Career prospects for physics majors

by JonahS6 min read4th Apr 201432 comments

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Physics is attractive to many highly intellectually capable students, because

  • Physical theories represent pinnacles of human achievement
  • It's intellectually stimulating 
  • It has a reputation for being a subject that smart people do

See the comments on the post What attracts smart and curious young people to physics?

But what of career prospects?

In an answer to the Quora question What is it like to major in physics? PhD physicist Joshua Parks wrote:

It may not be too crazy to claim that as far as career options go, physics majors may be much more like English or other humanities majors (who often make career choices unrelated to their study) than their science and engineering counterparts.

At Physics Forums, ParticleGrl wrote

If you are an engineer, you can almost certainly get a job in a technical field right out of college. Physics majors, on the other hand, end up all over the place (insurance, finance, teaching high school, programming, etc). 

We discuss some career paths for physics majors below.

Summary

  • The primary reason to major in physics (outside of intrinsic interest) is as a prerequisite to a physics PhD or as background for teaching high school physics.
  • Over 50% of those who get PhDs in physics don't become physicists, often because of difficulty finding jobs.
  • Physics majors are able to get jobs in other quantitative fields, but often with more difficulty than they would had they majored in those fields.

The popularity of physics as a major

The fraction of students who major in physics is small. What's It Worth?: The Economic Value of College Majors by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (pg. 162) reports that there are 936k people with Bachelor's degrees in physical sciences, but only 91k with degrees in physics. Assuming that there are 50 years worth of people with Bachelor's degrees in the United States, we get figures of about 20k physical sciences majors per year and 2k physics majors per year. This is in consonance with a report of the National Center for Educational Statistics, which gives a figure of 20k physical science majors who graduated in 2005. There are about 1.3 million college majors a year, so on the order of 0.2% of college graduates majored in physics.

The proportion increases significantly if one considers the population of highly intellectually capable students. For example, about 2% of Stanford undergraduates major in physics. The proportion will be still higher if one considers the population of Stanford's most intellectually capable students. 

Physics

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 17k people work as physicists, so about 20% of physics majors. 

Majoring in physics is a step toward becoming a physicist, but it's usually not sufficient. In an anonymous answer to the Quora quest What is it like to major in physics?, the answerer reports

There are no jobs in physics as the BS level. You need a PhD to do work related to physics, and even work at the Masters level is not that great (so I've heard).

This may not literally be true: the American Physical Society reports that 5% of physics majors who enter the workforce right after college work in physics or astronomy. But broadly, a physics PhD seems to be a prerequisite to becoming a physicist.

Graduate school is a common path for physics majors. What's It Worth? reports (pg. 27) that 67% of physics majors go on to earn a graduate degree (without giving a breakdown of what kinds of graduate degrees they get). The American Institute of Physics reports that there are about 900 US citizens who earn physics PhDs a year, suggesting that a large fraction (30+%) of the ~2k physics majors who graduate in a given year go on to earn PhDs in physics. 

The default career path for a PhD physicist is academia. We give some general considerations on our page on Academia as a career option. There seems to be a general consensus that the job market in physics academia is extremely competitive. Don't Become a Scientist! by Jonathan Katz describes the scarcity of jobs relative to PhDs and its implications. Physicist rknop writes

My own field is physics, and the problem of physicists being trained for and expected to get tenure-track faculty positions, without enough of these positions being out there, has been a sore topic for two decades (at least). [...] There is absolutely no guarantee that the PhD will allow them to spend the rest of their lives in physics research. 

Putting the number of physicists together with the number of physics PhDs, it appears as though roughly 50% of physics PhDs are physicists (whether in academia or industry). 

Success in physics seems to be driven in large part by intelligence, so exceptionally intelligent people may have an easy time getting a job, but they have to be sufficiently intelligent to stand out amongst a population that's already strongly selected for intelligence.

Computer programming / software engineering

What's It Worth? (pg. 165) reports that 19% of physics majors end up in "computer services." This is vague, but it seems reasonable to guess that it's mostly software engineering. Answers to the Quora question Why are there so many physics majors in software engineering? give some reasons for this.

