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Where do ex particle theorists work?

  • #1
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Main Question or Discussion Point

So I finished up a phd in particle phenomenology very recently. After much soul searching, I've given up on the academic dream (6 years of postdocing? No thanks!). My significant other is working in San Diego, so I'm hoping to land a job there, which seems to preclude the traditional route for ex-theoretical physicists (finance).

Career services at my university has proven worthless ("we are experts in the PROCESS, not what jobs are out there.") So my question is this- what kind of industries hire ex-theoretical physicists? Any ex-physicists out there with experience aiming at one geographic region?
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
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So I finished up a phd in particle phenomenology very recently. After much soul searching, I've given up on the academic dream (6 years of postdocing? No thanks!). My significant other is working in San Diego, so I'm hoping to land a job there, which seems to preclude the traditional route for ex-theoretical physicists (finance).
One thing that you might want to find out is whether your SO would be willing to relocate, if you ended up with a job offer in finance with a higher salary than what he currently makes. Entry level jobs for physics Ph.D.'s in finance are typically $90K + $30-50K bonus. The other thing is how long he is going to be in SD. If he has academic or military commitments, then long distance relationships are a pain, but they do work for several years.

The problem is that those jobs are all in NYC, London, or somewhere in Asia (HK/Singapore/Tokyo/Shanghai). There are finance jobs outside the the major centers, but employers are *EXTREMELY* reluctant to hire physics Ph.D.'s, because they worry that they will run off to NYC after a few months.

The typical employers of physics Ph.D.'s are high technology companies. To get in touch with those, you need to start with boards like www.dice.com and start spamming your CV to recruiters. Also, it helps a lot if you start networking with alumni from your department.

So my question is this- what kind of industries hire ex-theoretical physicists?
The big three are finance, oil, defense.

 
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  • #3
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Basically at this point, I'm determined to work in San Diego. Most of the tech work out here seems to be bio related and people judge me unqualified. My significant other can relocate after two years, would it kill my career to spend a year or two bartending while I hone some practical skills (c++, etc) before relocating? In short, what kind of shelf life does the degree have if I'm applying for science policy or defense jobs in D.C.? (which is where most of the contacts in my alumni network seem to live and work now.)
 
  • #4
chiro
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Basically at this point, I'm determined to work in San Diego. Most of the tech work out here seems to be bio related and people judge me unqualified. My significant other can relocate after two years, would it kill my career to spend a year or two bartending while I hone some practical skills (c++, etc) before relocating? In short, what kind of shelf life does the degree have if I'm applying for science policy or defense jobs in D.C.? (which is where most of the contacts in my alumni network seem to live and work now.)
I don't know about you but if I were an employer I might not look favourably on seeing your career going from PhD to bartending: it might send a negative signal.

I think the best thing you could do is find some job that gives you room to learn things like C++ where you get some experience. That way when you get a new job you can say "I did X and Y for company Z" rather than "I spent two years doing X by myself".

With programming there is a lot you can learn by yourself but you'll need teamwork experience in some form whether its from a project like an honors or postgraduate research project, or through prior employment.

I can't really say anything about the other jobs you mentioned though since I have no experience in them.
 
  • #5
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My significant other can relocate after two years, would it kill my career to spend a year or two bartending while I hone some practical skills (c++, etc) before relocating?
For the jobs I'm familiar with, it wouldn't. Something that you might consider is contacting the local community college to see if they have any adjunct positions. Also, keep attending conferences, and keeping your research connections intact. Network with other alumni.

One good thing about an adjunct position or even a substitute high school teacher position is that it avoids having a gap in the resume. The gap itself isn't bad. The problem is that when HR sees a missing spot in the resume, they are going to imagine that you were in prison for dealing crystal meth, and having a job as a adjunct community college teacher or something else explains that.

Also if you have time, then it would be really useful to get involved with some open source C++ project. If you spend a year putting together an Android app, that looks good.

The one big mistake that I regret is that after I got my Ph.D., I was ashamed that I didn't to the post-doc route, and so I didn't keep my research network intact. It took me about five years to get over that, and by that time things had gotten cold.

