1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Second Career in Physics

  1. Jan 30, 2012 #1
    I'm not sure if this is the rights place to ask this question. If not, please direct me to the right forum section.

    Background: I'm 38 yrs. old and am considering a career change. I have a bachelors in physiology and a masters in medical science. I have been working in medicine since. However, I think physics (astrophysics/astronomy?) may be what I'd really like to be doing. Even in undergrad., I had a strong interest in physics - just didn't think it was the right career at the time. Now, I am heavily considering pursuing it, but I need to get some more information.

    Aside from more physics career research, I 'm trying to figure out how it could be done logistically. While I had 2 quarters of calc. and 1 yr of gen. physics, it was long ago and would probably need to retake those classes. Other than starting completely over as an undergrad (which is a little difficult as I work fulltime and can't quite finnacially swing being a fulltime student), how best could I purse this? I can take all the undergrad. math courses online, but actual physic courses would need to be done in a class/lab setting Would I need a bachelors in physics to get into grad. school? What undergrad. courses would I need to take for grad. school?

    Any recommendations, readings, resources are appreciated.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 30, 2012 #2
    In your post you keep mentioning a physics career, but you only confront the issues of education (and then only undergrad) without the not so little problem of actually getting a career in physics. Where is it you think you’re going to work, exactly?

    Let’s say you’re determined to work as a professor somewhere, and that you’re lucky enough to succeed. You’re going to need 4 years of undergrad (and that’s pretty fast for a physics BS these days). Then let’s say you’re extra awesome and you complete your graduate degree in just five years. Typically physics PhD’s spend two to six years as postdocs and then a few years as adjuncts before they’re real professors.

    So you’ll be beginning your career in physics at 55 or so. If you decide on astrophysics then 58 – 60 are real possibilities.

    Course, you could go a route in industry. Four years BS, 2 years Masters. Then at age 44 you’ll be competing with 26 year olds for a rather limited set of jobs which plenty of physics degree holders never get. Good luck with that. Ageism is like racism; we can all work together to try to get rid of it, but then at the end of the day we have to admit it’s still there.

    You want to learn physics, more power to you. Go buy a textbook and get cracking. You want a career in it? Unless you’re independently wealthy, you’re outta luck. Sorry, you did it backwards. You’re supposed to go into physics first and bail out when you find out what it’s like, not the other way around.
  4. Jan 30, 2012 #3
    Hah, that was extra grouchy, even for me.

    And yet, sugar-coated at the same time.
  5. Jan 31, 2012 #4
    Thanks for your response, and candor. You bring up some good points.

    I think eventually I would like to be a college professor. However, given my age, I may just get a masters and teach general physics at a communtiy college. I'll have to see what opportunities present themselves, as limited as they may be.

    Do you have a PhD? Are you a professor?
    I am not independently wealthy, and I have seen wide salary ranges. Can you tell me about income for postdoc and adjunct's?

    I understand it will take some time. For me, its more of a process than an endpoint.
  6. Jan 31, 2012 #5


    User Avatar

    I'm a college professor (was an adjunct for a semester, now a visiting prof, starting tenure track later this year) in physics/astrophysics with a PhD in physics. I started college right out of high school and went straight through to a PhD minus one semester as an adjunct (always full-time), and it took me 11 years. That's very typical in physics, and that's if you're able to devote pretty much all of your time to the program.

    Most of the adjuncts my schools have hired had a masters or PhD in physics, and they got paid 2k - 3k per class per semester (so about 20k a year without benefits if they got a full course load). I have friends teaching at community colleges with PhDs because they couldn't get a tenure-track job at a 4-year college or university, but I also have friends with masters degrees teaching community college (and high school).

    I did a postdoc, and so did most of my friends. They paid between 35k (large southern state university) to 60k (fellowship at a top university. Most of us spent 1-2 years in postdocs before getting a job teaching college, but I've seen people spend 6 or more years in postdocs before they get an offer.
  7. Jan 31, 2012 #6
    I have a Masters in physics and do not work in physics or education. I worked for a couple of years in industry between those two degrees and was in the middle of my post-Masters job hunt when I changed careers for no good reason.

    I taught at a technical college for a semester and liked it. They offered me a full time job for just over $50k, but the benefits stunk and I decided to try something else instead. I think the local community college pays slightly less salary but has better benefits, if you can get them. Just understand that teaching physics has absolutely nothing to do with physics. If you plan to teach physics, do it because you love to teach – and then maybe there’s something related to your current work you could teach now instead of [strike]wasting[/strike] investing a kabillion dollars into some other degrees first.

    I assume you don’t have a family, since even considering this with kids would be crazy. Since you don’t, I think a better idea would be to just quit your job and travel the world for a couple of years. You’ll learn more, have better stories to tell, and can then go back to the career you’ve got.

    But whatever you choose, best of luck, and please let us know how it goes!
  8. Jan 31, 2012 #7
    I'm not sure if I can be taken as encouragement or a cautionary tale, but I'll tell you my story anyway.

    I had been in computers when I was bitten by the physics bug in my early 40's. I retaught myself calculus and freshman physics, and started attending classes part-time at a nearby state university with an "Open University" program. After two or three years, I had taken most of the upper division undergraduate courses , and then I applied to their MS program. Skip ahead another few years, and I was a newly minted MS in Physics.

    This was when I began to realize how much I was fighting the current. I was trying to find physics-related employment, while all around me trained physicists were trying to get into the computer industry. I had just about given up and stopped applying for positions altogether when my wife chanced to see an open position at a national lab that seemed similar to some of the computer work I had done in the past. I applied, and that's where I am today.

    So to recap... am I in physics? No, but I'm near it. I get to assist physicists with their experiments, attend their seminars, etc. Do I regret anything? Other than not majoring in physics when I was 17, no. :smile:

    I think if you set your goals reasonably, you can learn a good deal about physics and get a position that you would be happy with. But that's just my personal experience, and as they say, your mileage may vary.
  9. Feb 2, 2012 #8
    Thanks for the responses. Lots of good information and personal experiences - all very helpful. Seems a little discouraging, but I guess those are the realities of it.

    Can anybody comment on the outlook for job growth for teaching/professors? master vs PhD?
    Again, I've seen variable information. Looking at the US Dept of Labor, they comment that the outlook is good, but from what I've gathered here, its not great.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook