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Sharing my story with all of you, hope it helps someone!

  1. Jan 7, 2013 #1


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    I feel like this forum has plenty of people asking for career advice, but perhaps not enough people posting about their journey and the choices they made. To that end....

    I joined PF in 2004 when I was a senior in high school. I was taking AP Calculus at the time and found the forums to be a valuable resource for homework help as well as to quench my general curiosity about a variety of scientific topics. I was instantly hooked, and although my post count over the years has been low, it's only because I did far more reading than posting.

    I graduated high school and got into a decent college, where I was majoring in math. I was still continually using the forums, and I took a few physics classes along with my in-major courses. As the math courses progressed, I realized they weren't for me- I enjoyed the applied math in my physics courses much more. After reading some advice on PF, I decided to switch my major to physics with a math minor (which was already finished). I graduated in 2009 with my BA with honors in physics and a minor in math.

    At that point, I was under the (wrong) impression that I would probably be able to find a job with just my bachelors. I had some lab experience from my capstone project, but other than that I didn't have any real, applicable work history or internships that I could use to my advantage. It was at this time that I found the career section on PF- I sure wish I had found it sooner. The job market in 2009 was quite bad so competition was fierce: if I could go back and do it over, I would have had a physics internship EVERY SINGLE SUMMER of my undergrad career. Everyone should take this to heart: get relevant internships as early as possible. If you plan on working, those lines on your resume will get you the job. If you want to go to grad school, they will help get you admitted.

    As it was, I decided to just go back to school like many other people nowadays. I didn't feel ready for the commitment of a PhD, so I applied to get my MS in physics. I started in January of 2010, and again I found PF to be a valuable resource. I used it to get help on advanced homework problems, read career advice, compare schools, measure job prospects, and do countless other things. I finally finished my thesis and graduated with my MS in May, 2012. I was initially very excited about continuing work on my thesis and pursuing a PhD. My thesis had been on Conformal Field Theory applications to the Ising Model, and although it was just a literature review, I felt well prepared to dive in to some original work.

    After some conflict, I decided I should explore the job market again while applying to the PhD program. Almost immediately, I was finding jobs that I was qualified for that excited me! My experience with computer programming (which I had pursued on the side after reading PF) ended up being a plus for almost every single job I applied for. Even if you just love pure math, or physics, learning a programming language will help you immensely. I was never an expert in any language, but I learned Java and MATLAB well enough to use for most problems, and this ended up helping a lot.

    I had two months until the PhD program would start (and I wouldn't even be notified if I got in until a month before) so I decided to temporarily move to Cambridge, MA with my friend to turn the job hunt into overdrive. Although risky, this was a great decision- Cambridge has a ton of companies hiring people with advanced science degrees. If you're able to go to where the jobs are, I would recommend taking that chance.

    I got some interviews for positions I was very excited about, my presentations went well, and I ended up taking my first choice job as a Content Specialist at MathWorks. This ended up easily trumping my PhD prospects, although I'm glad I left the option there.

    I felt compelled to write this in the hopes that someone who may be making similar choices to the ones I made might read it. Sometimes it can help just to see the complete path and the choices that led there. PF has played a big role in almost every major decision I've made about my career since 2005, and for that I can only say


    PS I tried to keep this from being a book but if anyone has more specific questions please let me know.
    Last edited: Jan 8, 2013
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 8, 2013 #2
    That's an amazing story, thanks for sharing. Congratulations for finding your job at Mathworks. MATLAB is a great product which has perpetually gotten better each year (except that GUI toolstrip in 2012b). They must do some interesting stuff there, and Natick is a pretty nice place to work so long as the commute isn't long, so I'm sure you'll like it there. I'm staying in Cambridge too, right now.
  4. Jan 8, 2013 #3
    I'm very grateful you shared this, as I'm in a quite similar situation now (bachelor's in physics, no internships [only research experience], in physics master's program now and considering my future. Thread: https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=661646).

