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What can you actually do to find a job with a BS in physics?

  1. Jun 16, 2013 #1
    We have lots of threads popping up on that very subject here, and I thought we could work together, gather information from past threads, post them here, and eventually make stickied/pinned post with all the possible avenues, and what kind of background one has to get.

    All the stuff I've read here on the subject of finding work with a bachelor's in physics is essentially this: "learn to code and work on as many projects as you can" and "do experimental work in applied physics/eng at school" (this is especially relevant if your university has ties with local companies and work with them), "geophysics" and "network".

    This would be useful for any prospective/current physics major (or grad). People keep asking questions and this tells me that people are still misguided about what they can do with a physics degree. Or they go into it without really knowing what they can do.

    It would also be interesting to talk about college and location dependent jobs. For e.g, target schools and major cities (NYC, LA, London, etc) for business consulting/finance firms or geophysics and mining cities. And I reckon that in some areas, certain people would be more inclined than the average employer to hire physics majors than others. Or at the very least, not discriminate against them. Maybe web/tech startups.

    Fire away!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 16, 2013 #2
    There is unfortunately a lot of of terrible/uninformed advice that gets thrown around in the Career and Academic guidance forums, you will have to sift through a lot of poor quality posts to find something that actually fits reality.

    Networking and getting hired through contacts works, but this is true for anyone at any educational level, so it's pretty abstract advice. Also not doable if you don't really have contacts in a position to get your CV on a real flesh-and-bone hiring manager's desk.

    I've been shotgunning my CV around for a while to different entry positions that advertise skill requirements that I believe I do meet as a physics BS graduate, or that explicitly state physics graduates without specific skills like TEM or polarized microscopy experience. These were mostly optics companies (specifically asked for physicists) and a few manufacturing companies like Corning(intern positions for chem engineers, but I was thoroughly qualified and experienced in what they stated in the ad). Without luck, but you do have to remember the stark statistic that less than 10% of people hired are people who responded to online job ads.

    The only sector I think a physics BS would have a better chance in the US would be private defense contractors and technical positions at the army, navy, and air force (navigation, radar, communications, security and weapons R&D). A frequently advertised federal job that fits the bill for any physics BS is "Physical Science Technician 1311". Also jobs with the DoE and its many national labs.

    The only reason I've avoided applying to many jobs in this industry this is the fact that I don't meet the citizenship requirements most ads specify, but if you do you should really try and look for something down this avenue. Some examples of contractors are Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, etc., you can find a comprehensive list on wikipedia. Everything I've seen suggests that this industry takes kindlier to physics BS holders for engineering-like positions than any other industry like telecommunications, electronics, or web development, who always have a surplus of engineers and CS graduates to choose from.

    Also, job ad pages like monster and USAjobs are not representative in the least of what's out there. Seek out lists of companies by industry and go to their individual career pages/find their HR contact info.
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2013
  4. Jun 16, 2013 #3
    If you are in the US, I'd take a look at the APS webpage which lists companies by state that have recently hired physics majors:


    I agree, there is a lot of bad advice out there. Networking is however good, true for any field. While in college, if you can do any kind of internship/coop/summer work with a company, you could very well get hired by them upon graduation. Unfortunately, those kinds of programs aren't that fashionable in physics departments.
  5. Jun 16, 2013 #4
    I also highly recommend that page, I can't believe I forgot to mention it. It should give you a fairly good idea of the kind of companies hiring physics BS holders in your state.

    Coops are afaik almost exclusive to engineers and CS folk, it's not part of the everyday vocabulary for physics majors (I've personally never heard that word out of a physics student, graduate or academic's mouth, or seen it on any official document or newsletter from a physics department). No engineer or CS grad I know personally in the US (6, including a sibling and an in-law) managed to finish engineering without getting at least one co-op, and they weren't even at a top 100 ranked school (probably somewhere around 100).

    Job fairs and networking/job insertion potential exist for almost any sufficiently big school though. The more prestigious the school, the bigger chances of them hosting serious on-campus recruiting opportunities for undergrads in any discipline. If you go to a small-town or rural school (that isn't an Ivy, obviously) these opportunities may be poor or non-existent.
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2013
  6. Jun 16, 2013 #5
    That's one of the more useful things I've seen here. Thanks.
  7. Jun 16, 2013 #6
    I really think someone should make a sticky (either by making a new one or transforming this one) about possible employment avenues for physicists without a phd (like daveycrocket's thread but for undergrads). It would be helpful to have all the solid info, links to AIP employment data, internship programs for physicists, and such in the same place.
  8. Jun 16, 2013 #7
    I think a physics BS degree isn't supposed to set you up to find a job. My advice to people in the future reading this topic is to double major in computer science, statistics, engineering discipline, or economics.

