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Personally, I'd rather be a rock star...
May 17, 2008 11:19 AM   Subscribe

What can I do with a degree in Physics? What doors and pathways will it open for me? How long will I need to study before I am able to call my self a Physicist and make a meaningful contribution in my field?

I'm about to make what seems to be the biggest decision of my life. Applications have been sent and responses have been received. Now comes the hard part.

My parents (one of whom is a computer engineer) are hell-bent on making me an Engineer (EE or CE) and have resorted to every known form of propaganda and coercion to force me to think like them. To be honest, I don't really think engineering is suited for me. I can certainly do the mathematics and tackle the theoretical aspects of it, but have never had the practical ability needed. I am horrendous when it comes to using my hands to do anything constructive (although I excel at things destructive).

The main argument my parents use is that engineering will quickly land me a good job after graduation, opportunities will be plenty money will come easy, whereas pursuing a career as a physicist would involve me studying till I get my Masters or PhD and most likely end me up in some teaching position (do not want) or spend the rest of my life as a lowly (and poor) researcher.

My question basically is this: Are my parents wrong when they say Physical Sciences is career suicide? Will I be able to do as well out in the "real world" following a career in Physics (Theoretical or otherwise)?

P.S. I will most likely attending U of Waterloo (physical sciences) or McMaster U (either physical sciences or engineering). Since engineering involves a common first year here, I have the choice when it comes to specialization so I definitely have more choices than my parents present me with.
posted by shoebox to Education (29 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Academically, just from what I understand - you don't just need a Ph.D. in physics, you need a post doctoral degree. And then you have to fight against all of these other postdocs for academic positions. You can get by with less if you go into "industry." And the pay will suck. And you will fight for grant money.

Thus far, aside from some tutoring, the only use for my bachelor's in physics has been a sort of generic "smart person" signifier on a resume. Whoop-te-doo.

Oh, and tearing apart the science in various movies. Sometimes it's a detriment to your enjoyment of a film.

Don't get me wrong, I love physics. I still grab abstracts and flounder through material far above me, just to keep in the game, but this is not a great time and place to be a physicist. And the days of being a lone person who makes some big contribution are about forty years gone. These days, scientists are harnessed together like sled dogs ... and you know what they about how, if you're not the lead dog, the view never changes?
posted by adipocere at 11:38 AM on May 17, 2008


APS covers this well. You should also ask the people at your probable physics departments. It's true that engineers overall get better paying jobs quicker. It's also true that physics is 9 more points of awesome. I went from physics undergrad to medicine and statistics for graduate school, so you're not exactly locked in. My understanding is that plenty of physics graduates do engineering work.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 11:39 AM on May 17, 2008


Well, a degree in physics is great preparation for a career in finance.

While I was at Deutsche Bank I worked with the graduate trainee program where folks with no banking experience join a firm and are rotated through various business units, learning all they can. After two years (or so, depends upon the institution) they decide what part of banking they'd like to work in.

At that firm I was working for the US Government Securities trading desk, as a quant, and we found it easier to hire folks (presumably such as yourself) that had a solid math background and teach them financial products than it was to take someone who knew economics, and teach them the math.

So I can't comment on how much study it would take before you could credibly call yourself a Physicist, but such an academic background would certainly open doors into banking.

Oh and the money your parents might ask? Well, opportunities abound and the job certainly pays well but you shouldn't pursue a career in finance, like any other field, solely on the basis of earning power. Do it because you find the work interesting, first and foremost. You have no idea how many miserable folks I run into in banking, only started because of the money and once they got caught up in the lifestyle, can't change fields because of the money. Bad choise that - don't make it.
posted by Mutant at 11:43 AM on May 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


They are wrong about the job market for degrees in the physical sciences, and since it sounds like you're just starting your UG you have plenty of time to change your mind. If you want to do physics do it, but if you want to work in the hard sciences as a career you'll have to go to grad school, whereas you can get an engineering job with your BS (but there's still a hierarchy of degrees).

