Where do you want to work?
So you've graduated from college with your degree in Physics -- the study of how the world works -- the most fundamental of all the sciences. You've been more or less deciphering the laws of nature that lead to an understanding of why things work as they do -- which is, well... basically everything.
After all of the hours you've sacrificed finishing lab reports, pouring over tedious texts, knocking out undergraduate research and generally hating your life you emerge from that academic daze.
You're left with one big question: now that you've got a degree in the study of how the world works, how in the world do you get a job so you can work?
Well, that's where we come in. We literally created a map, just for Physics Majors such as yourself, to navigate your way through the choppy waters of recent graduation.
Feel free to focus on the map alone -- it's pretty cool, if we do say so ourselves. But for those of you who prefer step by step navigation on your path, keep reading. We'll give you the rundown on:
First thing's first: what skills you'll need to get started.
While the education gained in the classroom is without a doubt beneficial, you've learned more from your Physics degree than just how to be irritated by The Big Bang Theory.
A Physics degree is well-rounded and cultivates a number of different skills and traits that can be applied to environments outside the laboratory and classroom -- beyond personal development and simply learning how to learn, employers will want to see how you can reflect, realize, and grow.
Applying these skills to real world learning opportunities yields a more robust and balanced career. Here are some of the common skills that you should talk up when trying to get a job with your Physics degree.
Effective communication. Written communication skills is increasingly essential to functioning effectively as chemists, or in any field. Whether you want to make a go of it in a lab or elsewhere, you'll need to be able to present proposals and findings to colleagues -- and potential funding sources.
Observational skills and attention to detail. Your research experience taught you to keep a complete, accurate record of your work, including the conditions under which the experiment was carried out, the procedures you followed, and the results you obtained.
Critical thinking and analysis. You've learned to draw conclusions from experimental results through sound reasoning and judgment.
You've had to test research findings and theories even though they were trusted, looking for consistencies and inconsistencies in logic. You scoured data for alternative interpretations and subtle biases that may have led to erroneous conclusions.
Physics is a broad subject with equally diverse specifications -- physics is also concerned with how things work on a more tangible level. The laws of physics are applied to fields such as engineering, communications, biology, and electronics.
The basics of physics can be applied to most other sciences, and for that reason, a great many people use physics as a springboard into other fields of study or professions. And what's more, you can choose to carry out research at universities, private laboratories, or for the government.
That's a lot to figure out even if you already know you want to work as a researcher, but we've got some ideas for narrowing it all down -- even if you want to branch out.
An internship will provide you with an understanding of the skills that a career in Physics requires, not just what your university demanded -- and with all of the options you have available, the opportunity to learn what it is that you don't want to do in your career is invaluable.
Here are some common types of internships for Physics Majors to help you make an informed decision about your career path:
Skillfully completing an internship with a governmental agency, research company, or university is a strong pathway to securing employment with them upon graduation -- but also, you'll be able to discern the areas where you need to build your skillset.
Your professors mean well, but academia is drastically different from real world applications. With your skills in problem-solving, mathematical reasoning, computer programming, and organizing and interpreting scientific data, you can move into government and industrial jobs that require an ability to think logically and creatively -- and this is aided by first working in one of these fields, ideally with an internship.
Before you settle on an internship, though, you'll want to make sure it's the right fit for you as far as your career trajectory. But also, ask yourself these practical questions:
An easy place to start is within your university -- just reach out to your department head or search the website. Another option is through the government's STEM internship program.
And now, the step you've probably been waiting for: getting a job.
The first step is deciding whether or not you want to stick to Physics at all -- some physics majors go on to become professional physicists, but the majority pursue careers in fields where they can put their knowledge to more practical applications.
Physics is analysis heavy and applicable to teaching, tech sales, electronics, management, telecommunications, industrial physics, hospital physics, computing, quality control testing, banking, and insurance.
With our map, you can click the Job Titles and learn more specific information for each position (what their responsibilities are, how much they get paid, etc.) But here, we wanted to call out some of the most common jobs for recent Physics major grads.
Just like you.
Get some serious lab experience. The most important thing a Physics major can do to get a research is to get some time researching. Showing a potential employer that you've worked in a lab and are familiar with procedures -- which will be your chief tools -- can greatly increase your chances of landing a job.
An internship will help you here, but any type of experience you can get in a lab is critical. Check out the NSF REU Sites search tool for research experience opportunities.
We're moving "beyond the bench" in Physics, and having some familiarity with UNIX, SQL will not only make your researching life easier, but it'll make you more marketable as a job candidate.
Which is important, because despite the important and intriguing specialties available to physicists, the vast majority of physics majors enter other professions. They may teach high school physics, perform research and development in private industry or in government labs, or lend their expertise to medical imaging, scientific book publishing, and scientific reporting.
Physics careers can come from unexpected places, so don't box yourself in. Insurance companies, for example, hire physicists to study the performances of the products they insure and make recommendations for reducing injuries and property loss.
If you want a career in government or industry, communication and interpersonal skills rate higher than physics or math grades, and much of your time will be spent writing and making presentations.
Computer skills and courses in areas such as statistics, electronics, and applied physics are important, too. When interviewing with potential employers, you must be able to show you are a team player.
According to Kaplan, graduates with bachelor's degrees have reported that people skills are an essential part of their work activities. Much of their time is spent on activities that have nothing to do with science, such as teamwork, dealing with clients, managing projects, technical writing, making presentations, and training people.
The physics major who has not mastered communication skills will be ill-prepared for the job market.
Even if you don't have any direct work experience, you need to be able to communicate your capabilities and general knowledge of chemical principles. Because many entry level job applicants only have internships, retail jobs, or summer gigs, they haven't had any "big achievements" to mention.
You will stand out tremendously if you take initiative at these jobs in small ways and add it to your resume.
Did you lead any other student researchers? Did you publish any of your research? Make your work work for you.
Someone with experience will help think of ways to make it look like you got a lot out of the experiences. At the very least, they can make sure you format your resume appropriately.
You'll want to ensure that you stand out, particularly if you're just entering the job market. Some letters after your name go a long way.
A master's degree or doctorate is required for teaching university-level physics, or for top-level research in private industry or in government labs. Most professionals who go into this type of research have doctorates.
Pursuing an advanced degree
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you need a Ph.D. to participate in those ultra competitive independent research projects.
For those seeking a clinical or scientific research position, an advanced degree is crucial -- but many employers of these top-notch positions also want prior experience, whether through an internship, summer research position or volunteer work.
A master's degree is usually enough for some jobs in applied research and product development. In BLS's words, a bachelor's degree is "adequate for some non-research jobs." The basic story here is to not stop working and hustling, even if you're pursuing an advanced degree.
If you're still not sure what to do with your degree or could use some help making yourself even more competitive, here are some external sites to help you with your decision:
The APS provides effective programs in support of the physics community and the conduct of physics and is one of the largest professional physics organizations around.
Their mission statement is "to inspire people of all ages about physics. Let us be your guide and show you the best physics places on the web."... they also serve as a solid place to look for ways to advance your studies and career.
NSF REU Sites
If your school wasn't helpful in placing you with some research opportunities, try the government's site.
Enter "Physics" into the search bar and you can get a sense of what kind of government jobs are available to Physics majors. Find a job title you like and come back here to learn more about it.
Bureau Of Labor Statistics
The BLS offers detailed data on pay, location, and availability of different kinds of jobs across the country.
In fact, we draw a lot of our research on the best places for jobs from the information provided on the site.
And if this all seems like a lot - don't worry - the hard part (getting your degree!) is already over.