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I’m currently a high-school student that has been aspiring to be a physicist for quite some time. However, after much research I have found the following to be stakes in that path:

  • There are about twice as many physics PhDs as tenure-possible jobs in academia for them, and those who make it don’t usually get tenure.

  • Physics majors lack the skills in life that others do, like engineering majors or math majors. This makes it very difficult to find a job where they are competitive applicants.

  • Job prospects for future physicists is at 10 %, slightly below average, meaning that this situation won't get better in the next decade.

I’ve always been interested in the sciences, but this is rather depressing. With a physics major, and no PhD (which would otherwise put you in the above position), the best possibility seems to be a high-school teacher. That’s respectable, but I would like to know what other options there are for physics majors (BSc, or MSc). Be as creative as you’d like – include options like moving to another country with better job prospects for physicists (I checked and couldn’t find the job prospects of other countries).

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    like moving to another country with better job prospects for physicists – what country are you currently in? – Wrzlprmft Oct 19 '15 at 8:28
  • I currently work for a trading firm that just hired a couple physicists as prop traders because they are good at quick mental math and decision making and I know they had offers from a bunch of places to do similar jobs – ford prefect Oct 19 '15 at 15:58
  • Physicists end up everywhere. That said, applied physics (engineering) is possibly even less limiting. – MSalters Oct 19 '15 at 20:39
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    Physics majors lack the skills in life that others do, like engineering majors or math majors - As a physics and math double major, I found the opposite to be true. Of course it depends what you focused on during your degree, but a lot of physics is much more "connected to reality" than a lot of math. I can't imagine using topology in most jobs, but my electronics lab may certainly come in handy. – JohnnyMo1 Oct 19 '15 at 21:09
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Various AIP subsidiaries including the APS keep tabs on these things: check out the APS's 2011-2012 survey results.

Don't believe "Physics majors lack the skills in life that others do, like engineering majors or math majors", most engineering employers expect to teach a substantial set of specific skill they need in house even to engineering majors. And a physics major is well positioned to bone up on engineering subject.

But do be prepared to have a little trouble getting your foot in the door; you have to get past HR so that your paperwork is seen by a technical manager. That takes a well designed resume, and you if don't have a mentor with the right experience it might be worth paying a consultant.

General answers to the "What can I do question?"

  • BS Programming, engineering, business are the big three and lots of other jobs are represented in the surveys. With a JD there are specialized areas of the law available to people with a technical background. With a MBA, there are companies who want to hire people to lead the technical end of the business. Med school is an option too, and physicist actually pass the MCAT more often than any other major (they're only second in passing the LSAT as the mathematicians squeeze in front).

  • MS Minimum degree for some reasonable chance of doing science. All the usual suspects plus industry research work and some chance of teaching at the post-secondary level (but generally not tenure-track).

  • PhD Programming, engineering, business, teaching and research. The thing to understand here is that many Physics PhDs don't end up doing physics,1 but most do end up employed at a job that uses the traits that brought you to the major---curiosity, focus, detail orientation and the ability to construct and organize large and complicated models.

With a MS or PhD there are good jobs in the patent office.

The APS recently held a webinar on this very subject.


1 The percentage that end up doing some kind of physics is in the low 50s, and about half end up changing subfield from their dissertation work.

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I have a PhD in mathematical physics (in particular in algebraic formulation of QFT) obtained in Germany, after a master's degree in Italy (on discrete theories for quantum gravity).

I am currently employed as data scientist for a private company, where I have the opportunity to still carry on research in particular areas (mostly machine learning and algorithm methods for data analysis, which, strictly speaking, are not "physics", though). It is a lot of fun and I enjoy it; most of my colleagues have undergone the same carrier path, with PhD in physics/mathematics. Before I also spent some time as quantitative analyst for a bank.

This said, there are opportunities out there for academics having PhD in very technical areas, mainly as data scientists, data/quantitative analysts for private companies or research platforms, or the financial sector. It is also true that, although placing your foot in is not particularly easy, companies do like academics who are able to think, carry on ideas and projects, rather than just doing mere technicalities. Moreover, most of the times people who have done research are much faster in developing solutions and finding possible errors and bugs.

