What can a BSc of Physics do for a living, other than flipping burgers?
June 19, 2010 4:38 PM   Subscribe

Finishing a BSc in physics. What are my job prospects? Do I need to study some more?

I'm on my final year of a BSc in Physics and I'm lost. I will graduate around September. I don't want an academic career and I don't want to do a PhD. What I do want is to do interesting and meaningful work, but I'm really not into solid state or optics. It seems to cancel many job opportunities, although I'm not really sure if these options are even real.
I can find an interest in many industries though - defense, aerospace, medical, even geophysics.

I can continue studying computational physics, applied physics or medical physics for a Masters' to improve my employability. My other option is to go for a certificate in computer science and get some kind of a coding job, hopefully something which has to do with physics.

1. If you're a physicist working in the industry, what do you do?
2. Are my expectations to an increased employability after a Master's realistic?
3. What areas of applied physics or computational physics should I focus on, to find a job later?
4. What are my jobs prospects at the moment?
5. Is there interesting work for BSc of physics who knows basic computer science?
posted by ye#ara to Education (8 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a physicist. I'm also retired. But before that, I worked in academia and industry. A BSc in physics is not as much a handicap as you may have thought. I worked with many physicists in industry that had no graduate degrees. Their trick in finding employment was to go after jobs in engineering. Many companies need engineers who have a broader knowledge of science than a typical engineer would have. Also, these companies are reluctant to employ graduate degreed physicists because they don't think they can afford them. I have known physicists with BSc degreees who ran the R&D departments for small technology based companies. These companies include an x-ray tube manufacturer, a non-destructive testing equipment company, a picture tube manufacturer (they operated the mass spectrometer and optical-spectrum analyzer), a laboratory specialist at Los Alamos and few more I can't recall at the moment.

It will be assumed that your degree in physics will come along with strong computer and math skills (selling point). My experience is that a Masters doesn't improve your employability, but it will improve your starting salary. Your chances of employment are greatly increased if you can get laboratory experience with high-tech equipment. If you can design simple interfaces and do other low-level electronics, your job chances are enhanced further.

Do not sell yourself as a computer scientist. You cannot compete with graduates in that field. The employment aspects are weak for everyone today, but I think if you apply for engineering jobs (particularly in electrical engineering) you may be happily rewarded.
posted by Hilbert at 5:41 PM on June 19, 2010

After graduating with a BS in physics, I worked as an energy policy researcher and later doing engineering and general review for public sector energy performance contracts.

Hilbert's comment about companies needing people with broader scientific and analytical skills in engineering positions resonates with me; I quickly realized that many of the engineers whose work I looked over were simply applying standard methods and formulas without thinking about what they were doing. For instance, the project with calculations for energy savings that were completely off because someone had done the calculation for the exterior surface area of the building incorrectly. As in, actually flubbing a surface area calculation for a building modeled as a rectangular prism. For instance, the ventilation system for a gymnasium that would have blown almost no air out of the far vents because the ducting was not sized to account for the significant static pressure created by such a long run. For instance, the calculation of cooling load savings for installing special films on banks of windows that never got any direct sunlight. I got the feeling that many engineers for the companies doing public contracts were just phoning it in; plugging in the parameters of a new project and sending the results down the line without thinking at all about what they were doing. When I spotted a problem, it was usually intuitive, before I had checked any numbers with my own calculations. That was the benefit of the degree to me, and to the projects I worked with. Your skills could save a lot of money and time by spotting these sorts of things before they make it to the build/install phase.

I'm now getting dual masters in Environmental Studies and Planning and coding for planning apps (so far, just Objective-C development). I plan on developing a hybrid software / community planning career after I graduate.

