Pictured: members of the Society of Physics Students trying to keep their cool while in reality totally freakin’ pumped about getting to personally speak with the one, the only, the awesome Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson after an Eliot Society dinner in April 2017. This is why you join the physics club, kids.
Decided you don’t want to become a researcher at a university as your full-time career? Don’t give up hope!
According to a recent study, only about 30% of physics Ph. D’s end up with permanent jobs in academia, or about 5% of the total students who get undergraduate physics majors. So where does everyone else end up? Well, a lot of different places.
Some famous people with physics degrees:
- Ash Carter, U.S. Secretary of Defense, 2015-17
- Wendy Carlos, Grammy-winning composer, soundtracks for movies such as Clockwork Orange
- Steven Chu, U.S. Secretary of Energy, 2009-2013
- Shirley Ann Jackson, physicist, chair of Nuclear Regulatory Commission, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
- Hedy Lamarr, physicist, inventor, and actress
- Brian May – astrophysics Ph.D. and lead guitarist of Queen
- Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany
- Ernest Moniz, U.S. Secretary of Energy 2013-17
- Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel
- Elon Musk of Space-X and Tesla
- Sally Ride – astronaut
- James Harris Simons mathematician of Chern-Simons, Renaissance Technologies (hedgefund)
- Neil deGrasse Tyson – astrophysicist, head of the Hayden Planetarium in NYC, writer, television host
There are lots of things you can consider doing with a degree in physics besides academia!
The Wash. U. Career Center is specifically designed to help you successfully find employment in your fields of interest during the summer and after graduation. They will be your best friend over the coming years!
The national Society of Physics Students has a career page with lots of helpful advice about finding jobs after completing any stage of your education. They also have lots of articles with advice about all the different aspects of career building. Also of use are profiles of physicists with varied career paths; you’ll see all the places you can go with your physics education and how you might go about getting there!
There are many other helpful websites. For example, you can find out statistics about physics students’ employment or other aspects of physics and careers. Some employers you might check out are national labs, NASA, companies that take WashU engineering grads, finance, teaching, and many more! Also, see the bottom of this page for ideas based on what area of physics you like best.
If you don’t want to go directly into a technical career, there are lots of other options, too. Many people take gap years, whether that means enlisting in the military for its excellent benefits, volunteering in programs like the prestigious Teach for America or the Peace Corps, or just taking a few years off to explore other jobs or earn some money. If you have a specific field you’re interested in working in, perhaps try to find someone on campus who can guide you. The Career Center, the ArtSci dean devoted to a specific advising topic, or a professor in a more closely related department might be places to start.
Things to do while in school
- Spend time researching the jobs you’d like to have someday
- Develop skills to make yourself more employable
- Learning how to program is a must!
- Analytical skills are also helpful – consider taking more math or statistics
- Consider adding on courses in the engineering and business schools, or education courses if you want to teach physics at a high school
- Get proficient in a foreign language
- Would another minor or major help?
- Would a master’s, doctoral, or professional degree help you land your dream job?
- Get internships over the summer or during the school year in job areas you’re considering
- Prepare for technical interviews! The tech and finance job processes aren’t just submitting a resume and going in to talk to someone. Often you have to take a test on your skills too – scour the internet for details about each company’s exams so you’re prepared
- Network! The people you meet could have a huge influence on your getting your dream job after graduation
Loved physics? Know you don’t want to be a college professor but don’t know yet what job you want after getting your major, master’s, or doctoral degree? Here are some suggestions, based on what areas of physics you liked best.
Unless you stay in academia, chances are you’re not going to find an R&D position that aligns exactly with what you did in class or for your research. Physics is an academic field, not a directly employment-oriented degree like engineering or business. Coming from some fields, like condensed matter or particle physics, your eventual job is likely to be quite far from what you have ever done. Still, your knowledge of math, the basic sciences, and programming can make you very employable in a lot of industries. There are a few “obvious” options for job-seekers with a physics degree:
- Research assistant, lab staff, or department staff at a university or company
- Researcher at US national labs like Fermilab, Argonne, and SLAC
- Most engineering companies and start-ups
- Computer programming jobs
There are also lots of part-time options to help you earn cash on the side or while between full-time jobs:
- Adjunct or part-time university lecturer (this will never lead to a full-time job)
- Math or science tutor
But you should branch out a lot in your search – PhD’s especially will find many more options and much higher salaries in jobs perhaps just tangentially related to their prior work. We’re providing this list to help you generate new ideas and so you can think of how you might craft your resume long before the job search begins. We’ll try to keep adding to this list as we think of things or hear about more opportunities.
Astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology, relativity, space sciences
- Government agencies: NASA, national labs
- Astronaut or pilot
- Horoscope writer
- Aerospace engineering organization: Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, SpaceX…
- Observatories: Kitt Peak, Lowell, Atacama, NASA projects, …
- Assistant or curator at a planetarium or museum
Biological and Biomedical Physics
- Pharmaceutical company
- Biotech company or hospital – ultrasound, MRI, radiology, or other technologies related to physics
- Medical software companies like Epic, Cerner, Allscripts
- Agriculture companies like Monsanto
- Life sciences independent research companies like D. E. Shaw Research
- Research assistant in university lab or hospital
- Government entities: USDA, FDA, NIH
- Nursing or medical school
- Staff or manager of a lab, hospital
Condensed matter physics, solid state physics, materials science
- Semiconductors, transistors
- Sports equipment and other consumer goods
- Military equipment, devices, technology
- Biomedical technologies like joint replacements
- Oil and gas companies, renewable energy
Energy, Environmental Physics, Geophysics
- Government agencies: EPA, USGS, NOAA, state/local organizations
- Politician or assistant to a politician
- Lobbying and environmental activism organizations
- Petroleum engineering companies like Shell, ExxonMobil, BP
- Clean energy companies and start-ups
- Assistant or curator of natural history museum
Laser Physics, Optics, Photonics
- Laser/parts manufacturers like Thorlabs, Boston Micromachines, etc.
- Medical devices
- Fiber optics, telecommunications
- TV’s, barcode scanners, cameras, lighting, other consumer goods
- National defense (e.g. missile guiding sytems)
Mathematical, Computational, and Theoretical Physics
- Wall Street, banking, hedgefunds
- Software engineering or research divisions of high-tech industry: Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, …
- Cryptography, national security, and defense jobs: NSA, CIA, etc.
- Actuary, biostatistics, data analyst
- Other job listings for applied mathematicians
Particle Physics and Accelerators
- US National Labs: Fermilab, SLAC, …
- CERN in Switzerland or other overseas labs
Physical Chemistry, Chemical Physics, Nuclear Physics
- Nuclear power plants, national labs
- Nuclear Regulatory Commision, Department of Energy
- Chemical manufacturing companies
- Pharmaceutical companies
- Radiology and imaging
Physics Education, Outreach, and Policy
- Middle or high school teacher
- Science writer, journalist, publication assistant, editor. General newspapers, science magazines, technical journals.
- Colleges: Department staff, demo person, science librarian, advisor/dean
- Science organizations – APS, AIP, IOP, etc. – public relations, lobbying, management, marketing, …
- Teach for America, Fulbright Scholarship, etc.
- Government entities: Department of Education, NSF, patent office, …
- Patent attorney
- Translator of scientific texts or documents
- Museums and archives
Quantum Information and Quantum Computing
- Research assistant at a university lab
- Research division of a tech company like Microsoft, Google, or Apple