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Usefulness to employers as a physics graduate.

  1. Mar 30, 2013 #1
    So as may be evident from other threads, I will be graduating this year with a BS in Physics. Since I failed to procure entry into a graduate program, I would like to know what I can do with the skillset I have, which I'll describe below. Namely, I'd like to know what kind of companies (with some specific examples) would take my application seriously and how not to come across as totally useless in potential job interviews(ie: ask questions you have asked/been asked in interviews before) which I suspect might very well be the case in most STEM jobs.

    My training is a little different from many US graduates a far as I've seen as I attended university in Europe, but I ask this question with the US job market in mind. What I know which I *think* may be useful:

    -A year's worth of optics courses, all pen & paper. No fancy labs.
    -Had a numerical methods course that covered error analysis, numerical linear algebra, quadrature, ODE's etc in a Matlab-style environment.
    -Have done numerical simulation/theory research with Fortran, namely radiative transfer (astrophysics stuff).
    -Have used LabView in a lab course before, didn't find it difficult.
    -Can hack out some pretty things in Latex, GNUPlot, Origin...
    -Have taken a course in fluid dynamics and really enjoyed it.
    -I am taking a basic analog electronics course: diodes, op amps, rectifiers, and all that jazz from a standard text, but extremely limited hands on experience. Have done some mediocre soldering jobs on electric guitar electronics.
    -Computer hardware literacy: built PC's from spare parts on several occasions.
    -I am bilingual.
    -Have a previous post-secondary degree in analytical chemistry, did work in a sewage processing plant lab one summer years ago before starting my physics degree, don't remember the last time I used a spectrophotometer or did some volumetric pH measurement though.

  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 30, 2013 #2
    Sounds like you're facing a really common problem for physics majors, where you know a little about a lot of different things, but don't have a lot of experience with any one thing. Ideally there would a job where you could use all those little experiences together, without needing great expertise in any specific area, but I don't think there are many jobs like that (maybe as a management consultant?).

    I think it'll be obvious that you're a smart person who can learn fast, so it's possible you might be able to find someone that will look past your lack of experience and train you. But finding a company that will do this for you is easier said than done. Networking obviously helps a lot here, basically anything that let's you talk to employers in person is good. Headhunter agencies might also be able to find a position like this for you.

    Since you've still got some time before you graduate, I think your best bet is to pick 1 or 2 of the things you listed, and focus on teaching yourself as much about them as possible. Programming is the most straightforward- there's lots of resources to help you teach yourself, and there's lots of jobs available for it. If you can learn any modern, OO language (I'd suggest Java, just because it's so common and easier than C++) it would help you a lot. But you could also focus on learning more about statistics/numerical analysis (taking actuarial exams is an option here) or electronics (where you could look into various apprenticeship programs, if you're not adverse to blue collar work). If there's a sewage processing plant near where you live, or anything similar, then definitely apply there but I don't know anything about that.

    Good luck! Finding a job is not easy. I've just recently found a job as a programmer, after being unemployed over a year (I also have a physics BS).
  4. Mar 30, 2013 #3
    Question: How will picking up something like java/c++ on my own convince any potential employer I can actually do the work they need to get done? I don't see how learning new syntax to do the same things I already know how to do in Fortran would help me since afaik, the kind of programming I've done has zero business relevance.

    What specific programming abilities were expected of you at your job, for example?

    What are these apprenticeship programs you speak of? Could you post examples? I've never heard of anything like this.

    I am told hospitals/clinics may take physics graduates as technicians, I wonder how does that work out in practice? Something in microfluidics, microscopy, blood analytics for example? I would be surprised if physics graduates are allowed to do anything related to PET/MRI/radiation therapy without higher degrees/certifications. Are there any specific certifications that one needs to get for these jobs in the state of NJ?

    I suppose I might have a better shot at STEM jobs in chemistry if they're willing to overlook I am 5 years removed from lab work.
  5. Mar 30, 2013 #4
    Well the biggest reason to learn another language is just that noone outside of Academia uses Fortran. Just look at http://www.langpop.com/ [Broken] for example. So if you show them Fortran code that you've written, it'll be really hard for them to assess it because it's highly unlikely that anyone at the company has ever used Fortran. Writing code in more common language just makes it a lot easier for them to assess your coding skills.