    I'm glad i ended up getting a double major in computer science because my math and physics major friends are struggling to start careers and are pretty much forced into graduate school or go work at a breakfast diner. I would have been in the same boat if i didn't get an extra piece of paper that says "computer science bachelor of science" on it.
  9. Jun 16, 2013 #8
    You are right, but the same applies to any academic degree. College education is not trade school. I think there's a good reason humanities, arts and science departments are lumped together, generally separate from medicine, law, architecture and engineering departments. One is pure academics, training for intellectual enrichment and a possible beginning to an academic career. The other prepares you for a well-regulated, commercialized profession. Of course the boundaries can become diffuse in certain instances, and it doesn't mean people who do academic degrees have no real-world skills. Just not the exact thing that many employers want to hear.
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2013
  10. Jun 16, 2013 #9
    Not necessarily, but that is often the case.

    I'll be checking this thread for some useful advice though, for sure!

    edit - Might as well link to Teach for America.
    Most dont consider this when they start their degree, but its there and they actually seek out physics grads. You also work on a masters degree while doing it, so its kind of like going back to school for more training but you also get paid and work so its not putting your career on hold.
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2013
  11. Jun 16, 2013 #10
    I think a lot of that thread might be accurate, since most non-academic jobs won't require a PhD, and a PhD won't necessarily impart any extra useful real-world skills. It certainly wasn't written from that perspective though.
  12. Jun 17, 2013 #11
    While I agree that some/many employers think the same way as you, I learned many 'real-world' skills while doing my Ph.D. It's not as if you are sitting in class for 7 years. I spent my time in a lab running experiments, fixing hardware, analyzing data, writing programs, running simulations, teaching undergraduates, planning projects, making presentations, and writing technical documents. Never mind the more 'abstract' skills like problem solving, critical thinking, and self-learning.

    Nothing necessarily imparts any useful real-world skills. It's what you make of it. I've met useless people in grad school and useless people outside of grad school. I know I'm biased because I went to a good grad school where the people were good, but I've met many more incompetent people out in the private sector than I have in the academia and research sectors.
  13. Jun 17, 2013 #12
    My supervisor for my undergraduate senior thesis is doing her PhD in Plasma Physics and is very adept at Python, C++, and Fortran programming, SolidWorks, and LabView programming and environments, electronics and radiation diagnostics, all practical skills useful in industry and she learned them while doing her PhD.
  14. Jun 17, 2013 #13
    Yes, I said a PhD doesn't *necessarily* impart skills. More so for theorists than experimentalists. I suppose regardless of what you do you will pick up some technical writing skills. But I have yet to find anyone who thinks that teaching undergraduates is a useful skill in industry.

    But I'm not talking about a useful vs. useless people distinction. It's entirely possible for someone to be very useful and successful in academia, and then find things quite difficult when they go to find a non-academic job.

    These are a really difficult sell. I've never been in an interview where the interviewer was thinking "ok I know this guy has a PhD in physics, but is he able to think critically and solve problems?" If you're interviewing for an engineering job, and they ask you why they should hire you instead of an engineer, and you reply "because I'm better at thinking than engineers" or some variation on that, they're going to see you as someone who isn't going to be liked by the eight engineers that you'd be working with so they won't hire you.

    Most every interview I've been to has been more the opposite. I've had interviewers say flat out "we don't have any doubt that you're smart." They know or assume you have these skills just because you have a PhD. But they're more interested in how your experience is going to make you useful in the job opening that they have.

    I'm not talking about people who are just generally incompetent. You can be highly competent in academia with many skills that don't transfer well all that well to industry. Or maybe some skills do, but you're missing a number of complementary skills that are important in industry. One colleague of mine has done some interesting physics that's all pencil-paper and some Matlab programming, but he doesn't know how to type. He's been successful in academia so far but I think he will have a very difficult time looking for a job in industry. He's currently working as a postdoc in the same department where he got his PhD, but once that ends I think he will have difficulty finding an industry job. Maybe he'll manage to stay in academics, but I doubt it since he, like many of us, will have to face the two-body problem before too much longer.

