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What field would you actually encourage someone to pursue?

  1. Mar 9, 2014 #1


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    Hi everyone. One of the dominant themes that come up in the Career Guidance section of Physics Forums is the relentless pessimism and negativity about the job market in the US. Specifically, that of the employment prospects for physics majors (whether at the undergraduate or at the PhD level), and how a physics degree leaves graduates unprepared for the job market.

    Let me turn this theme around. Suppose someone who is either graduating from high school or who is currently a freshman in college/university asked any of you what field/career/job is the most promising, based on current and future prospects. What would be your answer? What field would you encourage someone to pursue, based on two criteria:

    (1) Current demand in the US,


    (2) Future demand in the US, say 5-10 years from now (this is tricky since the economy can change dramatically, but assume for the moment that the American economy that time is not too different from the current economy now)

    Also, please note that I'm not just looking at STEM fields, but all fields, in anything, including those that don't necessarily require a university/college education. Anything that is well-paid or promises a decent, middle-class lifestyle or above.
    Last edited: Mar 9, 2014
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  3. Mar 9, 2014 #2


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    Healthcare, engineering design, and engineering production will ALLWAYS be in demand to some degree
  4. Mar 9, 2014 #3


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    Demand for engineering design and engineering production will probably vary depending on which field of engineering. For example, there probably would be less demand for civil engineers specializing in structural engineering design (given the continuing weakness of the housing/construction sector) versus, say, electrical engineering design.
  5. Mar 9, 2014 #4
    The thing is, this is such a broad question that it can't really be answered, because you could have a middle-class career as an engineer, a restaurant owner, a private guitar teacher, an interior designer, a plumber, or a rabbi. It's really easier to say what careers I would advise people to be wary of, and why:

    1. Professor - intense competition, a soon-to-collapse economic bubble, and poor pay that isn't likely to get better. Depending on your field, you may also find a stressful work environment. If you are the kind of person who can flip a coin ten times in a row and get heads every time, then you could give it a shot.
    2. Athlete/artist/actor/rock star - again, do it if you're good at winning the lottery, or you don't mind being poor with probability approaching 1.
    3. Lawyer - massive unemployment due to oversupply, combined with stressful working conditions (especially in BigLaw) and expensive education. Might get better, might not.
    4. Banker - unreasonably long hours during the early part of your career will cut years off your life and may destroy your relationships or drive you out of the profession entirely, leaving you with nothing. But at least if you survive, you get rich.
    5. Doctor - as #4, but with the additional problem that the required education will put you deep in debt unless your parents are really rich. On the bright side, you might save some lives.
    6. Soldier - just how much are you willing to sacrifice to serve your country?
    7. Politician - your idealism will not survive the reality of politics, and you will become another one of the people you hate.

    I'm not saying "Do not go into any of these fields." Just make sure that if you do, you go with open eyes.
  6. Mar 9, 2014 #5


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    I don't think my question is especially broad, because what I am asking for is what career field would you encourage someone to pursue, because the employment prospects are good in the present (i.e. high demand, low unemployment). I should perhaps add the following other considerations:

    (1) Good working environment
    (2) Good pay

    You have already outlined above the careers you would advise to be wary of (and I appreciate your answer to that question). What I am asking for is the converse or opposite of that question.
  7. Mar 9, 2014 #6


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    I.T. does, and probably will always have good job prospects.

    But the reason for that may turn you off. You see, despite the good job prospects, it is not an in demand course at colleges and universities. The reason is its a rapidly changing area that you must spend a lot of time keeping your skills up to date in. Most people want a job, earn money and enjoy life, not be constantly married to their job and changing all the time.

    Also when you get into it you find that advancement is into management so everyone works towards that. If you are good you will likely rise from a junior programmer, to senior programmer, to team leader quite quickly (if it's the programming stream - there are many others such as networking or database management - I.T has many different areas). But the next level is management - pure and simple. If and when you make it, you will find your head is on the chopping block when times change - and out of work I.T. managers are a dime a dozen. Ok - fall back on your technical sills - but - bummer - things have changed and your skills are out of date. Looks like back to school and retraining.

    My advice is simply study what interests you. If you are a competent person you will be able to find employment in pretty much any area. Times change - what's hot today is dead tomorrow - you cant really predict anything - so choosing a career because it looks like it will have good job prospects now, or in the short term, will a few years on quite possibly leave you high and dry. Flexibility, and actually enjoying what you do is the real key.

    Last edited: Mar 9, 2014
  8. Mar 9, 2014 #7
    I think this is a great question. It's easy to point out flaws in any career field (especially when you're trying to make forecasts about the future), but at the end of the day you have to pick *some* field to pursue. Or at least to study in college.

