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I am a freshman at Stony Brook right now and intend to pursue Theoretical physics in the future. I will likely apply to graduate school immediately after graduation and have no plans of working in the industry for too long. So, I chose to double major in Physics and Mathematics as I think they complement each other quite well and will prepare me adequately for Academia and Research. But I am slightly concerned about the kind of jobs I'll get if I can't go to Grad school immediately.

What sort of jobs are physics majors usually offered? And what courses should I take for them?

I've been told time and time again, to the point of exhaustion, that physics majors make good Data analysts, Software engineers etc, but I would like to work in something that is a little closer to physics. And how much of a role can independent study play when applying for a job? Is it treated equal to courses or less?

I ask this since I do not have a lot of space for courses that aren't Mathematics or Physics. So anything else that I am interested in or that is required for a job, I will have to independently study during the summer (e.g- Fluid Dynamics, Stress Analysis etc).

I am not sure whether Stack Exchange Academia is the appropriate site to ask this question but any help is much appreciated.

Edit: What I want to become, first and foremost, is a theoretical physicist. Not entirely sure where this will lead me, but I am not bothered about the pay of a physicist. The reason I talk of getting a job is because I am International student on a loan and need a way to keep paying after graduation if I cannot immediately make it into grad school.

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    This is a question about preparation for non-academic careers, which is outside of scope. – Brian Borchers Jan 17 at 15:23
  • "I ask this since I do not have a lot of space for courses that aren't Mathematics or Physics." That's the fundamental problem with a double major and why I almost always advise against them. You might be better off majoring in physics, minoring in mathematics and using the remaining time on courses that will make you more industry employable. – G. Allen Jan 17 at 23:55
  • "kind of jobs I'll get if I can't go to Grad school immediately." There's three situations where this problem can happen. 1. You didn't prepare for graduate school far enough ahead. Since you are asking this question in your first year of undergrad, you have avoided this problem. 2. You prepared for several years but still didn't get into graduate school. In this case (which I believe is very rare) trying again later probably won't help. 3. Some sort of disaster struck which prevents you from getting into graduate school. – Anonymous Physicist Jan 19 at 0:00
  • In case 3, the disaster might also prevent you from getting a job. – Anonymous Physicist Jan 19 at 0:01
  • I think you should be more worried about what sort of job you will have after graduate school instead of before. – Anonymous Physicist Jan 19 at 0:01
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What sort of jobs are physics majors usually offered?

Jobs that require smart people! Physics is hard, employers understand physics graduates must be smart (without necessarily knowing why), and hire such graduates for a range positions that require smart people.

And what courses should I take for them?

The specific courses don't matter so much, unless you're targeting a particular skill set. That said, in today's market, having some business and computer science courses will surely help.

I would like to work in something that is a little closer to physics.

You'll need to give more clues before anyone can help direct you.

how much of a role can independent study play when applying for a job? Is it treated equal to courses or less?

I consider independent study to be largely incomparable, but potentially more valuable. For instance, suppose you apply for a stockbroker position. Your physics degree might get you through the door, but knowledge of stockbroking, markets, etc. will get you the position.

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You're asking in the wrong forum. I'm not saying this is more suited to another Stack Exchange, but rather that you shouldn't be asking someone else for help with this question in the first place because you are the person best-positioned to answer it.

Go to your local jobs portal and search for "degree physics". You'll get more relevant results than anyone here can tell you. For example I put "job new york" into Google and reached Indeed.com. Searching for "physics", the top three results are:

  1. Research assistant
  2. Intelligence research specialist, level I
  3. Adjunct instructor - physics

Look through some of the more common (or more enticing) jobs and find out what they're asking for, and then go get the required experience. For example the third job says:

Qualifications, Credentials, Experience: The successful candidate will have

(a) At least an M.S. in Physics Degree

(b) Fluent English Language Skills

(c) It is also desirable for the applicant to have experience teaching recitation, lecture or laboratory sections at the college level.

This disqualifies you because you don't have a MS degree. But if you like this job and want to do it for a career, it means that 1) you should do a MS degree in physics after you've completed your double major, and 2) try hard to get some teaching experience.

In New York, you'll likely find tons of jobs, so you can try refining for those that explicitly suit you - e.g. by searching for both "mathematics" and "physics". You could even search for "fluid dynamics" and "stress analysis" to see what taking those topics open up for you.

There's a good chance you'll discover that "I think they complement each other quite well and will prepare me adequately for Academia and Research" is not good enough. Don't depend on rumors and feelings about what jobs you can do, actually find out. What you think might not be what is actually out there.