You have plenty of options to get out there and do something interesting and meaningful with this degree.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 7:50 PM on June 19, 2010

Fermilab is almost always looking for accelerator operators with physics degrees.
posted by Joleta at 10:52 PM on June 19, 2010

"What I do want is to do interesting and meaningful work"

Physics teacher comes to mind. Almost always guaranteed to be both interesting and meaningful! There is a strong need for content (Physics) experts who are good people, devoted to their work, and can learn how best to teach young people (any level, but you might be most satisfied at high school, working with AP/ Bac students who can challenge you and make you consider how/why you know what you know about Physics).

And with your interest in computer science, which it sounds like is currently a hobby and developing skill (?), you could do some awesome stuff with developing educational technology/software to use with students. Some schools offer "computer science" as an optional class in high school (or even elementary or middle school). My husband still speaks fondly of his computer programming class that he took around age 10...

Like this guy, for example (who was even at FermiLab as a student back in the early 90s. I know this person, and he's an awesome guy, very dedicated to work, very intelligent, always learning and improving, and all-around happy.
posted by franc.o.bolos at 4:16 AM on June 20, 2010

I graduated two years ago with a BSc in physics and had absolutely no problem finding something appropriate. Most of my applications were in materials science / semiconductor fields, which might be too 'solid state' for you, plus the economy has since tanked, but the BSc itself is certainly no barrier.

Something that I found useful looking at graduate school was observing that, while I'd make a better salary after two years getting a Master's degree, I'd also make a better salary after two years' work experience.

The job title I'd be looking at is "process engineer", fyi - there are many positions out there for people with a good analytical mind, who can process data, solve problems, look for manufacturing process improvements, etc. The big info your employer gets from your physics degree is "thinks well, works hard, can handle math and quantitative reasoning". There are a lot of people looking for that. Then, your specializations/interests come into play when you look at specific companies.
posted by Lady Li at 10:22 AM on June 20, 2010

There are huge opportunities opening up in clean technology development for scientists and engineers. It hard to generalize, there are thousands of technologies being worked on. But most of them are hard science based. For example there are physicists working on photovoltaic energy, in technology& manufacturing process development.

A masters will improve your starting salary. It will improve you job prospects if your thesis is related to the job your trying to get.

Focus on an area you like - really! Your enthusiasm will shine through and you'll enjoy your life a whole lot more. While you might expect solar energy to fall into solid state or optics, there is also a lot of work being done on manufacturing methods which includes plasma physics, wet chemistry and other semiconductor manufacturing processes (but scaled up to huge thru-puts)

I think job prospects are getting better - just be flexible.

Every advanced technical job now requires basic computer science (i.e. ability to code something). Beyond that your competing with real CS grads, and I wouldn't try to.
posted by Long Way To Go at 2:54 PM on June 20, 2010

My experience is between Lady Li's and Hilbert's: I am about 40, got a B.Sc. and M.Sc. in physics, left without getting a Ph.D.

My first post-graduate work experience was with a national lab, doing process engineering (see Lady Li's comment, above) and some layout. From there, I spent about 7 years with a startup/division of a Fortune 500 company (the startup was acquired 2 years after I joined) doing layout, test and characterization, reliability, and process engineering. Then I joined a large company, doing test engineering -- I've been there for about 4 months now.

Some observations:

-- An M.Sc. in physics is almost useless, is both my experience and the consensus. A Ph.D. in physics opens doors (you will find it a bit harder to get jobs in industry with one, but they will pay better and ultimately you'll advance further). An MBA or a JD with the patent bar can be good compliments to a technical degree, but you'll want to get some work experience before going back to school, especially for the MBA.

-- What will really help, if you're inclined to do more study, is a master's in electrical engineering (or mechanical engineering, perhaps, although from what you've said above, I'm not sure that would be a good fit). It will open doors, even if you don't end up doing software.