In short, what kind of shelf life does the degree have if I'm applying for science policy or defense jobs in D.C.? (which is where most of the contacts in my alumni network seem to live and work now.)
Wow!!!

I'd be interested in that sort of question myself, since I'm interested in getting in touch with people involved in US science policy for my own nefarious purposes.
 
  • #6
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I don't know about you but if I were an employer I might not look favourably on seeing your career going from PhD to bartending: it might send a negative signal.
I am an employer, and it wouldn't bother me. The only place where this could get you in trouble is if you leave a gap in your resume, at which point someone in HR may assume that you did something awful (i.e. felony in prison awful), but this is more of an issue of resume writing than anything else.

Much of the reason I wouldn't hold it against you if you worked for two years as a bartender was that I wouldn't want anyone to hold it against me if *I* worked for two years as a bartender.

That way when you get a new job you can say "I did X and Y for company Z" rather than "I spent two years doing X by myself".
Depends on the employer. In my situation, I'd be more impressed if you spent two years by yourself. The hard part is having something to show that you did something for those two years.

Also different employers look for different things which is good. If employer A rejects your resume because you worked as a bartender, but employer B doesn't care. Then A won't hire you and B will.

With programming there is a lot you can learn by yourself but you'll need teamwork experience in some form whether its from a project like an honors or postgraduate research project, or through prior employment.
That's why open source projects are useful.
 
  • #7
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twofish-quant, thanks for your input. Hopefully some other phd level ex-scientists will also chime in (more perspectives are always fantastic).

For the jobs I'm familiar with, it wouldn't.
Its good to know that the shelf-life is longer outside of academia than in, at least for some jobs (I assume in the financial sector?)

One good thing about an adjunct position or even a substitute high school teacher position is that it avoids having a gap in the resume. The gap itself isn't bad. The problem is that when HR sees a missing spot in the resume, they are going to imagine that you were in prison for dealing crystal meth, and having a job as a adjunct community college teacher or something else explains that.
Tending bar, I take it doesn't quite fill the same role? The problem is, of course, I can make far more money bartending or waiting tables at a trendy place than I can adjuncting. On that note- is $2000 for a 4 credit course really the standard? Why do people take these jobs?

The one big mistake that I regret is that after I got my Ph.D., I was ashamed that I didn't to the post-doc route, and so I didn't keep my research network intact. It took me about five years to get over that, and by that time things had gotten cold.
Do you feel bad about losing that network on a professional level, or because you wish to keep a toe involved in the research? I was under the impression that the odds of crossing back into academia are essentially zero?
 
  • #8
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One thing that you might want to find out is whether your SO would be willing to relocate, if you ended up with a job offer in finance with a higher salary than what he currently makes.
This suggestion really got me thinking. Are job prospects for some Physics PhD's really so bleak as to suggest someone to move out of a city of 1,306,300 people, 8th in the US (according to Wikipedia), and look for a job elsewhere?! If yes, then that is just ridiculous and not what I expected at all.
 
  • #9
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This suggestion really got me thinking. Are job prospects for some Physics PhD's really so bleak as to suggest someone to move out of a city of 1,306,300 people, 8th in the US (according to Wikipedia), and look for a job elsewhere?! If yes, then that is just ridiculous and not what I expected at all.
Inside academia, I can say certainly yes. You have to follow the work, and you really won't have any choice in where you live. You are unlikely to ever have multiple employment offers (and hence, at least some choice), and will probably move internationally for at least one postdoc.

Outside of academia, my experience is highly limited. I can only speak for the friends of mine that have found work. All of them did it by being willing to be highly mobile- willing to move to financial centers, willing to move to DC for science policy work, etc. People with more industry experience will hopefully come through the thread and tell me how I wrong I am, and point me to companies in San Diego looking for my deep knowledge of quantum field theory :)
 
  • #10
chiro
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I am an employer, and it wouldn't bother me. The only place where this could get you in trouble is if you leave a gap in your resume, at which point someone in HR may assume that you did something awful (i.e. felony in prison awful), but this is more of an issue of resume writing than anything else.

