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Turning career toward physics with a non-physics major

  1. Jan 9, 2015 #1
    Hi Everyone,

    I'm in my early '30s and majored in liberal arts. In doing so, I took a couple years of physics as electives toward the end of undergrad. Between then and now, I've developed a strong interest in physics and it seems to be the one subject, out of every school and life subject, that I am most talented in. (I've been teaching and tutoring physics and taking free online courses from top universities for the last 7 years.)

    So, I would like to obtain more education in physics and point myself toward a physics-heavy career.

    I could use your help,

    1. Finding excellent resources (books, websites, etc.) that describe different careers in physics and the path to those careers. (I've heard of medical physicists, Wall Street physicists, and professors to name a few applications of a physics education that interest me. I want to learn more and narrow down my options.) Feel free to post here or PM me with your suggestions.

    2. Figuring out what the next step should be for me. I'm thinking that I would like to end up with a PhD in physics. Since I already have a BA in liberal arts, should I look for a post bac or apply directly to a masters program, or something else? (I've also been looking into this and have opinions. I am unsure that I didn't miss anything so I am looking forward to hearing from you.)
    Last edited by a moderator: Jan 10, 2015
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 10, 2015 #2
    Wall Street physicists don't exactly do physics. Rather, if I'm correct, it's a term referring to the physics Ph.Ds who went to Wall Street to do financial stuff with the massive amount of mathematical knowledge they gained during their Ph.D programs.

    As for career paths, this might be a good place to look: http://www.aps.org/careers/employment/index.cfm

    The people most qualified to answer your second question are those in charge of graduate admissions at universities you would like to attend. You should take the GRE and the physics GRE test. That will tell you where you currently stand with your physics knowledge (to some extent). I believe it could be tough. Graduate schools want to admit students they know will do well, so if you come from a background with barely any physics, what reason do they have to use their resources for you? You have to convince them you're worth it.

    Another issue could be a potential lack of letters of recommendation. Is there anyone in the field of physics that you know that would write you one? That is by far one of the biggest factors for grad school admissions. I don't know much about how one would go about getting a letter of recommendation in your situation. If you have access to a nearby university, perhaps there's some kind of volunteer lab work you could do (though frankly I have no idea what I'm talking about with this regard. Others may know of some more options).
    Last edited: Jan 10, 2015
  4. Jan 10, 2015 #3


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    Staff Emeritus
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    You should not be posting your e-mail address on here, especially regarding something that should be an open, public discussion (read the PF Rules). You also don't seem to have a clear idea of what physics is and what physicists do.

    [added by mentor: e-mail address has been deleted]

    You may want to start by reading this:

    Since you didn't clearly describe what it is that you had actually learned (i.e. what subjects in physics, at what level, and how you judged your competency in what you've learned), it is hard to know what you actually have understood, especially without any valid credentials. If we go by simply based on your degree, then I will say that you have not learned much of physics yet.

    Please note that in many schools, physics elective courses for liberal arts major are often "puff" classes as a means to give a flavor of physics to non-science majors. It is a HUGE step from that to courses that actually train students to be physicists. The latter requires an advanced skill and knowledge of mathematics that usually are not required in the former.

    Last edited by a moderator: Jan 10, 2015
  5. Jan 10, 2015 #4


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    Staff: Mentor

    Given your age and your apparent lack of clarity regarding what you want to be when you grow-up, I'd caution against launching-into another 5-10 year educational endeavour without first thinking through and gaining a clear understanding of what kind of career you want to get out of it. Someone in their early 30s should be looking for a career path, not a vague entry-point into an education. Otherwise, at the end you may find yourself another hundred thousand dollars in debt and with 10 less years of working life left to get out of it, much less start building a retirement nest-egg.
  6. Jan 10, 2015 #5
    Thank you very much for the helpful response. I used the link you provided and goes to exactly the kind of information I'm looking for. You're right about admissions being a good place for this question. I think I will email a few admissions departments for physics masters/PhD programs, asking my question about the best way to get from where I am into a program like their own, or if they can point me to someone who can help with that question.
  7. Jan 10, 2015 #6
    Russ Watters,

    Don't patronize me.



    PS - If you read the OP, you would know that I am evaluating career paths.

    Last edited: Jan 10, 2015
  8. Jan 10, 2015 #7
    FYI - There are a lot of wrong assumptions on some of the replies on here. Please read the OP and refrain from taking cues from the replies. Thanks in advance!
  9. Jan 10, 2015 #8


    Staff: Mentor

    I always found it rather annoying that they provided these kinds of classes to non-physics majors (which I think is fine) but required the physicists to take the standard english, history, and "political science" courses. If the Physics department can teach "physics for poets" then why can't the English department teach "poetry for physicists".

    Bar none, the best class I ever took was "Physiology for Biomedical Engineers". It was taught by the Vetrinary Pathology and Physiology department, but they did an incredible job of teaching about mass and energy transfer in biological systems and other similar engineering topics. They really went out of their way to teach to their audience and I still remember it now decades later.
  10. Jan 10, 2015 #9


    Staff: Mentor

    Maybe you should be looking at teaching as a career path. You could be doing physics related work without much additional debt or opportunity cost from going back to school.
  11. Jan 15, 2015 #10
    Two-fish quant would disagree if here were here. The work can be similar to physics grad school, according to him.

    The general consensus is that it's not a good move to do a physics PhD specifically to work in finance. My take is that you need to work to prepare for a job in finance in advance, otherwise, it may be difficult to get a job. So, you'd have to try to do things in grad school that would be transferable. Plus, there's no telling what the situation will be on Wall Street several years from now. What works in your favor is that physicists and other PhDs have established a foothold there, and if you can get in touch with them, they are more open to hiring people like themselves than most other employers.

    A PhD is a pretty crazy thing to do, and it's hard to appreciate just how crazy until you've done it.
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