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What are some in demand skills to have as a non-academic physicist?

  1. Sep 26, 2010 #1
    What are some "in demand" skills to have as a non-academic physicist?

    I'm applying to grad school (all apps seem to be due this December) in physics. Of course, I'm going to tell my prospective grad schools that I want nothing more than to be a renowned physics professor at a research university...

    While that's certainly true, I'm also very pragmatic and I want to make sure I have "transferable skills" that I can use outside of academia if ever I wanted to work for the government or in industry (e.g. in case I'm not one of the lucky minority of folks who lands a tenure-track prof gig within 5 years of getting my PhD).

    What are some good things to study or skills to acquire (e.g. programming languages)? Also, what are some in-demand specialties in government or industry that could result in a decent-paying job?
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  3. Sep 26, 2010 #2
    Re: What are some "in demand" skills to have as a non-academic physicist?

    It is rather unlikely that you will be. Just make sure that this fact is clear in your own mind. Roughly 15% of people with Ph.D.'s end up with tenure track positions, and to zeroth order, zero is a better approximation to 15% than 100%.

    Get good at math. Get good at using a computer. If you want more guidance, then learn Froth and meshless wavelet methods. If you can't find any information on Froth or meshless wavelet methods, that's because those things haven't been invented yet, but I'm guessing that they will be really hot in 2016 when you graduate. I might be wrong about the details, but I'm pretty sure that something else that hasn't been invented is going to be big in 2016.

    What employers really want is not someone that trained as a hyper-specialist in a particularly programming language than someone that can take an algorithm that they've never seen in a computer language that they've never programmed in, and do something reasonable with it.

    The assumption (which tends to be proven correct) is that if you can handle quantum electrodynamics, then someone hands you a problem involve some mathematics that you've never seen before, that you can spend a week reading google, and teach yourself whatever it is that you need to know.

    The fact that *no one* knows anything about the language and algorithm that your boss wants you to work on, and you are going to be *writing* the book on whatever it is that they want you to work on, is part of the reason you got hired.
  4. Sep 26, 2010 #3

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    Re: What are some "in demand" skills to have as a non-academic physicist?

    To add to twofish-quant's post: If you are going for an experimentalist specialization, try to take on some leadership roles. This will force you to obtain multidisciplinary skills; project planning skills; the ability to deal with people, some of whom will fit the stereotype to a T; and the ability to dispatch a bunch of tedious (but absolutely essential) bureaucratic crap post haste. These opportunities are, as far as I can tell, a bit harder to come by for theoretical physicists.

    Learn to program in lots of different languages, preferably different paradigms. I try to learn at least one new language a year and have been keeping this up for (yikes) thirty years. Computer languages are rather trendy. The hot language of today quickly becomes so-last year. Side corollary: You need to learn to forget but also need to be able re-learn some arcane topic quickly.

    Learn to program well. Very, very few scientists and engineers can, particularly so those in academia. They write one-off programs that tend to be unmaintainable, untestable, and unverifiable. The ability to understand software engineering concepts and scientific/engineering concepts is very rare and very valuable.
  5. Sep 27, 2010 #4


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    Re: What are some "in demand" skills to have as a non-academic physicist?

    In addition to this excellent advice, I would recommend learning how to manage a budget (which is part of "project planning" I guess, but so important that it deserves its own mention) and/or how to write grant proposals. Definitely learn how to write grant proposals if you want a tenure-track position, but learn to budget no matter what.

    In fairness, very few programmers can either.
  6. Sep 27, 2010 #5
    Re: What are some "in demand" skills to have as a non-academic physicist?

    Also it helps a lot to do "real world budgeting". Even spending some time organizing a project with graduate student council or your dormitory association will give you a lot of useful skills.

    Just to give example of something that comes up frequently in bureaucracies is that if you don't low-ball your budget, then you end up not getting your project approved, so what happens is that you end up with "business time" schedules. I.e. if the project plan says that it will happen in six months, then everyone knows that this really means nine months, and if the cost is $200,000, then everyone knows that this means $300,000.

    On the other hand, you end up situations in which when someone says $200,000, they really mean $200,000. What often happens in this situation is that everyone thing gets really protective of their funds. So everyone ends up saying they need $200,000, and only end up spending $100,000, so you end up allocating a lot of money but with everyone scared to death of using any of it until the last week before the budget cycle ends.
  7. Sep 27, 2010 #6
    Re: What are some "in demand" skills to have as a non-academic physicist?

    Also one crucial skill that a lot of theoretical physicists have trouble with is the ability to deal with people that are less smart than they are.

    If you can do string theory, you will be dealing with lots of people that can't do string theory, and you will get into trouble if you don't know how to take orders from people that aren't able to do string theory or give orders to people that aren't able to do string theory.