Depends on the employer. In my situation, I'd be more impressed if you spent two years by yourself. The hard part is having something to show that you did something for those two years.

Also different employers look for different things which is good. If employer A rejects your resume because you worked as a bartender, but employer B doesn't care. Then A won't hire you and B will.

That's why open source projects are useful.
In reply to the first comment, I would not agree on all fronts. Some people work great by themselves and lock themselves up in a room or a library and can work that way, but end up being horrible in a team environment due to their personality, maybe their ego, and maybe even due to their social skills which may be non-existant.

Nowadays there are enough resources out there to learn pretty much anything, but one thing that a social learning does that an isolated one may not do is essentially give everyone in the social environment a reference. By reference I mean that everyone in that class can make a comparison among their peers about what is right and what is wrong or some interpolation between the two extremes.

Another thing is that work in social situations forces people to carry out work until its completion and that work may contains things that you may hate or not want to do, but you get it done anyway.

If someone was in isolation working on stuff, then I would bet that most of that "stuff" was something they actually enjoyed doing, and the stuff that they didn't enjoy they would most likely toss it.

You could put the same person in a team environment, and the person may simply just shutdown or be unresponsive because they may not want to deal with **** that they find boring.

There are some jobs where the kind of "isolated" personality is a strong point, but the day of the maverick is something of the past and to a large extent I would say looked down on.
 
  • #11
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Outside of academia, my experience is highly limited. I can only speak for the friends of mine that have found work. All of them did it by being willing to be highly mobile- willing to move to financial centers, willing to move to DC for science policy work, etc. People with more industry experience will hopefully come through the thread and tell me how I wrong I am, and point me to companies in San Diego looking for my deep knowledge of quantum field theory :)
Check out General Atomics. They may be looking for someone with your background.
 
  • #12
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Its good to know that the shelf-life is longer outside of academia than in, at least for some jobs (I assume in the financial sector?)
One other nice thing about finance is that people want diverse skills. For example, if you are in the business of giving loan to trucking companies, then you *really* want someone on your team that was once a truck driver.

Also, at least where I work, people that look at resumes are interested in "odd but useful skills". If you have a stack of 20 resumes from computer programmers, and one of them happens to be a world champion gin rummy player, then that person is likely to get an interview just because they are different with a useful skill.

The problem is, of course, I can make far more money bartending or waiting tables at a trendy place than I can adjuncting. On that note- is $2000 for a 4 credit course really the standard? Why do people take these jobs?
Also with bartending, I can imagine getting some very useful and relevant skills to finance.

As far as adjuncting, it makes sense if you think of it as paid charity work or an extra second job. One very interesting policy of University of Phoenix is that they will only allow you to adjunct as a second job, and they won't hire you unless you have two years of work experience outside of academia.

Do you feel bad about losing that network on a professional level, or because you wish to keep a toe involved in the research?
It's because I might be useful as an volunteer research assistant. The problem is that once the networks go cold, it's hard to restart them. Also, there are things that I'm working on in my day job that could be useful for computational physics.

I was under the impression that the odds of crossing back into academia are essentially zero?
It depends on how you define academia.

Curiously I think my odds of teaching at a major university are rather higher now than they were ten years ago, although I'm more likely to end up in the business school than the physics department. I know of people that have non-tenured positions in the B-school of some universities.
 
  • #13
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This suggestion really got me thinking. Are job prospects for some Physics PhD's really so bleak as to suggest someone to move out of a city of 1,306,300 people, 8th in the US (according to Wikipedia), and look for a job elsewhere?! If yes, then that is just ridiculous and not what I expected at all.
The problem is that jobs for physics Ph.D.'s are geographical. To take an extreme example, if you find yourself in the middle of the Sahara desert, your Ph.D. is just not going to be useful. In order to make physics Ph.D.'s "useful" you need a pretty intensive infrastructure, and so this tends to cause jobs for physics Ph.D.'s to centralize in some cities.

In finance, the "big leagues" are NYC, London, and HK/Singapore/Tokyo. There are jobs for physics Ph.D.'s outside of those cities, but if your experience is similar to mine, you'll run into the overqualification problem. I tried to look for jobs outside of NYC, but I had *four* different companies refuse to hire me, because they said (and they were quite open about this) that they figured that once I got hired and found out that much more I could get in NYC, that I'd leave.

