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Physics Switching Career from Information Technology to Physics (National Labs) after 40

  1. Sep 21, 2012 #1
    Dear All,

    I have read many threads on second careers including the excellent blog by ZapperZ "So you want to be a physicist" and then reaching out to you all for guidance. First, a brief introduction on myself:

    Industry Experience:
     I am a US Citizen based out of the Northern NJ/ NY metro area and currently work for a top-tier global management and technology consulting firm. I have been in the Information Technology industry for nearly 2 decades including 6 years as an entrepreneur and nearly a decade of managing Large-Scale, Complex Global IT Programs >$100 million with full P&L Management/Budgeting responsibility. This has involved:

    • Design, Build & Run Complex Global Operations for Advanced Enterprise Computing
    • Critical Thinking to Solve Highly Complex Technology Problems for Government & Higher Education Clients
    • Global IT Delivery & Engagement Governance, Strategic and Tactical Operations Planning

     While most of my career has been spent in technology consulting in top-tier firms, I continue to have a deep passion for Physics and am interested in pursuing a longer term career in Modern Physics (mainly Astrophysics, High Energy Physics & Particle Physics) with one of the National Labs. I am fully prepared to undertake additional courses /training for this transition if needed.

    Educational Background: I graduated in 1993 with a 4 year bachelors degree in Computer Science and Engineering from a premier engineering college, have studied computing, electronic circuits, Physics and Mathematics extensively upto the engineering level and have a fairly good understanding of all these subjects. Recently I have just completed a certificate course (3 grad credits) in Modern Physics from a State University.

    The main reasons for reaching out to you all on the forum are to get answers to these:

    A. What are the options available at National Labs (or other reputed Physics labs) that can potentially utilize my background (e.g. are there complex project/program management roles in Physics /scientific projects at these labs). What other roles can I target?

    B. Is this indeed a viable career move ? Has anyone you know attempted this? What has been their experience? What labs typically hire such folks?

    C. What re-training & education is needed on enabling such a mid-career transition? What timeline should I establish to establish some realistic goals? Given that I am the sole bread earner with 2 kids in middle school, I have to choose wisely and consider timing carefully. I am probably not very PhD/academia inclined but certainly willing to do enough re-training that can get me a foot in the door and leverage my IT experience credibly.

    A detailed response will be much appreciated.

    Many thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 21, 2012 #2
    First a sentence about me so you know where I'm coming from: I'm a 40+ Ph.D. in computer science who went back to school to get an MS in physics a few years ago and recently joined a National Lab.

    A. There *are* complex project/program management roles in physics at National Labs, but without a Ph.D. *in physics* you aren't going to be allowed near them.

    B. If you want to join a National Lab and do IT work while hanging out with physicists, attending lectures, etc., yes, it's viable. Expect a paycut from what you receive in industry, but it does have it's compensations. Personally, I don't regret it. Usually. :smile:

    C. I was more a programmer than IT, so although I went out and got a physics degree, it wasn't really needed. I'm *still* a programmer, it's only that what I'm programming has changed. The good news is that many of the systems in use at National Labs are essentially home grown, so they *know* they won't find anyone to hire who is already an expert with it. They are looking for someone who can jump into the great unknown quickly and pick up random pieces of other people's projects and run with it.

    I hope this helps.
  4. Sep 21, 2012 #3

    Vanadium 50

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    True that.

    Also, there are skills unique to scientific project management. Usually you are trying to do something that has never been done before. Usually most of the people working on the project don't actually work for you. Usually there are multiple funding sources, each with their own restrictions.
  5. Sep 22, 2012 #4
    Dear TMFKAN64,

    Many thanks for such a detailed and candid response. I really appreciate it! In fact I am THRILLED to meet you online and learn that you have indeed made such a (not so easy) transition successfully. So in that sense it is comforting to know that I am not alone :smile:

    I think the lifestyle you described (do IT work while hanging out with physicists, attending lectures, etc., yes, it's viable. Expect a paycut from what you receive in industry, but it does have it's compensations) agrees with me.

    One question: Is IT staff (managerial) in these labs hired fulltime as federal employees with pension and other govt benefits ? I am assuming I can land a managerial type IT job without any Physics degree given your experience.

    As an alternative I have also explored the US Particle Accelerator course, the curriculum offered by IU and the workshops USPAS offers in conjuction with universities. While accelerator physics is not HEP/particle physics but at least related to that. (I think you have quite a few posts around this topic as well).

