Physics vs Geography, the undying battle
June 20, 2006 4:53 AM   Subscribe

Physics vs. Geography at university. Which is better to do, specifically careerwise?

I'm currently attending university in Australia (a science degree), and am considering dropping physics (in which I have invested much time and effort) for geography (which I have done little in, but am very enthusiastic towards).

My reasons for wanting to leave physics, (of which I was in the advanced stream, if it is of any consequence) is that the course increasingly becomes more maths-based the further along the course I go. I am capable at mathematics, but not particularly skilled or enthralled about it at all. I also cannot see myself enjoying any career derived from phsyics.

My question is, would having a geography major be career suicide? I am also doing a chemistry major, if it means anything. What kind of occupations could one get that make use of a geography major (particularly in Australia)?

I'm not officephobic, but something that keeps me active would be great, as long as I don't earn a meager salary as a compromise.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party to Education (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
1. Physics majors with good grades have an easy time getting into a lot of different graduate programs (business, especially); it shows the admissions committee that you can handle quantitative work. Having a chemistry major, however, isn't much of a step down.
2. Being a geography major is probably career suicide unless you can couple it with something else. A close friend of mine works for a marketing firm in Geographic Information Systems, and while I don't know how much of his college-learned geography he actually applied in his job, the firm that picked him up was looking for someone with his credentials exactly; he could do a little bit of programming and a little bit of geography, and that made him stand out from the geographers and programmers who applied for the job.
posted by Kwantsar at 5:10 AM on June 20, 2006

I know a man who majored in Geography, then went on to work with banks - using population demographics vs. customer demographics to choose efficient bank locations/etc. He loves his job and gets to travel a lot.

This is in the USA.
posted by muddgirl at 5:29 AM on June 20, 2006

I wouldn't say geography, per se. Cartography is better suited for a GIS career. Right now GIS is a hot career. When I was looking at cartography about 15 years ago, it wasn't as hot but there were still plenty of good paying government jobs programming cruise missiles and such! But alas the cruise missile programming is only in the US, sorry.
posted by JJ86 at 5:32 AM on June 20, 2006

As a university admin person (not yours), I'd suggest you see these people:
1. academics you regard highly in your faculty, email them questions about career futures if you don't want to take up their time
2. the university careers centre. they should have decent post graduate careers information because it makes the uni look good when the graduates get jobs.

I wonder if geograpy major would get you into government (urban development?) or big business (mining)? I can't begin to guess because it really depends on what courses and what strands you follow. Start at your uni with the staff there. It's possible even, that the admin people in the School of Science (or whatever it's called) would have an idea of the best places you can get info. Maybe the library staff have a resource.
posted by b33j at 5:36 AM on June 20, 2006

My advice for what it's worth is go with your enthusiasm. In job application situations, a candidate that oozes passion for his field goes straight to the top of the list, so that puts you way ahead of the bored geographers applying that wish they'd done physics!

Also, this is your life. Choosing to do something that bores you at this stage seems a bit like giving up. There are all sorts of jobs out there. It's not choose one path and you get riches but choose another and live in the gutter. Well unless path 1 is "go to gym" and path 2 is "max out all your credit cards buying crack"

In fact you'll probably end up doing thing a third option that you haven't even though of yet. Lifes like that ;-)

Good luck with whatever you decide.
posted by merocet at 6:16 AM on June 20, 2006

One of the reasons that physics majors get instant credibility is the math, which is missing from a lot of other disciplines.

If you can manage to work your way through it, it'll pay off in the long run. Virtually the entire scientific field will be open to you, and if you minor in geography, you can get exposure to it, enjoy it, maybe work in it. You MIGHT get a physics job with a geography degree, but the odds are against it.
posted by FauxScot at 6:25 AM on June 20, 2006

Have you thought of geology or climate modelling type stuff?

For that you really want to have a physics degree. A bloke I knew from uni went down that path and wound up going to Antarctica and having a grand old time.

The other thing it could open up is mining exploration work. That pays a packet and can be outdoorsy.
posted by sien at 6:29 AM on June 20, 2006

I think it's interesting how you question whether pursuing your interest in geography would be "career suicide", given that you also say "I cannot see myself enjoying any career derived from physics." That sounds more like career-suicide to me! Why spend 40 years of your life doing something you hate? It sounds to me like you've got the brains and motivation to do all kinds of things. I'd pursue your interest in geography and see where it takes you. And I second the recommendations to speak to top faculty members about how to go about applying your degree to a job. Perhaps you might even consider an academic career?
posted by modernnomad at 7:40 AM on June 20, 2006

Go with what interests you and you feel passionate about.
This will give you the greatest job satisfaction and the money will come.

I am a Geographer, completely by accident. I have a Bachelor's and a Master's in the discipline. I work as an environmental analyst/planner for an environmental consulting firm in California. I am also a part-time university lecturer.

The best part about geography is that it teaches you to think in a completely different way (spatially), which can bring a completely new point of view to problem solving which many employers love, and it is very multi-disciplinary.