After a few months, I took the hint. It turns out that they were right in not hiring me.

The question "do you want to go into finance?" is pretty close to the question "so how do you like living in NYC?" You put eight million hyper-competitive ambitious people in one place, and it gets really interesting. Culturally it's *VERY* different from San Diego.
 
  • #14
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Inside academia, I can say certainly yes. You have to follow the work, and you really won't have any choice in where you live. You are unlikely to ever have multiple employment offers (and hence, at least some choice), and will probably move internationally for at least one postdoc.
One weird thing is that the internet has actually caused things to centralize. Before the internet, you had to have people pretty widely distributed so that you could get local service, but with the internet, it turns out to be more efficient to put all of the computers and people in one place.
 
  • #15
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Nowadays there are enough resources out there to learn pretty much anything, but one thing that a social learning does that an isolated one may not do is essentially give everyone in the social environment a reference.
But I expect that to change in the next few years. It's clearly possible to have social networks online, and I expect that very soon, some one is going to "put the pieces together" to do something quite different.

Also all of the "raw materials" for learning online, but so far no one has put the pieces together. If you want to do an physics degree online, you need things like career services, academic support, mental health services, and a dozen other things. All of the pieces are there, and it's only a matter of time (i.e. three years or so) before they connect.

Something I do expect is that ten years from now, people will look at MIT Open Courseware and say "what morons!!!!" in much the same way that people are looking at recording companies and Xerox PARC.

If someone was in isolation working on stuff, then I would bet that most of that "stuff" was something they actually enjoyed doing, and the stuff that they didn't enjoy they would most likely toss it.
Also application programming is hard because you are working on several million lines of code that are being worked on by several hundred other people.

There are some jobs where the kind of "isolated" personality is a strong point, but the day of the maverick is something of the past and to a large extent I would say looked down on.
I don't think so. I know some programmers and network engineers that are so freaking brilliant that people don't mind their quirks. I know of someone that is impossible to work with, but he is a total genius at graphics programming. He's gotten laid off before, but he's in a situation that whenever someone lays him off, then he gets rehired a month later by the same company, because no one else can do what he does. What he does is that people give him a well defined problem, and then put pizza in his office, and he spits out code.

This is "nice work if you can get it." The problem is that there aren't that many jobs for super-geniuses. This one programmer can do the work of 20 people. So you just hire him and you don't have to hire 19 other people. Great for him, but it's a bummer if you are one of the 19 that don't get hired.

The typical software job is that you have this monster of a program, and you just throw people at it until it works.
 
  • #16
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I should point out that if it's an issue of picking up social skills, I think bartending experience would be quite useful.
 
  • #17
chiro
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But I expect that to change in the next few years. It's clearly possible to have social networks online, and I expect that very soon, some one is going to "put the pieces together" to do something quite different.

Also application programming is hard because you are working on several million lines of code that are being worked on by several hundred other people.

I don't think so. I know some programmers and network engineers that are so freaking brilliant that people don't mind their quirks. I know of someone that is impossible to work with, but he is a total genius at graphics programming. He's gotten laid off before, but he's in a situation that whenever someone lays him off, then he gets rehired a month later by the same company, because no one else can do what he does. What he does is that people give him a well defined problem, and then put pizza in his office, and he spits out code.

This is "nice work if you can get it." The problem is that there aren't that many jobs for super-geniuses. This one programmer can do the work of 20 people. So you just hire him and you don't have to hire 19 other people. Great for him, but it's a bummer if you are one of the 19 that don't get hired.

The typical software job is that you have this monster of a program, and you just throw people at it until it works.
I'm aware that there are mavericks out there that are employed and in fact some industries prefer the maverick personalities and egos over the more conservative, obedient non maverick types.

Also you kind of illustrate my point with the case of the guy being laid off. That's pretty much what I was getting at. If a business has a choice of hiring two people with one person being great but an ******* and another that is maybe not so great but still has the potential to get the job done and isn't an *******, then it would in the interests of the business to hire the non-maverick.