Take some courses in each, you'll have to do the intro physics series no matter what, even if you want to be an engineer. It's not just about money either, if you can find a job that makes you happy then that is what will make you successful and feel fulfilled.

Also- a lot of good scientists (esp. physicists) spend almost all of their time building things and fiddling with knobs, so recusing yourself from engineering because you don't like building things won't get you very far. In any job a lot of the minutes come down to doing critical, menial, tasks.
posted by Large Marge at 11:43 AM on May 17, 2008


Physicists are going to hate me for saying this, but I think that physics is, for most practical purposes, a solved problem. To get to the point where there is unknown material in physics takes huge facilities and armies of grad students, post-docs, and professors. That's not to say that taking a degree in physics doesn't give you a great education and the ability to do lots of stuff, but just that making a contribution to the field is really, really, really hard.

You might consider finding a program in engineering mechanics, or engineering physics as it is sometimes called. These guys are basically hard core math/physics types who use their skills to develop problem-solving techniques that more traditional engineering types, like mechanical or electrical engineers, use to solve problems. You might say that they straddle the difference between physics and engineering.

I think it's good to keep your options open for a bit while you sort things out. If you end up doing the common first year, most definitely spend some time talking with professors and students and getting a feel for what seems interesting.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 11:44 AM on May 17, 2008


You can become an astronaut.
posted by popcassady at 11:56 AM on May 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have an undergraduate degree in physics. An undergraduate degree is physics is worth precisely squat, except for getting into graduate school or teaching high school physics. You'll need a PhD in Physics if you want to work as a physicist, Physics masters degrees are unusual.

I transitioned to a nuclear engineering graduate program where I'm working on a phd. There are many engineering jobs that are solely computer modeling, being "horrendous when it comes to using my hands" shouldn't cause you to abandon the field entirely. The labs you'd do for physics and EE undergrad are probably about the same.

The courses required for an undergraduate physics degree often overlap pretty closely with electrical engineering. You could probably wait awhile before deciding, or work out a double major without hugely inconveniencing yourself. Engineering graduate programs will also often accept physics undergraduates, while the reverse is not so much the case.

I'd look at your degree options like this:
BA in engineering: Lots of jobs, mediocre pay
BA in physics: No jobs, you'll be in essentially an engineering job if you find one.
Phd in engineering: Few jobs, interesting jobs, good pay, competitive.
Phd in physics: Few jobs, interesting jobs, good pay, very competitive, the knowledge you are hard core enough to get a phd in physics.

If you don't want to teach or work as a "lowly and poor researcher" you may be in a tough spot as low paid post-docs are pretty common these days. Generally though if you land a proper job as a PhD researcher at a company, or national lab, the pay is not too bad. Engineering is probably a "safer" life route tough, and science is not the field you go into to get filthy rich.
posted by pseudonick at 11:58 AM on May 17, 2008


Physicists are going to hate me for saying this, but I think that physics is, for most practical purposes, a solved problem. - LastOfHisKind, 2008

There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, All that remains is more and more precise measurement. - Lord Kelvin, 1900

Regardless, you should pursue physics because the problems of physics are not solved for you. I'm an electrical engineering student, though the physics side has tempted me in the past a lot. In the end, I think it comes down to what sort of work you'd like to do - try to talk to graduates of both disciplines and see whose day to day life you could enjoy more. You can always learn physics on your own time.
posted by phrontist at 11:59 AM on May 17, 2008


I have a degree in physics.

I am not, except in the broadest possible sense, a physicist. I don't do physics as an occupation. I think this is actually the case with most people who study and major in physics at the undergraduate level. The last time I went to a reunion, only a handful of the people I graduated with were actually doing research or applied physics. Most people were all over the place; a lot of people in business, some in IT, a few who'd gone to law school, a couple of MDs, and one guy who joined the Air Force and flies fighter jets. The majority (60-70 percent, if I had to guess) had gone on to graduate school.

Your parents are right, at least in my opinion, that a physics degree will not get you a job, in the same way that an Engineering degree will. An undergraduate degree in Physics is a whole lot less specific; in terms of job prospects it's more in the vein of traditional liberal arts degrees (although it's been my experience that people are more impressed by it).

