I have an M.Sc, help me find a job.
October 18, 2011 4:22 PM   Subscribe

OK, I need some career/job advice. I have an M.Sc. in physics and essentially no non-academic experience. I'm looking for left-field suggestions about what kinds of jobs I should be looking for.


I'm a 27 year old dude and finished my masters a few months ago. My academic research was in particle physics, and it was technically experimental but I essentially just wrote analysis code. I don't, however, have any actual background or coursework in computer science or software. I have lab experience from a research job in undergrad working on a laser spectroscopy experiment that was very hands-on.

Since I graduated a few months ago I've been applying for non-academic research associate/data analysis type jobs in Vancouver, BC, with no bites. I think I have too little practical experience for people to be interested. I'm actively working on improving my traditional job search skills.

I have no interest in working an academic job. I really did not enjoy my time in grad school so I'm looking for a different direction to take.

My questions to you:

1) What are some non-traditional jobs I should be looking at?

2) How do I go about getting this job?

More info:

- I'm in Vancouver BC and love it here, but I'm unattached and willing to travel.

- I'm broke but have no debt. My parents would front me money if it was going towards something that would get me started on a career.

- I don't care about making big money now or in the future, but I'm trying to find something I can do now that will help me be in a stable career down the road. I'm happy to work for cheap for a few years if it gets me good experience.

- I'd like to work in a field that has positive social value. I'm skeptical about finance, but could probably be convinced.

- I don't have any interests that are guiding my career search. I like science in general, physics and math in particular, computers, sports and camping. It would be cool if I found a job that incorporated some of those but it's not at all necessary.

- I don't really want to go back to school, but would for the right job.

- I enjoy working with kids and science education in general, but I have no interest in being a high school teacher.

- A couple careers I'm looking into at the moment are Patent Agent and Librarian.

I know I'm being vague about what I'm looking for, but I'm hoping to get as wide a selection of ideas as possible. Please be as specific as possible if you recommend a job. "Go into green energy" doesn't help me much; "I know someone working X position at a green energy startup who got into it by doing Y" would be awesome. Thanks!
posted by auto-correct to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I essentially just wrote analysis code

Finance. Doing something like quantitative research and writing trading algorithms. They usually like 'em younger, though, and it can be tough to convince them you're worthwhile if you didn't go to a tip-top-tier US school.

I'm skeptical about finance, but could probably be convinced.

Oh. Well, there's always the make-money-while-you're-young-and-do-something-more-socially-worthwhile-when-you're-older thing.
posted by phunniemee at 4:31 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Quite a few of my fellow physics majors (BS not MS) ended up programming in the late 90s. The problem solving skills come in very handy. What language or tools were you using in your analysis code?

I went the physics->CS->programmer->librarian route. While science backgrounds are rare in the library world, I'd look hard at the job market (it sucks right now) before committing to the 2nd masters you would generally need to become a librarian.
posted by kbuxton at 4:36 PM on October 18, 2011

I essentially just wrote analysis code

My SO, first degree in physics, got her masters in hydrography aged 27. She has no actual background or coursework in computer science or software. She coded for her PhD and she codes for her post-doc, this has got her papers and a book and is going to get her a pile more papers and she is likely to get a permanent academic job in about 12 months. Coding complex systems is a useful skill and you are foolish to write this off. If you want to go down an academic route I suggest you speak to someone connected with your MSc course about whether they fell you have what it takes to get a Phd, if that is something that interests you.
posted by biffa at 4:43 PM on October 18, 2011

Thanks for your advice so far, folks.

phunniemee: I think I just don't know anything about finance. Do you know what kind of job titles I should look at?

kbuxton: Yeah, I love the idea of being a librarian but don't love the idea of more school and don't love the job market.

biffa: My supervisor invited me to do my PhD with him, but I declined. Particle physics is lousy with programmers and I was on the weak end of the bell curve. I'm certainly not writing it off as a skill that I can use, but I'm not at all confident that I can get hired anywhere on the strength of my code.
posted by auto-correct at 4:51 PM on October 18, 2011

Many, many people at large software companies have physics backgrounds, both in engineering and in management. Physics is probably second only to CS as a college major. I don't think you'd have trouble getting a job in that environment.
posted by miyabo at 5:04 PM on October 18, 2011

I know people with advanced degrees in physics who do sea ice modeling, and develop programs that help interpret data sets from sensor arrays. They work at a private company that does this.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:11 PM on October 18, 2011

One physics MS friend of mine went into disaster modeling for insurance companies. Another few got together and now have a startup providing comprehensive search for electronic parts. Then there's the finance people (usually quants) and the consultant types. There's law school if you were at all interested in patent law, and I've a few friends who've gone to med school older than you are now.

Also loads of google folk, doing everything from search quality to Adwords to proprietary research.

Your modeling skills might be useful to oil companies, environmental nonprofits, political data aggregators-- anyone who deals with a ton of data. That's a good portion of what experimental particle physics is, and you certainly have those skills more than most of the world ( if not more than most of your physics peers).

My personal dream job if I leave academia is to go be a climbing/skiing bum and teach folk to climb/ski to pay the bills. It's not like anyone is forcing you to use your physics background.
posted by nat at 5:37 PM on October 18, 2011

You may not be interested in finance, but finance is probably interested in you. I'm an econ major, and job postings I've seen for entry level jobs in finance seem to care waaay more about your quantitative/programming skills than knowledge about finance. They can teach you that stuff, but it's harder to make you be really good at math/coding/analysis.
posted by MadamM at 7:35 PM on October 18, 2011

To give another plug to finance, the husband of a good friend of mine got his PhD in theoretical physics then decided he didn't like academia. So he became an Actuarial Consultant (or similar).