Physics majors' coursework and research can involve computer programming, but this tends to be limited. Broadly, if one wants to be a software engineer as a physics major, one has to minor in or double major in computer science, or spend a significant amount of time programming on one's own. In general, one can get a job as a software engineer without a computer science degree, so majoring in physics exclusively doesn't bar one from the career path, but it also seems strictly inferior to majoring in computer science from a professional point of view, for future software engineers.

In an answer to Can a physics major get hired as a software engineer? at Physics Forums, fss writes

You will start out at a disadvantage compared to computer science people who have demonstrated programming ability, and it will be up to you to decide how best to show that you can bring something to the table that would make up for this deficiency (real or perceived). 

Engineering

The American Physical Society reports that 32% of physics majors who enter the workforce directly go into engineering. What's It Worth? (pg. 165) reports that 17% of physics majors are engineers.

The answers to Can a Physics major get a job as an engineer? and Engineering Job with a Physics Degree at Physics Forum suggest that physics majors can get jobs as engineers, but that they're at a disadvantage relative to engineering majors, and that those who plan to be engineers should major in engineering.

Physics majors are sometimes able to go to engineering graduate school, for example, Dan Recht.

High school teaching

The Physics Teacher Education Coalition reports that there are 27k high school physics teachers, 35% of whom have degrees in physics or physics education, suggesting that up to 10% of physics majors become high school physics teachers. We have not yet done a writeup on high school teaching as a career, but hope to do so.

Earnings

  • Payscale reports that median midcareer salary for physics majors is $101k/year, which ranks 9th in median midcareer salary amongst majors, after computer science, actuarial mathematics, and some engineering specialties. 
  • The median starting salary for physics majors of $53k/year is lower than the median starting salary for engineers, which is more like $60k-$65k/year. 
  • What's It Worth? (pgs. 23-24) reports that the 25th percentile of physics majors' income is $38k/year, compared with $85k/year for engineering specialties.

The relatively low median starting salary and 25th percentile salary may be dragged down substantially by the fact that physics majors attend graduate school and do postdocs with higher frequency than engineering majors do, during which they have low earnings. 

After controlling for years of education and intelligence, physics majors make less than engineers, even mid-career. As above, physics majors complete PhDs more frequently than engineering majors do, and one source reports that physics majors' average SAT scores are about 100 points higher than engineering and computer science majors' on a 1600 point scale (equating to about 0.5 SD in IQ). So it's plausible that they make less money than their counterparts of similar intelligence who majored in engineering or computer science. This doesn't necessarily mean that they couldn't get jobs where they made more money – it could be that they prefer lower paying academic jobs over higher paying jobs outside of physics.

Cross-posted from the Cognito Mentoring blog

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I'm starting physics at university in about 5 months. When I visiting one university to see how well I might like it there, I had a conversation with one of the professors about the employment value of a physics degree. He said something to the effect of "As a physicist you're very desirable. the only one who knows more math than you is the mathematician, the only one who knows more engineering than you is the engineer, the only one who knows more computer science than you is the computer scientist." This impressed me and made me more optimistic about my prospects, until afterwards I put on my economics hat and figured that by comparative advantage I'd be better off just doing math or engineering or compsci.

Physical theories represent pinnacles of human achievement

It's intellectually stimulating

It has a reputation for being a subject that smart people do

3 biggest reasons I chose physics right there. Have I made a horrible mistake?

Disclosure: I have a degree in Physics (and Mathematics), and I'm in graduate school at a top 3 institution.

The hardest thing about getting a degree in Physics is that you don't actually learn what it even means to be a Physicist until probably your junior year (or often later).

But this is a fairly broadly applicable statement--most college courses for your first two years are fundamentals, irrespective of degree. And The Real World (tm) is essentially nothing like an introductory college course.

But Physics is particularly bad in that almost the entire degree is comprised of 'fundamentals'. You'll be hella pro at solving differential equations and calculating forces, but not in any immediately marketable way.

Unless you independently seek out research opportunities, you won't actually be exposed to what it's like to be a physicist.

I'm saying all of this because "It's intellectually stimulating" will only be a true statement if you're intellectually stimulated by what Physics actually is. For example: are you comfortable with struggling to even come up with a problem to solve, struggling to actually solve that problem, struggling to make sense of the answer to that problem, and often finding that the answer to your initially posed problem is uninteresting?

