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Work opportunities for physicists

  1. Jun 19, 2014 #1
    I have an indecision between physics and engineering since by being an engineer I think there would be more and better job opportunities (still I think i would study physics the same by myself). I wish to now about what opportunities i might get by graduating in physics, including eventual backup careers, like I heard about some physicists that are working in economics. I am not worried about "potential" because becoming rich is not my main objective (although it would be pretty awesome :smile: ), just having safety and maybe something left to travel around in the vacations is enough for me.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 19, 2014 #2
    Note that to be a "professional physicist" will take more than just a bachelor degree. Graduates at the BS level do not usually become physicists. Of my graduating class teaching was an area that many went into. I dont personally know any physics grads at any level who went into economics. I suspect that you need PhD or appropriate masters degree for that. Otherwise, the often touted phrase is that you can do "anything" with a physics degree. I know grads who are in teaching, IT, programming, truck driving, nursing, restaurants, the army and unemployed. In fact, I would say that the fact you can do "anything" is a problem with a physics degree, not a benefit. It doesn't train you in anything specifically employable. If you want to do physics, please keep graduate school on your mind. Either a physics PhD or some other relevant masters. You are right that engineering will have more opportunities, particularly at the BS level.
  4. Jun 19, 2014 #3

    George Jones

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    Have a llok at

  5. Jun 20, 2014 #4
    The idea that physics majors can analyze large amounts of data is pretty strange. Most physics majors have never encountered large amounts of data, have no experience with any tool used to retrieve it (SAS, SQL, etc.), have never had to organize and display it, and have a poor statistics background.

    In any case, having seen physics majors interview for positions, plus having a role with reports (in an area outside of physics), plus having gotten a job with a BS in physics myself years ago, I would say that the degree has precious little value on its own. Sure, a physics major makes you marginally qualified for some mediocre jobs. The problem is that being marginally qualified is insufficient to actually get an offer – you have to also be perceived as better than the other applicants. The best bet is to look places no one else would, which are often less than desirable jobs.

    Or do the smart thing and get a better major in the first place.

    Zeor137, I strongly recommend you go engineering.
  6. Jun 20, 2014 #5
    I agree with this.

    Advice given to a friend of mine considering pursuing a PhD in high energy theory was, “if you can see yourself doing something else, do that”. IMO that applies more generally to physics as a whole, if it’s a competition between physics and something else, I’d do the something else. My education in physics (theory PhD) did nothing to prepare me for the career I’m currently in (software developer). When I say “nothing” I’m not exaggerating, if it had any positive impact it was minor at best.

    The only reason I don’t regret doing physics is that I knew I really wanted to do it. If I had been on the fence between physics and engineering I’d really be kicking myself right now for doing physics.

    For what it’s worth that’s my experience.
  7. Jun 22, 2014 #6


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    So your contention is that a physics degree is completely useless -- am I correct?
  8. Jun 22, 2014 #7
    That is a loaded question. A degree in native american studies isnt completely useless yet I wouldnt recommend it.
  9. Jun 22, 2014 #8


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    I am merely reiterating a point Locrian had made -- that from his experience, both as a physics major (turned actuary) and seeing physics majors interview for positions, he feels that physics majors are useless, and that a physics degree (at least at the BS level alone) has no value.

    Therefore, he is saying that pursuing a physics degree on its own is a bad idea, and he is discouraging others from pursing it. (Please note the bold segment -- a BS degree in physics in combination with another degree e.g. computer science, engineering, business, etc., could be very useful, and I am not considering for the moment graduate degrees in physics)

    Locrian, if I am misrepresenting your views, please let me know.
    Last edited: Jun 22, 2014
  10. Jun 22, 2014 #9
    This is actually the main motivation I look for when hiring someone into my firm.

    We don't need another guy who studied applied math because he knew he wanted to go into finance since his freshman year. We also don't need another CS dude who is extremely interested in applying 'machine learning' to predicting the market.

    But we need people with a history of pursuing an intense passion; versatile and quick learners; people who can be creative and nonreliant on textbook content when it comes to quantitative models, and not another person who is looking to make x dollars.

    The way I see it, a better interpretation of his post is that a physics degree is a poor choice if you have a specific field - besides physics - that you plan to go into.
  11. Jun 22, 2014 #10
    Read his post. It says nothing of the sort. It says this,

    It looks like his contention is that a physics major makes you marginally qualified for some mediocre jobs. That is not "completely useless". Also, its only with respect to jobs and careers, not personal fulfillment. A career or job is not the only reason somebody goes to university for a degree.
  12. Jun 22, 2014 #11


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    I am making the following equivalence:

    marginally qualified for some mediocre jobs = useless

    I am asserting this equivalence because a significant percentage of people who attend university are doing so specifically as a ticket to improve their economic/social situation e.g. as a ticket out of poverty into a middle-class or upper-middle-class standard of living. Given how expensive a 4-year degree can be (unless one has a full scholarship), then it is worth asking whether studying a subject that can only promise being "marginally qualified" for "mediocre jobs" is worth the investment.