To really do physics as an occupation, you're probably looking at an undergraduate degree -- where, depending on where you go, you'll begin to be able to do some research -- followed by grad school, where you'll definitely do research. After that, you are really looking at PhD programs if you want to teach and have a shot at tenure. (At my undergrad, they would hire adjuncts and assistant professors with Masters degrees, but you couldn't get on the tenure track without a terminal degree.)

Unfortunately with the demise of most of the big corporate labs, there's not a ton of private-sector work if you really want to do research physics. I don't have any numbers (the SPS probably does, though), but I suspect the vast majority of people who actually would call themselves "physicists" due to their day-to-day occupation work in academia, with a smaller portion working in government labs.

I have never had any regrets about majoring in physics, but then again I decided pretty early on that although the topic interested me, I had zero interest in academia or grad school; I used it as a way into the corporate world and don't have too many regrets. Although I don't use much physics knowledge in my job, I do think it gives you a way of looking at problems and thinking about the world in general that's useful in business.

The school I went to didn't offer Engineering, so I didn't really have to choose one or the other (within the realm of physics, I was definitely on the applied/experimental side); I suspect if M.E. had been an option I would have gone that route. But that's really less because of job prospects than just because the physics I enjoyed most was the least-abstract stuff. (I had a research project dismissively referred to by a department committee as "arts and crafts" once.)

Your parents are correct in saying that there are more jobs for engineers than there are for physicists -- however, you can still definitely get a variety of jobs with a degree in Physics. (It just may not have anything to do with physics.) My suspicion is that you could do most of these non-physics jobs with an engineering degree as well, but I'll leave that for someone with an engineering degree to answer.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:02 PM on May 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Dude, if you want to make a lot of money, and you're really good at math, don't go into engineering, go into finance. High finance people make real fortunes, even billions of dollars for hedge fund managers.

Strong math, good computer skills and a strong understanding of statistics and machine learning techniques will be very helpful. There are a ton of really interesting things being done there. I imagine it would be a lot more fun then sitting around CD-ROM controller chips or engine ECUs whatever. (On the other hand, I would find designing high-end chips and super computers pretty interesting, but how many people get to do that?).

Anyway, you should have plenty of time to switch majors if you decide you don't like physics. In fact, having a Bachelors in physics would probably be fine for getting into something like this Masters in Mathematical Finance at Columbia. There are lots of programs like that.
posted by delmoi at 12:08 PM on May 17, 2008


There are lots of jobs that pay will (better than engineers) in industry. Engineers will have an easier time getting a job after a BS and will probably make more right off the bat than a physicist but if you get a MS it is just as easy to get a job if you are physics or EE and the pay will be the same or higher for most physicists. Take a look at the APS site to get real info.

As a physicist i would recommend that if you can plan out coursework with the school that results in you getting a EE and physics BS without spending more than ONE extra year(compared to getting either individually). Physics will make you smart and EE will get you a job. For me the experience in the Physics department was 100 times better than the EE. But that could be different from University to University.
posted by humanawho at 12:09 PM on May 17, 2008


It depends a great deal on what you want out of a degree in physics, but as a card carrying member of the discipline, I feel like I should chime in. However, note that I now study the physics of how cells move around, as I've gotten rather tired of electrons and lasers.

An undergrad degree in physics is a primer on quantitative modeling. You learn a great deal of mathematical techniques and also start to develop the intuition on when and how you can make simplifying assumptions to understand the behavior of a more complicated system. This intuition is the primary value of a physics degree over any other quantitative discipline, in my opinion, and it's part of why interdisciplinary research involving physicists has taken off in the last decade. Some of this work is pretty shady, but there is also a lot of very good science being done. If you want to make contributions to cosmology or particle physics, it'll take a long time to develop the background and you will only carve out a small sliver of knowledge for yourself, but in most subfields you just toss yourself into a lab, follow instructions, and read up until you realize you're doing science. As such, too, just start doing research as an undergrad. It'll be menial at first, but you'll find you're learning a lot.

