What types of industrial jobs do physics PhDs tend to land?

In summary, positions for physics PhDs in academia or government labs are highly competitive and difficult to obtain. As a result, many physics PhDs end up working in various industries such as data science, aerospace, telecommunications, utilities, medical instrumentation, sales, journalism, finance, and technical writing. The American Physical Society (APS) has some documentation on this, but it lacks finer details. It is also worth considering whether companies that receive Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding should be considered as part of the industry that hires physics PhDs. Some companies that have hired physics PhDs include laser manufacturers, car engine and instrumentation design companies, software engineering firms, management consulting firms, and finance companies. However, the question of whether these individuals
  • #1
StatGuy2000
Education Advisor
2,038
1,124
Hi everyone! As have been discussed in many posts here on PF, positions for physics PhDs in academia or similar type of work in government labs are highly competitive and hard to come by. For example, see this post below.

https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/how-hard-is-it-to-get-a-job-in-astrophysics.949583/

So the natural conclusion is that the majority of physics PhDs work in "industry" (i.e. outside of academia or government labs). I'm curious as to what industries tend to hire physics PhDs.

The APS does have some documentation about this, but what they post lacks the finer detail that I'm asking for.

https://www.aps.org/careers/statistics/upload/phdinitemp-0316.pdf

[Please note: For the purposes of this thread, I do not wish to consider the employment prospects of medical physics PhD graduates.]
 
Last edited:
  • Like
Likes symbolipoint
Physics news on Phys.org
  • #3
"Industry" is a big place. Students and postdocs I have worked with who went to industry have done data science (for a wide variety of companies), aerospace, telecommunications, utilities, medical instrumentation, sales, journalism, finance, and technical writing. And that's just off the top of my head.
 
  • #4
I also want to know if one considers SBIR companies as "industry". Many graduates out of Accelerator Science programs are hired by these SBIR companies.

Zz.
 
  • #5
Would you consider Radiabeam SBIR? Euclid? Presumably not Siemens - but where is the line?
 
  • #6
Vanadium 50 said:
Would you consider Radiabeam SBIR? Euclid? Presumably not Siemens - but where is the line?

Both Radiabeam and Euclid continue to get SBIR funding, so yeah. But that's why I ask if we consider them to be on par with what we consider to be an "industry" company such as Siemens or Phillips or Varian, etc.

Zz.
 
  • #7
I don't think it is necessarily beneficial to try and put down general fields of work - it all depends on what you studied, and rightly so for a PhD is almost by definition a highly specialized degree and no one's is the same.

That said, many of my friends who did experimental physics ended up getting employed at a related firm. To mention a few; ones that did optics went on to laser manufacturers or similar, ones that did things related to combustion went to work on car engine or instrumentation design, and one friend of mine who did solid state now builds some kind of extreme low temperature apparatuses.

Some of those friends of mine who come from a theoretical or computational background have been employed in their niche fields, but sure enough, there's not that much demand for e.g. computational astrophysicists, so it becomes more of a generalist degree, and doesn't employable skills-wise leave you much better off than a BSc in computer science or similar, though the degree alone should get you past CV screens and into interviews. So, people I know have gone to work as software engineers, management consultants, and finance professionals. That's all very vague and nonspecific, but if your skillset is that of a "generalist", whatever that may mean, then that's indeed what you get.
 
  • #8
Päällikkö said:
I don't think it is necessarily beneficial to try and put down general fields of work - it all depends on what you studied, and rightly so for a PhD is almost by definition a highly specialized degree and no one's is the same.
<<Emphasis added>> I've found none of the posts so far disparaging any field of work. The OP was simply asking about the sectors of industry that employ physics PhDs ... without any judgment calls. [I just realized, by "put down", do you mean "disparage" or merely "list"?]
 
  • #9
Some companies that either interviewed me or offered me (a traditional Physics PhD) jobs were:

Iotech (later acquired by National Instruments), Keithley Instruments - these are data acquisition companies that make scientific instruments
Aironet Wireless Communications (later acquired by Cisco Systems) - computer networking companies
Introtech Crash Reconstruction - they reconstruct automobile crashes
Goodyear - tire company
A consulting company that did computer programming
My wife and I also started a consulting company that does mostly ballistics and blast physics research for Dept of Defense interests and also some legal work. Some clients include government research labs, companies that make weapons systems, companies that make armor, companies that make armored vehicles. (Non-disclosure agreements prevent me from naming them specifically.)