Are you comfortable with probably having to complete more than one post-doc appointment before even starting a tenure track position (with extremely limited ability to choose where that position might be)?

Are you comfortable having your funding be at the mercy of the often schizophrenic grant process?

Because the practice of physics is a struggle. And it is manifestly unlike anything taught in a physics course.

Personally, I find this process intellectually stimulating. But that doesn't stop me from intensely eyeing industry jobs as I get older. The nice thing about Physics is that you absolutely can get any number of different non-academic jobs, but you do have to be proactive about this--you have to develop programming skills, pursue internships, diversify your course-load. There's no traditional non-academic path for a Physics major, and it's often the case (as this article points out), you would have saved yourself a lot of trouble if you'd just majored in Engineering.

I've also found that a lot of physics is starting with a ridiculously hard problem, and looking at various simplifications, seeing whether they make the problem easier to solve, and whether one is willing to live with the error that the simplification that the simplification produces. In physics, problems aren't so much solved, as an answer is found that is "close enough". Solving for the first electron orbital of the hydrogen atom? Gravity doesn't exist!

There was one class I took where eventually the students started asking the professor before starting a problem "In this problem, is c equal to 1, or infinity?"

Are you comfortable having your funding be at the mercy of the often schizophrenic grant process?

This is the big killer. And bears emphasizing- funding climate is the single biggest factor determining whether you get a job in physics, and it is totally outside your control.

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I'll incorporate some of your points in a later writeup about physics as a major.

Have I made a horrible mistake?

Ask yourself a different question: what do you want to do? Treat it literally: every morning after you wake up and brush your teeth and have breakfast, what is it that you want to do? Build things? Write code? Ponder the imponderables? Direct minions? Solve puzzles? Earn piles of money?

the only one who knows more math than you is the mathematician, the only one who knows more engineering than you is the engineer, the only one who knows more computer science than you is the computer scientist

You can also just major in math, engineering and computer science and take supplementary courses in the other subjects. If one puts consumptive value aside, this is probably more efficient than learning math, engineering and computer science together with subject specific physics material.

3 biggest reasons I chose physics right there. Have I made a horrible mistake?

Not a horrible mistake in any case.

Whether or not it's a mistake depends on your goals. What are they?

Are you locked into a physics major, or do you have the flexibility to switch?

Whether or not it's a mistake depends on your goals. What are they?

I'm not sure. Although I can say with reasonable confidence that I don't want to go into academia.

Are you locked into a physics major, or do you have the flexibility to switch?

The vast slow gears of the bureaucracy have started turning and nobody can stop them now.

I'm not sure. Although I can say with reasonable confidence that I don't want to go into academia.

Then definitely don't go into Physics. You will be much better served by engineering or computer science.

I'm not sure. Although I can say with reasonable confidence that I don't want to go into academia.

If you want to be a software engineer, you can supplement your physics major courses with programming courses. If you want to become a data analyst, you can supplement your physics major courses with statistics courses. etc.

As ahbwramc comments, prospects for physics majors don't look so bleak. Rather, they seem somewhat (not radically) suboptimal for people who don't intend to become physics majors.

The vast slow gears of the bureaucracy have started turning and nobody can stop them now.

How much confidence do you have in this? Are you at an American university? In American universities, it's usually possible to switch majors through freshman year, and even through sophomore year in some cases.

UK, and I was talking about the application and admissions process itself; it's not possible to change it. Once I'm there I can change degree, not before.

I double majored in physics and computer science as an undergrad at a pretty good school.

My observation is this:

The computer science students had a much easier time getting jobs, because getting a job with mediocre software engineering experience is pretty easy (in the US in today's market). I did this with undeservedly little effort.

The physics students were, in general, completely capable of putting in 6 months of work to become as employable as the computer science students. I have several friends who majored in things completely non-technical, but by spending a few months learning to program were able to get employed in the field. The physics students from my classes were easily smart enough to do this, though most did not.

To maximize the ease of getting a job while in physics, take a few programming courses on the side. If you apply yourself and are reasonably talented it should be doable.

I think the 'right' approach (for maximizing happiness and effectiveness) is to major in what you find the most enjoyable and do the due diligence to become employable on the side. And maximize any synergies between the two (do programming in physics internships, etc).