    Related Question: Is the IU/USPAS Masters Course a good entry point to get into National Labs (or other reputed Physics labs) What roles can I target? Do these roles also need PhD or MS is good enough?

    Kindly advise.
  6. Sep 22, 2012 #5
    Vanadium 50,

    Many thanks for your response.

    Interesting point you make on the skills needed around scientific project management. What skills are these? The major part of my PM work is around anticipating and managing the risks and implementing mitigations very proactively. There is almost always a high degree of 'unknown or uncertain outcomes' in global projects spurred by changes (new technology, budget, skills, visas, people, change in requirements, laws, regulations) but the metrics, processes, methodology and final deliverables are either known and if not, need to be defined early in the game for proper project control. So your insight on the specific PM skills would help and also if there are specific courses designed around that by PMI or other organizations that can help understand these nuances better, let me know so I can upskill myself.

    Other points that you mention seem to be quite similar to my environment - diverse international teams that I manage and/or work with collaboratively are in a matrixed environment not reporting to me directly...each team is managed by someone else and having their own restrictions, but all need to be driven by the common project /mission goals.

    Open to your thoughts and suggestions please.
  7. Sep 23, 2012 #6


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    I am a bit surprised about this. I work at a national lab in Europa, and most of my line managers are NOT physicists; typically they have an engineering or an undergraduate science degree and have worked as managers in various industries (defence, electronics etc) for a number of years before being recruited (my current line manager has a masters in mechanical engineering, and ALL the work we do in the group has to do with quantum mechanics aand/or solid state). Also, they ones that DO have PhDs have typically not done anything physics related since they graduated.

    Note that they (obviously) do not have much input when it comes to the science as such (they basically check that we get our deliverables done in time, with the right amount of man-hours and direct spend), but managing say a large FP7 program once it has been funded has little do to with science and more about people skills, writing reports and filling out spreadsheets.

    Hence, I would be a bit surprised if the situation was completely different in the US. It might be worth having a look around.
  8. Sep 23, 2012 #7
    No. I hesitate to say that *no* national lab employees are federal employees, but most national labs are administered by other organizations on behalf of the federal government. So while many staff positions are fulltime with benefits, you aren't a federal employee, you work for the administering organization. (This is usually a university or a partnership involving a university.)

    There are, of course, also short-term contract positions in addition to fulltime jobs. (I'm also not discussing scientific positions here, which are on the usual postdoc/tenure track treadmill.)
  9. Sep 23, 2012 #8

    Vanadium 50

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    There is a difference between a line manager and a project manager. A line manager is a "boss" - someone who has done a similar job but has a few years more experience. A project manager is a position that's required by the funding agencies for any project more than a few million dolllars charged with executing the project.

    For the first job you need a PhD and many years of experience. For the second you normally need a PhD and even more years of experience. I say normally because there is one person in a role without one: but he has 26 years experience in the field in positions like "project engineer" or "deputy project manager".

    It's really, really unlikely you are going to find such a position. It's like saying you want to join the army and be a general. It's entirely possible you would be a good general, but they are going to pick some colonel to promote instead.
  10. Sep 24, 2012 #9
    The basic problem that you have here is supply and demand. There's a massive oversupply of Ph.D.'s so the market tends to move people away from national labs and towards IT project management jobs that are similar to yours. I know quite a few physics Ph.d.'s would would love to work at a national lab, but because there just aren't the jobs there, they've ended up working in IT project management.

    My advice is that if you are really serious here then you need to get political and convince Congress to fund a massive increase in science funding. If there was a major project to land people on Mars or set up a moon base, there would be the demand for project managers, but right now the supply/demand factors are pushing people into industry.

    One other thing. You are probably the third or fourth "career switcher" that has posted on this forum in the last two or three weeks, and it might be a good idea if you network with the other people in the forum that are in similar situations. One thing that I'm seeing is that it's becoming increasingly easy to "train" and "retrain" people with online learning, and I think we are going to see a flood of very talented people come out in ways that are going to simply overwhelm the current system.

    One area that I think might be an interesting area to get into is the area of project management of massively online courses. The reason that I think this might be worth looking into is that it gets you in the middle of the new networks. Also I've been looking very carefully at massive online courses, and you get a lot of complaints that look like bad project management.

