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Other Recently finished HEP Ph.D. but unsure of next move...

  1. Feb 20, 2017 #1
    I've recently finished my Ph.D. in HEP physics but I've not yet applied for any jobs since I don't really know what to do next. So I'm here hoping for some advice/ideas; I'll give fuller details for anyone who can be bothered to read them (sorry about the extreme length).

    Anyway... I'm almost 29 and for the first time in my adult life I find myself at a loose end. I've never really had any plan for what I wanted to do as a career, so I stayed in education and just studied what interested me. What interested me was physics, and I was being told from day one that a physics education leaves the door open to quite a variety of careers, so that's what I did. I was still enjoying physics by the end of my degree/masters and was offered a Ph.D. position straight after graduating, so I did a Ph.D. too. I assumed that when I got to this point, I'd go for a post-doc position... but now I'm not so sure.

    I still enjoy physics but I'm not so sure it's the right career for me anymore. Here are my reasons, it'd be good to know if they're valid:

    - I was perfectly happy doing the day-to-day work of the Ph.D. It was entirely computational, no hands-on hardware stuff, only writing code, running simulations etc. Lots of C++ in particular. However, as much as I liked actually doing the work, I didn't like telling people about the work. I didn't enjoy writing it up, didn't enjoy giving presentations about it, didn't like attending conferences thousands of miles away with a bunch of strangers and so on. My impression is that a significant part of a being a physicist is 'networking' and 'selling' your research and that's not really me. So that's one thing that's making me hesitant to go for a post-doc job. Also as much as I hate giving presentations, I'd surely hate being a lecturer even more and that's the aspect of the job that appeals to me the least. Furthermore I have not put out any papers that I'm the lead author on, I am second author on one and that's it. So I think that makes things hard for me regarding post-doc job applications.

    - I'm under the impression that beyond post-doctoral level, the competition for employment gets ridiculous. So what happens if I do one or two temporary post-doc jobs for a few years? Eventually I'll need to look for a permanent position somewhere and if I'm not mistaken, the odds are against me. I'm not an exceptional physicist, I must have reached some level of competence to get this far but I wouldn't say I'm anything more than reasonably competent. To be honest I have had that so-called 'impostor syndrome' throughout the Ph.D. and it hasn't gone away. So, I'm thinking it may be more sensible to just cut my losses and get a few years' headstart on whatever alternative career I'd probably have to look for after doing post-doc(s) anyway.

    - I was quite apathetic to this a few years ago but I think I'd like to start a family of my own at some point and a career in physics seems like it's not the most compatible career with that. Physics has been a full-time distraction for me and I've definitely neglected other areas of my life for it. Dating/relationships has often been one such area, and I'm sick of that, I'd like to have more of that in my life. Also, in physics it seems you can't be very picky about the location of your job, you have to go where the work is. That means I couldn't even think of buying a house, settling down with someone etc. until a permanent position (that I'll probably never be offered anyway) came along, and who knows where that could be. Maybe that someone wouldn't want to move there. So it seems hard to plan for the future when everything has to be fitted around an uncertain career in academia. Plus, I've already worked in the US as part of my Ph.D. (I'm from the UK) and although I liked the experience, being so far away from my roots didn't appeal much as a permanent situation.

    - Physicists don't earn much money, not for what they do. It's not a pittance but obviously I'd love to have a job that I'm paid handsomely for. Also it seems sensible to grab as much money as I can, as fast as I can, and start some savings.

    So... if all or most of what I've written above is valid then I should look into alternative careers. I suspect no career will involve work as interesting/stimulating as physics, so I want a more lucrative career to make up for that. But of course, I doubt I'd last very long at something mind-numbing either. So any suggestions here would be great.

    The only thing I've been looking into in any serious way so far is 'data science', since there are conversion courses like Insight that apparently favour physics Ph.D. holders. According to the Insight course 'brochure', data science is a lucrative career where demand for employees exceeds supply, so that sounds great, but I don't know how boring a job that could turn out to be. I'm trying to get through some online tutorials now but haven't reached the point where I can judge whether such a career is viable yet.