What I should say, however, is that these days I would discourage people from doing a traditional single major in Physics, or even a double major in physics and math (unless you want to do string theory or the like). The strength of the field is largely in its philosophical approach (and luck of draw in terms of problems, to be honest), but that approach certainly has weaknesses. Depending on where you wanted to go, a second major/considerable experience in CS, Biology, Stats, or even something like Econ (another field with merit, but significant philosophical myopia) would make you an exceptionally attractive graduate student in theoretical physics.
posted by Schismatic at 12:11 PM on May 17, 2008


The one thing I wish someone had told me (or I wish I had listened to) when I was going into college/university was that there are tons of jobs out there that don't require *specific* degrees -- they just require *a* degree. True, these may not be jobs that directly relate to your degree, especially if you're studying something like physics... but there are so many possibilities out there that it makes more sense to study what you love and figure it out as you go along. You can always switch programs after your first year, or (likely) go to grad school for engineering with a physics undergrad, or whatever.

But study what you want to study, because the number of people I know who are actually working in the field they first entered in college is really quite low.
posted by cider at 12:15 PM on May 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


My advice is to study what you want to study, find out about potential careers you would like to do, and figure out how to go there. The reason why physics grads (and those in other disciplines) get stuck in low-paying teaching jobs is because of lack of imagination. Professionals who receive higher wages have to earn them. Usually they have the resources to figure out how to earn money for employers (think sales or product management/development) or have technical background no-one else does (accountants, doctors, lawyers).

But getting a degree in physics does not mean you are doomed to a life of penury.

Anyway, Waterloo has the best co=op program in the country, so take advantage of that. Explore different fields. And start planning for success.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:03 PM on May 17, 2008


If you go to Waterloo, apply to the co-op program. I can't stress this enough. You won't necessarily be able to work as a physicist with a BSc, but it will prepare you for a lot of jobs that require a degree in a quantitative field (which, quite honestly, is a different ballgame from simply having *any* degree). The people I know who graduated from physics (at UW) and aren't headed to grad school are mostly working in software development or finance.

And please, don't go into engineering just because you like math and physics but want a clear career path. I know a handful of people who switched out of physics/math/CS into EE or CE for that very reason and regretted it. (MeFi Mail me if you'd like to know a bit more about UW.)
posted by thisjax at 1:21 PM on May 17, 2008


shoebox, are you my long-lost brother? My parents were exactly like yours. All throughout my childhood and high school, they were always telling me to study EE in college or else I'd end up poor and jobless.

Like you, I was plenty good at math, but I wanted to study something else (linguistics in my case). I ended up going into EE anyway, and I kept trying to convince myself that I would end up liking it (I didn't). Four years later, I've just graduated and I'm going for a master's in mathematical finance. I honestly think I wouldn't be any worse off having done something I would have enjoyed more, like mathematics or computer science.

However, it's worth mentioning that EE is a really wide field and you might just find something you like. As a math + programming guy, I liked computer architecture, control systems, and digital signal processing, but I didn't care much for electronics, electromagnetics, or power. YMMV, as a physics guy you may actually like all the emag stuff. To tell the truth, studying EE wasn't that bad, but I might have disliked it just because I resented not majoring in what I wanted - I always felt a bit ashamed every time someone asked me what my major was.

It's also true that there are a lot of well-paid job opportunities for fresh EEs, but when I was looking at jobs last fall, there were three main types available to me (YMMV):
1) making bombs or some supporting system thereof
2) working in a power plant
3) programming consumer electronics firmware
all of which I found very unappealing (of course, you might find that cool, a lot of guys seem to like #1). It was a reassuring safety net when I was applying to grad school though.

Also, I don't know if this is true for all schools, but you might not like the student culture in the EE department. At my school, there were definitely a lot more "free spirits", hackers, and true geek types in physics, computer science, and math than in engineering. Most of the engineering guys were conservative, straight-laced types who studied a lot (I felt out of place) - but I realize I'm making horrible generalizations and I'm sure this varies a lot with the school and the location.
posted by pravit at 1:56 PM on May 17, 2008


I am horrendous when it comes to using my hands to do anything constructive (although I excel at things destructive).