    I'm also interested to see what you end up doing. One reason that I'm pessimistic that you'll be able to get the type of job that you are looking for is that I see zero chance that I can do something similar. Conversely, if you manage to do what I think is impossible, I'd be really interested in seeing what you did so that I can copy you.
    Last edited: Sep 24, 2012
  11. Sep 24, 2012 #10
    I always hesitate to generalize based on personal experience... I can't really talk about national labs in general, or even every group at the lab that I'm at. All I can say is that when I look at the org chart, it's filled with Ph.D's in physics from my boss straight up to the lab director. I'd be a bit surprised if *all* of the managers here were Ph.D's in physics (I'd actually doubt if that was the case over in HR!), but most of the ones connected to science or engineering seem to be.
  12. Sep 24, 2012 #11
    Dear twofish-quant

    Thanks for a detailed response. Appreciate it.

    Online learning specially in Physics is very hard (I say this from my personal exp in taking one such course by a reputed state univ)- you completely miss out on peer interaction, lab discussions, joint problem solving that is so much the essence of physics. So no interest in that part from my side except if you want to refer online for a particular problem or topic and this forum interaction is a great example.

    In all the other discussions that I read on the forum on career changes, I couldn't find anyone of my specific profile (top tier IT consutling, large scale complex project management) and need (national lab) looking at a career change unless I missed. On the contrary I see in my job and here as well, a large %age of Physics folks trying to get into industry/IT/consulting/finance. I completely appreciate that as after a while a subject does become less interesting and then it is also a function of oversupply.

    Let us see where I land :-)
  13. Sep 24, 2012 #12
    Dear TMFKAN64:

    I would certainly go by the fact that most of the folks you see in your org are PhDs as that is "real data" but is there a way we can get statistical data on national lab hiring trends over last 3 years that show data on lateral /experienced hires from industry, educational level of experienced folks hired, types of roles hired for and physics employment trends in labs vs industry etc. Are there any new trends there?

    I am now seeing PM jobs with Masters degree for labs. One that I found today is all "complex project/program management 101" with the exception that they require specific subject matter expertise in nuclear physics and research in the areas of interest .......

    See this one
    http://www.californiajobnetwork.com/j/t-Global-Security-E-Program-Manager-e-Lawrence-Livermore-National-Laboratory-l-Livermore,-CA-jobs-j2717635.html [Broken]

    It also states that it is however "desirable" to have PhD for this job as explained in the detailed description online so with oversupply you might assume they may hire a PhD unless of course the candidate has a masters degree yet an outstanding, deep & proven expertise and some credible relationship with the lab top executives to get past the initial screening process and prove himself/herself in the interview. That happens a LOT in industry I can tell you first hand !

    In principal I do concur that there is indeed an oversupply of PhDs which is why we see movement of Physicists to industry in non-Physics fields (e.g. AIP stats) and that is relevant in other career switch posts in this forum.

    Many thanks again for your continued postings and look forward to hearing from you.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  14. Sep 24, 2012 #13
    Could some of you advise on this ? While we continue to explore/discover more information and trends on the PM jobs, this alternate also seems to be a nice blend of engineering, IT and Physics and has relevance for national labs.

    Is there any data available (formal/informal) on the US Particle Accelerator School grads?
  15. Sep 24, 2012 #14
    Many thanks f95toli,

    It does appear to be a supply demand issue in US vs Europe. Let us see if we can get some hiring trends over last 3 years in US.

    Europa is clearly where a lot of Modern Physics originated and with CERN/Higgs/LHC a lot is going on there. Are there 3 or 5 year hiring trends on European labs that show data on lateral /experienced hires from industry, physics employment trends in labs vs industry etc.? That would help compare and build a balanced perspective I think.

  16. Sep 24, 2012 #15
    I'll point out that the summary up top disagrees with the long job description. In particular, the "Required Education" is listed as "Doctorate". (And down below, the position is also listed as no longer available!)

    As for the particle accelerator school, I really couldn't tell you anything about it. ZapperZ has posted a few things about the need for people with accelerator knowledge, so it might be worth looking into. However, these wouldn't be managerial jobs, they'd be leaf node accelerator operator or engineering jobs.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  17. Sep 24, 2012 #16
    That's online physics education in 2012. Online physics education in 2020 or 2030 is likely to be very different, and the big challenges all have to do with project management issues (i.e. how do you set up discussion groups and grading for a class of ten thousand students). Setting up peer groups has been done for business courses (i.e. University of Phoenix has done it), but no one I know of has done it for physics and engineering. Someone will.

    One thing that is interesting is to see the project management issues involved in setting up a lecture course of 500 students. It's non-trivial except that people have done it for decades and know how to do it.

    The reason I think this would be a good place to get in, is that eventually if you have physics courses of extremely large number of students, that gives you the number of people that you need to do something political.

    There are a few. What I find interesting is that it's only in the last six months that I've seen people like this. There is some major social change underway here.

