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!

Things I've learned as a recent grad

  1. Sep 21, 2013 #1
    • It's difficult to get anywhere with a "general" STEM major like Math, Physics, Chemistry, Statistics or Biology, unless you know specifically what type of job you want and you know how to use your major to market a specific skill set related to that job. It's okay to choose one of those majors if you're unsure of what you want to do and you're a sophomore who's being forced to choose a major, or if those subjects greatly interest you. Just make sure you have a marketable skill set that you can demonstrate with experience.
    • The economy sucks. It's worse than the politicians make it out to be. If you're smart, you realize that the politicians cook the books on unemployment numbers and that the job gains in the past few years have largely been for part-time jobs in the service sector. Also, fewer and fewer jobs are "safe", due to foreign workers and outsourcing. What all this means is that any decent job is extraordinarily competitive to secure. As Thomas Friedman says, "Average is over." You can't be average and expect to have a decent living. Having a college degree merely makes you average. That's because of my next point.
    • There is an overabundance of college degrees and hence you see college grads working as baristas and forklift operators. The Bachelor degree as a requirement for podunk jobs is just because it has replaced the high school degree as the weed-out educational requirement. A job listing for a hamburger flipper will get 5000 applicants and so the employer can afford to require a Bachelor degree. He'll still have 1000 applicants to choose from and at least he knows these 1000 have some base level of intelligence and motivation.
    • Another consequence of the bad economy is that temp agencies have sprung like wildflower. Evidently, some people have had success working under temp agencies and then getting hired full-time by the company they were doing work for. But the vast majority of people who get contacted by recruiters at temp agencies are getting led on by fake job listings and recruiters who are just filling their daily quota of contacts or trying to use your personal references to network and find more client companies for themself. Don't get your hopes up if one of big tech staffing agencies like Robert Half Technology calls you and tells you about how they want to submit you for a perfect position they have.
    • The best job boards, in descending order, are Indeed, LinkedIn and, believe it or not, CraigsList. But none of these are good for a recent college grad. Any position that is listed is "Entry-Level" will have 20 requirements including 5-10 yrs professional experience. There do exist truly entry-level jobs at good companies, but you'll only be able to find them through your university or other connections. Apply for the jobs with "require" experience even if you don't have it. If they give you a call, that means they think you're a good potential candidate in spite of the fact that your resume doesn't show you have experience. I've gotten calls from several places after applying for jobs for which I didn't meet the "requirements."
    • Don't bother going to any "networking events" or "open houses". It'll be you and 1000 other desperate people trying to suck up to the company while their managers give an info session and gloat over how great their jobs are and how they pick up only the greatest talent on Earth and that you should apply online if you think you're elite enough.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 21, 2013 #2

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    • (Emphasis mine)

      Why is this surprising? A company makes a hire not because it feels obligated to reward STEM majors, but because it needs something done.
  4. Sep 21, 2013 #3
    Right, but I was just trying to emphasise that when they need someone who can do something, that means knowing to use the tools that people use in the real world. You aren't going to get anywhere trying to sell yourself as über smart dude who can learn anything because he knows the theory behind it. You know how to integrate ∫e-x2dx over [-∞, ∞] and you know how that relates to the fact relates to the fact that normal curve has area 1. Cool. Good for you. But do you know how to use Excel to enter a bunch of numbers and calculate which percentile they're at on the normal curve?
  5. Sep 22, 2013 #4
    Maybe it's just me, but I think this attitude is a little insulting. Of course he can!

    I've found this stereotype of a head-in-the-clouds physicist who can't do anything useful to not even be remotely correct. I would venture to say at least 90% of physicists I've encountered can do exactly what you describe.

    This attitude pertetuates a very poisonous problem. There is something very wrong when an advanced academic degree is a hindrance to getting a job. Of course not many employers should require the skills of a PhD. But when it's looked at negatively, as if one had a conviction on record, it reflects a dangerous anti-intellectualism in our society. And this may not be your intention, but you're making it worse.
  6. Sep 22, 2013 #5
    Well, many employers disagree. Why don't you share some techniques you've used in your private sector job hunts that successfully overcame this objection?

    Personally, I just downplayed my physics experience. Not sure that's what people here are hoping for.
  7. Sep 22, 2013 #6
    There's not much you can do if an employer has already made up their mind about what a physics graduate can or cannot do, irrespective of what you tell them.

    I second george's statement, a similar fraction of physics students at my faculty are highly competent in many areas outside of strict book-learning, far beyond what I've seen many "IT experts" doing at mega-stores, low level banking, and government positions. Most are proficient in basic analog electronics, they all speak and write eloquently, all without exception dominate office packages and can write a program to sovle a concrete problem on the spot in this or that language (2 of the "slackers" actually tutor CE and other engineering majors for a living, believe it or not). The statement of not knowing how to use Excel for basic stats is definitely not one that matches reality, IME.

    But for a number of reasons including the negative stigma of having an advanced (and seemingly esoteric) degree, they will probably never get hired to do those jobs without connections (which is really a polite way of saying 'relying on nepotism').

