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The Major Conundrum: Why Physics?

  1. Feb 13, 2008 #1
    The Major Conundrum: Why Physics Majors have a Major Problem

    When I read threads like https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=209590" a small sense of urgency wells up in the pit of my stomach.

    You see, I didn't even like physics before I took it in high school. *SNORE*, how could a science about things dropping to the ground and electricity from the wall outlets. Then I took it, and fell in love. Ever since I couldn't dream of doing anything but physics.

    And maybe I'm your average physics undergrad, yes, just like you out there on Physics Forums and in the world. Who else would major in physics if they weren't in love with it? The mathematical articulacy, the worldly how-stuff-works insight, the problem-solving skills...

    The crappy job market.

    I'm going from what I've seen on Physics Forums. And maybe I'm repeatedly scared out of my wits for nothing, but I don't want to be doing secretarial work for the rest of my life. You see, most of the people that love physics love physics for it's mental challenge and beautiful unity of theory and experiment. I liken it to that since mathematics are the "language", physics is the "poetry" so elegantly wielded out of it (engineers, I don't mean this in a belittling way, but engineers are like the people that write those little paper instruction manuals that come with your household appliances).

    I really would love to doing physics for the rest of my life. Will I?


    Those who have a B.S. in physics on Physics Forums seem to mostly be doing work outside of physics (i.e. working as engineers). Is an M.S. or a Ph.D. any more hire-able? Maybe. Maybe not. Sure, maybe I'm asking for my hopes and dreams to be crushed, thinking I can major in physics, arrogantly and insolently shaking my fist at the hands of both fate and reality. But I was hoping that with all the time, effort and $$$ being put into my education in physics, that maybe I had a chance of doing something that pertained to what I love (I don't consider engineering as pertinent, personally). I know I don't have any talent in physics, I just love what I do, but this is rarely enough.

    Personally, and widely amongst physics undergrads, these questions come up again and again:
    • B.A. or B.S. in physics?
    • Pure or Applied Physics?
    • Grad school? M.S.? Ph.D.?
    • Interdisciplinary studies with physics?
    • Stick with physics or go into other disciplines?

    I ask you, Physics Forums, physicists and those interested in physics, does it matter? Or rather, does anything but the last question matter. Where will the lone soldiers of physics go when school is out? Back to the drawing board?

    Personally speaking, that's a nightmare to me (to have to go for an upper degree in another discipline), it's one of the last things I want to do (but will do if necessary). I originally had my quixotic hope of being a professor after getting my Ph.D. in biophysics but this has been smeared away. So I'd like to reformulate this list of questions a little:
    • What kind of careers are regionally dependent? (Personally I live in California and am staying)
    • How can you make contacts in the "world of physics"? (Hey! I thought I was majoring in physics, not business...)
    • The unusual interdiscipline: What kind of opportunities are there for biophysics, physics and journalism, physics and law, etc.? (How many are looking to hire, and how are the salaries for the more unusual jobs?)
    • How does one supplement an already intense curriculum with even more classes outside of the discipline? (We don't have a biophysics undergrad major where I go so I've been supplementing my classes with Biology and Chemistry and it's a huge stress on my GPA in addition to Honors Physics, again the same question is asked for the interdisciplinary studies above)
    • And yet again, to stay or go (in physics) if I have to give it up (which personally, I won't on physics, but for those of you that are considering it)?

    (P.S. I was inspired by this headline on the msn.com front page today, http://msn.careerbuilder.com/custom/msn/careeradvice/viewarticle.aspx?articleid=1281&SiteId=cbmsnhp41281&sc_extcmp=JS_1281_home1&cbRecursionCnt=1&cbsid=70d9751053f84656a6701bb82e7a0fa3-256217533-VM-4&GT1=10884" [Broken]. The physicist job market growing, really? Or are those engineers doing physics jobs now :rolleyes:?)

    Thank you for any and all replies, especially those who can relate and those who are in the job market right now or employ budding young scientists.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 13, 2008 #2
    A lot of companies which employ physicists have facilities in California - Google and Xerox come to mind off the top of my head.

    If I may add my 10 cents: parts of California are very nice. But there are lots of nice places in the world. It would be cool to live in one or two of them before you go back to California.

    Work for a lot of different people.

    Medical physicists make a lot of money and they are in demand pretty much everywhere. The more unusual jobs take a bit of luck. I have a friend with an M.Sc in particle physics who is a science journalist. (But maybe I just have unusual friends).

    If you aren't doing as good a job as you would like in your classes you could try taking an extra semester to finish. If you're interested in biophysics you might look to see what classwork is required to be admitted to graduate programs in areas you're interested in. For a lot of programs you only need to present a physics degree and you can pick up the more specialised biology and chemistry you need when you work on research.

    I'm still in physics. (Well, the statistics aren't so great for one data point...)

    It's already been pointed out in other threads that it is very difficult to get an academic position in physics. However, the vast majority of the people I've known with physics backgrounds who've gone on to work outside of academia have wound up with very interesting (and often lucrative!) jobs.
  4. Feb 27, 2008 #3
    Google hires physics majors? Google is one of my dream companies to work for...can you (or anyone else on the forum) offer more about this?
  5. Feb 27, 2008 #4
    Good. No matter what you do, if you don't have a sense of urgency, you could be in for a really rude awakening.

    The Urban Institute recently published http://www.urban.org/publications/411562.html" in which they trounce the myth that there is a science and engineering (S&E) shortage in the US. They point out that nine times as many students start an S&E degree as there are new jobs that year, and that this has been going on for decades. Luckily, only about a third of those graduate. Because this has been going on for some time, we now have three times as many people with a degree in S&E in the US as we have S&E jobs.

    This is a scary thought, but I'd like to point out that it is not as awful as it sounds. Compared with English or History, we're in great shape. Further, some sciences are a lot worse off than physics - biology and psychology, for instance.

    I'm afraid I don't have time right now to write much, but I'll give you one piece of advice: if you plan to work outside academia, get a job in a private science company. Any job. Doing whatever they have. Clean dishes in the lab. Organize files. Build trust and pick up more responsibilities. Earn a good reference.

    You do have to have some education. However the value of real work experience is tremendous, far more than the same period of time at a university. Combining real work experience with your degree will be far more effective than just your degree. Doing a bit of bleh work to get the process moving is a small price to pay.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 23, 2017
  6. Feb 27, 2008 #5
    I have a friend who works for Google. His PhD was in condensed matter theory - he primarily did numerical simulations. (He also did software development outside of physics for fun.) I should ask him if he's met many other physicists at work!
  7. Feb 27, 2008 #6
    Most BS/BA physics grads tend to end up jobs that have nothing to do with "physics". i.e. finance, actuary, IT, computer programmer, etc. The physics degree just proves to the employer that you are competent enough to get a 4-year degree and you can solve complex technical problems.

    Hence it is why some companies like Google, Intel, Oracle, etc employ physics grads (non-PhDs). I wouldn't say this is true but..... I would see someone with a physics degree having more logic and problem solving skills than someone with like a biology degree.

    The ultimate picture you have to look here is not self-interest. Once you have a family, you have to put them first (and the bills) before your own self. If it means leaving your best once-in-lifetime job for another one that pays way more. But sometimes in life, you can have your cake and eat it too.
  8. Feb 27, 2008 #7
    I like chocolate cake.
  9. Feb 27, 2008 #8
    So, it's not just that the job market for physics sucks, it's also that the job market in general sucks?
  10. Feb 27, 2008 #9
    I kinda agree. This past X-mas, my cousin at IBM suffered a 15% pay cut. In fact a good number of employees there suffered a pay cut. The market is going down the drain as of recently.
  11. Feb 28, 2008 #10

    Andy Resnick

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    Sigh... these threads are your basic "***** sessions".

    The reality is that there is a labor glut in science (as in most other fields). And one cannot reasonably claim that they were advised about a rosy job market, since it has stunk since, I dunno... 1991? 15+ years ago?

    Either you like what you do or you are only doing it because you can earn a living. It's not fair that 'physics jobs' are few (which I dispute) and that they don't pay well (which I do not dispute)? Too bad! Do something else then. The world does not owe you a living.

    Since the overwhelming majority of comments are that getting your dream job in physics is not likely, you can do one of two things- stick to whatever rigid definition of "dream job in physics" you have, or learn to be flexible- open your eyes and see the larger picture. It's a great time to do science now. There are new tools and new problems that even 5 years ago would have been considered impossible. Take the blinders off.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 23, 2017
  12. Feb 28, 2008 #11
    I'm a non-scientist, so I can't give you any advice on your specific job market. But here's a little perspective--when I first got out of law school, I landed what I *thought* was my dream job, doing exactly the sort of work I wanted to do. It turned out to be horrible! After about 18 months, I was actually fired. It was soooo devastating at the time. But after about a week, I found out about my present job, and got hired right away. I've now been here over 7 years. It's not at all the sort of job that I thought I wanted to do, but it's turned out to be the right fit for me and I really enjoy it (most days, anyway). Now I feel like, being fired from my "dream job" was really a blessing in disguise, because I would have been miserable there. The moral of my story is--don't stress out about it so much, things have a weird way of working out. The chances are good that you'll end up in exactly the place you're meant to be in.
  13. Feb 28, 2008 #12
    Looking at the various options in front of me, I decided that the career most able to let me continue to study the subject I love and to communicate that love to others would be teaching.