    On top of that, it's just good to show that you can learn things on your own, outside of school, and you can concentrate on stuff that might be more useful in business (like how to work with databases, and the web) rather than the science/math stuff that you've probably done. There's a lot more to learn than just syntax. And it's always helpful to know more than one language.

    I'd say the stuff that I was asked in interviews was all over the place (some interviewers have no idea what they're doing), but roughly came in 4 categories:

    1)Object-Oriented Programming concepts, to see if I knew how to properly divide a complex task into separate classes and objects
    2)Datastructures and algorithms, like "what is a hash table?" and "what is the big O running time of a good sorting algorithm?" This stuff is actually pretty easy, but you do need to study it so that you'll know what they're talking about.
    3)Language specific questions, like "what is an interface in Java?" This is where you really get hurt if your main programming experience is in Fortran.
    4)"Brainteaser" type questions like "why are manhole covers round?" I always thought these were by far the easiest, since they're kind of similiar to problems on a physics test.

    For the apprenticeship, I was thinking of something like http://www.calapprenticeship.org/programs/electrician_apprenticeship.php for electrian unions. When I looked into this, I was told that they were swamped with applicants, and I basically had no chance of getting in without a reference from someone in the union, but your area might be different. There's also community college programs for this.

    I have no idea about hospital technicians, sorry. Sounds like a good idea to look in to, though!

    Chemistry is an option too, although it seems like the job market there is tough too. http://chemjobber.blogspot.com/ talks a lot about it, and he also posts job listings in chemistry every day.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  6. Mar 31, 2013 #5
    I would agree that (essentially) no one outside academia is doing anything new in Fortran, but I know lots of businesses, utilities, engineering companies, etc. have legacy Fortran code that's still in use. I think there's some hidden away where I work, even.

    A couple of other posters here got jobs either because they new Fortran or specifically to work with it. (Here's an example; It's possible that this happened when they got jobs and never will again, but I doubt it)

    However, I'm not sure those are jobs you actually want. Better than nothing, I suppose, but I think that most anything interesting to work on is being developed in something else, so I agree with pi-r8 you should pick up something else as well.
  7. Mar 31, 2013 #6
    Let me clarify: I am not averse to learning another language (in fact I have a pile of Python resources to toy through after exams are over in June. I have played with it in the past and would like to master it and its math packages as I'm quickly exhausting the limitations of GNUplot for graphing purposes).

    What I don't want is to wade cluelessly through an ocean of things that may be irrelevant for workplace programming, so I wanted to know specifically what tasks employers assume a "programmer" should know to save time. The questions you provided (pi-r8) are really helpful, if anything else comes to mind please let me know.

    I would take any STEM job I could get at this point if I don't get into the summer scholarship/internship I am applying for, but ultimately I want to have another go at graduate school admissions next fall without question.

    Any other STEM suggestions besides generic programming jobs that I may have a reasonable chance at getting hired?
  8. Mar 31, 2013 #7
    Sure, there's always exceptions. I'm sure that somewhere out there, there's a company desperately trying to hire Fortran programmers. Just... not very many of them.

    I recommend this book: https://www.amazon.com/Cracking-Coding-Interview-Programming-Questions/dp/098478280X. It's focused on interviews, but it's also just a good introduction to what programmers are expected to know. Most of the examples are in Java though.

    Oh, and if you're learning Python, there seems to be a ton of jobs nowadays for people to do web development with Django.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  9. Apr 1, 2013 #8
    I second this very strongly.
  10. Apr 1, 2013 #9
    I'll keep this in mind, but I'm not particularly hopeful or excited about non-scientific programming jobs because I don't think I will have the required basics down by the time I can sit down to hunt for a job full-time. Too busy mastering all the advanced QM, GR, Cosmology, Nuclear & particle physics among other subjects for my upcoming finals to avoid closing any doors from getting mediocre grades (and for their own sake, but I know these are irrelevant in the job market)...