    And I disagree with "nothing necessarily imparts any useful real-world skills." You get a certificate from a trade school, or do nursing, dentistry, public health, or get an MD or JD, or go to school for an LCSW license, get an electrician certification, or an engineering degree and it's very different. There's a ****-ton of options that you can apply yourself at to get a lot of useful real-world skills that are directly transferable to industry. A PhD in physics isn't necessarily one of them. It depends on what you do in your PhD. There's a lot of freedom there, but most advisors won't be directing you to develop skills that are useful for industry, so you've got to do it yourself with little to no guidance.

    That's good that she's learning some useful skills. But Fortran, SolidWorks and LabView aren't nearly as useful in industry as Python or C++. Physics PhD's often overestimate the utility of some of their own skills.

    Learning C++ while doing your PhD is a useful skill. But most CS majors do that as undergrads.
  15. Jun 17, 2013 #14
    Both of you have good points, but I agree with kink on this. After high school, I went to what I assume is the equivalent of "trade school" in my country, a polytechnic institute (2 year post-secondary technical school, although nothing like the ones made famous in the USSR).

    My classmates graduated with the same degree I did, but none of them really gave a damn about the subject (chemistry) or bothered to acquire respectable competence in laboratory techniques, they took it mainly as a gateway to university (I did this myself) or because they had nothing better to do. (Through contacts) I managed to get an internship at a real lab and I realized how little I learned in those two years. 3 weeks into the internship I had learned more than I had in the whole course of study (unfortunately I could not be hired at the lab as they were small and a chem E. or chem BS was expected, many of the staff members had phd's).

    So... it really is what you make of the degree IMO. You can end up with the same trade school degree but zero useful skills, as most of my cohort did.

    A student at my physics department -which is very theory focused like most- is extremely skilled with electronics (he builds and repairs amplifiers and diverse musical paraphernalia) and is also crafty with a CNC. He made good use of his spare time during his undergrad, I think.
    Last edited: Jun 17, 2013
  16. Jun 17, 2013 #15
    I've heard both sides, 'industry' isn't a monolithic thing.
  17. Jun 17, 2013 #16
    Chemistry is an odd field for a trade school, considering that people get PhD's in chemistry. It's an academic field. I'm thinking of things like auto repair, electricians, plumbers, etc. These people come out of a trade school with a fairly specific set of applicable skills.

    Do a search for these terms on a job site. In my area (from indeed.com):

    SolidWorks - 10 jobs.
    Fortran - 2 jobs.
    C++ - 195 jobs.
    Python - 79 jobs.

    There are two orders of magnitude difference in the demand for C++ vs. Fortran around here. I find pretty similar results for other areas. You can search resumes on indeed. When I search for people with Fortran on their resume, I get 77 hits, and when I search for people with C++ on their resume, I get 610 hits. That's only a single order of magnitude difference. There are 100 times fewer Fortran jobs, but only 8 times fewer people who might be qualified for them. This unscientific poll tells me that jobs using Fortran are probably much harder to get because there is so few of them but there are plenty of people who can do them. That makes experience in Fortran much less valuable.

    [Of course, there is no indication of whether these people are looking for jobs or whether they even want a job doing Fortran, so I'm assuming such things are uncorrelated with other factors, etc etc.]
  18. Jun 18, 2013 #17
    Lord if this line hasn't been used to death here. It's almost a catchphrase. Yes, one going to college for any non-professional degree (i.e, engineering, "health care", law and er? that's about it?) shouldn't expect to be "set up to find a job".

    And that's the purpose of this thread. When one knows that any arts and sciences major won't make one employable, what can one do to major in a subject one enjoys, and still make it out of college with skills that make one employable? Ideally, one would be learning skills that they can use with their physics studies or research as well. Or skills that can be learned with more ease due to their physics background.

    Or something else entirely. Why aren't more physics majors off the beaten track and doing radically unique things? I'll link one example of a political science major below.

    Another excellent example of a science major who did something radically unique is Layne Norton. He majored in biochem and got a PhD in nutritional sciences. Guess what his job is? He's a pro bodybuilder. So, what he did was study something he is good at (biochem/food) and then leverage that knowledge into his bodybuilding work. And to get a big body, you also gotta be strong. So, while doing bodybuilding, he also started training through mainly strength movements, like powerlifters do.

