend over emphasizing your skills and not your education in interviews and on resume/cover letters. Any HR person I've ever meet doesn't know what a physics degree means anyways so I would keep it on the down low until you get into the interview(s).

    Also, hit up a couple of job fairs, talk to your former classmates, contact your school's career services, etc. I'm still in contact with many friends from my undergrad and one of them literally handed me my second job in industry.

    From your first post, it sounds like you have some good programming skills already. I will say it is a little scary trying to get into CS jobs because there is a lot of terminology that gets thrown around. My first job was in computational physics but my second job was in software engineering. I still remember my first team meeting at that second job, the manager was throwing around all these terms I never heard of before. I felt like I was in over my head. After the meeting, I asked my friend (who was also from a physics background) what all those terms were and he said "I have to go get my cheat sheet." He showed me a ~20 page booklet of various software engineering terms, after I saw that I felt much better.
  11. Nov 19, 2011 #10
    I'm still in college, so I can't give you a whole lot of great advice, but the advice that I've always gotten from other graduates is that finding a job is a lot easier when you're willing to move long distances to find one.
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