    Here some of my suggestions.

    1) Strong science student, and highly motivated? Go to medical school and become a doctor (note that *any major* can go to medical school). After you finish(in about half the time it takes for a PhD!), you have the closest thing possible to a guaranteed job, at a high salary, because a strong industry group (the American Medical Association) limits the supply. Some specialties can become *very* rich, but all doctors earn at least a pretty good salary. At the same time, people will treat you like a hero, and you'll have the satisfaction of healing people. If you get tired of the stress, just save aggressively and you can retire in your 30s.

    2)Same as above, but need to make money right out of college? Go to *specific* engineering fields. Right now Petroleum and Chemical engineers seem to be making 6 figure salaries right out of college. The downside is that the market seems to change very quickly,and if you're niche falls out of favor it will be hard to switch to a different type of engineering. Many people also find this work very interesting and helpful to society (not me though).

    3) Otherwise, if you're at least decent at math, and school in general, learn programming. It doesn't matter what your major is (although computer science does help), if you can demonstrate proficiency there's a huge range of jobs to be had here. And, if you start as a programmer but decide you don't like it, there's a huge range of jobs you can transition into later. If you decide that you really want to go into research, this is an incredibly useful skill to have. There's also tons of opportunity to start your own business.

    4) If for whatever reason you can't finish college, look to the skilled trades. It can be a bit hard to get a union to accept you, but once your in you'll be very secure financially, and have the satisfaction of building something useful with your own hands.

    5) Economics. I'll let this explain why: http://noahpinionblog.blogspot.com/2013/05/if-you-get-phd-get-economics-phd.html

    6) "Niche" jobs. Here I mean the obscure jobs that you've never heard of because few people do them, and there's no formal path to entering them. Usually you have to know someone who's hiring for one of these, or be already working at a company that needs one. But I've noticed a lot of people have good jobs of this sort, which they had never even imagined as a student. This thread has some good examples of what I mean.
  9. Mar 9, 2014 #8
    I agree, that's a pitfall to watch out for, but isn't that basically the same in any profession? At some point, you reach the limit of what you can do by yourself, and the only promotion is to become a leader/manager/administrator of some sort.

    Of course, you don't *have* to get promoted either. In most careers other than academia, it's perfectly OK to just stay at at a middle level, or even a low level.
  10. Mar 9, 2014 #9


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    To a recent high school graduate trying to decide on a path, I might offer the following advice...

    1. Realize that if you choose to go to university, you're going for an advanced education, not for job training. Historically (up until the age of the internet) a lot of higher level knowledge was the exclusive domain of those with advanced education. As such, your parents' and grandparents' generation saw the bachelor's degree as a golden key that opened up a lot of doors. This has changed now. A lot more people have a university degree. Anyone who can connect to the internet has access to knowledge.

    An undergraduate education still has value, of course. For example, it gives you a rigorous foundation in a particular academic field. It can allow you to pursue graduate work. It still opens up any door that requires that credential (and there are a lot of them). It gives you a wide networking base - both socially and professionally. And generally it exposes you to an atmosphere of critical thought and intellectual freedom that you're unlikely to get anywhere else.

    2. You're vey likely going to have more than one career. All of them are going to be the result of choices that you've made, opportunities that exist at the time, and serendipity. Keep this in mind when getting your education. There's a good chance most of what you learn in university won't end up being directly applicable to your future profession.

    3. Aim for what really inspires you, if you're fortunate enough to have discovered that, but make backup plans. And have backup plans for those backup plans. Statistically speaking, you won't make it into medical school, or become a professor, even if you have one of the top averages in your high school.

    4. Having a backup plans means having a set of marketable skills. This could mean that you'll have to go to community college for a year or two AFTER undergrad or skip undergrad altogether). This could mean that the most practical things you learn in university actually come from that year you spent as a member of your school's robot club, or from a part-time job, or drawing cartoons for the school paper.

    5. Learn how to market your skills and yourself. Firing one hundred copies of your resume off to every job you're qualified for on the classified websites isn't likely to get you much.

    6. Everyone is different. Just because a particular field appears lucrative or has good employment statistics doesn't mean it's for you. You'll have a had time a family physician if you can't handle being rushed through your work.
  11. Mar 10, 2014 #10


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    Of course.

    The issue though is in I.T. the fast paced rate of change is bit stressful in its own right, you may want to move away from it after a while - but there is no need for that move to be into management.