-- Some subfields of non-software engineering:
-- Process Engineering. This is the engineering of the various steps necessary to build small-scale (MEMS or IC) devices. There are generalists, but people tend to specialize in dry etch, wet etch, thin film, and photolithography. There's a lot of time spent standing up, dressed in a "bunny suit", in a loud cleanroom (but if you suffer from environmental allergies, this can be a blessing in disguise). There's a major issue with this: many process jobs (though not all) are moving overseas. Most of the jobs remaining are at foundries -- contract manufacturers -- such as TSMC or Applied Materials.

-- Layout and Design Engineering. This might also include modeling, such as SPICE simulations of circuits that others are developing. Ultimately, the idea is to design the devices and create the photomasks used to fabricate them. Others might do some finite element modeling to determine how devices will perform once built (you see this in MEMS quite a bit). Here, people use tools like ANSYS. It's interesting stuff, and will really use those mathematical and computational skills you've developed. However, a lot of employers will want a Ph.D., unless you're doing more basic layout tasks (no design or modeling) with software like Cadence or L-Edit. With other systems (such as optical systems), you might use MATLAB more regularly.

-- Test and Characterization Engineering. This might also be a pretty good match. Here, you'll be developing the software and hardware setups necessary to get the data necessary for analyzing the devices. Characterization has less of that, but more evaluating of the data, more designing the experiments itself. (Test has less, but by no means none, of the data analysis -- you need to understand what you're trying to prove in order to make sure that you're not getting garbage from your test setup.) Pretty software development heavy, particularly database, but you'll also use languages like .NET, C#, and LabVIEW.

-- Reliability Engineering. This is the one where you attempt to determine failure modes, mean times to failure, etc. and attempt to design experiments to figure out the failure rate with a certain degree of uncertainty (this is a very rough description, which reliability engineers might take issue with). A lot of statistical methods will be brought to bear on your tasks. You'll probably use software like Minitab or JMP in order to carry out Student's T-tests, ANOVAs, regressions, and so on. A big disadvantage of this is that reliability is not much loved by the other engineering groups, as you'll spend a lot of time as the bearer of bad news when the latest prototypes fail certain tests. One plus is that you can tell how fucked a company is by how well they treat reliability, so you may be the engineer who's getting off the sinking ships before the others start to scramble for the lifeboats.

So a summary to answer your specific questions:

1) Test engineering. As above, this might be a good match for you.

2) If you're going for a master's in engineering, definitely. Physics, I'm not so sure, although there may be specific counterexamples (e.g., you work with a professor who has a startup on the side, and it's the degree helps you get a job there).

3) Don't worry about areas so much as tools (both conceptual and software/hardware). Finite element modeling with ANSYS is a good one (see the section on design/layout above). Monte Carlo simulation work might be another one (I don't have direct experience here).

4) Not so great, but improving. You will find that there are jobs open only to new graduates, but the more experience, the better is the rule for this labor market. This might be a good enough reason to get another degree.

5) Test engineering is a decent choice -- you don't have to be a hardcore programmer to break into this subfield.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 3:20 PM on June 20, 2010

I need to supplement my reply. I have a PhD in physics. The examples I listed were those BS-Physics graduates I came across in some 35 years of work. I found that, other than academic employment, the PhD was no great benefit in getting work. First, it intimidated many employers. Second, it put me in a salary range that many employers didn't want to consider (I have no idea how many interviews the PhD lost for me). Those positions requiring a PhD are very competitive and extremely hard to land. I'm lucky to have succeeded at all. Ironically, many of my jobs had me reporting to people who had Masters Degrees in Physics (a Masters is often a requirement for upper level management positions).

I think it is much easier finding work with a Bachelors. I have worked with many BSc physicists and found them capable of very competent work in areas of advanced engineering. Your selling point is that your education makes it easier for you to tackle problems that haven't been seen before, because you can tap a broader range of resources than a typically trained engineer.

Finally, ask the faculty in your Physics Department for help in finding work. Many will have industrial connections and usually are very helpful obtaining student placement (as an undergraduate, faculty members helped me find work in industrial laboratories).
posted by Hilbert at 10:59 PM on June 21, 2010

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