♫♫ What do you do with a BS in Physics? ♫♫
March 25, 2013 6:41 PM   Subscribe

Three years ago, I graduated with a Physics degree. Since then, I've been working in a soul-crushing IT job. Realistically, what are my options to push my career forward? Help me find my passion. Lots of snowflake details inside.

I graduated from a well-respected public university in 2009, with a GPA that was just a hair below 3.0. Although I completed a bunch of lab work and internships, I had neither the grades nor the ambition to pursue the PhD/Postdoc career path that's traditional to the field.

I stuck with my degree, with the promise that it could eventually lead to a career in engineering (which seemed a lot more interesting than the theoretical Physics stuff I was working on). This didn't really pan out, as no employers were even willing to look at a candidate that hadn't taken the EIT, and my grad school options seemed to be severely constrained by my mediocre GPA.

Since graduating, I've been working in an IT job for a huge government contractor in Washington, DC. My official title is "Systems Engineer," although "IT Polymath" might be a better description. I have a ridiculously broad array of job duties, ranging from low-level systems administration/helpdesk duties, writing code, media editing, server administration, and a bit of fairly high-level engineering work. Most of the systems that I oversee are highly proprietary and specific to our office's function. Unfortunately, this also means that most of the "typical" IT responsibilities (AD administration, NOC, etc) are delegated out to other departments within my client's organization. My client also tends to be relentlessly conservative with its IT practices, so I'm missing quite a few buzzwords (ie. anything with virtualization) from my resume. In other words, there are some gaps in my skills and experience that are making it very difficult for me to apply to similar jobs elsewhere -- every advertised IT vacancy seems to require a laundry list of incredibly specific experiences and skills.

Unfortunately, my job lacks a clear sense of direction, has no coherent management chain to speak of, and has no obvious path for advancement. I'm the youngest person in my office by about 15 years, and can't help shake the feeling that I'm often treated like a child. Even after 3 years on the job, I'm also still the newest "employee" (and only contractor and only non-union person) in the office. My coworkers still occasionally call me by the name of my predecessor.

Despite these numerous respect issues, my client seems incredibly satisfied with the work that I do. I've received three glowing performance reviews, but my pay ($50k) has not increased by a dime, and my benefits have gotten progressively more expensive (to say nothing about the cost of living in DC spiraling out of control). At my last review, I inquired about advancement opportunities, training, or opportunities elsewhere in my huge firm, and was told something along the lines of "Why would you want that? You have stability and the best job in our company." I know that I'm not making bad money, but I also get the distinct impression that my career isn't going to lead to anyplace good if I stay where I am.

I've recently been focusing a lot on the web development aspects of my job, and have gotten to the point where I feel extremely competent as a web developer. I've had a few interviews for full-time web development jobs with startup-y companies, all of which have progressed quite far until one interviewer sets out to prove that I don't have a CS degree or experience as a full-time developer on a big team. These setbacks have frequently been exhausting and humiliating. I'm trying to churn out a few personal projects to build a portfolio, although I've been finding this to be surprisingly difficult to accomplish while also holding down a full-time job and attempting to have a functioning social life.

I've contemplated going back to school to study engineering (probably Civil, but I really don't know), but my options seem to be constrained by my mediocre GPA, having few professors who would write me a favorable recommendation, and the cost of tuition (as a DC resident, I don't have any good 'in-state' options). Additionally, I'd rather have some experience in a particular discipline of engineering before committing to a degree. Urban planning's also caught my interest, but I also really don't know how I'd determine if I'd find that sort of career to be fulfilling (or even attainable). Although I don't mind having a desk job, I also do like that an Engineering career could potentially lead to something that doesn't result in my butt being stuck in the same chair every single day.

I apologize that this is rambling and somewhat open-ended, but what are my options to move my career forward? I'm feeling more and more like I'm going to be stuck here forever.

