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What is it like being a physicist?

  1. Apr 5, 2008 #1
    I don't mean what kind of work a physicist does. I mean is the job environment for a physicists like the stereotypical white collared corporate america type job? Do you have to dress a certain way? Do you dress casually ? ARe most physicists satisfied with their job compared to the rest of the white collared workersworking under the corporate america umbrella, who are only working that job because they have too.

    I know most people do not go into a career in physics because of the money, its mainly because they are interested in physicists, like an artist is interested in creating art. A person in middle management doesn't go into middle management because they like it, its mainly for the money .
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 5, 2008 #2
    I've never worked a white-collar corporate job, but I can share my experience working in a government lab with physicists (mostly astrophysicists and space scientists). It's casual, laid-back, flexible, and supportive.

    Business casual attire is the norm, although some like to dress nicer (business suits, ties) and some are more jeans and t-shirts kind of people. One visiting scientist from overseas liked to walk around the building in his socks. (Okay, I admit it: in the warmer months, I'm often barefoot in my own office.)

    Some are very social and enjoy chatting, often mixing work-related conversations with personal conversations. Some are more hermit-like, preferring to interact with a small number of people.

    From what I gathered, most people are free to make their own schedule, whether that's 7 AM to 3 PM or 1 PM to 8 PM. Sometimes, collaborations require teleconferences or joint work sessions to occur at odd hours of the night (due to time zone differences) or weekends, so it's not uncommon to see at least someone in the building at all times.

    The majority of physicists I've worked with love their work, some to the point of obsession. They will go above and beyond their required work because they enjoy it so much. I don't see why anyone would continue in a physics research career if they didn't at least like it. Four people from my group decided they needed a change from physics research and went on to do other things (one went into science politics and then university administration, one went into military missile science, one went into spacecraft engineering, and one started his own business then got into government management), all of which make more money.
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2008
  4. Apr 5, 2008 #3
    Do you think physicists on average like there job more than non-physicists who have college degrees and who work those typical 9-5 jobs where you are bound to a cubicle allday. You know , the kind of job winston worked at in the novel 1984. I know a lot of people complain about their job environment and the bad relationship those people have with their bosses. Usually , these people prefer the laid back college environment to the environment their job produces.

    That is one of the minor reasons(not a major reason) why I am not ready to leave college yet and want to stay and continuing learning physics. I just don't want to work in corporate america(And I am not ready for my learning experience to end yet).. I think the sentiment is the same for my professors at my school. For instance, my professor turned down a job that paid her 300,000 a year for a vastly inferior , but still substantial , 75,000 dollar per year job working as a professor and part time researcher at my university.
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2008
  5. Apr 6, 2008 #4


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    Definitely. I don't think you can be even moderately successful as a physicist unless there is at least some part of the job you really enjoy. For most people that part is the research itself (for me it is working in the lab) but there are also people who e.g. really enjoy teaching.

    Also, it is not THAT hard for physicists to find "normal" jobs in the industry that usually pays more than academia, meaning people who realize that that they don't actually enjoy work tend to leave academia pretty early in their careers (usually after the PhD).

    Note that I am making a distinction here between physicists actually working in "academic" research (usually at a university) and people with a PhD in physics working in e.g. telecom R&D, the latter are of course still physicists but their job description and work environment tend to be pretty similar to e.g. that of an enginner working in an R&D department.
  6. Apr 6, 2008 #5


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    Just to get it out of the way, I love my job! There is ever hardly a day that I don't wake up and look forward to going into work. Not many people can say that, and each day I know that I am lucky. My work environment couldn't be better as far as the people I come in contact with. Our group is very diverse, and each one of us has different views on things, but we never, ever showed any disrespect towards each other. As far as I can tell, everyone in the group are quite happy in their jobs. While the pay could be better for what we do, the benefits (both medical and retirement) are quite generous when compared to private companies of comparable size.

    As far as dressing goes, when the weather is warm, I often come in dressed in shorts and t-shirts, and have been mistaken for a graduate student :). The only thing that prevents me from wearing sandals is the safety regulations (no open toe shoes in the experimental area).

    I think that what most students who want to go into these types of profession don't realize is that there's a lot of non-physics, "extra-curricular" activites (or non-engineering, non-science, etc) task that one also has to do as part of one's job. There's a lot of human interactions involved, and one also has to do some form of administrative task that one has either been assigned to (various administrative committees, outreach programs, organizing events/conferences, etc.) or have to do (mentoring students, attending thesis defenses, etc.). I would say that 70% of my time is doing what I could consider directly physics-related as part of my job/expertise, but the other 30% is doing extra-curricular activities that is part of my position/community service.

    All I can end this with is that there's usually something different and unexpected happening every day. While that can be bad, I'm glad to say that most of the expected surprises were usually good so far. Each day can easily be a challenged, in a good way.

  7. Apr 6, 2008 #6
    I like the variety in my job too.

    In my current position I have group meetings and journal club once a week over lunch. During the regular school year I usually do some teaching/TAing as well, which I really enjoy. I don't have any administrative responsibilities - but my direct supervisor likes to whine that he doesn't do any physics because he just writes grant applications for all his minions!

    I usually get to work between 9:00 and 10:00 in the morning. I've never had a physics job where I didn't commute to work on a bicycle - this is one thing I really appreciate about my work! I usually eat lunch with my colleagues or with friends from other research groups. I usually leave work at about 5:00 or 6:00 in the evening. If I am really excited about something I will sometimes work at home for a bit after dinner. Sometimes I will also work on the weekends, especially if I am in a rush to get something done.

    Nobody really cares how you dress as long as you meet the safety guidelines. My fastidious labmate gets teased because he recently bought himself a tweed suit jacket off eBay.

    I think one of the hardest parts (but also one of the best parts) of being in physics is getting to travel a lot. It's hard to leave your old friends and go to a new city (and a new country) where you don't know anyone. And sometimes it's difficult to find a job in a place where your significant other can also get a job.
  8. Apr 6, 2008 #7
    I think I'd like a research career in physics.
  9. Apr 7, 2008 #8
    I love teaching. I like research. I hate the office politics.
  10. Apr 7, 2008 #9
    I'm pretty sure I would like being a professor. I love teaching, I love research, and I have a mischievous streak that enjoys poking the flames of office politics. And sabbaticals? Awesome.
  11. Apr 7, 2008 #10
    You might want to consider waiting until you have tenure before doing much flame poking in the arena of office politics.

    Michael Courtney
  12. Apr 7, 2008 #11
    Mmm, tenure!
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