Careers in Physics

Kevin Pitts
1/20/2014

In this blog, I have written about career opportunities in physics.  When I talk about physics careers, I argue that physics is one of the very best majors in the 21st century for a wide variety of fields.   And I’m not the only one spreading this message.  The American Physical Society, American Institute of Physics, and other faculty are definitely singing the same tune.

But as I talk with students and faculty, I find that this message is not getting through.  I would say that the majority of the people I encounter (faculty and students) think that the only viable career paths for a physics major are teaching and research.

That simply could not be farther from the truth.

Before I continue, let me include my standard disclaimer.  I have no problem with careers in teaching and research.  We need 100k more high school physics teachers, and research in topics like subatomic particles, superconductivity, biophysics and quantum optics are exactly the thing that get young people excited about physics.  I’m all for all of it.  If you want to go to grad school, earn a Ph.D. and enter a research career.  Go for it!   The points I make about the wealth of other career paths is to emphasize that those are not the ONLY choices!!

If you talk to recruiters in virtually any discipline (engineering, computers, consulting, finance, security, medical technology), they want people with the following skills:

  • Learn new things quickly.
  • Problem solving
  • Working in teams
  • Analyze large amounts of data
  • Communicate well.

Recruiters focus on these general skills rather than specific subject matter skills.  Why?  Because these skills are the ones that persevere, while subject matter skills only last as long as the subject (e.g. software, tools) are valid, which is often a short time.

If I look at that list, I would say that training physics does as well to prepare a student with those skills as any discipline.  Now that’s not 100% of the story, because we do need to make sure that students have enough subject matter skill to get into these types of positions.  That’s actually not very hard with just a bit of planning, because the subject matter skills (e.g. computer programming, electronics) are easy to acquire.

So why does everybody still think that the options are so limited?  I think a significant part of the answer is faculty.  Faculty know about the path they took, which is a Ph.D. followed by a career in academia.  So that’s what they talk about and so there is a culture that strongly emphasizes the Ph.D. track and de-emphasizes industry.  In addition, the thing that excites students about physics is often the cutting edge research (astrophysics, superconductors, quantum) which is accessed through the grad school-academia path.

That’s fine.  Grad school is a great path to pursue if you want to.  Academia is a great path to pursue if you want to.   But can we PLEASE remember that the academic path isn’t for everybody?  And can we PLEASE remember that accessing careers in a variety of fields is very viable with a bachelors degree in physics.

It’s time for a culture shift.  The field of physics is growing, but it’s growing with students who don’t necessarily want to pursue the academic path.  Let’s embrace the growth, train more physicists and help them get out into careers that benefit themselves and society!

Want to learn more about the possibilities?  Browse through the last 2.5 years of this blog.  I won’t include a complete list of relevant here, but a few posts of interest can be found here, here, here and here.