    At what point did you start learning Java and Matlab? How many months/years experience did you have before applying for jobs? Did you learn any other languages? How did you "sell" your programming experience to employers? How much time did you dedicate to learning these languages?

    I'm considering picking up some more programming skills (as an undergraduate, I took one course in C++, an experimental physics course that used C, and have dabbled a very small amount in Python and Fortran). However, I'm not sure how I will have time to learn programming on the side, as my courses, research, and teaching don't leave me with much free time. Plus, I am pretty burnt out after fulfilling those obligations.

    What other jobs did you get interviews for? What day-to-day tasks does your current job consist of?
  5. Jan 8, 2013 #4
    That's a great story! I'm really glad things are working out for you.

    You're so right about learning the programming languages. It is becoming a non-negotiable job skill for technical people. Really good move to learn them.

    MATLAB is a good one to learn (since it is so widely used in Engineering) as well as a C-based language. Scripting languages are great to know as well. (Perl or Python).

    I would highly recommend Python because it is so clean it helps in your understanding of programming in general, it's use is increasingly fast in industry, and you can learn different styles of programming (including OOP) using Python.

    To the question about how to market, just put the programming skills right near the top of the resume. And to actually acquire skills you have to write programs. I suggest writing programs to simulate various physical systems that interest you. You can do this in MATLAB of course, but also in C and Python and you'll learn A LOT.
  6. Jan 9, 2013 #5
    Very heartwarming! :)

    Also, very coincidentally (particularly since this is my first time on PF for over a year), next semester I am going to start working on CFT applications to 3D Ising Models! Is your thesis published/available somewhere?
  7. Jan 10, 2013 #6


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    I love it there! I'm moving to Marlborough soon to be closer to work/gf and it saddens me to leave.

    I took CS101 as a freshman in undergrad where I learned Java. I learned a bit more when I took a Physics Simulations in Java course. I started using MATLAB during my capstone project junior year and ended up playing with it endlessly and reading a lot of documentation. During grad school over the next two years, I used it to solve problems and also took a computational physics course on using MATLAB to solve physical problems (like particle in a box from QM). As far as the sell, I was honest about what I knew as well as what my shortcomings are. I'm only intermediate level and I made sure they knew that. Luckily, in my current job there are many people with next to no programming experience, so being intermediate gave me a big leg up.

    Don't think of it as a huge time commitment, just keep it on the backburner and do some reading or tinkering around when you're bored or have some extra time. Investing a few hours here or there might foster a larger interest, at which point it would feel more like fun than learning.

    http://exa.com/thermal-validation-engineer.html [Broken]

    I write the documentation for matlab functions (whenever you type doc <function> in MATLAB). I'm on the math team, so I focus on all of the legacy math functions. I have to take customer feedback as well as internal suggestions into account when refactoring pages. I collaborate heavily with the function developers. This job is different from being a technical writer at other companies, because it assumes a certain level of technical knowledge on the part of the writer. At many companies, technical writers are more or less editors.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  8. Jan 10, 2013 #7


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    Awesome! My paper covers the 2D application from beginning to end, but nevertheless you may find some useful information or sources. Send me a PM with your email address and I will send you a PDF copy
  9. Jan 10, 2013 #8


    Staff: Mentor

    You should also keep in mind the possibility of a PhD in Physics. As you get more involved in work you will begin to lose some of your math and physics edge. As you begin to start a family, obligations will take over limiting your free time meaning less time to continue research into physics...

    You won't notice it of course but after 5 or so years (your mileage may vary) it will be very difficult to get back to your current skill level.

    Basically you begin to lose the math you learned last kind of like aging backwards.

    For CompSci that may be different if your job is writing software and similarly for Physics if you're doing MATLAB consulting with Physics and Engineering folks.

    Just keep this in mind, enjoy your work and plan for the future now.
  10. Jan 10, 2013 #9


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    Excellent advice, jedishrfu. Thanks!
  11. Jan 11, 2013 #10
    Thanks for the detailed response; I really appreciate it.
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