Saturday, November 1, 2008

Future Career in Physics?

A correspondent asks the following lightly editted question:

I am located in [the midwest], and have just started attending [mid-tier Midwestern University]. My current major is Computer Science and Engineering (most likely computer programing), and I have also been extremely intrigued by Physics. I listen to Audio books about physics, Einstein, QM, etc.

My question is, how is the job outlook for Physics? I've been reading that the salary is very good, $50k - $100k, although it's a damper if you can't find those jobs! I am interested in possibly changing my major to Physics, although am unsure as to how hard it will be to find a job -- especially doing something I like rather then the only thing I can get.

What would your opinion be? I just have no real information that I can find about the long-term accessibility to Physics compared to Computer Programming. Thanks for your time in reading this message.

Thanks for the question, and thanks for the confidence in my side role as an Academic Advisor. I get questions like this quite often. I already gave a fairly specific answer by e-mail, but figured part of it also belonged here in the blog.

First, I wish everyone luck in finding their way to a job that they enjoy. I'm not sure I should recommend my approach, because it has had some elements of a random walk to it, not to mention what could only appear to be spectacular good luck at various key points along the way. But what can I say? We are all the product of a sequence of decisions. One decision I considered might have put me in on the ground floor of what became the computer animation industry, but I found it just as rewarding to have a (physics) student who ended up working there, not to mention others who have made real contributions to this nation. I love my job, even when it is tiring, hard work, and frustrating.

My (hopefully good) Advice:

If you are a fresh new freshman, as it sounds, it is too early to decide. Now is the time to take the core science classes for a computer engineering major and find out what you are good at. Those core classes are generally the same classes that a physics major would take. You don't really have to make a decision right now. The entire difference between one major and the other might be made up by as little as taking one extra class next fall.

[I looked at the major requirements for Midwestern University and they are quite similar to Wannabe Flagship, the school my students transfer to. Their computer engineering students take the same three calculus courses and the same two physics courses that physics majors take. Ditto for freshman chemistry. The only real difference is that physics has a freshman "what is cool about physics" class, while computer engineering has a "what is cool about EE" class and a programming class. This is true for many universities, not just his school and Wannabe Flagship. There are, however, significant exceptions where physics majors take a different physics sequence than engineers. There it might cost you a semester or even two if you didn't switch majors before starting physics.]

Take those calculus and physics classes, and the programming classes, and learn it for life. Are you good at problem solving? Do you like the lab? Are you good at programming? Is programming so much fun that you write your own games and sims, wasting enough time on that stuff that you forget about everything else? (Like my brother, who needed to retake physics because of the uber-cool sim code he wrote that semester?) Or do you really get into 3-D calculus and all of the sophisticate mathematics of partial differential equations that has to be second nature if you want to get into the physics of quantum mechanics? Or do you want to work on gadgets, making some tricky experiment work?

If you were my advisee, I'd suggest you rip into those classes and get back to me in May (or, more likely, next November) after you have three semesters of calculus, two of physics, and some programming behind you. Then we can really talk. Or we won't need to talk, since by then you might know exactly what you really want to do.

Getting Information:

First, you should have lots of information available to you. Most universities have some kind of career center for academic advising and/or job placement. They would have current statistics for placement of grads from your specific university in the specific majors you are considering. You can also find national statistics for physics from the AIP (American Institute of Physics) and for CS from the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery for the programming side) or IEEE (for the computer engineering side).

Side thought:
The updated national rankings of graduate programs from the National Academy should be out soon, along with the annual job info updates from the AIP. The former only comes out every decade, so it is a big deal. Need to go look for it.

The salaries you quote seem very high for a BS in physics, since they are high for median new-hire salaries for engineering degrees. That might be a reasonable range for a PhD in physics, but that is after some years of experience in graduate research. No one gets hired for $100,000 right out of college.

In any case, no one should pick a career based on the salary alone.

Stu: "I want to be a chemical engineer! They make lots more money than other engineers!"
Prof: "Did you know that they have to take a year of inorganic chemistry followed by another year of organic chemistry, in addition to the one year of physics and two years of calculus every other engineer takes?"
Stu: "Oh. No"
Prof: "And that all has to be done before the start of their junior year classes in chemical engineering."
Stu: "Never mind."

Stu: "I want to be a pediatrician. I love kids."
Prof: "Do you like kids when they are crying because they are sick or even dying?"
Stu: "Doctors have to treat sick children?"
Prof: "That is where the money is."
Stu: "Oh."

Engineering and physics and programming are all hard work. Hard work can be fun, or it can be a drag. Money can make up for it being a drag, but many students who are just in it for the money will struggle with motivation when faced with the years of hard work that must be put in before you get that first internship, let alone a job.

Job Outlook:

I would never trust anyone's guess on the job outlook for any major, certainly not mine. Even the professional placement officers have been wildly wrong at times. Like most of the time. The market was good when I started college. Four years later, when I got my BS, we were headed into a recession and jobs were tough to get in the areas that hired my undergrad major. I went to grad school, which paid a living wage, but there I learned the market for PhD faculty was nonexistent and would remain bad for a decade. And, I might add, many of the jobs in physics today concern application areas that literally did not exist when I got my degree. Cell phones? An iPod with more permanent storage than an entire weapon's lab computing center? You don't guess about the future, you create it. And, lately, many PhD physicists were working in the financial industry; many of them are soon going to be out of work, either living off of their profits or looking for a job somewhere else.

In the past, only exceedingly practical majors like civil engineering have been fairly recession proof. We build roads and bridges even during the Great Depression, so there was usually a way to get by if you could work in that area. Now, what will the market be like four years from now? Who knows. But if it is any good at all, it will be driven by the kinds of things we don't see much of right now. I can't say with alternative energy program will take off, but one of them will. There will be work in those areas as an engineer, applied physicist, or programmer if you are the best prepared person for the job and ready to work harder than the other girl or guy.

So my advice is to learn everything you can from your classes, find what you like, find what you are good at, and pursue a career that requires skills that you have and enjoy doing for 10 or so hours a day. All technical careers are hard work for the money, so you better like what you are doing.

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