    Could we veer this into STEM and/or technician jobs of any type that would consider physics graduates? I don't mind blue collar work, I just want to do exactly what I didn't get to do much of in my degree before going to grad school: practical lab/tech work.
    Last edited: Apr 1, 2013
  11. Apr 1, 2013 #10
    The people I knew who ended up doing lab technician work went one of two routes
    1. they got hired by somebody in the department that knew them
    2. they had some practical skills they were able to point to

    Hopefully you can take a look at 1, for 2- have you been able to use your departments machine shop? Is your analog circuits course good enough that you'd feel comfortable designing proto-type lab equipment?

    It sounds like your best bet might be to lean on your chemistry degree, and apply for chem technician jobs.
  12. Apr 1, 2013 #11
    As far as 1 goes: Nope, and I won't be living close to my university upon graduating anymore so I won't have any academic contacts within a ~5000km radius.

    I don't think I'd be comfortable enough designing lab equipment. I mean I have notions of how audio amplifiers and oscilloscopes work, but nowhere close to an engineer's or even experienced DIY'ers level. I did build an op-amp based 1W mono amp a long time ago (the kind you can fit into a cigarette box).

    I feel the same way about chem, I suppose I should try sewage processing plant labs first.

    I remember someone here saying they did work/research in bubble physics at a hospital/clinic as a recent physics graduate but I can't seem to find the thread. Does this ring a bell to anyone? I'm trying to find this person to ask how he/she got hired, because this sounds pretty interesting.
  13. Apr 1, 2013 #12
    Java and C++ are object-oriented, while Fortran is not. It's a completely different style of programming. (Or should be, if you are doing it right. :smile:)

    To draw a flawed analogy, once you learn about Gauss' Law in freshman physics, why bother with Jackson?
  14. Apr 1, 2013 #13
    It depends on what type of fortran you are working in. Fortran 77 is awful, Fortran 90 is flexible enough to allow object oriented design patterns (modules let you group procedures and data), and fortran 2003 implements all the stanard object-oriented stuff (inheritance,polymorphism,dynamic typing).
  15. Apr 1, 2013 #14
    Another approach would be to contact people you want to work for in graduate school and ask if their labs are in need of work.

    Did your program have a capstone "modern physics lab" sort of course? If so, the work you did there is probably relevant, and you should use your lab notebook as a portfolio of sorts.

    That is probably not true- science is an international discipline, most scientist know people all over the place. I'd ask professors who know you if they know anyone (or know someone who knows someone) in the area you'll be living. Work the network, as they say.
  16. Apr 1, 2013 #15
    I have used the concept of modular programming in Fortran(90) and a Matlab clone, ie: subroutines that read input parameters from a file, solve a linear system midway into the simulation to keep it neater, etc... but I have no solid idea what the other programming jargon used in this thread means, so I'm a little embarrassed.

    I've already done both, none of the recommenders I have knew people at the 2 uni's closest to where I'll be living closest to (in NJ) unfortunately. I've also contacted about a dozen potential supervisors at Max Planck Institute in Germany (this is how they take summer research interns, direct contact) and about a half dozen in close in NJ if I don't land anything with funding in Europe.

    I got a friendly reply from one prof in the US whose research interested me stating he wasn't taking students right now, but forwarded me to a colleague who might in a loosely related field. I've yet to receive a reply but I am told this is a very good sign (ignoring the fact it would be likely be unpaid volunteer work for CV padding) and I will be seeking out more prof's with research interests close to my own soon enough. I also asked about TA work as a non-degree seeking student but was told this was reserved for PhD students.

    I wouldn't be living close to any university that I would want to go to grad school for unfortunately, would a prof in another state even entertain the possibility of paying a graduate they don't know and didn't go through the selection process as a research assistant? I am waitlisted at the top university I wanted to attend (although told admission is unlikely since they reached their target number of students) which is in the midwest, is it worth asking the prof that expressed interest in my application there if they would consider hiring me? (it isn't an experimental field by the way, far from it). I would need something to support myself if I'm going to hop to some new place as my only relative/temporary crashing place is in NJ.
    Last edited: Apr 1, 2013
  17. Apr 8, 2013 #16
    I'd really love some more input. I'm still toiling through STEM job/intern advertisements in my area while taking breaks from studying for finals...