Also, as others have mentioned, actual EE work doesn't really involve using your hands very much. They will make you do a bit of grunt work in the lab during your degree, but from what I understand professional engineers don't have to do any of that stuff.
posted by pravit at 2:05 PM on May 17, 2008


American Institute of Physics has stats from surveys of past graduates from the US about physicists
posted by humanawho at 2:06 PM on May 17, 2008


You might consider finding a program in engineering mechanics, or engineering physics as it is sometimes called. These guys are basically hard core math/physics types who use their skills to develop problem-solving techniques that more traditional engineering types, like mechanical or electrical engineers, use to solve problems. You might say that they straddle the difference between physics and engineering.

This is exactly what I was thinking. If your only hesitation about engineering (beyond wisely being skeptical of anything your parents are so adamant about) is that you aren't good with your hands, then you've got nothing to worry about. There are plenty of engineering jobs that are math-intensive and don't involve physically constructing things yourself.

Someone upthread said it, but unless you want to go to graduate school, the best a physics degree will get you is an engineering-ish job with less pay.

If you go to Waterloo, apply to the co-op program.

Absolutely positively. My supervisor in grad school did his undergrad at Waterloo and frequently commented upon its excellence.
posted by Nelsormensch at 2:15 PM on May 17, 2008


I love Physics. My Physics career led me down a very different path, where I no longer work as a Physicist, but I consider myself fortunate to have been able to study Physics as far as I could (and eventually lending a tenured position in a Physics department, years ago).

Along the way, I thought (many times) I had made the wrong choice. Looking back, I think I would have been happy with studying engineering - either EE or Engineering Physics.

I agree with pretty much all the comments made above. In addition, I would have to add that in Canada, many jobs are designated (through collective agreements, or some legislation, etc.) as reserved for "professional engineers" - the various Engineering societies have been very active (and successful) in carving out an exclusively reserved share of the job market for their own. Even though as a physicist you would have all the required knowledge for some job, you might not be even considered.

Sad, but true.

That being said, you should have a look at the CAP site (www.cap.ca).

Best of luck!
posted by aroberge at 2:27 PM on May 17, 2008


A physics background can be an excellent foundation for economics as well. In fact when I did my masters in economics several of my tutors had started life in physics and transferred their maths and modelling skills into economics and to great effect....and, as others have said, that kind of background lends itself to a finance as well if you do not see your future in academia.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:07 PM on May 17, 2008


Having read this thread, I feel confident that I know as little as or less than about the actual life of a Physics or EE major as anyone else who has responded so far. Why then, you ask, am I muddying your perfectly nice corner of the green with my answer?
My Bachelor's degree is in English. Unless we have a philosopher in the house, there are few more qualified to speak about how much it seriously does not fucking matter whether or not your undergrad degree will get you one very specific kind of job.
Well, shit, I stepped all over my point there. The point is: It seriously does not fucking matter whether or not your undergrad degree will get you a very specific kind of job. Loads of people go to college and major in subjects infinitely less practical than EE or Finance. Those people sometimes need to get graduate degrees in order to get very specific kinds of jobs (I did; you may), but they survive. Hell, a lot of them like it (I did not, but I like my work, I'm good at it, and I'm not poor).
Do what you want to do. It will work out because you will make it work out. The least happy people I know are the ones who are stuck in a career that they chose because it was practical and now it's the only thing they know.
posted by willpie at 3:51 PM on May 17, 2008


Since graduating last spring from the University of Kansas with a B.S. in Physics, I've been working for the state (of Kansas), first in energy policy research and now providing what is basically engineering oversight of projects intended to make public buildings more resource efficient and sustainable. During my final semester I was proactive about finding an interesting job and secured employment before I graduated. When I interviewed for the current job, I was able to get my foot in the door with references from the first job and then demonstrate my analytical abilities during the interview. The caveat is that the state pays me about $20k less than the engineer I replaced, even though I am roundly praised for providing oversight far superior to his. The justification from upstairs is that I am not an engineer.