My wife's PhD is in "Medical Engineering/Medical Physics." Some companies that either interviewed my wife or offered her a job are:

Reebok - the shoe company - they have a lab where their shoes are tested
The Cleveland Clinic Foundation - hospital and research facility
Force Protection - armored vehicles
Exponent - scientific consulting
 
  • #10
I would consider anything that is not a govt position or academia (community college, university etc...) to be an industry job.
 
  • #11
Dr Transport said:
I would consider anything that is not a govt position or academia (community college, university etc...) to be an industry job.

That is self-evident. My question (as stated in my original post) is what industries or industrial sectors tend to hire physics PhDs.
 
  • #12
Päällikkö said:
I don't think it is necessarily beneficial to try and put down general fields of work - it all depends on what you studied
CrysPhys said:
<<Emphasis added>> I've found none of the posts so far disparaging any field of work.
I think the poster was using the term "put down" as in "write down" or "write out", not in a disparaging sense. The term can have multiple meanings... :smile:
 
  • #13
Aerospace companies, semiconductor companies, financial companies, I'm sure you'll find a PhD in pretty much any company you can think of. The question is, are they actually doing physics? I'd tend to think that unless you are in the semiconductor industry, more than likely you're doing engineering of some type.
 
  • Like
Likes swampwiz
  • #14
Dr Transport said:
Aerospace companies, semiconductor companies, financial companies, I'm sure you'll find a PhD in pretty much any company you can think of. The question is, are they actually doing physics? I'd tend to think that unless you are in the semiconductor industry, more than likely you're doing engineering of some type.

Of course, that question hinges on what it means to "actually do physics". For example, in the context of industry, is someone applying their knowledge and research experience in condensed matter physics to develop the latest generation of semiconductors (at, say, Intel) doing physics or engineering? One could make the argument that even in the semiconductor industry, the work that physicists work on could be thought of as engineering of some type.
 
  • Like
Likes symbolipoint
  • #15
That's the $64K question, if you leave academia, other than the national labs are you doing physics? If you are not publishing, some would say, no. I did IR materials for almost 15 years in industry, that was all basic physics I wrote code to do K-K analysis on material measurements, designed multi-layer stacks for thin films. So yeah, I did physics, but every page of it was for a company and considered proprietary, so it has never seen the light of day outside. I've seen doctoral dissertations that were a rehash of what I did years after the fact. They might have been first to publish, but no where near first to figure it out.
 
  • #16
Dr Transport said:
Aerospace companies, semiconductor companies, financial companies, I'm sure you'll find a PhD in pretty much any company you can think of. The question is, are they actually doing physics? I'd tend to think that unless you are in the semiconductor industry, more than likely you're doing engineering of some type.

That depends on how you define 'doing physics'; doing engineering doesn't necessarily preclude one from doing physics.
 
  • Like
Likes symbolipoint
  • #17
At work, most of our PhD folk are chemists, but a few are physics, including my boss. We do R&D of printed, flexible carbon electronics (mostly sensors).We also dabble with some nanoparticles and polymers.
My boss was hired due to his direct experience in carbon nanotubes that he worked on during his PhD.

He also told me not to get a PhD, and he wouldn't if he could go back. He would have only gotten a masters degree. He said it never helped him or anyone he knew not trying to get into academics.
 
  • #18
PCJJSBS said:
At work, most of our PhD folk are chemists, but a few are physics, including my boss. We do R&D of printed, flexible carbon electronics (mostly sensors).We also dabble with some nanoparticles and polymers.
My boss was hired due to his direct experience in carbon nanotubes that he worked on during his PhD.

He also told me not to get a PhD, and he wouldn't if he could go back. He would have only gotten a masters degree. He said it never helped him or anyone he knew not trying to get into academics.
<<Emphasis added>> The first highlighted statement appears to contradict the second highlighted statement.
 
  • #19
CrysPhys said:
<<Emphasis added>> The first highlighted statement appears to contradict the second highlighted statement.

Appears to, but not necessarily. After all, @PCJJSBS 's boss may well have concluded that the experience on carbon nanotubes that he worked on during his PhD didn't help him in his position at said company (even if it may well have "opened the door" to said position), and that he would have been better off with just a Masters degree and any additional work experience he would have gained instead.
 
  • #20
StatGuy2000 said:
Appears to, but not necessarily. After all, @PCJJSBS 's boss may well have concluded that the experience on carbon nanotubes that he worked on during his PhD didn't help him in his position at said company (even if it may well have "opened the door" to said position), and that he would have been better off with just a Masters degree and any additional work experience he would have gained instead.