    Its a bit amusing actually when you look at the situation in the US military. If you get a high level qualification like say a Masters in Logistics or even PhD you can become an officer or you can remain enlisted as Warrant Officer. Why would you not want to be an officer? Well you are then responsible for the people under you and held accountable. As a Warrant Officer you get many of the perks of an Officer - not as much money sure - but many of the other perks such as better food and what not - but not the responsibility. In fact people have told me in some specialist areas you have an officer with a Masters and the Warrant Officer under him with exactly the same Masters or even a PhD. They pretty much have the same operational responsibility - but not the same in a 'leadership' sense. The Warrant Officer is usually perfectly happy just where they are.

  12. Mar 10, 2014 #11

    Vanadium 50

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    Choppy gives some good advice. To quote Steve Dutch:

    There was a time when this "golden key" led, worst case, to a job that involved taking papers from one side of a desk and putting them on another. These jobs no longer exist. And jobs that do exist have changed and will continue to change. The position of "librarian", for example has bifurcated into two paths: one is essentially a babysitter, and the other is a very skilled information specialist. There is no longer any middle to speak of.
  13. Mar 10, 2014 #12
    Remember that phrase they teach to finance students? "Past performance is no guarantee of future returns." There are no good answers to the job market part of the question; primarily because there are no accurate predictions of what the job market will look like in five years, never mind ten or twenty.

    I would talk to those high school students. I would find out what their work ethic is, what level of detail they look at, how competitive they are, what interests them, and what financial resources they are willing to commit and so on. Let me also point out that the "do the work you love..." mantra is garbage. Many pursue what they think their dream job is, only to discover that it wasn't what they thought it would be. Meanwhile, others drift through life, doing one job after another, some skilled, others not, and they're happy.

    Your day job does not have to define you. You can be someone away from your work too. You can be a leader in your local house of worship. You can volunteer as a coach for various sports, or with your local 4H, scouting groups, or whatever . You can pick up hobbies and take them to extremes, like those ham radio enthusiasts who are attempting to contact the ICE/ISEE-3 spacecraft that NASA has abandoned. Others choose to pursue the arts purely as an amusement of their own, not to get paid for it.

    My point is that sometimes you pick up work just to pay bills. Many have done that. There is no need to apologize for it. Education is a huge investment. Just as you wouldn't throw ridiculous amounts of money at a stock or bond of a company you've never heard of, you shouldn't throw ridiculous sums of money at an education without some idea of what you're going to use it for.

    (I know, that's heresy in some educational quarters. If formal educations were free, then I might feel otherwise. But they're not. This is an investment, no different than any other.)
  14. Mar 10, 2014 #13


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    It isn't the question of letting the job define you, per se. It is about what someone in high school or currently in college/university can do to best to increase the probability of "success" (and by "success" I mean landing a job that is reasonably well-paying without having to work insane work hours so that one can maintain a work-life balance, so that they can engage in hobbies and fulfill their lives in other ways, like you mentioned above)

    When posters on PF post about career prospects, all of them are asking the above question I highlighted above. After all, as you said it yourself -- higher education is an investment, and if students are to put significant financial resources to pursue higher education, then it behooves them to know what is the best return on investment (ROI). This is particularly true for those students who come from modest backgrounds or poor families who see higher education as a chance to escape poverty or otherwise rise above their social/economic situation.

    This is all the more pertinent because of the current economic situation where job growth has been slow, and college/university students are finding themselves increasingly in debt. I've been fortunate that I graduated from university with a skillset that was in demand and still is in demand. What about students today? How will our current students fare? Because a high school student may well ask -- if I graduate from college/university only to be unemployed and in debt, why should I even bother going? And seriously, how are we to respond to that point?
  15. Mar 10, 2014 #14
    Statistics and data science.
  16. Mar 10, 2014 #15


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    Registered nurse
  17. Mar 10, 2014 #16


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    If you want a job that is "guaranteed" to exist for ever, pick something where
    (1) Interaction with the "customers" is essential - they are the people who actually pay your wages, in the final analysis.
    (2) The job doesn't involve technology that might become obsolete.

    Some examples would be teaching (assuming that MOOCS don't replace humans - but even then, somebody has to produce the courses), sales, healthcare, maintenance work (e.g. electrician or plumber, doing home repairs), etc.

    If you want 100% cast iron job security, it's hard to beat working in a funeral parlor. People are not going to stop dying any time soon :smile:

    The only problem is, some of those type of jobs don't necessarily pay well - especially the ones that don't need much specialist knowledge.