    I was recently waitlisted at CERN's summer intern program but I'm not too hopeful about it (I was also waitlisted for NRAO but got turned down later, the competition is pretty tough).

    I found and applied for this job in my region (more or less), which sounded very much up my alley:

    (Research Intern - Fluid Mechanics )

    I more than meet the technical requirements and would love a job doing something like this, but it's a bit discouraging and annoying that being chem. engineering student is a requirement for the job. Since the word engineering is nowhere to be found on my CV, would they still toss out my application, despite having 4 semesters worth of physics labs, 3 semesters worth of chemistry labs, a 2-year diploma in chemistry and a course in fluid dynamics? I really hope it's not simply a machine that's doing all the pre-selection...

    Are there any kinds of jobs/internship programs that would entertain apps from a recent physics graduate doing physical modeling of any sort? I have thought of acoustics and hydrodynamics, though job offers I've seen for the former were for engineers at the MS level. I saw one environmental consulting agency in my state doing hydrodynamics modeling... meteorological centers maybe?

    I would be living relatively close to major telecom centers (Holmdale, NJ is one) but I haven't been successful in finding jobs I'm qualified for when I browse through sites for major businesses like Verizon. What "job description" would a physics grad be a best fit in an industry like this, anyone with experience in this area? Perhaps a lab tech testing or designing microwave/radio antennae or waveguides?
    Last edited: Apr 8, 2013
  18. Apr 14, 2013 #17


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    Lavabug, you had stated in your first post that you were not accepted into a graduate program in physics. Have you thought about waiting another year and perhaps take a few courses (where possible) and reapply for graduate school again, either in physics or in some other cognate field such as electrical or chemical engineering? (since you already have an analytical chemistry degree, a chemical engineering MS program may be an option worth considering)

    The impression that I have based on other posts is that a BS in physics alone may not lend itself for many openings in various different careers, although some of your skillsets that you had gained in the analytical chemistry degree (use of a spectrometer, knowledge of Labview, etc.) could provide openings in say, firms like Xerox which hires chemists.
  19. Apr 14, 2013 #18
    Statguy, it is my intention to reapply to graduate programs in physics (a far greater number this time and with more than 1 research foci), I am not interested in pursuing chemistry anymore and I am actually 4 years removed from chemistry benchwork. I am retaking the GRE's in the summer/fall for this, but I have one whole year in between and no money to support myself much less pay for a masters program. I am just looking for a job that'll be a decent learning experience and aid me in getting into a decent graduate (physics) program, although really I'll take anything I can support myself with until I get into grad school, I do not intend to wait until next year to apply.

    I've found some openings at research institutions specifically advertised for people in my situation (recent bachelors in physics) and I've already applied for most of them, mainly intern and "research associate/instrument analyst", though also some "data analyst/software dev" at science facilities which I'll take a shot at regardless. National labs/facilities mainly, but in the private sector I also found an fluid dynamics intern position at a glassware company meant for chem eng undergrads (but I had all the requirements they asked for and could probably hold my own very well if I were to be questioned on this subject and their other skill requirements).

    I used Labview in one of my physics lab courses. I've looked into similar businesses like 3M and didn't find much else than software developer or sales positions which I didn't feel qualified for (or remotely interested in), but I'll check Xerox out.

    I've noticed a lot of the analyst positions at water processing plants I've found don't require anything beyond an associates/tech degree (essentially what my 2-year chemistry degree is, just need to get official validation for the US since it was a foreign institution). Would someone with a BS on top of this be considered overqualified? Should I suppress/downplay my physics degree in my CV for applications to positions like this?

    I recently was waitlisted for CERN's summer research program and my advisor tells me my chances are decent at getting a summer scholarship at the UK institution I am at (I've already applied), so we'll see what the next month brings. I still check AAS/APS and similar job posting sites daily, but I've still got a month and a half til all my exams are over.
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2013
  20. Apr 14, 2013 #19
    One thing to watch out for- a phd in physics will make it generally HARDER to get the type of industry positions you are currently having trouble with. The phd will open up only research positions where your phd research is directly relevant, and it will shut the door on most other scientific positions. If you aren't willing to take a finance,insurance or technical sales job NOW (for your gap year), what will you do when, post-phd, these are the sorts of jobs available?