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"Closer to physics" is still an extremely wide category. Physics grads work in aviation, automotive, petrochemical, nuclear (that's me), electronics, computers, etc. etc.

First, always make sure you are completing the requirements for your degree.

I would suggest that you pick your undergrad courses for things that you find engaging so that you have a strong tendency to work hard on them without being driven by threat of bad marks. If you find a particular subject in the course catalog interesting, load up on it.

Being your are a freshman, you have lots of choice and time to modify your plans. If you take classes this year that you find keenly interesting, load up on them in 2nd year. If the plans continue to satisfy, then keep going. If you find they don't work out so good, look back at the course catalog.

Don't neglect those acquired skills. For example, learning to program in any computer language is likely to be useful, and quite quickly. Especially in a class that will get you doing something non-trivial. If the class takes you beyond "hello world" and little ASCII graphs of y=x^2, so much the better.

And don't neglect those lab courses. Learning to use some cool lab equipment can be a door opener. Does your university have an electron microscope? Some cryogenic labs? Some wind tunnels? Or any other keen lab with specialist equipment you might find interesting. Find out from your course catalog, your university web site, your guidance department, and maybe even things like open-house night at the lab.

McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada has a pool type nuclear reactor.

https://nuclear.mcmaster.ca/

Any physics student who went through Mac and didn't at least take some training on this reactor would be passing up a big opportunity. Find out if your uni has something of similar interest.

Also, glance around the course catalog outside of physics, even outside of science. Does business interest you at all? There are a lot of physics grads doing stock market analysis. If that grabs your attention, maybe some business classes. There's physics in weather and climate models. There's physics in design of river management. There's physics in design of commercial items. And so on and so on.

Glance through that course catalog. Look for the item that "glimmers." That is, the item that keeps you coming back and thinking "I could be satisfied doing that. I would find that interesting." On the other hand if you are thinking "that would be a chore and I would quickly find coming to class totally a drag" then maybe you need to keep reading the catalog.

  • A few areas that interest me and that I have in mind are Aviation (Analyzing fluid flow and working on engines?), Nuclear, automobile, and working on accelerators. I believe stony brook conducts very interesting nuclear physics experiments through the relativistic heavy ion collider. But I am afraid these areas usually require at least a Masters. – Chandrahas Jan 17 at 17:24
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Let me make a few suggestions that may add up to an answer or not. But, I hope they are worth considering.

First, and I think most important, is that you don't try to lay out the trajectory of your work life to firmly too early. You are probably young enough that your future will be long. Setting things firmly in place now might deny you opportunities later. Not everyone ever has a chance in their life to just do what they love for a while and are burdened with responsibility. I doubt that you have such problems now. So, if you love physics and math then, just do it. Just for the joy of it. Full Stop.

Next is that studying anything will establish patterns of thought appropriate to that field. Writing will make you a better writer, for example. And, physics and mathematics are very different in the thought patterns that they enable. Physical sciences explore the world as it exists. It is grounded in reality and searches for the nature of that reality. Mathematics is pure mind stuff. It need not have any relationship to anything outside mathematics itself. So, the mind develops in different ways by studying two such fields. This gives you mental capability that can be used to learn and do those things, but also other things. The flexibility of thought is an important skill to develop for any professional person. This is independent of any synergy between math and physics, by the way, though those also exist, as you note.

Next, you need to give a bit of thought about what you really want out of life. I hope it isn't just "a job." That is boring and the sort of thing too many people are forced into by circumstances. Since you are attending one of the premier state universities in New York, you are likely be be able to go pretty much where you please in life, provided you take advantage of the opportunities. And if, say "doing physics" is more important than "having a job" then I suspect that you will be able to find a way to do that, even if you wind up earning less than you might if you had studied law or finance.

If you have the opportunity to do what you love, then do that. And if you learn to think powerfully in a variety of ways, they you will be a valuable resource to many employers, in or out of academia.

I heard a comment elsewhere, but don't have a source: "We don't choose mathematics. Mathematics chooses us." That truly resonates with me.


The statement about math choosing us comes from here (pdf)

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In real-world quantitative problems, although people are good at what they do, they don't think like a major in math or physics. They only see what is physically present, and don't know how to think in abstract but quantitative ways a mathematician or a physics major does. So all fields are wide open for you. In my opinion, in the beginning, it can be quite challenging and there could be a lot of failures, but I guess one could do wonders if they keep at it.

In applied fields, people have a habit of looking at theories as only successes or failures in producing desired results. They can't estimate the value of partial success of a failed attempt or theory...they just throw it aside. Only a mathematician can learn even from a failed theory.

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