What can you do with a degree in physics?

Most students are understandably concerned about the job market they will encounter after graduation: what kind of job they can get and how much they will get paid. Expectations depend largely on the major they have chosen. A student majoring in finance, for example, or electrical engineering, would normally expect to pursue a business- or engineering-related career after graduation.

But relatively few students majoring in philosophy work as philosophers; 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 lies in between these extremes. Though a sizable fraction of students who major in physics wish to become professional physicists, many prefer the pursuit of careers in industry, the government, or non-college education.

All these students, however, share a common point of view: they regard physics as a path to get the fundamental training they need to excel in the analytical solution of complex problems. The world view they acquire in physics provides them not with a solid foundation to explore other fields of human activity, it teaches them to think in practical terms, and achieve real-world solutions in a wide range of endeavors whether they involve physical systems, humans, or a mixture of both. 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. grads has been sharply affected by demographic and economic trends. The period from 1960 to 1980 showed rapid growth both in the number of academic physicists and the level of funding for physics research. Although there was a decline in the early '90s, driven by an economic downturn, the need for well-trained physicists is back. The number of physics job openings at universities and industries is once again growing, driven in part by retirements by scientists who first entered the job market in the early 1960s. The American Physical Society recently reported that less than two percent of its membership was unemployed.

The nation also faces deep challenges in areas connected to climate change, energy production, and management, which will require a growing number of physicists. Probing the human genome and understanding the fundamental structures of living beings also requires the development of sophisticated technologies where skilled physicists can help and are in very high demand. 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. But realize that a degree in physics will give you a robust and versatile training enabling you to tackle pretty much anything life throws at you!

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.

How should you prepare yourself for different career paths?

You may not yet know exactly which career path you wish to pursue after graduation in order to design your initial curriculum. Thankfully, a physics degree will provide you with a strong background for employment in a wide range of areas. As you proceed to study through the early undergraduate years, you will become more aware of your likes, dislikes, your specific interests, strengths, and limitations. You then may wish to tailor your coursework accordingly. Here are some strategies on how to achieve this.

Post-graduate work

For a different kind of postgraduate experience, consider the Peace Corps, which needs skills like yours, or Teach for America a national corps of individuals who commit at least two years to teach in under-resourced urban and rural public schools.

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. 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.

Industry or government

Surveys show that detailed knowledge of physics or mathematics are less critical for students pursuing careers in the industry and government. Communication and interpersonal skills are however quite important. Indeed, you will quite likely spend a lot of your time writing or making verbal presentations. Anything you can do to brush up these skills will be helpful. Computer skills are also always well in demand. Taking computer courses or teaching yourself computer skills on your own is a great idea. Other applied courses, in areas such as statistics, applied physics, electronics, or optics, are also quite 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.

Teaching 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; Wayne State State 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. Note that in Michigan, only a small fraction of physics teachers actually have a degree in physics. A large fraction of these teachers will retire in the next decade. Here is a wonderful opportunity for future employment!

Financial sector

Many financial companies, such as banks, insurance companies, investment firms, etc., are interested in hiring math and physics majors. They have realized that these students are quite comfortable with numbers and complex problems and that they are not afraid of computers or messy-looking equations. You will impress prospective employers in this area by gaining experience with numerical computation; experience with statistics and the solution of differential equations would also be a great plus. Of course, a few economics courses or even an accounting course would also serve you well.

Medical professions

If you are interested in applying to medical school, dental school, or pharmacy, consider the Wayne State biomedical physics degree. You should also speak with one our of advisors early on to determine which other courses (e.g., biology, chemistry) will be required, and promote your chances of being accepted in these health care programs.

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