    You are correct, a career or job is not the only reason somebody goes to university, but it is an important consideration for a significant number of people who attend university.

    If a student comes from a wealthy family and has his/her degree paid for them, or if a student attends school on a full scholarship, then whether or not the degree prepares him/her for a particular job becomes less relevant. However, for most everyone else, whether or not a degree program prepare them for a career is an important consideration.
  13. Jun 22, 2014 #12
    I think your equivalence isn't quite accurate, but otherwise I agree.

    In my experience virtually none of my fellow students were looking for a way out of poverty. They were nearly all middle-class or higher to begin with, which I think is the norm for physics majors. They were more interested in "fulfilling" careers and status with PhDs. Also, even the rich ones who didn't need to work and got parental support for much of their education wanted more than just "personal fulfillment", but regardless of how it worked out career wise they got that fulfillment too.
  14. Jun 22, 2014 #13
    You seem to have opposite experiences compared to most people. Throwing away years of life and a large sum of money, only to find that you've made a bad investment can easily feel useless. Why would you pay all that money and all that time, to earn marginally more than let's say a bus driver?

    Since the watering down of the quality of degrees through the Bologna process or whatever it's called, increasingly it is found that BSc degrees have very little practical value, and in some fields of study (such as Physics), something like 90% of students stay on to do an MSc in order to be employed at all.

    This pretty much sums it up:

  15. Jun 22, 2014 #14
    Nah, I do feel it was nearly useless. I really wanted to study physics and do research though, and I enjoyed it while I did and I treasure the knowledge. Doing exactly what I did before school sucks, but its better for mental health to focus on the good. I could be doing what I am doing now with no physics education and research experience. If I ever manage to get a high paying career, only then will I be required to pay back my loans on schedule.
  16. Jun 22, 2014 #15


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    Of the people using a physics degree as a means of climbing out of poverty, how many are actually unsuccessful? Of those how many are specifically unsuccessful because of choosing a physics degree?

    Whenever I look up data on physics graduates, they tend to be doing okay.

    I think what happens often is that because of the similarities between the disciplines, physics graduates tend to get compared to engineers who graduate with a professional degree. Because physics is an academic degree and not a professional one, the job search is naturally more difficult.

    Unfortunately I think a lot of people these days too quickly jump to the conclusion that something is "useless" when what they really mean is that it's not perfect.
  17. Jun 22, 2014 #16

    Useless, or merely pretty bad? If you decide to get the degree, are you destined for disaster, or merely have to work double time to overcome the poor decision? Is a physics degree like a childhood encounter with the law, that you can later leave off job applications, or does it leave scars interviewers can see?

    Such a preponderance of questions. I won't be much help with them.

    If you're facing a choice between engineering and physics, the choice is easy. Make the right one.

    I realized when I posted that the "physics BS stinks" type posts have been done to death here. But Vanadium 50's post that was quoted was so misleading that it just demanded a reply.

    If I ever interview someone with a physics BS and they say they can analyze large amounts of data, they had better have had a very unusual undergraduate curriculum, because the questions I'm going to respond with will be pretty merciless.
  18. Jun 22, 2014 #17
    Those statistics seem great! 45k for starting physics BS is amazing. But its a starting salary for a "BS Physicist". Im not sure what job that is... I know none of my fellow grads have it. If you look at the APS data you see a third of new BS grads are unemployed, part time employed or doing the same thing they did before school. (They conveniently leave this large minority out of the statistics all together.) I wonder who they are counting in that statistic and what kind of job that actually is? My classmates that make that kind of money are not in science at all, let alone a "BS Physicist". They still make good money though. I also suspect that the salary offers by campus recruiters is not meaningful. Campus recruiters rarely look for physics grads and most physics grads do not get their first jobs that way. I believe that statistic represents a minority of physics grads. I've never once in years of attending on campus events at multiple universities seen any company or organization specifically recruiting physics grads, besides teach for america. The armed forces are also generally receptive.

    The unemployment rate seems great too, but the other side of the coin is often brought up. Sure, somebody who can manage to get a physics BS can probably manage to get a job somewhere, somehow. That is not necessarily a function of their degree, but a function of the person. My class nearly all had jobs while pursuing our physics degree. We were employed before even getting our degree, not surprising the same group is employed after the degree...