    The subject doesn't get less interesting, and it's a function of oversupply. If I knew of a way of getting the type of job that you are looking for I'd be in the queue applying for it myself, which is why I'm interested to see where you end up.
  18. Sep 24, 2012 #17
    Also one thing that happens frequently is that people will post a job listing for a job that's already filled. The situation is that they know who they want to hire, but there is a regulatory requirement that the job will be publicly advertised, so people make an announcement for a position, knowing who is already going to get it.

    There are places which will actively police against this sort of thing, but it requires some effort on the part of the site listing the add, and most sites that aren't geared toward academic hiring won't go through the trouble to verify that the ad is genuine.
  19. Sep 24, 2012 #18

    Vanadium 50

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    Not gonna happen here.

    I hate to sound impolite here, but you are totally unqualified for the sorts of positions you are looking for. Normally they go to people with PhD's and decades of experience. In the very rare cases where they are not (I believe there have been two), they have gone to engineers with (in one case) 26 years of scientific instrument construction experience and (in the other) 40 years of experience in the grant and regulatory agencies.

    These are career-making positions, and they are highly, highly competitive. More so that getting a faculty position. It would be like getting someone who wants to coach an NFL team who never coached football before, or even played football professionally, or in college, but on the strength of a resume and a willingness to learn. While there's no legal barrier to this, it's just not going to happen. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

    On reading job ads: essential means essential. If you are missing even one essential skill, they cannot extend you the job offer. For the position in question you need a publication record in a nuclear-related field. Got one? If not, no matter how much they like you, they cannot make you an offer.

    While you can change fields, you can't change fields and start at the top.

    And how many national lab or university hiring committees have you sat on? That would be zero, right? With all due respect, you don't know what you are talking about. Yes, often someone has a candidate in mind, but every place I have been on required an active search, and in the cases where a better candidate turned up (which has happened a couple of times) they got the job.

    I won't say that this has never happened, but anyone who has gone through more than one or two searches knows that you never know who is really available until you start the search. The odds are not small that someone better than your preferred candidate is available, and you'd be foolish not to take them.
  20. Sep 24, 2012 #19
    This is true in academic jobs. It's not true for industry jobs. Since companies hire in batches, even if you don't qualify for the job that is being advertised, there is often a non-advertised job that fits you.

    I've been in meetings in which someone said "now that we've found the candidate we have to post the want ad." If they form a search committee, then it's a real job, but you do have a *lot* of junior staff positions in which the want ad is "pro forma."

    These sorts of lower level staff positions are important since they get your foot in the door. and the hiring for them is very different than for senior positions. If they are hiring a Dean then yes, they are going to go through a lot of effort to find the right person. If they are trying to hiring a system administrator then the hiring is a lot more informal.

    I found this out the hard way when I was looking for jobs myself. Since I wanted to stay in Austin, the logical place to look for jobs was in the UT Austin jobs database. I found that those listings were useless since the main purpose of that database was to meet state job listing requirements. Now if you have a job bulletin that comes from a professional journal, then it's real. If you have something that then culls databases, then maybe it isn't.

    And the fact that the job postings are pro forma is not any sort of secret. In the cases that I knew about, we had talented contract employees that were being "promoted" to permanent employment. The fact that there was a requirement that we had to have a open job listing was considered one of those stupid state requirements that give people headaches.

    The other thing is that major faculty searches are hardly state-secrets. When my astronomy department looks for new faculty, it's a big deal, and even if you aren't in the committee room, the people that are aren't sworn to secrecy and information about what happened in the search spreads pretty quickly. In astronomy, this process has been formalized into "rumor mills."

    In the case of my corner of astrophysics, everyone knows everyone else so you do know who's available. If it's not someone that you haven't had drinks with at AAS, then they are likely not qualified for the position.
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2012
  21. Sep 25, 2012 #20
    I'll agree with both Vanadium_50 and twofish-quant here. :smile:

    Vanadium_50 is absolutely right about the OP being unqualified for the types of positions he seems to want. Switching careers to a national lab can certainly be done (as well I know!), but you have to be prepared to be a leaf node on the org chart.

    On the other hand, twofish-quant has a point that very often job ads are a bit "overly tailored" to a particular candidate. I know in my case, when I initiallly applied, I thought I was a decent fit for the advertised position. After I interviewed, I was told they liked me, but already had someone for that position, so could I wait until they could open up a new req for me? The job I ultimately applied for (and got) was 1) a *perfect* match for my resume and 2) open for about 30 minutes.
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