    Anyway, as far as the OP goes, I generally concur with everything said. I never had much of an intention of re-entering the labor force after physics without going for a postgraduate degree first, but the last 5-6 months of demoralizing and uneventful job-hunting I've had have heavily reinforced my desire to do so.
    Last edited: Sep 22, 2013
  8. Sep 22, 2013 #7
    I didn't say that a Physics/Math/Stats/etc. grad can't use Excel, in the sense that he's incapable of learning it. I said he actively doesn't how to.
  9. Sep 22, 2013 #8


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    If a graduate has such a feeble-minded attitude to self-education as that, he/she doesn't deserve a job IMO. If I interviewed somebody with that attitude, they would go straight on the "reject" pile, irrespective of what paper qualifications they had got by being spoon-fed.
  10. Sep 22, 2013 #9
    Speaking as a Math grad, I would say that half of my class knew how to program, and that's only because they were doubling in CS & Math or because they had done Math as a backup plan after not getting into CS (which was extremely competitive at my school). The other half had no active knowledge of any tools that are applicable to any job.
  11. Sep 22, 2013 #10
    Huh? I'm big supporter of self-education as a way to compensate for the skills one lacks as a college graduate. I've been doing a ton of self-education since graduating 5 months ago.

    It seems people here are suggesting that a Physics grad should apply for any job, no matter the experience required, since his intelligence is so high that he doesn't need real-world experience to develop proficiency in something like Excel. He can just read a tutorial before the interview, and that'll compensate for his lack of real-world experience. Voila!
  12. Sep 22, 2013 #11
    I can certainly do that in Excel. Hell, as a youth before college I wrote some VBA code to manage my budget and import .csv files from my bank and card companies. It was a few years before I realized that "Quicken" does that all automatically. lol

    I agree with the premise and spirit of your original post, its hard to get a career style job with a physics degree. Many of the positions I have applied for do specifically ask for competency in Microsoft Office. It think that seems silly since such a thing should be a given for most any grad. But I do put a line on my CV stating that I am experienced/competent in Office. In my experience they want very specific skills and work experience though. The ability to "think on your feet" and "solve a variety of problems" (with Excel or something else) is not a marketable skill.
  13. Sep 22, 2013 #12


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    I graduated some 20 years ago with a BS in physics. From my perspective, today's job market is much, much worse than it was back then. Nowadays when people post here with career questions, I push them hard towards engineering. It's just an easier degree to market to employers. We can debate here all day about how much Excel people know or should know, but the fact is, physics is a hard degree to sell to a hiring manager.

    I feel like I was "given a chance to prove myself" several times in my career. Employers seem less likely to do that now with young inexperienced people, IMO. Do other PFers feel that way?

    I felt confident enough in the job market that I took a long time off to be a stay-home mom in the 90s. Sadly, I would never advise that to a young parent these days!

    So I agree with the general points of the OP. My advice is, go with engineering. If you feel you simply must major in physics (or math), consider an engineering double major. Or at least try to pick up some useful skills so you can get your foot in the door somewhere when the time comes to get a job!
  14. Sep 22, 2013 #13
    For a good fraction of the career advice posts that show up here, this advice comes a little too late (3rd, 4th year physics majors and beyond), but is the thing to do if one isn't considering a higher degree after a BS.

    For those that it has become too late, I recommend attending graduate school in whatever field you want to work in if you can meet the entrance requirements/can afford it. Optics and applied physics masters programs are probably the only one's that won't be a massive culture shock for you and that you might actually feel compelled to spend good money on. Otherwise it's nigh on impossible to get any job you could have landed fresh out of high school ~7 years ago (perhaps even those as well), in my experience. I find myself in this screwed situation. Going to a funded STEM grad school program to me right now looks like the only way to pay rent bills a year down the line. Fortunately it's something I've always wanted.
  15. Sep 22, 2013 #14


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    I graduated around the same time, but went to grad school afterwards, finishing in the late 90s. The job market was great - the .com bubble hadn't burst yet and I found it not so hard to find a good position, even though my specialty (in electrical engineering) was plasma physics.

    I was given a lot of opportunity to learn new things, and sometimes I was given portions of projects because it was a good learning experience, even though it meant we would deliver later. With all the opportunity, and some hard work and initiative on my part, I have become a reasonably competent engineer. These days I think it would be unlikely for someone exactly like me to get an offer from my company, at least for the kind of technical position I was hired into. Indeed, when my last boss asked a few details about my formal education, his comment was, "why did we hire you?" Now they want someone that needs less training and can hit the ground running. I think the hiring managers are picky because they can be; if the economy were better we could not be this way.

  16. Sep 23, 2013 #15
    There is no real comparison to be made between this job market and the job market of anyone who graduated in the early 2000', 90's,80's,70's,60's.... until the 30's

    There are enough people out of a non-part time job that employers can be really really choosy. Combine this with a trend in outsourcing and technology replacing workers that is outpacing job creation and you have a general problem. The government deciding to push every single person to go to college and get any degree isnt helping.
  17. Sep 23, 2013 #16


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    Did I miss the info on on what degree level is this "recent grad"? B.sc? M.Sc? Ph.D? Those can make a lot of difference.

  18. Sep 23, 2013 #17

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    I think the word "major" strongly suggests a BA/BS degree.

    Every job market is different than ones in the past. This one differs from the 1980-82 market which had similar unemployment rates in that college graduates now make up 30% of the market - almost twice what it was in 1980. At the same time, college graduates are learning less: see, for example, Arum and Roska "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses". Not surprising, since the average student now spends only twelve hours per week studying.
  19. Sep 23, 2013 #18
    I find it odd that the groups that show the most learning (science and the humanities) have a harder time getting their foot in the door than the groups that show the least learning (business). If you want a student who learned something, you are way better off hiring a philosophy major than a business major and yet recent business majors have a lower unemployment rate.
  20. Sep 23, 2013 #19

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    Probably because they "know how to use your major to market a specific skill set related to that job". And who said business majors necessarily learned any less?
  21. Sep 23, 2013 #20
    The academically adrift study you referenced has a break-out of learning on the CLE test they use by undergraduate major. Business majors have the lowest scores and the least improvement.

    I wonder how much of the "students learn less"/"students study less" can be explained by the growth of business majors.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook