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Physics Why do some think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

  1. Sep 2, 2012 #1
    I constantly (as in, on every post where the subject of employment comes up) hear people speaking with intense pessimism on the topic of employment. They act like physics is one of the worst fields in which to purse a major for either job stability or average annual salary. From a purely statistical point of view, this perspective is false. Physics has the twentieth lowest employment rate (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505145_162-57324669/25-college-majors-with-lowest-unemployment-rates/) and the sixth highest average median salary (http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/info-Degrees_that_Pay_you_Back-sort.html). That's why I'm trying to figure out what the cause of this discrepancy is. What do you guys think it is? Obviously the economy's bad, but physics majors do so much better than others I would think that they would feel better about the respective job opportunities by comparison. I think it might be resulting from the fact that so many physics majors are getting hired in the financial field.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 2, 2012 #2
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    I think it's because it's a bad economy for new hires. The statistics that you cite include graduates from years past, which may be of little/no relevance for people entering the workforce, and even less relevance to people in school right now.

    The problem with physics is that when times are bad, people are looking for exactly the right skill. If you have a five EE positions and two EE applicants, then people will look for non-EE people. If you have two EE positions and five EE applicants, then the physics major is going to get their resume cut at the first round. This helped me a lot, because I got out of school in the middle of the dot-com boom when companies were hiring people almost at random to be computer programmers.

    Also there it's relative. It may be the physics people find it easier to get jobs than Russian literature majors, but if the whole economy is bad, then it's going to be a tough slog.

    Either you get a job or you don't. Strangely enough, statistics that show that people similar to you are getting jobs can make people feel a lot worse. If people with degree X are getting jobs, and you have degree X but aren't, then you start wondering what's wrong with you.

    One thing about jobs in finance is that the ones that I know about require a physics Ph.D. A bachelor degree (in anything) or a masters in physics will not be considered at all. I know of several physics bachelors that got into management consulting (i.e. McKinsey), but in that field (unlike Ph.D.'s), the "brand name" of the school matters a lot, since the consulting firms use it to sell their services.

    Also were hired is different than are being hired.
    Last edited: Sep 2, 2012
  4. Sep 3, 2012 #3
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    I think you are confusing different things. Physics is an awful FIELD IN WHICH TO PURSUE EMPLOYMENT, and generally when people talk about the physics job market they are talking about the market for work doing physics. Its a fine field to major in (or even get your phd in) as long as you realize you probably won't be doing physics for a living afterwards.

    The majority of my physics undergrad class got phds in order to try for a job doing physics (as did I). After a decade of preparation its a bit of a kick in the teeth to be forced out of the field due to lack of opportunity. Yes, I make good money now and the work isn't that bad but I had to leave physics to make it happen (and the same is true for nearly everyone with a physics phd that I know).

    How are those numbers calculated? Most of the physics majors from my college went to grad school (18 out of 22) which means the unemployment numbers for recent graduates might be a bit skewed- a 4% unemployment rate for my class would have implied 1 of the 4 people actually entering the job market can't find work.

    Right- physics is a fine subject to major in BUT you have to remember you probably won't be working in physics.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  5. Sep 4, 2012 #4
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    I did fine with my physics and math degrees. I did actually work in physics (computational) right after I graduated but I still didn't get to truly do any physics. I debugged code, analyzed some equations, tested software, etc. The PhD's were the ones actually deriving equations. That's why I'm back in grad school, I want to learn more and get a more advanced job.

    Just as long as you grab some hard skills (engineering, programming, non-awkward communication skills that physics majors usually have) you'll succeed in the job market. That is true for any major
  6. Sep 4, 2012 #5
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    The other thing is that my definition of "doing physics" is pretty flexible. I'm doing pretty much the same work that I did in graduate school, except instead of debugging nasty PDE code modelling neutrino transfer trying to see what makes the system go boom, I'm debugging nasty PDE code modelling financial markets trying to see what makes the system go boom.

    One of the longer term shifts in the economy has been that we moved from a manufacturing economy to a service based one, so it makes sense that there are fewer jobs involving applying PDE's to manufacturing and more involving applying PDE's to services. The problem with *defining* physics in a way that applies only to manufacturing is that it ties physics to the economy of 1955 rather than the economy of 2015.

    The more I think about it, the less sense a restrictive definition of "doing physics" makes sense.

    However, this is easier said than done. There are a ton of pressures that encourage people to not get the skills that would be useful in the job market. Some of these are psychological and cultural, and really make no sense once you are on the outside.

    There was (and to some extent still is) part of my that feels "inferior" because I do computational stuff rather than abstract pencil and paper methods to solve problems. Physics has a very "macho" culture and doing things with a computer rather than pure thought is less "macho."
  7. Sep 5, 2012 #6
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    There's more and more people going to college. Just about everyone who could graduate from high school goes to college over here. The local U (not in the US) is pretty cheap, which makes it possible for anyone who's got the grades to get a degree. Or at the very least, have a crack at earning one. There's also lots of "cash cow colleges" that have been popping up and in general, if you got the money, you got a seat.

    There's more grads than grad jobs to go around, which means that some people don't find work and most don't necessarily find the kind of work they'd have liked.

    Now, what's interesting to note is that it's not very hard to graduate with a BA. Good exam technique and "easy degrees" can take you far. At least as far as graduation. What I've noticed is that the majority of people go through the motions of getting the degree and complaining that they can't find work.

    There is, however, a few persons who knew the right people right off the bat or who networked like crazy, to find some additional internships/experience and then a job.

    What we concluded (was discussing this with a friend) is that had you been able to get job if you were to have graduate in 1990, you could probably still get one now. Sure there's more people with degree to go around, but only so much of those who'd be good job candidates. There's that and luck. Everything could fall apart if you're not lucky enough.

    It's a little like the perceived selectivity of top colleges. If one would have gotten into say, Princeton, 20 years ago, it's likely that they'd still get in now. I'd hazard a guess that a few who would've don't and a few who wouldn't have before still do, but those exceptions aside, things haven't changed much. There's still about 1500 places. Just around 20 times more people applying. It's easy to apply. What with the online apps and everything. So, more people apply.
  8. Sep 5, 2012 #7
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    There's always work for a scientist, just don't expect to get paid for it!

    also from my point of view, there is always a need for Introductory College physics, what they call Physics B in the world of advanced placement and it's equivalent to non-majors physics for medicine majors, so long as everyone wants to go to medical school and people want to become engineers, physics majors will be needed to teach these people. Hell, I know a guy at a community college teaching physics and he doesn't even have a master's degree. Some of the people in the class have the equivalent degree he has.

    Finding a job you want is about knowledge and opportunity. Just like the gent said during the dot-com boom, great need allows employers to overlook skills and experience. If they need you, short of embezzling money from your previous employer, in some situations a job is only an application away. In the terms of the economic powerhouses that crumpled the America economy the average Joe becomes "too big too fail" so to speak.
  9. Sep 5, 2012 #8
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    Why? What job does it prepare you for??? Learning how to manipulate arcane 200-year-old equations is not the sort of thing that anyone will pay you for. It's such a small, niche field that most hiring managers will have no idea what to make of it. Career wise it's not that different from majoring in philosophy or poetry.

    I really think the only reason the unemployment rate is lower than average is that physics majors are, frankly, much smarter and harder working than average (and also tend to come from wealthier families). That's always a plus, but it's something you'll have regardless of what you major in, or even if you don't go to college at all.

    I don't know ANYONE who majored in physics and got a job that actually used "physics knowledge". Same for people in math programs. Most people just drifted into graduate school because it was expected and it's not clear what else you're supposed to do.

    Heh, true, but those are all things NOT taught in a physics major. In mine we had ONE required English class, one optional programming class, and no engineering classes. Pretty much everything else was pencil-and-paper work. If you want to learn any of those things, you have to learn it on your own, outside of school.
  10. Sep 5, 2012 #9
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    I like how you conveniently glossed over my post. Any degree holder of any subject always has a place in education, teach it again, after all we must properly indoctrinate the next generation :)
  11. Sep 5, 2012 #10
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    That's definitely not true if you talk about 2000.

    I don't think this is true for MIT. It's not just that the number of applicants has gone up, but the *quality* of applicants has stayed constant or has actually improved. One conversation that I've been in when talking with alumni is the nervous question of whether we'd be admitted if we applied today.

    This is something that you can test with SAT scores. ETS does a very good job of making it possible to do statistically valid comparisons from year to year, and one can look at the raw number of people getting a particular score, and my wager would be that the *raw number* of people getting say 750 on the SAT has increased from 1975 to now.

    However, this makes things much more hellish if it turns out that the number of qualified applicants increases by a factor of 20.
  12. Sep 5, 2012 #11
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    You have to be careful about generalizations on the internet. Statements that "no one will pay you to do..." or "I don't know anyone that ...." very quickly get trashed.

    Well, I get paid nicely for this sort of thing. There are some bad things about physics, but I do think that the standard physics undergraduate curriculum is pretty good.

    Ummmm..... No.

    (raises hand)

    Sure. But that's good preparation for life. Personally, I think that anything that you *can* learn outside of the classroom shouldn't be taught within the classroom, and that required courses are generally a bad thing that ought to be minimized.
  13. Sep 5, 2012 #12
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    I seriously feel that alot of the stuff I'm learning is exactly as you said: manipulating 200 year old equations, instead of being at the forefront of technology and learning skills that can be put to immediate use. In addition, twofish was right about the "macho" culture of physics which I find a bit disturbing.

    The research seems pretty fun. I'm currently reading up on very interesting phenomena in supramolecular assemblies and I'll be in the lab within a few weeks. However the classes are not interesting at all.

    But now I'm thinking: is there a particular reason I should do this research in the physics department? Or am I better off in a department like chemistry or materials science?
  14. Sep 5, 2012 #13
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    That's so stupid. And another stupid stuff is that experimentalists are "inferior" to theorists. I really couldn't stand this "physics culture" stuff.

    The point is getting good job with BSc only is hard. So um yes - Physics degree at BSc level is as useful as Philosophy degree. It will learn you to think smart but it's not a degree that will give you skills.

    Yes - you can learn skills on your own but sometimes it takes a lot of time and it's harder than learning with good guidance.
  15. Sep 5, 2012 #14
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    I find the culture of physics highly disturbing and many peoples disregard for experimentalists even more disturbing. In my original field, experiment was the most important and theory was only important in that it guided experiment. If something cannot be verified by experiment even in principle, is it really science anymore?

    Would you say a MS in physics just as useless as a MS in philosophy?
  16. Sep 5, 2012 #15
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    It depends.

    MS in my country it's valuable for two reasons:

    1) With MS in Physics you can teach Physics at high school level (you can't do this with BSc only)

    2) With MS in Medical Physics you can become Medical Physicist (it's different than US system)

    For other reasons it's a waste of time and it's better to do MS in Engineering.
  17. Sep 5, 2012 #16
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    The trouble is that a lot of these sorts of attitudes are things which are opinions, and it's very hard to be in a closed society for your entire life without absorbing some of them. The other thing is that a lot of the attitudes are implicit rather than explicit.

    For a lot of people, you've been trained since age five that you should be at the top of the class and that it's a terrible shame to be at the bottom. It's terribly difficult to overcome those sorts of attitudes especially when most of the people in your peer group share them.

    There's also some basis for these sorts of attitudes. If you think of physics as a contest like professional weightlifting, then using a fork lift is "cheating."
  18. Sep 5, 2012 #17
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    If you're in engineering, then the fork lift would be an ingenious solution.
    If you're in CS, and figured out you should instead run a warehouse business with the fork lift instead of going to contests, you're an entrepreneur.

    In the Physics culture, if you graduate and end up doing things that are not Physics research, you're a failure. While in some other fields, you graduate and do something else, you'd be considered a success for being creative and adventurous. I love Physics; I hate the culture.
  19. Sep 5, 2012 #18
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    Maybe that's the reason why I have felt like an alien among many of my peers.

    All of those guys were the type that you have described - obssesed with grades, meaningless tests and the most prestigious schools.

    I have felt really sorry for them because if you belive that getting 90% on test makes you smarter than someone who got 60% then it means you have no idea how the reality works. But yes - you can brainwash even smart people.

    But physics is like this - you need to do PhD with fameous advisor at fameous university.

    That's why I don't like it's culture. I didn't care about grades but I did a lot of extra stuff. I am this kind of person - I don't like standard route.

    I prefer to be in a field in which your degree or school doesn't matter - only ideas and skills counts. If there is no formal route to achive sth you can do whatever you want and use your creativity.
  20. Sep 5, 2012 #19
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    BS in physics isn't as useless as its philosophy counterpart. Philosophy BS unemployment rate, the last time I checked, was way above ten percent -- potentially at 20% or more. Physics unemployment rate is around 6%, which is actually really good. It's been interesting for me to see some of the replys on my post, because it's confirmed what I've been saying: people tend to have negative attitudes for the BS physics market. Since I have yet to graduate college, I can't provide any personal insight except for on the "macho," issue which is 10000% true haha. It's ridiculous and pretty damn annoying being looked down on for any type of applied work. Some of the theoretical guys I know can be D-bags sometimes and I love giving them a hard time for it (and how theoretical their work is). I for one can't do too much theoretical work without feeling the need to pull my head out the sky.

    But the point is that everyone can rest on the subject of the job market for physics majors, because it comes along with one of the lowest unemployment rates and one of the highest starting and mid carreer salaries.
  21. Sep 5, 2012 #20
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    Good point. I've noticed that machoness as well but when I was working for that company I quickly found out that *everything* I learned as an undergrad was an idealized situation in physics that made the math nicer to play with. My friends that went straight to grad school would tell me about what they were learning and I always thought to myself how easy and quick it was in comparison to the actual computational problems we did at the company.

    One of the first computational problems I worked on there was a car collision. We got sent data and some analysis from car collision experts and they wanted us to crunch some numbers. All the data took a long time to produce valid results.. (momentum, materials strength, materials strength as they deform, etc.) then figuring out which computational methods would compute all these equations fastest. That project alone took a TEAM of us about 2 weeks to complete and that was an EASIER project. I won't even mention any of the plasma simulations we got contracted for.. they're probably still working on some of those. But my friends in grad school constantly complained about multipole expansions in electro.. boo hoo.
  22. Sep 5, 2012 #21
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    In 1975, 1500/1600 on the SAT probably had more to do with good high school preparation, one's test-taking ability and aptitude (whatever that means) in general. Today, 2250/2400 is more often than not, just lots of test prepping. If one were to look hard enough, they'd find free (and legal) material to help achieve that goal.

    Now, while this does mean more people getting higher scores, it's not necessarily a bad thing. The free resources on the internet also mean that otherwise "good students" who wouldn't have been able to get good scores - hey, not everyone goes to Andover or has a tutor - now have the chance to get one. From what I gather, both grades and GPAs should be as high as they can. Ideally. Also: people tend to say that a high GPA but low scores are generally looked upon more favorably than low GPA and high scores. I suspect that this is not entirely true...

    (sidenote: there's (probably) also a higher percentage of high school grads who have taken the test and are applying to college and also a higher percentage of high school grads, compared to ~40 years ago - educated guess, so I could well be wrong)

    This reminds me of something else that you said. No one knows what to do to get in. If in 10 years, things turn out in such a way that there are 10x applicants for x seats and 9x applicants are qualified, I reckon that the definition of a "qualified applicant" will change. Or maybe it'll be an actual lottery. In any case, it will still be x (give or take a few) in the entering class. If there's a lot more than x, then the top 10 isn't the top 10 any more. World domination and all that. Hahahaha.

    Damn, that sounds like an awesome job!

    What were the people in marketing doing? Client relations and bringing in new clients to the company?


    It shouldn't be much harder to get a job with a physics degree than any other degree. How do language/literature majors find employment? What about international studies majors? Or people who double major in those?

    Say, I'm very interested in learning German. When I get to college, I learn German and take courses pertaining to its history, culture and politics/international relations. I also join the German Society and meet up with other like-minded people and/or people from German speaking countries. It's a cool way for me to practice speaking the language and learning more about the countries. I also get involved in the college's paper and I choose to write on German cuisine and beer and dabble on anything Germany-USA related. Eventually, I decided to go study abroad for a semester at a German uni. I love it there, talk to people and land myself a summer job at this NGO, where my role is about procuring funding. Bla bla bla.

    Looks cool, huh? No? Well, there's other cool opportunities that one could find themselves in. All it takes is perseverance and creativity. Often, you'll trying something and find out that you don't like it but hey, you got 4 years to figure it out. Also, those few courses and activities I outline above shouldn't take more than 2-3 semesters (+ an additional semester abroad), assuming that the language courses progress quickly enough and one does not rely solely on the courses.

    I'd say the above would be definitely doable for a physics major who does not want to go to grad school - i.e, one who's not debugging code for his research internship and taking grad courses 24/7 - wants a regular office job.
  23. Sep 5, 2012 #22
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    The macho issue is a big issue. They aren't mean, but they face significant challenges in communicating their thoughts to others in non offensive ways. It is also off putting to those that want to learn physics from other fields. The attitude is like "even we veterans struggle, you think you can just jump into physics?"

    I wanted to form study groups, and I get told "its better to work alone, we don't want anyone dragging anyone else down and not doing their share". Why? We're graded on an absolute scale for grad classes, there should be no competition. It is in no one's interest to work alone, there's no cost and only benefit, why are these guys doing this?
  24. Sep 5, 2012 #23
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    One thing that makes this complicated is that there are different types of intelligence. If you define "being smart" is getting a high grade on this test, then getting higher grade does mean that you are "smarter". Now you can be smart in physics tests and a total idiot with something else.

    One thing that makes this psychologically difficult is that I *can't* say "screw all of this." There's part of me that believes that someone that can do path integrals and crunch QED faster than is "better" than I am, and if I rejected that completely, then I wouldn't push myself to be better at math and physics tests.

    Actually "fame" isn't high on the list of desirable characteristics.

    Among the things that I care about is being able to do difficult math. Having a famous adviser at a famous university isn't terribly important. One reason for this is that once you get into the "club" then everyone is famous in their little group. There are at most 50 people in the world that do the research I did in graduate school, and everyone knows everyone else.

    I have strong feelings toward the culture of physics, but they are too complex to be simple like or dislike.

    The trouble with that criterion is that you still end up losing. I have an astrophysics Ph.D., but I'm not particularly skilled or creative at astrophysics. If there is a rule that the only the top 10% get jobs, then I'm not it, since at best I'm in the middle of the Gaussian curve when it comes to "physics skills."

    Also one thing I like about physics is that your degree and school matters less then most other fields because there are semi-objective ways of measuring competence. For example, if I ask you a few questions about quantum electrodynamics, and you answer them without breaking a sweat, I'll respect you even if you never had any formal training in physics. It's quite different in business.

    The trouble with saying that "ideas and skills' count is "which ideas" and "what skills." In some ways it *is* cheating if you compete in a weightlifting competition with a forklift, but what there are lots of jobs as fork lift operators.

    This is one thing that physics Ph.D.'s have to deal with when going into business. One thing that's true about physics is there is a belief that it's not who you know but what you know.

    This is *NOT* true in most parts of business. In physics, if you got the job because you were friends with the admissions committee, you'd be ashamed to mention that. In business, it's all about relationships, so if you got a job because of your connections, you'd be *proud* of it.
  25. Sep 6, 2012 #24
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    But high grade on physics test is matter of practise and hard work. If you sit on your a.ss and read books, do the math etc. you will get high grade.

    The point is that from some point grades are pointless. I mean - you need certain amount of knowledge about the topic in order to do sth new/to use your knowledge freely. But after this point grades don't matter. Ability to think and to see starts to count because without it you won't achive anything.

    I have seen many people with excellent grades who were totally useless because they couldn't apply their knowledge and people with an average grades who were great researchers.

    So more or less those people with excellent grades should never study physics or any other subject. They should just get a simple job because if you want to work with your brain but you can't use it properly then you are going to starve.

    But what's the point in it? If you have enough knowledge so that it won't hinder you then it's ok. For simple crunching you have computers but what really counts is the ability to see patterns, connections, be able to come up with sth new etc. I am not talking about physics only - I am talking about all kind of intellectual work. So you should polish your ability to think, not to crunch numbers.

    For me physics is not personal so because I didn't like grunt work or physics culture I just simple changed field.

    But the truth is that people with physics degree are bitter. And they are much bitter than people with chemistry, math or biology degree. There must be a reason behind all of that.

    It depends on a field and your abilities.

    From my experience Physics isn't about creativity but that's not the point.

    You need to be smart in order to be good programmer. But being smart doesn't mean that you can be good at it. You need to be smart in certain way like you said before - which can be called talent I guess?

    So not being in 10% when it comes to Physics doesn't mean you can't be in 10% in different field.

    I don't have this problem but maybe you have chosen a field that doesn't suit you and if you went for BA in economy/political science you would make excellent (top 10%) expert/advisor for goverment by now.

    Skills which count are those which allow you to achive your goal. You need to be flexible and use all methods and skills that you have.

    It's true I guess because business is about money and you won't give your hard-earned money to someone who you can't trust. And you can't trust a stranger.

    The point is that in most fields who you know strongly connects with what you know and vice versa.

    If you want to gain someone's trust you need to have skills, personality for it. It's not always true but most people build their network this way.
  26. Sep 6, 2012 #25
    Re: Why does everyone think that the job market for physics majors is terrible?

    We didn't have a "marketing" staff. Most of the PhD's were well known in their respective fields from publishing so the marketing was more or less word of mouth. I know we had a couple people that were funding/grant writers to places like NSF.

    That job was pretty cool but I wanted to make more money, get more education and then go back. If things work out well in grad school I'm hoping to get a more research type job there, although I'm pretty sure they'd give me my old job back. They always told me I gave that place some style, if you know what I mean, lol.
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