Can anyone suggest interesting careers for a physicist hoping to make a good impact on society?
October 29, 2009 10:30 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone suggest interesting careers for a physicist hoping to make a good impact on society?

Currently, I'm a theoretical physics graduate student at an Ivy League school and for various reasons I don't want to discuss, I'm quitting and getting out with the MA. The fact is that I already have two bachelor's degrees in physics and EE as well as a master of engineering from the other university in Cambridge, MA (not Harvard), so I don't feel like the PhD would add too much.

I've been researching career paths and clean energy is an obvious choice. I'm good at modelling and I can see that being a useful skill in the clean energy industry. Another option would be health care. I have a friend does modelling at a health care company. I like clean energy better than health care since it's a newer field with less bureaucracy.

Besides these two, I'm having trouble coming up with other ideas. My criteria are basically this: 1) I want to use my scientific skills and 2) I want to work on projects with broad social impact. Intellectually challenging work would be a plus. I'm willing to do some more school, though probably not a whole another PhD.

I welcome any suggestions, as long as they fit the two criteria I mentioned.
posted by qmechanic to Work & Money (10 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm sure your skills as a researcher would be valued at many green energy R&D startups, especially in photovoltaics or advanced-drive vehicles. Also, the US government is starting to really open the taps in terms of funding - if you have an idea and maybe some qualified friends, apply for a grant from the DOE and start your own company!

Given your modelling abilities, I'm sure you could find a place working at a thinktank like the RAND Corporation.

You might consider applying for a position in NASA, if that sparks your interest. NASA ranked 3rd best US department to work in.

A very different idea: you could teach secondary physics. You may be a little overqualified in terms of science education, but given the state of physics education in America (assuming you're staying in America), it would be an extremely valuable contribution.

Thanks for the question - I'll be following this closely, as I'm in a very similar situation.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 10:48 PM on October 29, 2009

Best answer: Just a quick word of warning - out of the many friends that have tried to find work in clean energy, only the ones with very applicable prior experience (e.g. Mechanical engineer with hvac effiency experience, exotic materials chemist, etc.) have gotten jobs.
posted by benzenedream at 12:00 AM on October 30, 2009

Best answer: I'm still a physicist myself, but plenty of my friends have left the field.

One works for Google, and is excited about seeing projects he works on show up in the real world. Definitely thinks his work is intellectually challenging.

A few became lawyers (no patent law, although that's something natural to do with a science background). Patent law's pretty messed up; somebody's gonna have to work on changing it someday, and they'll need people with a scientific mindset to help.

Another did disaster modeling for insurance underwriting; definitely not save-the-world stuff, but modeling is a useful skill in plenty of different areas.

There's always science policy, funding, and journalism too. I'm not sure the level of training required, but I know several folk who've left academia to be science advisors to political types (everyone I can think of left after a postdoc though). And if you go on to be a good science journalist I personally will come give you a hug; boy do we really need that.

I did know a few who went into finance, but a) I can't say that's a good idea right now, even if you could and b) certainly not save the world. Does have, uh, "broad social impact" though.

Also, one more comment: sometimes the most important skills you have learned in grad school, when it comes to employability, have nothing to do with what you officially studied. You might have picked up good people managing skills, project management, time management, troubleshooting, social organization skills. Perhaps you taught; there's a whole host of skills there. It might be useful for you to think what aspects of your schooling you did enjoy; if you liked writing up your work, you might want to ensure your future career involves not just "science" but also "writing". If you are an experimentalist and really love your lab time, look for that.
posted by nat at 12:01 AM on October 30, 2009

Maybe this one was too obvious, but what about teaching? Besides what you imagine in daily work, there are a lot of opportunities to get funding for curriculum development, which can make your ideas spread even further (e.g. that other university has an experimental physics class (not the new one with the stupid clickers) that was replicated all over the place.)

That "other" university, if it is not Harvard and starts with an M and ends in a T, has a huuuge push for Renewable Energy work right now, and some spun-off and related organizations that are hiring and to which you may already have connections, like the Fraunhofer Center. If you are not using the alumni office already, you should be! They have a job listings page just for alum-to-alum postings, and lots of people willing to help you get into their company/institute.
posted by whatzit at 12:23 AM on October 30, 2009

I wouldn't assume that any industry job you find would have a *bad* impact on society - i.e. don't put "positive societal impact" so high in your search criteria, but save that evaluation for each individual job you apply for or reject.

I have a PhD in atomic/laser physics, and am now working for a "normal corporation" but, as with much industry these days, there is a huge push towards higher efficiency products, better sustainability (i.e. remove toxic components of the product's chemistry), etc. When I'm doing my R&D job, I am doing things that are environmentally conscious, because those are things that are highly marketable. While there was nothing in the job posting that indicated that this is a socially responsible career, it's a job I can really feel good about doing. Was I looking for a socially responsible career when I was doing my job hunt? On some level, yes, in that I tended not to send resumes for military postings; but on the other hand, no, that wasn't a key phrase in the google search, just one of the "corporate culture" aspects that made a job look like a good fit.
posted by aimedwander at 6:05 AM on October 30, 2009

A particle physicist I used to know is successfully developing new medical imaging techniques at Los Alamos National Laboratory. They don't just make nukes, it turns out.
posted by planetkyoto at 6:45 AM on October 30, 2009

Unless you have an inside track to a stimulus-funded clean energy project, you might consider biding your time in grad school until the employment situation gets better. In recessions, grad school becomes more competitive, so your spot there (particularly in the Ivy League) just got more valuable. How close are you to finishing the PhD?

full disclosure: I left a prestigious science PhD program within 18-24 months of finishing. I'm never sure it was the right call.
posted by secretseasons at 8:39 AM on October 30, 2009

Best answer: Look into Medical Physics. Google The American Association of Physicists in Medicine
posted by Rad_Boy at 10:19 AM on October 30, 2009

Seconding Medical Physics. Last week I had lunch with a friend who is working on ion (protons, mainly, but other centers are researching on heavier stuff) treatments on various forms of cancer. His work, in an hospital, includes work in research, experimental, modeling, imaging and design. Your background, including your EE studies, is probably very interesting in that field, as well as for the companies that design and build the machinery.

Maybe it's a bit more mundane than green energy but, hey, a cure for cancer would also be nice.
posted by _dario at 5:43 PM on October 30, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you so much for your responses, everyone. Go physicists!

That aside, let me answer a few issues people here have brought up. I have about two years to go in the PhD. As on of you mentioned, the economy is really bad right now. I was actually thinking about studying Mandarin for 1-2 years, before getting into the job search. It's not because I think Mandarin will be a useful job skill, but for personal reasons.

I had a great time at that university that begins with "M" and ends with "T". In fact, I am exploiting those alumni connections and going to their career office next week. However, I've been on the East Coast for ten years and I really want to move back to California, closer to my family. I'll try to talk to some people and see if they have any connections to the West Coast.

As for education, I have always had a strong interest in it, but I think I have a better way of addressing that interest than going into a teaching career. I've started a personal project that I can work on in my spare time.
posted by qmechanic at 10:41 AM on October 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

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