As I understand it, his job involves aggregating data about investments and writing algorithms that help to determine if they are good or not. He also creates new investment packages that group investments into new products. He uses a lot of math and does a lot of programming and he finds it really interesting. YMMV of course.

As an added bonus he gets paid well, but the downside is that he seems to work long hours.
posted by keeo at 7:38 PM on October 18, 2011

Thanks again everyone, your advice is truly appreciated.

I will be looking into financial stuff, but if anyone sees this question and has and non-finance ideas, I'd still love to hear them.
posted by auto-correct at 9:09 PM on October 18, 2011

There are tons of physicists working in alternative energy R&D. For example I watched an astronomy major spend the summer writing analysis scripts to classify defects on solar cells - a skill that evolved out of writing scripts to identify galaxies in sky survey pictures. There are many similar jobs - look for job titles like metrology engineer. There are some interesting companies in BC, but ground zero is Silicon Valley.

BTW, while it's pretty fulfilling to work on a "big" problem like alternative energy its also a potentially very lucrative one for engineers and scientists. Basically if you're prepared to leave academia there is no reason to be poor if you have a STEM degree.
posted by Long Way To Go at 10:53 PM on October 18, 2011

I don't know what the career options are like for it in Canada, but could medical physics be of any interest to you?
posted by *becca* at 12:40 AM on October 19, 2011

I came from a physics background and went into finance when I was around 27. I had no prior experience outside physics but they were happy to bring me up to speed. I actually joined the IT department of a very large financial firm before moving over to the quant side, which may be something to consider. A couple of years later when I was involved in hiring decisions, I found that personally I tended to prefer people from a physics/engineering background compared to MBAs/economics degrees or pure computer science people because they were usually a bit more practical and were happy to look at things from first principles if they'd not encountered them before. The majority of quants I know (and a large proportion of traders) are from math/physics backgrounds of some sort.

However, if you do go into finance, be careful not to let the hours consume you, and be careful in particular to maintain a life and connections outside work, particularly with people who do not work in finance. This may seem trivial now; five years down the line it may be the difference between happy success and total burnout. It's a rewarding career but it can eat you if you're not careful. The "do something more socially worthwhile when you're older" thing is all very well but be very careful: if you do well in finance they will set things up so that leaving to do something else will mean leaving an enormous pile of cash on the table. Do not let yourself wind up thinking that finance salaries/bonuses are in any way normal if this is your long term plan, and be aware that the internal culture will probably make this tricky for you.

Don't rule out IT/programming stuff just because you've not got any formal background in computers. I've interviewed a terrifying number of people claiming to have CS degrees who weren't able to traverse a linked list even after I'd explained the concept to them from scratch. If you've got decent problem solving skills then you can pick most of the rest up as you need to. When I accepted the finance job I also turned down a fairly good offer from an online betting firm who essentially wanted me to "just write analysis code". If I'd not gone for those I'd have probably gone with an oilfield services company for whom I'd written some analysis code during my degree - oil exploration is pretty heavy on physics and number crunching.

Actually, here's an idea: do any of the physics/engineering research groups at the place you did your Masters have industrial collaborations/connections? Often if you look at research group web pages they'll say "we are working on X and Y in collaboration with Z corporation" - if you find any of those that could give you an idea of which companies like to work with physics types and have a local presence.
posted by doop at 2:15 AM on October 19, 2011

if anyone sees this question and has and non-finance ideas, I'd still love to hear them.

International development. Having a Masters is important, but the particular subject it's in much less so (my MS is in inorganic chemistry, my boss studied philosophy). I don't know if Canada has anything like the US Peace Corps, which is how I ended up in development, but I do know Canada is the home to some pretty cool NGOs, such as Plan Canada (a part of Plan International, and an organization that would likely have you working in the education field without being a teacher). And of course there are many more opportunities if you're interested in working in the field for a while.

Your particular expertise might be well adapted for working on monitoring and evaluation of field projects. For instance, sticking with the same example, maybe you don't hit all of the requirements for this job, but one of them is "Advance knowledge of statistical analysis, quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis. Advance knowledge and usage experience of statistical software is mandatory."
posted by solotoro at 3:40 AM on October 19, 2011

If you're intimidated by (or having trouble getting) jobs as a Software Developer right off the bat, you could do worse than starting in Software Quality Assurance. There can be lots of room for software development there (test harnesses, performance analysis, etc.), and it's a well-established path into full-time Software Dev.

I've worked in the software industry for some 12 years now, and have worked with lots of physicists. Some of them did the QA->Dev path.

NOTE: Software QA can be really boring sometimes, and you're not always surrounded with the 'best of the best'. That being said, if you treat it like a stepping stone and gain a reputation in the office, you'll be able to get out and have more latitude to choose your own projects.
posted by jpziller at 8:05 AM on October 19, 2011

I mefi-mailed you.
posted by invisible ink at 3:47 PM on October 19, 2011

actuarial science, but you'd probably have to go back to school. in the mean time, you can try taking an exam or two to figure out if you could cut it or not.

posted by cupcake1337 at 10:02 AM on October 20, 2011

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