    So, after a bachelor's and master's in physics, that's what I'm doing. I may go back for a Ph.D. someday, but I'm happy where I am now. Going back through the basic stuff and teaching it is a challenge, really--I remember that I didn't really get it all 100% the first time through!
  14. Feb 28, 2008 #13
    So, you're saying it's ok to not get it 100% the first time through? lol. I'm a physics major as well.
  15. Feb 29, 2008 #14

    • Most semiconductor work is in California. An awful lot of the rest of the tech work is there, too. There's a few jobs in Colorado. Really, if you're going to do solid state physics with industrial applications, I think Cali is the way to go. However, there is a smattering of technology jobs all over the US.

      To be honest, if I could do it all again, I'd go medical physics. Not because of the pay - it really isn't that much higher, and the degree is a lot more trouble (edit: not the degree, the certification and continued educational requirement). Instead, I'd go health related because there are hospitals everywhere. There may be a bit of grass-is-greener in that :D

      You work. If you are going into academia, you need to work in labs. Meet people who come through the lab. Go to conferences, go to meetings. If you want to make contacts in industry, work in industry. Keep up with people. Really, your references and personal contacts are worth a lot more than any class you'll ever take.

      I have no clue what all the yaw is over biophysics. I worked around a group of people in it. Lots of money came in, but nothing of interest came out. Maybe someone else can fill you in on why this area is so wonderful, but I'm unimpressed. Seems like another route to grant work to me.

      Physics and law is something I put a lot of study into. Essentially, you'll be doing patent work. The pay is great, but only if you're willing to work like hell, and remember you'll have $250k in college debt by the time you graduate. If you want to go this route, the question you should be asking isn't whether you like physics, but whether you love law.

      Maybe you spend more time in school. Honestly though, if you're getting an undergrad major, those additional classes will have very little value. Bio/med physics - pick up one biology, one anatomy and one physiology. Anything more you need you should get in grad school.

      Look to see what graduate degree you're getting and pick up a few classes you need for that. The rest of society places an awfully small value on undergrad classwork.

      I get the feeling you have a very different definition than me on what it is to be "in physics". If I were managing a group that produced indium arsenide IR sensors, but rarely laid a hand on the actual equipment, I'd still be "in physics". If I were selling superconductor coils to companies that made MRI machines, I'd still be "in physics." So for me, it's not hard to be in physics.

      If your definition of "in physics" is to be a tenured professor at a research University, then you either need to be really good (and possibly masochistic), or you need to do something else. Personally, I'm not impressed with University research; that's the final reason I stopped at a masters. I felt I could learn a lot more a lot quicker working elsewhere. Obviously others feel very differently.
    Last edited: Feb 29, 2008
  16. Feb 29, 2008 #15
    Heh as far as that goes, congratulations to whomever wrote that for being able to copy the Bureau of Labor Statistics data over into Word and then call it reporting. That data strikes me anywhere from astoundingly weird to just stupid.

    It reminds me of an argument I get into regularly. Someone starts gabbing on about how they want to be a professor and that the BLS said the number of professors would be growing much faster than average. And it does say this. However, the next line. . .

    I wonder how many errors like that this "journalist" made?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
  17. Feb 29, 2008 #16
    well if you take a look at that number in the msn article right below the growth rate, there will be 1000 new jobs for physicists by 2016 however this articlehttp://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/200611/aip-survey.cfm says that the number or phd's awarded in 2004 was 1106.

    assuming that number has been constant over the last 4 years and remains that way (which is unlikely as enrollment is going up) only 1/8th of phd recipients will get a job with the title physicist. maybe this number doesn't include professors, however the idea is the same. if you go back to senior year of undergrad and look around you're class 1/3 will go to grad school. of that third 1/3 will not get a phd.

    of those who get phd's 1/8th will get a job with the title physicist.

    put it all together and 1/72 bachelors recipients will get a job with the title physicist (assuming only phd's get physics jobs). or 1/40 if you do the calculation directly as new jobs per student.

    now maybe the new jobs nuber should be doubled considering retirees and the like. but still your looking at 1 out of 20 or 1 out of 40 students getting jobs in physics.

    so by that math you must be better or have more drive than your entire graduating class if you want to make it in physics.

    of course this is back of the napkin hand waving and it will be different school to school. but the point still stands in order to make it you have to be really fracking good
  18. Feb 29, 2008 #17

    Holy CRAP yes, just don't ever stop going back through it.

    I once asked a trusted grad professor (MS program) of mine whether I needed to know Serway's text forward and backward in order to be a "good" candidate for a Ph.D. program. (I was worried, because I had to go back and look some things up and rework some problems in order to help an undergrad with homework.)

    He remarked that most people who were already professors would be happy to be able to say they knew Serway forwards and backwards, but that most couldn't say that even AFTER the Ph.D.

    Strangely, I find that I am better at studying this stuff now, when I'm not in class as an undergrad, than I was then. I think I still had a bit of that juvenile "I don't want to do th is because someone else is MAKING me do it" mentality, whereas now I study it with a "I want to do this because I want to do this" mentality.
  19. Mar 1, 2008 #18
    Why is Google one of your dream companies to work for ? What exactly are you looking for in a job ?

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