The analytical skills I honed in undergrad have served me well in this position. I always loved building instrumentation/electronics in my circuits labs, and the same conceptualization is involved in reviewing engineering for these projects. I've found it amazingly easy to assimilate the previously unfamiliar engineering; it's just specific applications of the general principles I learned in school. I've found that many engineers learned the formulas without really learning the principles, and I think having someone like me in the process is an advantage to all parties, even if the corporations my office oversees are huge babies about the mistakes I find.

As people have already noted, a B.S. does not a physicist make. The stories I hear from my undergrad friends who went on to get their PhD horrify me. I'm going on to graduate school in the fall to get my masters (maybe PhD?) in Environmental Studies, focusing on water resources management. I plan on developing a hard research oriented curriculum that utilizes my well-honed experimental/analytical skills. Your education and career are what you make of them, but keep in mind that your parents are right that you will likely command a higher salary with a degree in Engineering, unless you've already been through grad school.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 5:33 PM on May 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've heard enough broad-brushed and silly comments about physics degrees in this question that I feel I can retaliate.

An engineering degree is largely vocational training. You come out of the program with the BS, and you can now perform the duties of this or that engineer. A physics degree is training to be a very smart person. You walk out with the degree, and then you have to determine what it's good for.

The reason people beat up on physics degrees when you ask the question "What can I do with a degree in blank" is that there is no standard career path with a physics degree. You can name the biggest ones, which are graduate school and finance, but I don't think those are even a majority of the "where do people go" pie.

All I can say is do what you enjoy. Don't worry about what you're going to do after you graduate; you'll probably end up changing your mind five times in the process anyways, just like everyone else.
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:43 PM on May 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Having a physics degree marks you as a Smart Person. It won't guarantee you any particular career path, but it will open the door to "exclusive" careers like Wall Street Finance (which can lead to hedge funds, if you are a rockstar).

There is nothing wrong with taking the physics path, even if you want to end up a computer scientists. Much modern physics involves a hell of a lot of software engineering. The people on the leading edge of massively parallel compute projects are physicists (and Bioinformatics people).

There is also nothing wrong with getting your PhD and becoming a professor. If you are the best of the best and get into the most relevant programs, you shouldn't have much trouble landing a professorship that pays as well as the best engineering jobs do.


My question basically is this: Are my parents wrong when they say Physical Sciences is career suicide?

Yes, they are. Computer Engineering is an engineering discipline in name only. Most interesting employers will happily take a smart physicist with experience building software to do physics over a person with a CS or CpE degree and similar experience. Take a grad-level class in complexity theory, and another in automata theory and formal languages, and you will have 90% of the Computer Engineering background you need. The rest has to be learned on the job.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:18 PM on May 17, 2008


I finished my physics BS a year ago. I chose physics as a major because I wanted to take almost all of the required classes; I didn't want a career in pure math even though I enjoyed it, and I'd been fascinated by quantum physics for a few years.

I'd always assumed I would go for a PhD, and when I chose physics, I initially thought that I was locked into physics grad programs. After a while, that started to depress me a little -- someone above said that physics is already 'solved', and while that is by no means completely true, the stuff that people are working on requires many years of study to understand and is generally difficult to relate to the real world.

In the meantime, I'd become much more concerned about energy/environmental problems. I enjoyed undergraduate research, but I wanted my graduate (and beyond) research to address problems that I felt were important in a straightforward manner. Eventually I decided to apply to materials science and engineering graduate programs, and WOW -- they were all over me with fellowship offers, etc. I should probably note that I was good physics student and probably could have gotten into one of the top physics programs, but my heart wouldn't have been in it.

Anyway, one of the awesome things about materials science is that it's super-interdisciplinary -- in a sense, I get to be THE physicist among the people working on my project, and I get the benefit of talking to people from many different backgrounds: chemical engineering, chemistry, materials science, geology, electrical engineering, even math.