    So, he wasn't really working on independent activities. He worked in areas that complement each other. As it turns out, he's winning bodybuilding contests, has records in his weight class(es) in powerlifting competitions, and works as a coach.


    And there's also Paul Janka (Harvard physics grad) who I mentioned in another thread, but other than possibly taking his interest and skills in seduction and turning that into his job, I don't know what he did. I haven't read his books, but he seems to be doing pretty well for himself.

    I'm glad it worked for you, but this does not solve the problem. If anything it is just more time spent in class, which means less free time to learn more practical stuff without the boundaries of required classes and their respective syllabi, and also less to just chill.

    Of course, the priority is learning and making money, but an extra major brings in lots of extra stress. (more exams, more homework, more studying)

    Also, how is a degree in economics any more employable than one in physics?

    I have some Cal Newport (CS prof at Georgetown - so it's not just one of those people who have little to no basis for giving advice; this guy is actually successful) articles here that I feel are relevant to this thread.

    1) How Double Majors Can Ruin Your Life
    2) Double Majors Don't Publish Novels
    3) The Political Science major I mentioned

    Note that I don't think he's discrediting diligence. You still need to be incredibly diligent to build that "remarkable ability" he talks about.

    So, what I want this thread to be, is not just ideas for getting a job, but also ideas about how one can do something remarkable and/or enjoyable with his life as a physics student. Not every physics student wants a PhD. Some abandon the idea while in school, others didn't have it in the first place and just did physics because they were good at it, wanted a challenge or enjoyed studying it. There is a lot of wonderful advice and information for people wanting to go down the PhD route, but not a lot of useful information for people who want something else.

    "If you want something else (aka, a job that pays more than minimum wage), then major in CS, nursing or engineering", while a viable option, does not answer this thread.
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2013
  19. Jun 18, 2013 #18
    There are plenty of physics grads doing radically different things, where their education is probably irrelevant. Angela Merkel has a phd in physics. The creator of Beavis and Butthead has a BS in physics.

    However pointing to these examples as "possible employment avenues" is equivalent to telling philosophy majors they might become master martial artists and make a living off of it, after all this is what Bruce Lee went to college for. Not terribly helpful for anyone.

    I think we should have a discussion (if you agree to this, it's your thread after all) that builds a list of realistic, well-worn paths to employment for a BS in physics. There's already enough threads with people throwing their hands up in despair. I posted defense, perhaps someone more knowledgeable about generic government jobs in the US knows something else where physics majors are hired/valued for their knowledge.

    I hope we could focus on avenues that don't involve expensive post-graduate education, but I might as well mention medical physics. Here is a first hand account on the profession in the US:


    I'm sure Choppy will chime in with what the situation/path to this type of work is like in Canada.
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2013
  20. Jun 18, 2013 #19
    Right. I probably got carried away with that last post.

    But this Layne Norton guy did a great job at leveraging his skills and interests into related work opportunities. If he did it with nutritional science, who's to say one can't do it with physics?

    If mayonaise sees this, he (or she) can talk about the game industry. There is another member who's located somewhere in Eastern Europe (Poland, I think) who also works in similar field. I can't recall his username. And elkelement for renewable energy. I think elk was actually doing an M.Sc in renewable energy post PhD.

    Damn, I wish we could tag people here. I will PM them I guess.

    What about programming jobs? So far, what I've seen looks like getting what's essentially a minor in computer science and substantial experience in relevant fields by first starting to code on open source projects or in research projects at school.

    Another thing is finance: http://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/investment-banking-from-state-school-no-finance-background/

    Can anyone talk about lasers and optics as well? I've seen some engineering physics degrees in the US and even Germany and New Zealand that have a focus on those fields. Wukunlin got a bachelor's in physics with a specialisation in optoelectronics in NZ, iirc.
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2013
  21. Jun 18, 2013 #20
    I would not bank (no pun intended) on high level finance work for an undergrad unless you go to a high profile university with on campus hiring. It doesn't seem easy to break into for phd's, I don't know why people think it would be easier for undergrads, unless by finance they mean the lowest level of desk work at their local bank (IME, positions filled by incompetent people that just spend their days doing their nails, a college degree is not required).

