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Physics Switching Career to Physics- Desperately Need Advice

  1. Aug 17, 2012 #1
    Switching Career to Physics-- Desperately Need Advice

    I have to make a fairly critical decision in the coming days, and though I have tried to read up as much as possible on the relevant material, I am in desperate need of some guidance. Please, any help at all is extremely appreciated!

    I’ve been a general science teacher for three years, but find the career quite dissatisfying and even disillusioning. Over the past year I have been taking night courses in physics and math, so that I have enough experience to jump into taking classes full-time. And that has essentially been the plan—I intended to leave my job this year and had what I felt was a detailed course-by-course plan of what would allow me to acquire a Master’s in physics within two years. From there I would be interested in a Ph. D program.

    My wife works, and so we can get by for two years on her income and I don’t have any doubt over my passion for the field of physics, but from what I have read and in general heard about the job outlook in physics, I am suddenly doubting whether my plan is a prudent one. Currently, it seems very difficult (to say the least) to acquire a career in physics, and what I don’t want is to is quit my unfulfilling job for something that will take my approximately 10 years (b/w the two years prior to the Ph. D, the Ph. D and then a post-doc or two) to find out that there is very little available. As I am 29 and married, I can’t ask my wife to leave her job and switch cities every year. I am in NYC, which has more options than other cities, and I wouldn’t be opposed to moving if the right opportunity came by, but it can’t become a routine. Some say the job market will improve after the baby-boomers retire, others do not see this happening. Some also say the condensed matter physics is a blossoming field—but is that only relatively or are there really reasonable prospects?

    I am open to alternatives to academia, but the key is that I want to be involved within a career where I employ physics on a daily basis—and though not 100% ideal, I would even consider engineering if it allowed me to stay reasonably close to physics. I have also heard mixed reviews on careers in defense or other forms of industry, in terms of the likelihood of securing a career. Certainly some of these paths would not require the physics Ph. D, but all would need considerably more than I have right now in either physics or engineering.

    My heart is sold on physics, but I can’t let myself run into a dead-end at this point in my life. Could you please help provide some insight into my situation?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 17, 2012 #2
    Re: Switching Career to Physics-- Desperately Need Advice

    So what do you think a "career in physics" looks like? The work of most physicists is very similar to engineering or software development (depending on the subarea of physics). Engineering is a great way to sneak into Big Physics, but make no mistake, there's a cold wind blowing in the field.

    It's true people are going to be retiring, but people have been expecting huge numbers of jobs to open up for decades, and it hasn't happened.

    Physics and engineering are incredibly satisfying activities. If you can get a Physics Ph.D. in which you can get some practical engineering skills you will have some options. Postdocs are not all that hard to get, but they don't pay well and they aren't secure.

    As you've probably read on here, getting a full-time career position in Physics is like winning the lottery. A lot of really, really good people never find anything. They end up in finance, programming, or engineering jobs, mostly. I'm sure a lot of them are very happy.

    Getting a full-time career position in Engineering is a lot easier. There is a big range on the type of work you do, but if you're good, and willing to relocate, you could probably get a job where you develop instrumentation, software, or support for "physics-type-stuff".

    Anecdote time. When I was a Ph.D. student in Electrical Engineering one of the M.S. students was a 40 year old high-school physics teacher. Now he works at Intel in his mid-50s and is very pleased with his decision (I saw him a couple of years ago). It's not too late to go for it!
  4. Aug 17, 2012 #3


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    Re: Switching Career to Physics-- Desperately Need Advice

    Well, one advantage that you have is that in a worst case scenario you can always go back to teaching. Going back with a master's degree will bump you up the pay scale. Further, as a teacher you could get involved with high school outreach programs or the development of collaborative research projects - so you could make for yourself opportunities to do something related to physics - perhaps even more than lots of other physics PhDs get.

    Remember too as a PhD student you'll be receiving a stipend. Sure, it's not a lot, but if you're married and yoour spouse is happy working you'll be able to contribute enought that she isn't pulling your entire weight.

    Something else to keep in mind is that physics is an academic discipline, not a profession. In pursuing it you're advancing your education, but how that translates into a marketable skill set is largely up to you. Once you really start studying, you'll find out which areas really interest you. Maybe engineering is more up your alley than you thought. Maybe you'll develop an interest in medical physics or geophysics - both of which are professional fields. Maybe your MSc thesis project will result in a marketable product that you can patent.

    The trap to avoid, in my opinion, is subscribing to the notion that if you study hard to the exclusion of all else, you'll be rewarded.
  5. Aug 17, 2012 #4
    Re: Switching Career to Physics-- Desperately Need Advice

    Let me insert the word "financially" at the end of that sentence, and then I whole-heartedly agree with it.

    I've always found studying hard and learning to be very rewarding.
  6. Aug 17, 2012 #5
    Re: Switching Career to Physics-- Desperately Need Advice

    I finished my phd a few years ago, and I know many other physics phds who finished around the same time. My cohort is largely finishing up their first postdoc, and other than the 10% or so still in postdocs, pretty much no one uses physics on a regular basis in their jobs.

    I am currently doing data analysis for an insurance company, and I know a lot of people who went the same 'big data' sort of route. Other are in finance, IT, programming,etc. If you want a job where you need to know some physics on a day-to-day basis I would strongly suggest studying engineering instead of physics. Most of the engineering phds I know are employed doing some sort of engineering.
  7. Aug 17, 2012 #6


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    Re: Switching Career to Physics-- Desperately Need Advice

    The other big selling point for going into engineering: even if you stop at the bachelor's level, you still have a very marketable degree.
  8. Aug 17, 2012 #7
    Re: Switching Career to Physics-- Desperately Need Advice

    Note that APS is unfortunately not very good at marketing itself or its profession. There's no "APS licensed physicist degree" like the way there is for ABET certified degrees for engineering or ACS certified degrees for chemistry... and even ACS is being heavily criticized for not looking after its members, so imagine APS...

    It depends on why you are interested in physics. If you are genuinely interested in condensed matter, why not get a degree in say chemistry (physical) or materials science, where you'll be learning the relevant classes and also have a professional degree? Or if you're interested in optics, why not a degree in EE? teaches you the essentials, the skills classes, and get a professional degree. Or if you're interested in quantitative measurement, a chemistry degree (analytical or physical) is pretty common.

    I mean, there's really little difference whether you do research in say semiconductor processing in physics, chemistry or materials science, but the later 2 degrees can switch into other parts of their profession like pharmaceuticals or steel... what technical field will you switch to in physics?

    But if you're interested in only "pure physics" like astro or particle that no other discipline does, then you have to think carefully.
  9. Aug 18, 2012 #8
    Re: Switching Career to Physics-- Desperately Need Advice

    Hah, yea, it was almost exactly a decade ago that the very guy who convinced me to switch my degree to physics told me about the impending wave of retirements and the huge subsequent demand for physicists. I'm pretty sure you could ax (literally or figuratively) every physicist in the US and fill their spots with postdocs before the next semester. Am I exaggerating? Depends on who you ask, I suppose.

    Anyways, it sounds like you don't have kids. In that case, as long as your wife is willing to carry you and you are both willing to set back your dreams of comfort, vacations, retirement, etc. for 5-10 years so that you can spend time studying something that sounds neat, go for it.

    If you have kids, on the other hand, then you missed the boat. I'm not saying you couldn't do it, just that it would be wrong to do so.
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