    One other skill that is really important in business is undergraduate teaching. If your boss gives you orders that make no technical sense, then you are going to be forced to give him or her a quick lesson in why it makes no technical sense, and undergraduate teaching skills are extremely handy at that point.
  8. Sep 27, 2010 #7

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    Re: What are some "in demand" skills to have as a non-academic physicist?

    Do this on a firm fixed price contract and you have just put your company $100,000 into the red, and you have probably put yourself out of a job to boot.

    That's a firm fixed price contract. When you say you can do a job for $200,000 you had better mean that you really can do the job for $200,000 or less. If you estimate that you can really do the job for $180,000 but with a real risk of costs going up to $200,000 you dang well better say $200,000 rather than $180,000. That of course leaves a lot of margin for someone else who can do a better job of estimating or is willing to forgo profit when things don't work out right. Plucking precise estimates out of the clear blue sky is a very good, and very hard to come by, skill.
  9. Sep 28, 2010 #8
    Re: What are some "in demand" skills to have as a non-academic physicist?

    In most situations I've been in, you are far enough away from the actual contract that the contract doesn't form a hard constraint. If you are in IT, you are typically considered a cost center whose budget comes out of overhead and is not tied to a specific contract.

    Also, you are only screwed if the person providing the money is in a position to pull the plug on the project. In a lot of situations, they aren't, in which case they have to eat the cost overrun. The person making the initial estimate might be in a great deal of trouble, but it turns out that they left the firm five years ago.

    One other thing that's tricky is that large companies are often able and willing to go into the red for a specific project if it meets some sort of long term strategic goal. Something else that causes big problems is when the person negotiating the contract has no contact with the people that are going to be executing the contract. So you have someone in sales and marketing say that it can be done in three years and $200,000 when anyone with technical sense knows that's bloody impossible. If you aren't careful and the company is badly run, then the salesman that got the contract will get promoted and a large bonus for getting the contract, whereas you are going to be fired for being a naysayer.

    That's if you are a small firm competing for contracts. In that situation, if you overstate your costs then you get underbid and get nothing. However, if you the head of a department competing for resources (computer time for example), then you aren't going to get underbid and the political dynamics are very different. Also, in any but the smallest companies, the people that give the numbers to the customer are sales people, and the amount of input the sales people get from technology varies. In less well run companies, the sales people will try actively not to talk to the technology people, because if they get real numbers, then they can't offer low-ball estimates to customers and make their yearly sales quotas.

    The situation you've described is what happens with you have a market of firms bidding on contracts with hard budget constraints. Many situations (and in fact most situations in large companies and academia) don't fit that model. In theory, a company that does things better might be able to come in and wipe the carpet with the existing companies. In reality, this tends not to happen, because if you are bidding on something, only three companies can do it, and it turns out that your company gets work because they are marginally less incompetent.

    One problem that you will run into is that sometimes you get in trouble if you *do* estimate cost and time accurately. This happens a lot less or not at all in well run companies, but we live in an imperfect world, and some companies look a lot like a Dilbert cartoon. There are situations in which there are extremely strong *disincentives* for giving accurate estimates.

    Creating a corporate culture in which people in a situation were people feel comfortable giving their honest opinions of how much time it will take to do something is an even harder skill.

    One final problem is that companies that work on firm fixed price contracts with no margins are not fun places for physics geeks to work in. Research is usually a cost center, so if the company is 100% focused on immediate profits, then they just aren't going to pay for people to do things that don't immediately pay off. The places that are more fun are those in which you have senior management willing to work on expensive research projects that may not pay off now or ever, but could change the world if they do.

    Getting back to dealing with people that aren't as smart. One thing that I've learned is to have a lot of respect for great managers even if they can't do string theory. Dilbert is an good portrayal of what corporate life is like, and if you have someone that can take that mess and actually produce a shipping product (even with a massive cost overrun and two years late) then that it something pretty amazing.
  10. Sep 28, 2010 #9

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    Re: What are some "in demand" skills to have as a non-academic physicist?

    I disagree with your use of the word "some." I would say "almost all." Finding an organization that does not look a lot like a Dilbert cartoon takes a lot of work and a bit of luck. The ones that do not look like a Dilbert cartoon are usually smaller companies. One problem is that these companies, if they are good, don't remain small forever. Dilbert's bosses somehow magically appear once a company grows to more than a few hundred employees. That said, many large companies have some subdivisions that work like a small company. Or so I've heard.

    Welcome to my world! Almost. The only solution is to build margin, sometimes quite a bit of margin, into those estimates. I certainly do; I may well be the one leading the task if we win the contract. The bean counters who came up with the growingly common idea of doing research on a firm fixed price basis need to be put in a looney bin. They probably got promotions instead.
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