    Plenty of optics and imaging science masters progrms around there. Most jobs I've seen listed in the optics industry (Thorlabs, OFS Optics, etc.) wanted a BS in physics or engineering minimum, but a masters was generally preferred.
  22. Jun 18, 2013 #21
    I would not bank (no pun intended) on high level finance work for an undergrad unless you go to a high profile university with on campus hiring. It doesn't seem easy to break into for phd's, I don't know why people think it would be easier for undergrads, unless by finance they mean the lowest level of desk work at their local bank (IME, positions filled by incompetent people that just spend their days doing their nails, a college degree is not required).

    Plenty of optics and imaging science masters progrms out there. Most jobs I've seen listed in the optics industry (Thorlabs, OFS Optics, etc.) wanted a BS in physics or engineering minimum, but a masters was generally preferred.
  23. Jun 18, 2013 #22
    I am a bit reluctant replying to this thread as I am from Europe and my undergrad experience is dated. I am dinosaur who has been educated in the era without BScs in my country.

    Many universities in Austria split their existing 5-years MSc programs into a 3 yrs BSc plus a 2 yrs MSc. The last two years - now called MSc - was the part of the degree that gave you most employable skills. Probably (hopefully) this has changed.

    My first field of specialization (Physics MSc+PhD) was laser physics, optics and solid state physics (laser materials processing). I believe these fields - close to either electronics, chemistry or materials science - are still in greater demand than other sub-fields in physics. My first post-PhD job was more material scientist than physicist.

    Yes, I have now nearly finished a - rather interdisciplinary - MSc program called Sustainable Energy Systems. But I believe it would not give me a competitive advantage if I would search for a job as a graduate without work experience. (I have been working as a self-employed consultant for a long time now and will do so in the future)

    For me this degree was a post-graduate education that should complement my self-studied transition from IT security (where I had ended up after R&D / materials science) into renewable energies. My goal was to reconcile and utilize different degrees and experiences - the latter being more important than the degrees, "unfortunately".

    Hypothetical, but...if I would graduate with a BSc in physics now and would not want to get a PhD I would probably try to go for a trainee position in IT or management consulting. I might end up in a similar job I had for a long time (IT security consultant).
  24. Jun 18, 2013 #23
    My 2 Cents are:
    Management consulting or IT consulting, starting from a trainee position (no practical experience required), and the consulting clients (your employers' clients) are ideally companies in manufacturing.

    In other threads here I have been told these trainee positions are typical BSc entry level jobs (in Europe these are PhD jobs as well).
    In contrast to other industries consulting companies do somewhat appreciate the physicist's infamous "analytical problem solving skills". In particular the hands-on technical knowledge is valued when consultants need to talk to engineers in manufacturing. I believe physicists "with social skills" really thrive as translators between different experts, or between management and workers.

    There are some downsides of course - I opted out of the travelling expert's nomadic lifestyle, too.
  25. Jun 18, 2013 #24
    I can't really say any further, as I don't know what kind of work is actually done there. But I do know that financial analyst jobs at investment banks require a bachelor's degree.

    It's incredibly hard to break into the industry from a non-target school, but there are always people who do it. There are many examples/guides in that website I linked.


    Maybe, but you're still working and in either case, it could be very helpful information.

    Also, there's a thin chance I end up doing physics in Germany, so yeah. I also recall still seeing some 5 year Diplom degrees (for e.g, all engineering degrees at TU Dresden were Diploms last I checked). Just mentioning it, since you talked about that.

    I don't know. I saw a post on reddit.com/r/germany a while back, and from what the people there said, students generally study for the M.Sc right after anyway, and that many employers don't really know what to do with someone with the 3 year degree. That said, someone mentioned that he, and his friends, had no trouble finding a job with his 3 year B.Sc from a Fachhochschule (university of applied sciences - I probably misspelled it). But their studies are generally very practical in nature and that was for engineering.

    I also know of someone (friend of a friend?) who got a job at a major tech company (Siemens, I believe) with his B.Sc in physics.
    I can appreciate how you're using the degree, but why would it not help in the case of a student with no work experience? (except maybe an internship?)

    Would engineering graduates not be preferred if it's companies in manufacturing (or maybe pharmacy/biochem/bio if it's for healthcare and pharmaceuticals)?

    How should the physics student approach jobs like that? What should he be learning in order to be qualified for the job? Doubt he'll be using much of he learned in school!

    I'd also be very interested to hear more about those jobs in European countries (Austria, Germany, etc) - the recruiting process - if you know more on the subject.
  26. Jun 18, 2013 #25
    It's helpful if they actually want a job.
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