Therefore my opinion is that albeit finding a job outside academia is not the easiest, it is possible and does not have to discourage anyone from pursuing a PhD.

I would like to comment on few sentences of yours:

There are about twice as many physics PhDs as tenure-possible jobs in academia for them, and those who make it don’t usually get tenure.

Actually it is even worse: there are about ten times as many physics PhD as tenure-possible jobs, especially in Europe.

Physics majors lack the skills in life that others do, like engineering majors or math majors. This makes it very difficult to find a job where they are competitive applicants.

This is just completely nonsense. Physicists are exactly the most competitive applicants: they can be employed in any field at any time, despite the skills required, because they can make their own skills. I double dare you to find applicants who are more suitable, pick any job you want. Furthermore, I have never met any physicist or mathematician or engineer who lacks the so-called social skills: on the other hand most of them have been the most entertaining colleagues and co-workers I have had. If someone is weird or anti-social it is about themselves and is totally unrelated to whether they have studied physics, biology or nutrition for dogs and cats.

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I wouldn't give up on academia just yet. But if you do, then Wall Street, say, is littered with PhDs (and bachelors) of physics, in particular hedge funds. You'd typically do a lot of coding, and, to a lesser extent, financial modeling. To give you one example, I've interviewed with someone who researched fluid motions on Jupiter before becoming MD at Goldman. You can google "quants" for that particular option, but you're not restricted to being a quant. You'd be hired for smarts.

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You mentioned high school teaching - this is related to what I do.

I have a PhD in a semi-obscure sub-discipline of Physics - despite being employed as a part time lab tech and part time Physics teacher, I am still involved in research (mostly as a lead author) as an Adjunct staff member of the University I graduated from.

Depending on where you are, it is still possible to do paid work in one area and still be involved and recognised in Physics research as an Adjunct.

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Physics majors lack the skills in life that others do, like engineering majors or math majors.

Knowledge of concrete physics is only a small portion of what you learn when studying physics. You also learn: Scientific thinking and working, problem solving, abstracting things, doing useful approximations, developing models, programming, mathematics, statistics and communicating all of this. Something similar applies to many, if not all other fields.

Also, what makes you think that studying mathematics of all things gives you more “skill in life”? It’s the nature of mathematics to go one step further in terms of abstractness, theoreticness or purity than physics (relevant XKCD)¹. There is a grain of truth in the cliché that mathematicians are detached from reality². Of course, there are some mathematical tools that are generally very useful – so useful that they are part of the physics curriculum as well.


¹ Of course this only holds on average. There are certainly some fields of mathematics that are more applied than some fields of physics.
² Note that I do not want to bash mathematicians here (in particular since I am half of a mathematican myself). This really is a cliché and only few mathematicians are detached from reality. Moreover, mathematics needs to be the way it is. All I am saying is that you do not become closer to reality just because you study maths instead of physics.

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If you're concerned about getting a job while also getting an MS in physics, try identifying a branch of physics that is likely to become more relevant in the future. As an example, the field of handling greenhouse gas problems is likely to grow in the future. Perhaps there are areas in geophysics (for carbon storage) or more towards chemical physics (carbon capture) or mechanical engineering (CO2 transport) that you could pursue. Another (perhaps more high-risk) topic would be fusion power. Another would be the intersection of "big data" and physics.

The difficult things with this strategy are

  • knowing what will be important in the future
  • timing it such that these things are becoming important when you are entering the job market
  • finding such things which are also interesting for you

In some sense I followed this strategy myself. I did most of my BS and early MS studies in quantum physics, but ended up pursuing computational physics (specifically CFD) for my Master's degree, which had been more of a hobby than anything else up to that point. Turns out, physicists who can write good high-performance code in languages other than C++ are in high demand.

This brings me to my final point: what you do for your BS is probably a bit irrelevant, in the sense that you can relatively easily switch to a different sub-field of physics later on.

(And, because I can't resist: a physicist is obliged to take the path that minimizes the action.)

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