One of my professors always said that Geographers have to make their own way in the world, no one is waiting to hand you a job after graduation. This is very true. It is all about how you market your skills as a geographer.

GIS is the hot area right now, especially here in the States. However, in my firm, we do our own in-house GIS work and the GIS specialists actually make less money than I do. If you go that route, programming skills make you more marketable. Have you thought about Remote Sensing?

I focused more on the physical sciences with my studies, and my graduate work included lots of statistics classes. The quantitative angle has been a great advantage and seems to legitimize the degree a bit more (from my experience). You might also consider Environmental Science, or even Environmental Engineering.

Follow your heart and instincts and do what you love. Good luck!
posted by socrateaser at 8:47 AM on June 20, 2006

There is a lot of good advice about following your passion and I agree with that. If you're going to bother spending all this time and money on an education, at least have it be interesting, right?

Look at the actual classes you'd be taking, not just "Geography" as a concept. What do you want to know more about? What ways of thinking about the world and what problems in it would you be exposed to? Do you mean outdoorsy in that you are doing on-the-ground conservation work, or overseeing construction work, or leading interpretive tours, or something else entirely? Only YOU can tell whether one set of classes is a better prep for what you want to do with your life than another set of classes.

I was declared briefly in Environmental Geography before I switched into Earth and Atmospheric Science, so I know there are MANY things you can do with the knowledge and way of thinking from a Geography degree. You'll be learning how to look at systems, both human and natural, and often how such systems interact at a number of scales. You will probably be talking about ecology, climate, seismology, all sorts of earth sciences in different classes. There may also be, depending on your school, exposure to political and social geography which grounds it all in a human context.

From that, you can go into GIS, yes, that's very hot right now. You can also go into watershed/civic/urban/land use planning, conservation or non-profit work, surveying, environmental consulting, field work in any number of disciplines, and then there's always higher academia and teaching.

But physics could get you into all of that too, especially if you minored in geography, and having the "hard science" background and analytical skills may actually put you ahead of "just" geographers if you want to pursue a career in research, especially in the climatology area (which is why I switched). It is definitely a good idea to sit down with your advisor, or faculty from both your physics and geography departments and talk about what you want out of your time at university.

As someone who has just graduated from university and has been fretting over a lot of these sorts of things, I say in all honesty having one degree or another may have very little bearing on what you end up doing for a career, or how successful you are, or whatever you want to judge as being the goal of attending university in the first place. Higher education is no guarantee of employment, regardless of the wording on some fancy-pants piece of paper. My dad has an undergrad degree in history and he's a very successful management consultant. My mom went to first into biology and then nursing school and now works in childhood and environmental education. I have friends who have great jobs and majored in philosophy (if you REALLY want to talk useless), and pre-meds who are unemployed.

If you are making the most of your time in school (establishing positive relationships with your professors, thinking about class materials rather than just memorizing, seeking out internships and research aid spots in topics that interest you, playing a sport or otherwise making yourself more than just a student, etc), then you'll have more on your resume than your degree title, and more a sense of what makes you happy and productive anyway!
posted by nelleish at 9:08 AM on June 20, 2006

guy-with-physics-degree chiming in here:

to be quite honest, you are going to have a hard time in upper-level physics classes if you don't do math (particularly linear algebra and differential equations) well. it's unfortunate, but the fact is that a lot of effort is put into making first-year physics understandable and conceptual, and then after that you're thrown to the dogs and expected to find the meaning in the equations yourself. (unless you've got some spectacularly good teacher, which in an upper level class, you most likely won't!)

on the other hand, a career in physics is wholly different from physics classes. after getting my degree i worked at a national research lab, doing physics stuff, but lord knows i didn't do any math. if you go into theory you can be sure you'll crunch equations all day, but if you're an experimentalist it may be totally different. so, keep that in mind. your undergraduate degree is just a toolkit, really - career direction will be more determined by what you do in graduate school (in an academia) or at your first job (in industry).

i agree with b33j's suggestion to talk to a faculty member you might particularly like. ask for some honest advice and voice your concerns; you may get some unexpected suggestions. there is a lot of cross-pollination going on these days in the sciences. the traditional compartmentalized view of "physicists do physics, chemists do chemistry, etc" is falling by the wayside. maybe think about combining some of your interests? you didn't say what it is that attracts you to geography, but for instance, physics + geography gets me to geodesy^, which can be pretty interesting sometimes. or maybe any of the sub-disciplines of geophysics^. ask around and see what piques your interest.

good luck to you sir!
posted by sergeant sandwich at 9:15 AM on June 20, 2006

As b33j and sergeant sandwich suggest, talking with faculty members in the discipline can be helpful and enlightening.

However, keep in mind that the majority of faculty are career academics and have not held a real world job, or at least not for a very long time. Many get so bogged down in research, they haven't any idea what the job market is like for the major, or how to go about getting a job with the degree.

And university career counselors aren't always helpful when it comes to majors that don't have a specific degree attached (i.e., accounting, nursing, etc.).

Recent grads and alumni are a great source of job market info and tips on how to go about getting a job.
posted by socrateaser at 10:05 AM on June 20, 2006

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