    The most important thing you will learn from a university degree is how to continuously re-educate yourself for the rest of your life - plus the basic technical information about some field, to get you started.
  18. Mar 10, 2014 #17

    George Jones

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    Unless there is a substantial oversupply of teachers, and a continuing substantial oversupply of new graduates in education, as there is in Canada right now.
    Last edited: Mar 10, 2014
  19. Mar 10, 2014 #18


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    Two degrees that are frequently sought in my area are Food Science and Manufacturing Engineer (often a subcategory of Industrial Engineering).

    Totally agree.
  20. Mar 10, 2014 #19


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    There is a reason why there is a demand for registered nurses -- nurses often are overworked in highly stressful situations (and therefore do not meet the criteria I set of "good working conditions").
  21. Mar 10, 2014 #20
    I chose Electrical Engineering because I was fascinated by telecommunications and radios in particular from a very young age. I would have chosen this field regardless of what it payed.

    Those who aim for a degree should have at least some notion of what they'd like to do when they hit the real world. This investment is not so much for the present as it is for the future.

    The question should be why are you investing in this particular education, not what is the return going to be?
  22. Mar 10, 2014 #21
    Honestly? Whatever is the person's passion. I couldn't in good faith say otherwise to a young person. But this reflects my views on the point of university and a university education. And yes, I've been an unemployed/underemployed philosophy graduate back at my parents', subject to all the usual jokes etc.

    You get to spend all day doing whatever captures your imagination or excites you like mad when a) you're a kid, or b) you're retired, or c) you're very rich. For (a) you had to do what your parents said still, didn't appreciate it like you can now, and probably forgot a lot of it anyway. For (b), you probably won't have quite the vitality as you do when you're 18 (though you'll have a ton of other good stuff instead). For (c): this MAY happen via (b), if you're lucky.

    So then there's college. If you have a passion, there are many worse things to do than spend years where your only job is to broaden your knowledge and deepen your understanding to utmost best, surrounded by like-minded peers, taught by supportive experts. You will be unlikely to ever get into that situation again.

    If there is a choice between two passions, one of which is more vocational, I'd suggest the vocational one, with a heavy dose of extra curriculars for the non-vocational. But there has to be passion (or at least, a real curiosity).
  23. Mar 10, 2014 #22
    Military is a great career option that probably gets very overlooked. If I was younger and did not intend on going for higher education (or was in a situation where I had to go into insane debt for it), I would have considered it very seriously.

    I would also consider getting into an apprenticeship for a trade like iron, steel-working, machining or similar skilled crafts that cannot be replaced by machines/automation. But then again that might just be my fascination for this thing speaking.
  24. Mar 10, 2014 #23
    My High School teen-ager has a passion for playing with a YoYo. She practices new tricks with it for at least an an hour every day. Very few people can do what she does with a YoYo. If she followed this advice, she'd go nowhere.

    She doesn't seem that excited about anything else. A note of reality is needed here. There are many endeavors, scientific and artistic, that simply won't pay the bills. Thankfully there are no formal educations for YoYo-ists. So now I'm left wondering what to tell her when she graduates high school. At least she has a passion for something. Many graduate High school with nothing more than shrug for an answer to such questions.

    Such platitudes assume a reasonably strong personality. Not everyone has that kind of driven personality.
  25. Mar 10, 2014 #24
    That seems to me to be a slightly uncharitable reading of my post: I was talking about possible degree options.

    But, you have a daughter and I have no children, so my opinion might well be platitudinous nonsense all the same.
  26. Mar 10, 2014 #25


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    My honest answer is that despite all of the "OMG I DID MATH AND HAVE NO JOB FUTURE" threads we get, I would still encourage someone to follow their dream and at least try for it. No degree offers happiness or success as a guarantee. My father wanted me to be an engineer, but physics is hard, so I decided against it! However, I enjoyed mathematics and statistics, so I followed that route and am happy with my job. But, my most favorite job ever was in the infantry. I loved spending weeks in the field training. I loved deployments. I loved the brotherhood, and even though the work conditions were terrible, the hours long, the pay lowish (for the work done), and the separation from my family horrible, I wanted to do it for 30 years. However, I was medically retired and basically forced myself back to school for statistics.

    I bring this up because I think it's important for people to take a career path that will make them happy and to not be afraid to take a chance. I think it's important to do all of this and at the same time prepare for the worse. You want a PhD in something with no real direct application, that's fine, but at the very least I would advise the kid to learn programming and join open source projects and keep a certain level of skill so that if it doesn't work out you already have a portfolio. Heck, learning how to visually represent mathematics is a good skill and could benefits your PhD goal and backup plan.

    A few caveats, if your passion is yo-yo or something similar, it would probably you pick a degree that does feed into a career (finance, engineering, nursing, etc) and do yo-yo on the side to pay your taxes :)
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