Physical theories represent pinnacles of human achievement

Depends completely on what you value. There are a lot of interesting pinnacles of human achievement in all sorts of fields of knowledge.

It has a reputation for being a subject that smart people do

Which basically means that the competition that you face is very skilled.

I had a conversation with one of the professors about the employment value of a physics degree.

It's not like he wouldn't have a conflict of interest.

As a physicist you're very desirable. the only one who knows more math than you is the mathematician, the only one who knows more engineering than you is the engineer, the only one who knows more computer science than you is the computer scientist.

Are you sure that your physics degree contains more computer science than the engineering degree?

It's not like he wouldn't have a conflict of interest.

Yes, that's my point.

Are you sure that your physics degree contains more computer science than the engineering degree?

Wouldn't it depend on the type of engineering degree?

I have the impression that a non-negligible number of physics graduates (perhaps more among physics PhDs?) go into finance and do very well there. If that's right, perhaps it should be called out explicitly; it might be a useful counterpoint to the alleged relatively low earnings, for those who care about that. (With the usual set of pros and cons: can be scarily well paid; may be very hard work; many finance jobs have zero or negative social value; etc.)

My guess is that most people who study physics at university have some ambition to be academic physicists, discover new fundamental laws of nature, etc., and don't really care that much about money -- but if it happens to be the case that there's a fairly natural path from studying physics to getting rich, then mentioning the fact may be helpful to students who care more about money than the average.

I have the impression that a non-negligible number of physics graduates (perhaps more among physics PhDs?) go into finance and do very well there. If

Yeah, I thought about writing about this, maybe I'll add some material about it. Note that physics PhDs may have been able to get jobs in finance almost as good right out of college, making substantially more by the time they'd have reached the age at which they got their physics PhD.

I would guess your estimate for 50% of phds working as scientists in academia or industry is skewed by the recently slackened job market. Physicists are great utility players, so when a field has a shortage they tend to fill in the slack. As the job market continues to stay pretty awful, there are fewer shortages. In my cohort, less than 10% are still in any kind of scientific field (but we largely came out of our second postdocs right into the great recession, so we got hit especially hard).

I would add that when someone describes the "flexibility" of a physics major, they are putting spin on a negative. Every physics major working as a programmer or on an IT help desk is a physics major not working in science- philosophy looks similarly flexible.

My advice to physics majors is consistently this- those physics majors that get hired by finance companies? Odds are, they actually took some finance classes or picked up enough of a financial background to interview with them. Those physics majors hired by engineering companies? They probably took some engineering classes where they learned at least some design skills. Those physics majors working for insurance companies? They took actuarial tests. Software engineers took programming classes, etc.

If you put your head down and excel at the physics major and physics research, but do not take any outside-the-major classes, you will have an incredibly difficult time finding a job without some additional work. No one will hire you BECAUSE you are a physics major, instead they will hire you because you know something useful and, as a bonus, you were a physics major.

EDIT: Also, be very careful with the APS numbers, especially for phds. The survey response rate is abysmal, and a large portion of the responses they do get are sent in by advisers rather than students.

Thanks for the helpful information.

I guess that education systems differ quite a lot between different countries. So where you do your physics studies could make a significant difference. The OP is probably somewhat USA-centric. In Sweden there are two major undergraduate programs in physics. The general university physics program, and the engineering physics program. The latter is an engineering program and you are awarded an engineering degree. The contents, however, is mostly a physics program. For those going into an academic physics career it is as good a starting ground as the general university physics program. For those going into an engineering career, it is in some respects as good as or better than the more traditional engineering programs, and in some worse. The difference is that you learn less specific engineering, the advantage is that you learn more basic physics and mathematics, and general modelling skills. In USA the tradition seems to be more of traditional pure university physics programs. How about other places?

Physics Ph.D.-s are to a large extent recruited from the engineering physics program. A large fraction (I do not have actual reference here, somewhat anecdotic evidence) of physics Ph.D.-s go later to an engineering carrier, and that is made easier by the fact that those coming from an engineering physics background actually have a formal M.Sc. engineering degree.