In-thread replies are appreciated, but I've also set up a throwaway email at quantumemployment@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Coding + sysadmin = DevOps. The ability to translate between developers and systems operations is actually really valuable. If you understand the various tools that dev teams use and depend on, like CI and version control, and you also understand the systems fundamentals that developers always forget about, that would be a good path to pursue, and it does give you some very interesting problems to solve.
posted by sldownard at 6:52 PM on March 25, 2013

Go to New York and work in financial IT. Pay for someone with your skills is $75k or more, and there is a direct career path for which the sky is the limit (a CIO of a big institution makes seven figures). With a physics BA people may look at you for moves to the middle office or even front office in a quant shop (although you'd have to be sharp, front office is usually for PhDs).
posted by MattD at 7:21 PM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Middle office = directly supporting traders, analysts and deal makers. Front office = being a trader, analyst or a deal maker.
posted by MattD at 7:23 PM on March 25, 2013

Did you look at national labs? I don't know what the long-term possibilities are there, but I have some friends with Physics BSes working there (this is 1 year post-grad) and they seem to enjoy it.
posted by Maecenas at 7:23 PM on March 25, 2013

It sounds like you're in pretty good shape and could actually get your foot in the door at plenty of places, especially if you're willing to move. If high-quality web development is what you'd rather be doing, I sympathize with the difficulty of putting together a portfolio project. Ideally, you'd get paid for that kind of thing.

But if doing it on your own time is the best option, I'd suggest focusing on just one project where you can cover a full stack of tools and practices as you implement it: track your ideas in PivotalTracker or ScrumDo or whatever as if you were on a team; use version control (Git + GitHub); set up a virtualized dev environment (VirtualBox + Vagrant); use a SQL database for some things and a NoSQL database for others (looking up good reasons to use one or the other); use the MVC framework of your choice in some popular programming language; make an effort to use object-oriented design patterns, just to be familiar with the concept; do some front-end froofrah based on a client-side MVC/MVVM framework, plus jQuery, Underscore, Handlebars, and whatever looks popular on JavaScript Weekly this week; and try to unit test the whole thing, backend and frontend, so you'll see the problems with writing code that tests well and with writing tests that actually matter.

Just being able to talk through one project like that would go a very long way toward demonstrating your familiarity with software development. It's pretty anecdotal and probably regional in scope, but every person I know who can do those things gets pinged by recruiters constantly and can land (has landed) a new job within a couple of weeks of trying.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:25 PM on March 25, 2013

I'm in a similar place (except I'm doing mechanical engineering and want to advance to a more senior/management job). I took some evening classes to prove to myself that I could get a better GPA, and am applying to full-time programs again. I'm also looking for a job with younger people located nearer the fun parts of the city.
posted by sninctown at 7:27 PM on March 25, 2013

Followup from the asker:
I'd totally consider doing night classes, but I'm honestly not even sure how I'd start planning that. I'd imagine that there's a massive overlap between my Physics BS and a community college's engineering curriculum. I also don't know what my options are in DC -- specific advice on that front would be very welcome.

Quant work seems like it would be soul-crushing and incompatible with my personal morals. Feel free to convince me otherwise if my outsider's impression is wrong. For the time being, I'd also rather not move (back) to New York. Remaining in DC isn't a strict requirement, but I'd need a very compelling reason to leave.

The advice so far has been incredibly helpful. Thank you so much!
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:05 PM on March 25, 2013

I was in a very similar position to yours. What I did was graduate school in Health Physics (a.k.a Radiological Engineering). It is, to be brutally honest, easier than pure physics graduate school both to do and to get into. There are a lot of places you can go with it jobwise, and it's a good job for American citizens.

memail me if you have any questions
posted by pseudonick at 12:53 AM on March 26, 2013

I've had a few interviews for full-time web development jobs with startup-y companies, all of which have progressed quite far until one interviewer sets out to prove that I don't have a CS degree or experience as a full-time developer on a big team.

If that's what you want then you should try and do more than a few interviews. I'm not sure what you mean by "sets out to prove that I don't have a CS degree or experience as a full-time developer on a big team", does that mean that they're asking you algorithms questions and about experience working collaboratively?

If so, then pick up that experience. You can do any one of the free intro to algorithms classes on Coursera or Edx and that will probably prepare you for any of the algo questions you might be asked in an interview. If you work on an open source project, that's a good chance to show that you can work as part of a team - it's also a way of getting to know (in a professional context) people who work in the industry.
posted by atrazine at 2:14 AM on March 26, 2013

You could take the patent bar and work at the USPTO.
posted by steinwald at 6:07 AM on March 26, 2013

What I think would be helpful to answerers is if you could elaborate upon what types of things you love doing and what types of things you are good at doing. What's your passion, what gets you excited and energized?
posted by Dansaman at 8:10 AM on March 26, 2013

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