Yes, that is sort of how I took it. Also, this job is not his first. I'm not sure what previous jobs he has held, but those likely influence his opinion on the subject.
 
  • #21
PCJJSBS said:
At work, most of our PhD folk are chemists, but a few are physics, including my boss. We do R&D of printed, flexible carbon electronics (mostly sensors).We also dabble with some nanoparticles and polymers.
My boss was hired due to his direct experience in carbon nanotubes that he worked on during his PhD.

He also told me not to get a PhD, and he wouldn't if he could go back. He would have only gotten a masters degree. He said it never helped him or anyone he knew not trying to get into academics.

PhDs are the coin of the realm in a lot of consulting work. Sure, some consultants only have MS degrees, but for equivalent experience, they tend to make a lot less, and are often taken less seriously. Lots of times consultants are not only hired to get the right answer, but to convince others. A PhD sure helps in that regard, especially when the other parties are attorneys, judges, and juries.

Nothing like a PhD in an appropriate field to help one withstand a Daubert motion to exclude one's expert testimony in a legal matter.
 
  • #22
ZapperZ said:
I also want to know if one considers SBIR companies as "industry". Many graduates out of Accelerator Science programs are hired by these SBIR companies.

Zz.

Hi Zapper,

I have just read a few threads regarding Accelerator Physics, most of which you were a main participant. The threads usually had the theme that there are a shortage of Accelerator Physicists (mainly in industry). However they are nearly 10 years old. I'm just wondering how the field is looking now?
I'll hopefully be starting a masters in Plasma Physics in Eindhoven (in Europe) next year and would like to potentially end up working in some area of Accelerator Physics, so am just curious.

Cheers!
 
  • #23
I'm not a PhD, but I'll give my two cents from from the BS benches. I feel I learned 3 things in physics, how to observe, how to describe, and how to predict. As trades, I learned how to program and how to do 3D CAD. With those skills, I've designed and built assembly lines, custom instruments, custom machinery and today, I'm well known in my chosen industry of binder jetting. Physics let's you do whatever you want, basically. But looking at some of the responses, I'm glad I didn't go for an advanced degree
 
  • Like
Likes DrJohn and berkeman
  • #24
ZapperZ said:
I also want to know if one considers SBIR companies as "industry". Many graduates out of Accelerator Science programs are hired by these SBIR companies.

SBIR - Small Business Innovation Research?
 
  • #25
StatGuy2000 said:
Hi everyone! As have been discussed in many posts here on PF, positions for physics PhDs in academia or similar type of work in government labs are highly competitive and hard to come by. For example, see this post below.

https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/how-hard-is-it-to-get-a-job-in-astrophysics.949583/

So the natural conclusion is that the majority of physics PhDs work in "industry" (i.e. outside of academia or government labs). I'm curious as to what industries tend to hire physics PhDs.

The APS does have some documentation about this, but what they post lacks the finer detail that I'm asking for.

https://www.aps.org/careers/statistics/upload/phdinitemp-0316.pdf

[Please note: For the purposes of this thread, I do not wish to consider the employment prospects of medical physics PhD graduates.]
The navy or any other military branch offers an avenue. Ie., look at the navel nuclear propulsion officer role. It requires at a minimum a BS in STEM irc. Where mathematics, physics, engineering degrees are really sought after.

Age can be an issue for military careers, but oftentimes, they can lift the age restrictions for particular specialist roles.
 
  • #26
Dr Transport said:
Aerospace companies, semiconductor companies, financial companies, I'm sure you'll find a PhD in pretty much any company you can think of. The question is, are they actually doing physics? I'd tend to think that unless you are in the semiconductor industry, more than likely you're doing engineering of some type.
That tendency in thinking you allude to comes down to the definition of doing physics. I do not work in the semiconductor industry, but I often derive equations which are necessary to confront problems I encounter. I regard that as doing physics. I had a mechanical engineering professor as an advisor at one time who suggested that condensed matter physics was really engineering and not physics. He explained the underlying laws that the researchers were using were well understood, not like high-energy physics, some branches of nuclear physics, cosmology, etc. I think this limitation is a very narrow view of concept of doing physics.
 
  • Wow
Likes symbolipoint
  • #27
mpresic3 said:
That tendency in thinking you allude to comes down to the definition of doing physics. I do not work in the semiconductor industry, but I often derive equations which are necessary to confront problems I encounter. I regard that as doing physics. I had a mechanical engineering professor as an advisor at one time who suggested that condensed matter physics was really engineering and not physics. He explained the underlying laws that the researchers were using were well understood, not like high-energy physics, some branches of nuclear physics, cosmology, etc. I think this limitation is a very narrow view of concept of doing physics.
Someone somewhere said that Physics and Research have the purpose to understand. Engineering's purpose is to APPLY.
 