I'm not trying to say that materials science would be a better undergrad major than physics -- I'm SO glad I did physics, because the problem-solving approach it instilled in me is great. It was pretty easy to catch up on the relevant materials knowledge in my first year, and my physics background makes some things much easier for me than for others. A good example of this is computational modeling, which is becoming more important in lots of fields in both academia and industry. If you are also interested in CS/programming (or like programming when you have to take an intro class), this would be a great thing to look into.

A point I'm trying to get across is that the lines between various science and engineering disciplines aren't nearly as sharp as you might think. You have the opportunity to switch fields between undergrad and grad; if you major in what you find most interesting, do well, and want to do something different but related, you should be fine. Most engineering grad programs seem to love physics undergrads, esp. if they've taken a few electives or done research to focus their development in the relevant direction.

However, I can't say as much about the post-undergrad job market. Some of the points made above are probably true -- I don't think anyone who graduated with me went on to work as a 'physicist' immediately. Several went to physics PhD programs*, one is going to law school to be a patent lawyer, one is going to medical school, one went to a history of science phd program... I've heard of others who've gone into finance.

*At least in physics and materials science, it's pretty common to go directly into a PhD program from undergrad. This is nice because good sci/eng PhD programs are funded -- your tuition is covered and you are paid at least $18,000/year in exchange for working as a reseach and/or teaching assistant. (Good students can get fellowships for $30,000+.) Usually you have the option to get a masters' along the way or as a consolation prize of sorts if you can't hack it (i.e. pass the qualifying exam) or decide to drop out but want something to show for your time. Masters-only programs are generally not funded, although it's worth noting that there are a good number of 1-yr professional physics masters programs for working in medical imaging, nuclear power, etc.

Something else: I also thought I wasn't cut out for lab work because I broke something in pretty much every chem lab in high school. Eventually I tried some lab work and, you know, it turned out to be fine. There is a cultural divide in physics between theorists and experimentalists -- if you pay attention to this, you may observe some amusing interactions between profs that would otherwise have gone over your head. :) Theory is intense and mathy and, I think, it's harder for theorists to transition into/collaborate with other fields. Computation is emerging as this new thing that isn't one or the other. You might like doing research in one area but not another, or you might not like research at all. Not liking research doesn't mean that your physics background won't be useful or that you won't do something awesome, but it does mean you shouldn't go to grad school and probably won't end up with physicist as a job title.

You might also do some reading about subfields of physics (condensed matter, particle, atomic, etc) and see how the ones that interest you overlap with various engineering fields. If you look at the research interests of physics profs at your school and the kinds of invited talks/colloquia they have, you should get a feel for what that department's strengths are. However, this is generally does not have a big influence on what the coursework is like, though it may impact the availability of upper-level electives (the classes that would mix undergrad and grad students). Mostly important for research opportunities.
posted by ecsh at 9:43 PM on May 17, 2008


You don't actually say what *you* want to do. Do you actually want to do physics? Or are you simply choosing this because it is not engineering? Whatever you do, don't do something just because your parents want you to do it; you may regret it for the rest of your life.

Although it is natural for your parents to want you to have a financially successful career, once you graduate it is you who has to make your life a success, not them. It is much easier to feel you have made a success of your life if you are doing something you enjoy.

With regard to whether physics makes a good career choice, I would agree with those who say it makes a good base for your career. It is a generalist subject that can open doors to many fields, from computing to finance. I would also agree that your choice of degree is likely to have very little bearing on the career you find yourself in in 10-15 years time. A degree opens the door for you to start creating a career; it does not create a career in itself.

My personal experience is one of choosing a physics-based degree (astrophysics) more through momentum than desire. Over the course of the degree I gradually formed a clearer idea of what I wanted to do with my life and subsequently did a Masters to get me a job in the field I actually found of interest (geophysics). After a few years in the reality of the workplace, I finally discovered when my true interests lay, retrained via another Masters, and ended up in computing.