    Other than that, when I search for non-academic jobs for physics Ph.D. holders, it all sounds like stuff I'm likley not qualified for. I mean, I have years of C++ code-writing under my belt but I'm no expert programmer or software developer or whatever (although fortunately there are online tutorials for other programming languages so I'm trying to expand in that sense). And yes, physics is a highly mathematical subject, but I don't feel qualified for, say, a financial sector job seeing as I have no real knowledge of economics etc. Also there are another couple of things at the back of my mind regarding career choices. One is that I'm in the UK - the about-to-Brexit-from-the-EU UK. I'm wondering which careers if any should perhaps be avoided because of Brexit consequences. The other thing is automation, it'd be daft to get into something that A.I. will be able to do better than a human in a few years; data science strikes me as something that might be susceptible to that. So I would really appreciate some suggestions/advice here.

    Thanks for reading if you got this far.
    Last edited: Feb 20, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 20, 2017 #2
    I can't argue with any of your premises, so yes starting a career outside academia seems like a good option. However from what you've written I have some bad news: it will probably take sustained effort and motivation to change career path. From your post it seems like your not passionate about anything. Unless you can build up some motivation it will be very hard - any reasonably remunerated career has smart, motivated people who would love an entry level role - you are competing with them.

    That aside, if you want to be a data scientist I wouldn't worry about automation, AI's can find correlations but with 'big data' the problem is distinguishing the significant correlations from the spurious ones. I'm sure data scientist will remain a career for a while yet. Similarly Brexit is too unpredictable to base career decisions on.

    However you also mention you don't like presenting, if that's the case then programming seems like a more natural fit.

    Overall my suggestion would be to spend some time on introspection and try to identify a career you actually want. Then work on getting the skills to get into that sector.
  4. Feb 20, 2017 #3

    OK. Regarding not being passionate about anything: Guilty as charged. I've thoroughly enjoyed physics, it's been the most rewarding thing I've ever done but I've never had my heart set on any particular career. I assumed I would've had something definite in mind by now, but no. And regarding building up motivation, I just need something to fixate on. At the moment I'm short on ideas. A coding job that doesn't require a proper expert would be great.
    Last edited: Feb 20, 2017
  5. Feb 20, 2017 #4
    Well I suggest plenty of research for possible jobs. If you still like physics maybe you can find something at the intersection of coding and physics - C++ is still a widely used language for computationally heavy jobs. As an example, a company called 'double negative' uses physics modelling for CGI, they did the black hole in Interstellar. Maybe look for things like that? As you say though, given your lack of direct development experience you need to do things like contribute to open source projects and start a git portfolio.
  6. Feb 20, 2017 #5
    Hmm, that's interesting. CGI hadn't crossed my mind before. As for open source projects and git I'll have to do some googling, I know next to nothing about getting into that.
  7. Feb 20, 2017 #6
    Well IMO, while you won't find anything whose subject matter is more fascinating than physics, just about anything is as interesting as what you were actually doing.

    The work I do now is probably most reasonably called "data science", but as a manager it really doesn't describe my day to day at all. All my most difficult problems (and it has been like this even before i managed people) are social or political, it's almost never the technical issues that are the hardest. I don't have any passion for revenue management, but the problems I deal with day to day are absolutely engaging and can be really rewarding to solve. I don't care much that some other business area's revenue is increased, but I do care about the people who have engaged me for my help, and I love making their work lives a little better. I love working with my team to knock down difficult technical problems, and I'm proud that I've built a reputation as someone who can be relied upon.

    I don't have some deep passion for the area of business I am in, but I DO have a passion for the work I do every day. If you can get both, that's great, but honestly, the trappings don't mean nearly as much as the meat of what you actually do.

    My advice is to rely on your programming skills as your entry point and cast your net wide. Look for interesting people who find their work interesting. Look for places that are brave enough to try new things. Don't worry about how fascinating you find the subject matter, but place a great deal of importance on how interesting the actual problems they try to solve every day are.

    Try many industries - insurance, banking, health, tech startups, social media - if you think they might have an interesting problem to solve, toss an application. Send one even if they don't, and just try to learn about them.