I'm aware of the realities of the complexities of modern day software from prior work experience. You'll get your so called "god programmers", but if there isn't the cultural fit, things can get ugly. Any HR department knows (or should know) that to get things done, you need people motivated towards a common goal and this is especially important nowadays since most projects aren't done by "lone gunmen", but by dozens, maybe even hundreds of people. If you've got divisions in the team, things can get ugly, time can be wasted, and **** can hit the fan.

Some corporate cultures love mavericks, but personally I think it would be hard to have a culture where every single person is a maverick: to me it would be like a house of cards.
 
  • #18
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That's pretty much what I was getting at. If a business has a choice of hiring two people with one person being great but an ******* and another that is maybe not so great but still has the potential to get the job done and isn't an *******, then it would in the interests of the business to hire the non-maverick.
Sure and this matters a lot with entry level positions in which the person you are interviewing probably isn't a "god programmer." If you *can* be nice and wear the suit,
you lose nothing by doing it. The thing about the "god programmer" that I'm thinking of is that he has enough of a track record so that he can get away with stuff that I couldn't. If you are entry level, you probably don't.

Also, he got lucky. He got into the industry during the dot-com bubble, when people were just trying to get random people off the streets to do work. By the time the bubble burst, he had enough of a reputation, that he was not fireable.

Most people aren't that good. I'm not that nearly that good.

You'll get your so called "god programmers", but if there isn't the cultural fit, things can get ugly.
Then you have your "god manager." I had the option of avoiding the "god programmer" since he was really painful to work with. His manager didn't, and to be able to get the god programmer to do useful work for the company, you really had to have a superb manager. For example, if you asked the "god programmer" to rework code, he'd get extremely offended. So if you had to get code reworked, the manager would quietly get someone else to do it. Also protecting said programmer from HR, was part of the manager's responsibility.

Any HR department knows (or should know) that to get things done, you need people motivated towards a common goal and this is especially important nowadays since most projects aren't done by "lone gunmen", but by dozens, maybe even hundreds of people.
Or in the case of a major corporation, tens if not hundreds of thousands.

And in any non-trivial group of people, you end up in situations where people aren't motivated to the same goal. Division A wants to increase revenue from division A, screw Division B. And vice versa. At that point you have lots of MBA's that deal with the situation.

What makes this interesting is that here are *inherent* conflicts. I'm better off if the company pays me more money, leaving less for the managers and shareholders. The company wants to minimize my salary. Now in a growing industry, you can tell people that if we all work hard to increase revenue, then everyone can make more money. But what if you are in a static or shrinking industry?

If you've got divisions in the team, things can get ugly, time can be wasted, and **** can hit the fan.
And this is the stuff that managers spend tons of their time trying to figure out.

Some corporate cultures love mavericks, but personally I think it would be hard to have a culture where every single person is a maverick: to me it would be like a house of cards.
That causes some culture clashes because physics Ph.D.'s are indoctrinated with the idea that being a maverick is a good thing. Also, managing an organization in which you have a lot of smart independent thinkers can be extremely challenging.
 
  • #19
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One weird thing is that the internet has actually caused things to centralize. Before the internet, you had to have people pretty widely distributed so that you could get local service, but with the internet, it turns out to be more efficient to put all of the computers and people in one place.
Which is (in my view) too bad. A good career should let you have some choice in geographic region. This, I suppose, is a huge leg up that something like the MD career path has over the phd one.
 
  • #20
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Would it be completely silly to suggest the possibility of returning to school for an MS in an area with high industry demand? For instance, you mention the MD and the huge advantage it gives you in choosing your geographical region to work. What about getting an MS in medical physics? I've heard that gives you tons of flexibility in location. In a growing economy at least....

With your background could you complete an MS in like a year? I know some medical physics programs (just using this as an example) are 1-2 years for an MS.

(I'm relating your situation a bit to mine.... Particle theory is my main intellectual interest, but the lack of job prospects after graduating after spending 5 years working on a degree is completely stopping me from applying. Maybe there is a way around this if you are willing to spend 1 extra year picking up an in demand MS but I have no clue if this ever happens or if it could work.)
 