Ultimately, although a degree feels like a major fork in the road, it is actually best viewed as simply the first in a long sequence of stepping stones. Pick something you think you want to do and then by the end of the degree you will have a clearer idea of where you want to go next, hopefully having had a fun time in the process.
posted by oclipa at 2:57 AM on May 18, 2008


A physics undergrad is a good start for the small but important field of acoustics. Do a masters in acoustics afterwards, (example here) and you could be a consultant to architects. Physics in general may be "already solved" but the known formulas still need to be correctly applied and solved for each custom situation, as relates to the behavior and propagation of sound waves for a particular building before it's built. Admittedly this is more like engineering than research, but it may be more interesting to you than other engineering fields. These guys are some of the rockstars. The daily work is 1% inspiration, 39% perspiration, and 60% communicating your recommendations to people who don't understand what you do, so that they will understand, or at least accept your recommendations. Typical tasks would be:

Room shaping - Shaping the surfaces of an assembly space like a theater to naturally reflect the performers' voices/instruments into the audience.

Reverberation time - setting a goal and determining what mix and placement of reflective, diffusive, and absorptive materials within the room to give the room the desired reverberation time.

Mechanical noise control - advising the mechanical (HVAC) engineer about what duct linings, air velocity, diffuser types, and unit locations so people can't hear the HVAC system in a concert hall.

Sound isolation - Advising the architect what door types and wall constructions to use to prevent people in one room from hearing what's hapening in the room next door.

Noise control - Advising the architect what window and wall constructions are necessary if they want to build million-dollar condos next to an interstate. Or coming up with noise mitigation solutions for an industry or night club whose neighbors are complaining about noise.

"Value Engineering" - We know you said to do this, but that doesn't meet the budget, so how can we get the same performance and lower the construction cost?
posted by one at 5:20 AM on May 18, 2008


I think it's good that you're hearing a variety of perspectives here, because I don't think there's a clear-cut answer to what you're asking. I agree with Kadin2048 and kiltedtaco in large measure -- the career path of a physicist is going to be much less clearly defined, and whether you think this is a good thing or not depends on your temperament. I think you should think of an undergraduate physics degree as preparation to think about problems in a certain way, less as about the acquisition of some body of knowledge. And because you're less wedded to the topic and more to the approach, you start to understand the connections between these topics and you recognize that they often share underlying structures, and they can be modeled in similar ways. I think this is a lot of where the perception of physicists as really smart comes from -- they seem to know a whole lot about some field they haven't specifically studied, or at least they can think about that field (biology, economics, whatever) in productive ways. If you want to go on to solve unsolved physics problems, then you'll have to learn a whole lot about that problem, and that will take work and time and graduate school and a whole lot of determination. But you can put that decision off until you have a better sense of who you are and what you want to do. If you want to go to work after getting your bachelor's degree in physics you will have more responsibility to decide how you want to apply what you've learned -- but also more options.

(My sense is that engineers are also going to have a less well-defined career path in the next few decades. The opportunities will be more at the interstices between traditional disciplines than within disciplines. Nanoscience is a fine example of this.)

What you decide now is not such a big deal. You can switch as an undergraduate, or you can switch later on. I have a bachelor's degree in engineering and switched to physics before entering graduate school -- that required taking a few more classes but it's not a big stretch. And a lot of people with bachelor's degrees in physics do graduate work in engineering -- probably an easier switch, but still requiring some extra coursework.

In the meantime (and I say this as a parent) you need to be nice to your parents and tell them how much you appreciate that they've brought you up so well that you have all of these great choices to make. Then you should ignore them. If the worst thing that happens to their child is that they end up earning only $70k because they have a physics degree instead of $90k as an engineer then they are fortunate indeed. Do what _you_ want. They'll figure out later that they cared so much about you that they lost perspective.

Finally. The idea that physics is a solved problem is of course nonsense, just as it was nonsense when people were saying it just before Einstein came along. For example, we apparently don't even know how to detect most of the stuff in the universe, let alone what it is.
posted by Killick at 8:35 AM on May 18, 2008


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