What You Can Do With a Physics Major After Graduation
- Why Be a Physics Major?
- How Should I Prepare Myself for Different Career Paths?
- Career Planning and Placement Service.
- AIP Physics Careers Bulletin Board
- Careers and Employment posted by the American Physical Society
- See also lists and bulletin boards of physics jobs maintained by "TIPTOP," and the Institute of Physics (mostly for people with advanced degrees, but interesting for undergraduates to look at anyhow).
- For a different kind of postgraduate experience, consider the Peace Corps, which needs skills like yours, or Teach for America ( 1-800-832-1230 ), a national corps of individuals who commit at least 2 years to teach in under-resourced urban and rural public schools (sort of an internal Peace Corps).
Most students are understandably concerned about the job market they will encounter after graduation, and how this will relate to their major. Expectations here depend sensitively on the major chosen. A student majoring in Finance, for example, or Electrical Engineering, would normally expect to pursue a business- or engineering-related career after graduation. On the other hand, relatively few History majors find jobs as historians; it is generally considered that such a major gives you a broad background in the liberal arts and teaches you how to think, read, and communicate critically and effectively. Physics as a major falls in between these extremes. Many students who major in Physics do so with the idea that they will eventually be professional physicists. However, others pursue careers in industry, the government, or non-college education, but still find that the analytical approach to problems that they have learned serves them well in other fields. Postgraduate career directions depend on a student's interests. For those planning to be "professional physicists," an advanced degree (generally a Ph.D.) is essential. Others may use their Bachelor's degree as a springboard to careers in industry, education, medicine, or other areas.
The employment of Physics Ph.D.'s has been sharply affected by demographic and economic trends. The period from 1960 to 1980 showed a nearly exponential increase in both the number of academic physicists and the level of funding for Physics research. This was followed by decline in the early 90's, driven by an economic downturn, leveling off of research funding, and a flood of scientists from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Well publicized reports of Physics Ph.D.'s unable to find jobs led many students to conclude that a Physics major was a bad career move. The indications are, however, that this trend has now been reversed. The number of Physics job openings in universities and industry is up, driven in part by a rash of retirements by scientists who first entered the job market in the early 1960's. Indeed, the American Physical Society recently found that less than 2% of its membership was unemployed (although not all of the employed members described themselves as professional physicists). More to the point, if you are a freshman who is considering graduate school or professional school (such as law or medicine), you should remember that you will be actually entering the job market 8-11 years from now. Nobody knows what the economic situation will be then, or which fields will be "hot." Attempts to do this kind of forecasting in the past have been notably unsuccessful.
The best advice to undergraduates at this stage seems to be, "Do what interests you and what you are good at." If you think you want to go on to Physics graduate school and ultimately be a professional physicist, you should ask yourself two questions: 1) Am I really, really excited by Physics, to the extent that I want to do it more than anything else? 2) Am I good at Physics? If your answers to both questions are positive, you should seriously consider majoring in Physics and then continuing on to graduate school. There will always be openings for good people. If you aren't sure about your answers, you should still consider majoring in Physics, but be thinking about other things to do after graduation.
A Physics major provides a strong background for employment in a number of different areas, and you certainly do not need to know what you are going to do after graduation in order to design your initial curriculum. As students proceed through their undergraduate years, however, they become more aware of their interests, strengths, and limitations, and may wish to tailor their coursework to their expected employment after graduation. Some suggested strategies follow:
Students Planning Graduate Study in Physics, Mathematics, or another Science:Graduate schools pay the most attention to GRE scores, grades in math/science courses, letters of recommendation, and undergraduate research. Courses in other disciplines, and extracurricular activities may make you a better person but probably won't help much with your graduate school application. However, communications skills are important, so it would be useful to take at least a few courses where you are required to do a lot of writing. And, obviously, the more physics and math courses (as well as perhaps courses in related disciplines, such as chemistry, astronomy, or geology) that you take, the better prepared you will be. Students interested in pursuing theoretical physics are particularly well advised to take as many math courses as possible; students interested in experimental physics should try to get as much lab experience as possible.
Students Planning Employment in Industry or the Government:As the Sigma Pi Sigma survey shows, detailed knowledge of physics or mathematics is probably less important here than communication and interpersonal skills. You will quite likely spend a lot of your time writing or making verbal presentations, so anything you can do to brush up these skills will be helpful. Computer skills always seem to be in demand, so taking computer courses or teaching yourself computer skills on your own is a good idea. Other applied courses, in areas such as statistics, applied physics, electronics, or optics, are also useful. Industry, in particular, values the team player much more than the brilliant prima donna. Accordingly, extracurricular activities that demonstrate your ability to work with others could enhance your resume.
Students Planning to Teach High School:There are actually two routes to follow. Students looking for a position in a public school system will need to be certified in the state they will be working in. To do this you will probably need to attend a certified Master's program; Penn and many other schools have these. To teach in a private school, on the other hand, you need not have a teaching certificate; you just have to impress the headmaster or principal of the school you want to teach in. In either case, communication and interpersonal skills are obviously essential. What is less obvious is that you will have a greater chance of being hired if you can present yourself as being qualified in several different areas. Most high schools cannot afford someone who teaches physics only; they would like to hire someone who could teach, for example, physics, chemistry, and general science, or perhaps physics, biology, and mathematics. Accordingly, the more classes in a wide variety of sciences you take, the better prepared you will be.
Students Interested in Jobs in the Financial Sector:It turns out that many financial companies, such as banks, insurance companies, investment firms, etc., are interested in hiring math and science majors. They find that these students often have a facility with numbers and are not afraid of computers or messy-looking equations. To impress a potential employer in this area, experience with numerical computation would be helpful; experience with statistics and perhaps differential equations would also be helpful. And it wouldn't hurt to take a few economics course or even an accounting course.
Students Interested in the Medical Professions:Students planning to apply to medical school, dental school, etc. are encouraged to seek advice from the pre-medical advisor early in their careers to determine which other courses (e.g., biology, chemistry) will be required.