  • #28
I'm not sure any employer who hired a physicist in industry, would be happy with an understanding without an application somewhere down the line. Often an employer teams up a physicist with at least one engineer(s), and possibly marketer(s), to develop/improve a product. This may be why hired physicists feel they are not "doing physics", if the definition of physics is limited to finding an increased "understanding" of the universe.
 
  • #29
symbolipoint said:
Someone somewhere said that Physics and Research have the purpose to understand. Engineering's purpose is to APPLY.

mpresic3 said:
I'm not sure any employer who hired a physicist in industry, would be happy with an understanding without an application somewhere down the line. Often an employer teams up a physicist with at least one engineer(s), and possibly marketer(s), to develop/improve a product. This may be why hired physicists feel they are not "doing physics", if the definition of physics is limited to finding an increased "understanding" of the universe.
Just to make the statement more clear, "APPLY" is meant as "design or develop a product", or "design or develop a process". Not sure this clarification is necessary. I see some possible confusion; if not then nevermind. (I did not mean, "fill out an application form for the job".)
 
  • #30
This thread started out with the question, "What industries tend to hire physics PhDs?":

StatGuy2000 said:
So the natural conclusion is that the majority of physics PhDs work in "industry" (i.e. outside of academia or government labs). I'm curious as to what industries tend to hire physics PhDs.

StatGuy2000 said:
My question (as stated in my original post) is what industries or industrial sectors tend to hire physics PhDs.

This post below then asked whether physics PhDs employed in industry are "actually doing physics".

Dr Transport said:
Aerospace companies, semiconductor companies, financial companies, I'm sure you'll find a PhD in pretty much any company you can think of. The question is, are they actually doing physics? I'd tend to think that unless you are in the semiconductor industry, more than likely you're doing engineering of some type.

Which then led to further posts discussing what "actually doing physics" means.

My follow-up questions: Who cares, and why does it matter? The key point is that a physics PhD can prepare you for a wide variety of careers outside of academia; and there are a wide variety of companies that do hire physics PhDs. The issue of "Are you actually doing physics?" often arises in the context of "But if you are not working in academia, you are settling for a second-tier career." This is indeed a sentiment expressed by some (not all) professors. And a sentiment that organizations such as FIAP (Forum on Industrial and Applied Physics), a forum within the American Physical Society (APS), constantly struggle against.
 
Last edited:
  • Like
Likes Office_Shredder
  • #31
CrysPhys said:
This thread started out with the question, "What industries tend to hire physics PhDs?":This post below then asked whether physics PhDs employed in industry are "actually doing physics".
Which then led to further posts discussing what "actually doing physics" means.

My follow-up questions: Who cares, and why does it matter? The key point is that a physics PhD can prepare you for a wide variety of careers outside of academia; and there are a wide variety of companies that do hire physics PhDs. The issue of "Are you actually doing physics?" often arises in the context of "But if you are not working in academia, you are settling for a second-tier career." This is indeed a sentiment expressed by some (not all) professors. And a sentiment that organizations such as FIAP (Forum on Industrial and Applied Physics), a forum within the American Physical Society (APS), constantly struggle against.
It is worth pointing out that I did not originally ask the question of "actually doing physics", mainly because I agree with you that this question is problematic, in the same way that a math PhD graduate working in industry is "actually doing math" in whatever industry they are employed in.

My original question was prompted by my own curiosity of what particular industries or industrial sectors do physics PhDs tend to end up being hired, which in turn could prove to be educational for current students who are planning on studying physics.
 
Last edited:
  • Like
Likes symbolipoint
  • #32
When I applied for a position in 1984, I interviewed for several > 10 companies and got recieved rejections from all of them. I did get a call-back from Eastman Kodak, but I already committed to defense related work. Many of my colleagues were interviewing with the same companies with an engineering degree and all recieved multiple acceptances. None of my friends in physics got hired in companies. All of the physicists were hired at govt labs or defense contractors. Star Wars was also big back then.

At least in those days, it was clear that companies much preferred engineers to physicists. When looking for a position in 2002, career placement told me the same thing.
 