The reason some continue to Ph.D. varies of course. But for many the dominating reason is: for fun. They like learning about the real world, this is an important reason (I think) that many are attracted to physics; to understand more about the actual real world that we are living in at a fundamental level. But not just the very fundamental level, an aspect of understanding the real world by actual modelling (mathematical modelling that is systematically tested against real empirical data) is also important, be it at a more fundamental or a more phenomenological level (depending what field of physics you go to). The second reason is they like problem solving, being able to work for a few years on a non-trivial problem but still realistically feasible due to supervision by a professor. Some have already from the start an idea for a carrier after the Ph.D., for some in academia, while others self-idetify as engineers and see the Ph.D. just as a temporary fun before they take up their engineering carrier. While others have a more carefree attitude and don't want to take out future worries as carrier choicies before that day actually arrives. Of course many by choice or necessity (or unexpected oppertunity in few lucky cases) change their carrier plans later, even had they one to begin with. In particular, competition for jobs in academia is fierce, and many who wished for that end up in engineering even so. But that is one of the ideas behind the system. There are no sufficiently reliable methods to predict who will be good enough for an academic research carrier, so many more Ph.D.-s than is needed for that has to be produced. Anyway, since most can get reasonably good jobs as e.g. engineers the cost is not that high, so provided they have fun enough during their time as graduate students it is worth it.

The value of a physics Ph.D for engineering. is to a large extent more skills in problem solving and modelling generally. The value as an engineer of the more actual physics that you know as a Ph.D. as compared to an M.Sc is probably only rarely of significant value. Several other small but significant skills are also acquired, e.g., Ph.D.-s have often significantly (well, somewhat...) better English writing skills by having to write articles for actual publication. The value of engineering physics as compared to a more standard engineering program is similar, though the difference is smaller, and here some of the larger physics knowledge is slightly more often of actual practical use (though I think that more often the stronger training in applied mathematics is a more important advantage of engineering physics as compared to a traditional engineering program, but those are not independent; the strong training in applied mathematics comes from doing actual problem solving in physics).

Whether it is good or not to go into physics depends on your preferences and interests, and your skill profile. My guess from personal experience by myself and acquaintancies; Apart from personal interest, if your talent is for acquiring general modelling skills reasonably well, then going to engineering physics is probably better than going to traditional engineering. Many who go there do, but a significant number don't completely "get it" despite being tought it and formally passing the course exams. For those a more traditional engineering program would have been better. As for continuing for a Ph.D., for most students they should do this if they are among the best in class as M.Sc.-s, and if physics is what they really enjoy in life. For most Ph.D.-s there is a rather large but not very large cost of doing a Ph.D., You delay your engineering carrier by approximately 5/2 years, based on a simple toy modell where a Ph.D. takes 5 years and a year as a physics Ph.D-student is worth a half year engineering experience engineering-carrier-wise. (The lower salary during the very time as Ph.D.-student is no real cost, because it is well compensated by the lower expensives by the life-style as a Ph.D.-student.) For me and many of my acquaintances, that was more than well worth the cost, while for others of course it would not be.

Well, to be fair, you're not exactly painting the bleakest picture here. I mean, physics is ninth on that list of mid-career earnings out of 129 majors, and is pretty much indistinguishable from computer science. An extra $10000/year or whatever on top of an already pretty good salary doesn't hold much appeal to me - certainly not enough to make me wish I had done engineering. Having said that though, you're right - if you do physics, you probably won't get a job in physics, and you'll probably make less than you would had you done engineering. This is valuable information and smart high school students should definitely know it.

I wonder, though, to what extent physics degrees are actually displacing engineering degrees. They surely are to some extent - if physics were eliminated as a major tomorrow, no doubt a good fraction of physicists would migrate over to engineering. And then, yes, they would be better off than before in terms of earnings potential. But plenty would go to other majors with even lower earning potentials, like applied math ($96200), math ($88800), chemistry ($84100), or philosophy ($78300). So if you're advocating for people not to go into physics, I would say you should be very clear about what alternatives you're recommending. In many ways physics seems like a pretty good compromise, if you're intellectually curious - you get to study an interesting subject for four years, and then make almost as much as an engineer.

So if you're advocating for people not to go into physics, I would say you should be very clear about what alternatives you're recommending.