  • #21
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Would it be completely silly to suggest the possibility of returning to school for an MS in an area with high industry demand?
It's not but you have to be very, very careful, since universities can make tens of thousands of dollars off you, and so they have a conflict of interest.

Personally, if you have a physics Ph.d., I'd very strongly advise against getting a second technical masters. If you have to get another degree, get something totally different like an MBA or Masters in French literature.

One real curious thing is that, at least where I work, a physics Ph.D. with a masters in computer science looks a *lot* worse than a physics Ph.D. who has worked for two years as a waiter or a bartender. One fear in hiring Ph.D.'s is that they can't function outside of a university. If you get another masters, then this fear increases. If you have a physics Ph.D. and then worked as a waiter for two years, then we know that you can hold a 9-5 job, and that you have at least minimum social skills. (Ask yourself if Sheldon Cooper on the BB theory could hold a job as a bartender/waiter/community college professor/high school teacher for two years?)

For instance, you mention the MD and the huge advantage it gives you in choosing your geographical region to work.
It gives you less advantage than you think. Once you have lots of debt, then its difficult to be a general practitioner in rural Oklahoma.

Particle theory is my main intellectual interest, but the lack of job prospects after graduating after spending 5 years working on a degree is completely stopping me from applying.
Don't let that stop you. People with particle physics Ph.D.'s are having a hard time finding jobs, but so is everyone else, and people with science Ph.D.'s are finding it a *lot* easier than other people. The big problem with Ph.D. programs is that career services stink, but that can be fixed. If you know QFT but don't know how to write a resume, you'll find it easier to fix that than if you don't know QFT but do know how to write a resume.

Maybe there is a way around this if you are willing to spend 1 extra year picking up an in demand MS but I have no clue if this ever happens or if it could work.)
It's a bad idea in this economy. The problem is that nothing is particularly in demand.
 
  • #22
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This, I suppose, is a huge leg up that something like the MD career path has over the phd one.
Less than you think. You need general practioners and emergency room doctors on site, but anything else you can outsource to India (look up medical tourism).

Personally, if you have to get another degree, I'd get an associate of arts in plumbing or get really good at networks engineering or babysitting. Computer science and theoretical particle physics you can outsource to China and India. Plumbing, you can't. Yo als

One irony here is that there is this prejudice against people that work with their hands, but jobs that involve working with your hands on some physical object (i.e. plumbing and janitors) is something that you can't outsource.

This also is why defense is important. You can outsource firmware for any civilian product to China and India, whereas you just can't outside firmware development for your latest jet fighter to China.
 
  • #23
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It gives you less advantage than you think. Once you have lots of debt, then its difficult to be a general practitioner in rural Oklahoma.
True, but you can work in any major city in the US. Also, there are lots of programs for debt forgiveness if you work in rural, underserved areas in the US (my siblings are all MDs).

Don't get me wrong, I have no intention of going back for any more schooling. I may, however, give up on technical work. Does anyone have advice for breaking in to entry level non-technical positions? I'm finding that many of the job offers I had when I applied after undergraduate, I'm now apparently overqualified for.
 
  • #24
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True, but you can work in any major city in the US. Also, there are lots of programs for debt forgiveness if you work in rural, underserved areas in the US (my siblings are all MDs).

Don't get me wrong, I have no intention of going back for any more schooling. I may, however, give up on technical work. Does anyone have advice for breaking in to entry level non-technical positions? I'm finding that many of the job offers I had when I applied after undergraduate, I'm now apparently overqualified for.
Some common advice about breaking into an entry level nontechnical position may be to do volunteer work. Can you be more specific about what kind of nontechnical position you consider?
 
  • #25
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One thing that's not so clear to me is what your goals are for this period. Are you looking for 2 years to hold you over before you move somewhere else and start a new career? Or are you looking to start a new career and this is the first 2 years?

FWIW, most of my friends who left the field did not say "I have a degree in physics, what can I do with it?" They said, "What do I want to do?" and then proceeded to leverage their degrees to do it.
 

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