  • Like
Likes symbolipoint
  • #33
mpresic3 said:
When I applied for a position in 1984, I interviewed for several > 10 companies and got recieved rejections from all of them. I did get a call-back from Eastman Kodak, but I already committed to defense related work. Many of my colleagues were interviewing with the same companies with an engineering degree and all recieved multiple acceptances. None of my friends in physics got hired in companies. All of the physicists were hired at govt labs or defense contractors. Star Wars was also big back then.

At least in those days, it was clear that companies much preferred engineers to physicists. When looking for a position in 2002, career placement told me the same thing.
* A physics PhD student reading your post could easily come away with the conclusion that companies don't hire PhD physicists at all. That conclusion would be incorrect. The market has its ups and downs.

* I'll rewind to a few years before you originally applied, to roughly the 1980 - 1982 time frame. As I was wrapping up my physics PhD, I first sent out two job applications, one to Bell Labs (ETA: industrial R&D) and one to MIT Lincoln Lab (ETA: military-funded R&D). I interviewed at both and was given an offer at both. I accepted the offer from Bell Labs and didn't send out any further applications. If I recall correctly after all these decades, among the physics PhD grad students I hung out with at my school, three others joined Bell Labs during this time; others went to work for IBM, Kodak, Xerox, 3M, Raytheon, RCA, GE, and Hughes. We all did our research in experimental solid-state physics. ETA: There was strong demand, in particular, for PhD physicists in the fields of electronic and optical devices.

* For various reasons, the market started to decline around 1984 and more sharply in 1990. With a strong resurgence at the end of the 1990's (InterNet Bubble Maximum Expansion), followed by a drastic collapse just two years later in 2001 (InterNet Bubble Burst).

* The heyday of great corporate R&D labs involved in a wide umbrella of fields is past, and business models have changed (in particular, many major corporations decided that services are a lot more profitable than hardware and that R&D in electronic and optical devices is waaay too expensive). But I'll refer back to the AIP chart cited by kuruman in Reply #2 (https://www.aip.org/statistics/whos-hiring-physics-phds) for more recent data. This chart shows the employment fields for newly-minted physics PhDs, 2016 -2020. The fields, such as "physics", "engineering", "computer hardware", and "computer software", are enclosed in grey rectangular boxes. If you hover your cursor over each box, a drop-down menu appears. One of the menu selections is "Employers". If you click on this selection, you will get a listing of employers, which does indeed include companies (industrial and non-industrial).
 
Last edited:
  • #34
Nowadays the job market seems to have completely changed, at least here in Germany. I can say only something about, where our MSc/PhD students and postdocs end up. Our field of study is theoretical heavy-ion physics. The subjects are mostly relatlivistic many-body quantum-field theory in and off equilibrium, relativistic kinetic theory, relativistic hydrodynamics, lattice QCD at finite temperature (and density). Then there are many colleagues also working in nuclear/particle astrophysics and GR (simulation of blackhole and neutron-star mergers). Most of the work deals with simulations, and that seems to be very attractive for employers outside of academia, and our absolvents find jobs in a broad spectrum of enterprises. There are many going into IT-consulting at banks, insurances, and consulting but also into more technical/engineering businesses. E.g., one of our PhD students went to a big optics company, developing lithography for chip manifacturing, another went to a company leading to R&D in autonomously driving cars. AFAIK all are very satisfied and happy with their work. I don't know any of our alumni who couldn't find a job.
 
  • Like
Likes DeBangis21
  • #35
PCJJSBS said:
At work, most of our PhD folk are chemists, but a few are physics, including my boss. We do R&D of printed, flexible carbon electronics (mostly sensors).We also dabble with some nanoparticles and polymers.
My boss was hired due to his direct experience in carbon nanotubes that he worked on during his PhD.

He also told me not to get a PhD, and he wouldn't if he could go back. He would have only gotten a masters degree. He said it never helped him or anyone he knew not trying to get into academics.
I had a programmer-contracting colleague that got a PhD in Mechanical Engineering and had gone to work in the defense industry ... up until the end of the Cold War. He said that he had to leave the PhD off his resume to get programming work.
 

Similar threads

  • STEM Career Guidance
Replies
10
Views
2K
  • STEM Career Guidance
Replies
1
Views
1K
  • STEM Career Guidance
Replies
21
Views
947
  • STEM Career Guidance
Replies
11
Views
58K
  • STEM Career Guidance
Replies
4
Views
2K
  • STEM Career Guidance
Replies
3
Views
2K
  • STEM Career Guidance
Replies
8
Views
1K
Replies
16
Views
5K
  • STEM Career Guidance
Replies
7
Views
4K
  • STEM Career Guidance
Replies
16
Views
11K
Back
Top