    If industry research jobs are the type of jobs you want, you should consider applying for engineering phd programs.
  21. Apr 14, 2013 #20
    They aren't the type of jobs that I really want to do (except the research-oriented ones, which are all explicitly temporary contracts, meant specifically for recent graduates). The ones I really want all require a science phd in some form or another, and a phd is an end in itself for me.

    I'm probably more willing to relocate than most people as I'm no stranger to hopping continents every 4 years, which helps.

    I don't think I can get any insurance/finance jobs now anyway, since I lack the preparation and contacts.
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2013
  22. Apr 14, 2013 #21
    Probably doesn't actually help that much, almost everyone in physics is willing to continent hop for awhile (I worked in three different countries just during my phd). Most of my cohort works in finance,big data, government (grant review type stuff), or business (actuarial work, management consulting, technical sales, etc). Very few are still doing science(those still in either work for intel or are still doing postdocs) . Whereas, the plurality of engineering phds seem to be doing engineering research.

    I guess my point is this: if you don't want to do finance,insurance,big data or business type work, why get a phd that funnels most of its graduates into that type of work? Why not do an engineering phd, where most graduates DO get the sort of jobs you want?

    I don't know much about finance, but if you want insurance type work and are willing to relocate for work, that isn't so hard. Send out some resumes and you can probably get some data services type work. Its not nearly as difficult as scientific stuff (the resume filters are less ridiculous, and there are a lot more intro positions available).
  23. Apr 14, 2013 #22
    This is going way off topic, I am just trying to find a job with a BS in Physics period and this discussion isn't helping my cause, but since you insist:

    I don't want to spend 4-6 years in a graduate program doing something I have no interest working in. I don't want an engineering phd, although I may consider an applied math program as I've noticed some depts are strong in some of the types of research I like (fluids and nonlinear dynamics, analytical or computational, but I'm not terribly interested in the engineering aspect), but I would have to make a choice about which subject GRE to take since I can't do both (ideally I'd like to take the physics gre twice to ensure the best score)

    Didn't you pass on a post doc in the UK voluntarily? I know the same statistics you do. Half of phd graduates in the US that stay in the US leave science voluntarily, and 1-2% get tenure at universities (which aren't necessarily my dream job), but it wouldn't make any difference to me if it were a tenth of that, so I don't know what you're trying to argue. I know what I'm signing up for with a science phd and I know it's not a safe bet by all means, but I have nothing to lose (I come from a dirt poor background) and I am not in debt with college tuition (I have lived on my own for 3 years on a college stipend, a third of what the typical US graduate stipend is and I'm still alive).

    Steering this back on topic: could you please explain what I can do to get a job doing actuarial/finance/insurance work NOW? Because this problem is a lot more urgent than what will happen 6 years from now.
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2013
  24. Apr 14, 2013 #23
    Care to elaborate or post some examples? I haven't found anything like this that was friendly or inviting to science majors, but I haven't been looking for it explicitly either.
  25. Apr 14, 2013 #24
    What type of insurance work do you imagine doing? I ran insurance/upstate New York through Monster.com and found all sorts of intro level job openings, concentrated in Albany and Buffalo (agent, underwriter, data services, jr. analyst). If you know anything about databases, I'd look at stuff on the data side, but it really depends on your skill set. Plenty of no-experience-required/4-year-degree-expected type jobs.

    As for finance, a friend of mine suggests searching for analyst positions at all the large banks in NYC and applying. You'll have to do some reading to bone up for an interview, but he claims they like physics/math bachelors, the pay is pretty good, and the turnover rate is high so they are usually hiring.
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2013
  26. Apr 14, 2013 #25
    I don't know, because I don't really know what that kind of job entails at all. I honestly don't know anything about databases. What job titles should I be looking for in my circumstance?
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