Does my article come across as advocating for people not to go into physics? If so, which parts?

Well, to be honest it did come across that way to me, although that's partly because I was framing it in the context of your last physics post, which was advocating against physics. I assumed this was sort of a continuation of that line of thought. Reading it again though, you're right, this one is maybe not as anti-physics as I first thought. The earnings section does seem to emphasize the negative more than is necessary though, I think.

Thanks for putting in the time and effort to generate this. I was curious about this when I was choosing my major and I wish I had access to a resource like this.

I think that people on LessWrong are more likely to go to elite colleges and degree programs and would therefore have better job prospects than the national average.

I think that people on LessWrong are more likely to go to elite colleges and degree programs and would therefore have better job prospects than the national average.

This is true.

Money is hardly the only metric of what makes a good major. Indeed, I am surprised to see discussions here that distinguish between even $50,000/yr and $100,000/yr as if this was obvious. In my college days, I lived on less than $1000/month (not counting tuition) without ever being concerned with it. I suppose my experience may not be universal, although I would hardly imagine it would be unique around here.

I was also extremely lucky to major in physics because I wanted to, and to never have had reasons to question that as a good enough (even if possibly circular) reason. I didn't care that engineers would probably make more money right out of school, the engineers were generally dull compared to the physicists, philosophers, historians, economists, and english majors. I actually did take enough math to be a minor, took nearly enough econ to get a minor, but wound up "officially" using Philosophy as a minor. not once did I check the employment prospects of Philosophy minors, or even the prospects of Physics/Philosophy minors. Who cared. I was learning stuff I found interesting and having great conversations with smart people all of the time.

I can see myself gearing up to go on and on and on, so let me cut it short. At every step of the way I did the thing I found most interesting. At no point did I ever risk missing a meal from lack of higher income. I drifted into electrical engineering because I liked the things I built for experimentation better than the results I got with those things. I am past mid-career i suppose (57 years old) but I make more than any of the bars on that money chart by major. I am happy about that but if I made less, I suspect I would still be pretty happy, possibly about something else.

Physics, to be a physicist per se I would say you need a PhD. And you need to be smart, smarter than an MS Engineer who will probably make more than you. You have to not be doing it for the money because there are SO many ways to make more money with the same level of smartness. If you do this, you will never be poor and you will never be bored.

This makes me want to start a company whose sole strategic insight is to hire absurdly smart and conscientious people who are willing to work for comfortable middle class pay by tempting mid-career (postdoc or late-stage Phd student) physicists away from the academic career path.

So a "late-stage PhD student" is now "mid-career"? X-D

A bigger question is what value will all these absurdly smart people be producing in your company?

Well, there are people who take 8+ years to do a Phd. A software engineer with 8 years of experience under his/her belt has a serious career going, while a lot of physicists are stuck in career limbo.

My guess is that a company that has access to a lot of smart people is going to be able to figure out a way to make money. It's a cliche among people who think about starting companies that the "idea" isn't actually very important compared to the quality of the team. HP was founded without any specific product in mind; the founders were just good friends who wanted to start a company together.

there are people who take 8+ years to do a Phd.

Notably, these are NOT "absurdly smart and conscientious people" as those actually bother to get their PhDs in a more reasonable timeframe. When someone is an ABD for multiple years it's a bad sign.

My guess is that a company that has access to a lot of smart people is going to be able to figure out a way to make money.

First, that's not self-evident -- some agglomerations of smart people do well and some do not. Second, making money is not your only concern, you also have to make money in such a way as to keep these absurdly smart people interested and motivated, otherwise they would just leave. And that is a notably harder problem.

Notably, these are NOT "absurdly smart and conscientious people" as those actually bother to get their PhDs in a more reasonable timeframe. When someone is an ABD for multiple years it's a bad sign.

It depends. In my phd program, tons of people stayed on longer in order to boost their publication records to be more competitive for jobs. Either way, after an average length phd + 1 postdoc (in some subfields of physics, especially theory, two postdocs is often the norm to be competitive for tenure track jobs), you are talking about a person with 9 yeas of experience in research making less than 60k a year.

I would guess that there is in fact an arbitrage opportunity here. My impression is that to some extent certain finance firms already do this. But probably more could be done along these lines.