    My other thought on these ideas is that people and families in poverty do not generally go for physics as an undergrad. My classmates from state schools were mostly from middle class to rich families. They were cultured, traveled, well cared for and had the luxury of considering physics. Poor students don't generally consider things like physics. Its not as respected in their family culture and its not a tried and true path out of poverty. I worked at a school that catered to poor people and families. They studied trades, not university academics. The demographics of university students are richer to begin with and when you come from a richer family you are more likely to be rich yourself. None of those statistics show upward mobility from impoverished families "climbing out of poverty".

    I dont think a physics BS is useless and I dont think any degree is perfect. But its not nearly as rosey as the APS charts implicitly claim.
  19. Jun 23, 2014 #18

    George Jones

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    I have degrees in physics. When I started university, my father was dead and my mother was on a disability pension. Neither had ever attended high school, let alone university.
  20. Jun 23, 2014 #19


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    So you are conceding that your BS in physics was a poor decision on your part, are you not? Essentially what you are saying is that anyone who chooses to study physics as opposed to some other technical field -- engineering, statistics, computer science, even applied math -- is a fool. Because that's the message I'm taking away from what you are saying.


    For those of you who are reading my posts, I am not specifically arguing here that physics degrees are useless in its entirety -- I am specifically trying to argue based on the assumptions and logic that Locrian is making in his posts here on this thread. I'm not trying to pick on Locrian here, but the views he expresses here are similar to those from others who complain about physics degree and its lack of preparation for a career. This goes to a basic question about what role colleges/universities should play in preparing their students for a career post-graduation.

    For "vocational" degrees like computer science, engineering, architecture, nursing, medicine, physiotherapy, law, accounting, statistics (to a lesser extent), etc., preparing their graduates for a career is built in to the curriculum. That's not the case for pretty much all other degrees, so it appears to me that the onus will be on the students to prepare themselves for qualifying for work after they finish school, unless the school has specific programs in place to prepare them (e.g. co-op programs, like what is offered at the University of Waterloo in Canada).

    Let's take my own experiences as an example. I started out as a math major (ultimately double majoring in math and statistics) and later finished a masters in statistics. A math BS degree, on its own, is much like a physics BS degree in that it does not prepare the students to quality for any jobs except being "marginally qualified in mediocre jobs", to use Locrian's quote. Can I therefore conclude that a math degree is "useless"? Maybe on its own, without pursuing further study, the answer is probably "yes"; however, a math degree can serve as a foundation for a wide range of careers so long as the student is willing to either:

    (1) augment their math studies with other fields (e.g. applied math/engineering, computer science, statistics, economics, business/finance, actuarial studies, teaching, etc.) or

    (2) continue further study in graduate school.

    I think the same arguments can be made for physics degrees as well.
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2014
  21. Jun 23, 2014 #20
    No! Disagree! Dislike!
  22. Jun 23, 2014 #21


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    StatGuy2000's discussion is well justified.
  23. Jun 24, 2014 #22
    His repeatedly putting words in my mouth that I didn't say and don't believe deserves correction.

    Edit: To be clear, I understand where StatGuy is going. He’s taking my statements to a limit and bouncing them off me to have that conversation. I’m not upset or offended he did that.

    But he’s wrong. I don’t think the degree is useless, and I don’t think people who choose it are fools. The statements I’ve made are specific to the context of the thread, and I think that’s appropriate. If someone else believe those things, maybe they can step in and have that debate.
    Last edited: Jun 24, 2014
  24. Jun 24, 2014 #23


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    Honestly I only responded according to his previous statement. I missed seeing the exact details of the argument between you two.

    Most or all of post #19 made sense.
    Last edited: Jun 24, 2014
  25. Jun 25, 2014 #24


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    You are indeed correct that I am taking your statements made in this thread as a starting point for a conversation about the themes/issues expressed here about opportunities for physics graduates. I know that you don't actually believe that a physics degree is useless or that those who pursue it are fools, but I have seen and heard opinions of that ilk expressed elsewhere and wanted to see how these people would react. Sorry if it came across as my picking on you!

    My personal opinions regarding physics degrees and their usefulness in the job market can be seen fully in post #19 under the subsection "Note:".
  26. Jun 27, 2014 #25


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    Even if we say that Physics degree isn't completely useless, it's a luxurious hobby. Luxurious indicates that not everyone can afford it. So you know, if someone spends money on stuff that he/she can't afford (even when he/she thinks he/she can) we call him/her irresponsible, imagination lacking or simply stupid.

    It's the same with Physics degree. Only those who come from rich and powerful families can afford spending 3-10 years and a lot of money on their hobby because 1) their parents can afford it 2) no matter what they study, due to their parent's network they will get a nice job afterwards.

    Those who come from ordinary middle-class families and go for physics degree without any backup (double major, special skills/talents) are just simply stupid and are wasting their parent's hard-earned money. I can't say it's good.
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