Where do particle physicists work?
July 21, 2008 5:16 PM   Subscribe

What fields and jobs/careers, outside of academia and national labs, do PhD experimental and theoretical particle physicists go into? Regarding experimental physicists, I mean ones that didn't specialize in working on hardware in grad school.

I'm already familiar with the market for the academia/national lab jobs and I'm more interested in hearing about _examples_ and _categories_ of industry jobs, e.g. cases of going into software (microsoft/google/computational science) quantitative finance, risk modeling, multivariate statistical analyses, etc...
posted by Sneutrino to Work & Money (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There is (used to be?) a demand for theoretical physicists in the investment industry. The Black-Scholes option pricing model was based upon thermodynamics iirc.
posted by storybored at 5:27 PM on July 21, 2008

My impression is that Black-Scholes is becoming somewhat of a joke because of the simplifications it makes. There are always new models that are bigger and better than the last one, and the only people that really understand them are the math & physics people. Quantitative finance is still alive & running.

There are a limited number of jobs in it, but computational chemistry has a huge market. Its dominated by a handful of companies and is incredibly competitive (read some of the complaints about GAUSSIAN to see just how competitive from the business end), but if you can land a job there you'd probably do well.

In my (limited) experience statisticians get a little bit hivey about math & physics people encroaching on their domain.

Aerospace engineering companies have head mathematicians (and I'm guessing uses for anyone with the math necessary for PhD physics work).
posted by devilsbrigade at 5:40 PM on July 21, 2008

The director (not sure his exact title) of R&D at Abbott Diabetes Care was previously a fusion physicist at one of the national labs.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:41 PM on July 21, 2008

When my wife worked at Fermilab ('99-'02) she heard about a lot of the newly-minted experimental particle physics Ph.D.s going off to Lucent. Quantitative finance is alive and well for theorists, as storybored says, though her perception is that it's not nearly as much of a drain as in the late 90s / early 00s. That may be due to a downturn in quantitative finance demand or an upturn in the physics job market. Also, at least in Canada, Dept. of National Defence and CSIS.
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:48 PM on July 21, 2008

Aerospace industry, energy industry, electronics industry, computer hardware and software industries, ... are examples obvious places. Ball, Lockheed, TI, Lucent, Motorola, BP,...

In general a physics Doctoral program isn't just particle physics or something extremely theoretical, you can't really get a PhD in physics without a pretty advanced knowledge of things like Mechanics or Electronics. Or without having a good work ethic, good critical thinking and logic skills and many other things that a wide variety of industries value highly. In short, there aren't a lot of unemployed physics PhDs. And in general the pay in the private sector is very good.
posted by humanawho at 6:49 PM on July 21, 2008

The folk I know who've left the field are consultants, finance quants, googleites, or biophysicists (ok the last is still academia, but people do switch fields pretty drastically, and other fields have easier industry opportunities).

Is there something particular you'd like to know about these various career paths? There's probably more information we could give you if we knew *why* you were interested. Are you thinking of switching fields? Thinking of doing a particly-phd and want to know if it's worth it? etc?
posted by nat at 9:26 PM on July 21, 2008

Oh I should also mention that your job opportunites outside of particle-land depend somewhat on your particular skill set; have you done alot of programming? data analysis? teaching? organization of events for your department/helping out with conferences/etc? Did you TA for a very large course and run the administration for it? Did you once have a fascination for some other field (chem, bio, etc), that you could apply your new physics knowledge to?

For most folk I know who've left, the most important skills they learned in grad school weren't the physics or even the math; look at your other skills, see what you enjoy there, and you'll get a better clue about the job opportunities.
posted by nat at 9:45 PM on July 21, 2008


I'm actually 3 years into the PhD (experimental particle physics) already. I actually figured at the outset that I would probably want to veer into industry, since the job market is pretty competitive, and in the US a tiny fraction end up as professors these days. Not that I'm even that keen on being a professor!

My skill set is math, programming, data analysis, I've done some teaching, and I'm probably gonna jump into some multivariate analysis methods (eg neural nets) before I'm done with the degree. In terms of other fields, I'm certainly interested in many NASA-esque things and I have a little background in computational fluid dynamics, aerospace type stuff; but the more programming and theoretical/analytical the better. Which I guess is a plus for the quantitative finance, design, and IT-related companies.

That's really interesting that aerospace companies have math specialists!
posted by Sneutrino at 11:24 PM on July 21, 2008

I know someone who has a PhD in theoretical (field) physics. He told me his there is not a single practical application for his knowledge. Before he finished his thesis, he got offered many jobs. He accepted a position as a strategic business consultant at McKinsey.
The bottomline: You will be member of a very select group with deep knowledge of analysis. In other words, you're smart. You can get any analytical job you want, as long as you're sufficiently interested in it.
posted by Psychnic at 6:34 AM on July 22, 2008

Some people become science writers. I know a smart condensed-matter guy who's eying that direction. Comparatively non-technical (and poorly compensated) but you could do it if it appealed to you.
posted by grobstein at 8:36 PM on July 22, 2008

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