    Be ready to start over. You probably completely lack an entire slew of critical interpersonal skills. As entry level, you won't need them much, but for me they're 97% of my job. They aren't taught in any class, and most of the rules are unspoken. Be prepared to learn new technical skills as well as other business skills.

    Best of luck!
  8. Feb 21, 2017 #7

    Andy Resnick

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    Education Advisor

    Let me see if I understand- you earned a PhD because you couldn't think of anything else to do besides be a student. Now, *after* you've graduated, you decide to *start* looking for a job by asking a bunch of strangers what you should do with your life.

    Is that about right?
  9. Feb 21, 2017 #8
    Duly noted, thanks.
  10. Feb 21, 2017 #9
    Well, it's somewhat right. I got to the end of undergraduate/masters course, nothing outside of physics majorly appealed to me and the offer of an interesting-sounding Ph.D. place with a decent stipend was right there. So I went for it, thinking I'd be happy to stay in academia by the end of it. Getting towards the end of the Ph.D. though, I started feeling differently about that. And I would have started this job search before graduating, however, things got quite hectic towards the end of the Ph.D.. I had some issues with the thesis & health and it ended up dragging on longer than it should have taken to get finished. So I ended up just focussing solely on getting it finished and deciding I would tackle career decisions afterwards, l when I was able to pause and take stock of things. And this isn't the very start of me looking for a job, I've been browsing around for a while looking for inspiration but not much has stood out to me so far. I'm not simply "asking a bunch of strangers what you should do with your life", I'm asking a bunch of strangers who probably have something helpful to say about what I could do with my life.
  11. Mar 2, 2017 #10


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    Careers in any profession are primarily social constructs, rather than task defined. You describe yourself as uncomfortable lecturing and not that interested in getting your name up in lights, as lead author for instance. That makes you easy pickings for people who love to have someone do the work while they take the credit.
    That is a universal, not just in academe.
    As is, I think you are poised to become one of the legions of post docs, world's cheapest high skill labor. You desperately need some friends outside your immediate circle, as that is by far the most comfortable way to start to explore other possibilities.
    Incidentally, where is your dissertation advisor in this? Does he interact with you much or discuss opportunities with you?
  12. Mar 4, 2017 #11


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    I've been in your shoes, and can largely relate: I've always liked physics and never having had any real career plans (besides wanting to be the next Einstein, like any high school student with illusions of grandeur), went on to get a PhD because that path at the time seemed to me like the thing I wanted to do in life. A year or so into my PhD studies I got very jaded by the entire enterprise (in particular the amount of politics that I perceived to be at play, but I digress; this thread is not about me), and while I did get my degree, I was already set on leaving and going into the industry well before doing so.

    Now physics PhDs are rarely directly qualified for any industrial jobs: For nearly any given field there are BSc/MSc/PhD out there with more domain knowledge, and often with more relevant experience. Take CGI as an example: Depending on the calibre of the shop and the role you're applying to, you're competing with PhDs who already have portfolios of work and publications in SIGGRAPH to show. Even the BSc will have written a raytracer and probably has some understanding of the end-to-end flow of production prior to submitting an application.

    That's however not to say that physics PhDs are unemployable; the PhD does indicate that you were able to learn new things and to formulate and solve difficult problems. Also, diversifying the workforce with unconventional backgrounds is usually desirable, giving you a slight edge. That said, you are most probably not going to get a job in any field without spending some time targetting the requirements, reading some introductory literature, and making sure whatever you already claim on your CV is actually accurate (example: I've often seen physicists claim expert level proficiency in C++ when, as it has been immediately obvious in an interview situation, they've only ever programmed it procedurally like FORTRAN/MATLAB/C. This in my books is an automatic rejection for not understanding their own level of knowledge, Dunning-Kruger).

    To summarize: you need to decide on a field and hopefully get passionate enough about it to study the basics. I think you're well on your way if you get on that data science bootcamp. You can always make a career move out of data science if it turns out that you don't like it, and there are several aspects to it even "internally": You could be thinking about new applications and building algorithms to handle those, or you could be optimizing said algorithms, or working on a GUI/visualization, or databases to store and shuffle the data.
  13. Mar 4, 2017 #12
    Datascience is a meme, you can get employed in it but you're not going to be using basically anything you learned in your degree.
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