2 answers

Is physics a good major?

Asked Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I'm a CareerVillage staff member and I'm posting this because we know that many young people are looking for the answer to this question. This is among the most popular questions searched by youth, and we're hoping you will take a moment to share your response to it. Thank you! #college #college-major #physics #science

Things you can consider for this specific question...

What is physics?
What can you do with a degree in physics?
Is there a lot of opportunity for employment in physics?
If you majored in physics, what did you do with your degree?

2 answers

Ken’s Answer

Updated Cleveland, Ohio

The answer to this question is an individual one, especially since the application of a physics major is very broad. It takes getting to know yourself better to see how your personality traits relate to others in the various areas and getting to meet and to know people in those areas to get to know what they do and how and where they do it and how you feel about it.


Getting to know yourself and how your personality traits relate to people involved in various career opportunities is very important in your decision making process. During my many years in Human Resources and College Recruiting, I ran across too many students who had skipped this very important step and ended up in a job situation which for which they were not well suited. Selecting a career area is like buying a pair of shoes. First you have to be properly fitted for the correct size, and then you need to try on and walk in the various shoe options to determine which is fits the best and is most comfortable for you to wear. Following are some important steps which I developed during my career which have been helpful to many .

Ken recommends the following next steps:

  • The first step is to take an interest and aptitude test and have it interpreted by your school counselor to see if you share the personality traits necessary to enter the field. You might want to do this again upon entry into college, as the interpretation might differ slightly due to the course offering of the school. However, do not wait until entering college, as the information from the test will help to determine the courses that you take in high school. Too many students, due to poor planning, end up paying for courses in college which they could have taken for free in high school.
  • Next, when you have the results of the testing, talk to the person at your high school and college who tracks and works with graduates to arrange to talk to, visit, and possibly shadow people doing what you think that you might want to do, so that you can get know what they are doing and how they got there. Here are some tips: ## http://www.wikihow.com/Network ## ## https://www.themuse.com/advice/nonawkward-ways-to-start-and-end-networking-conversations ## ## https://www.themuse.com/advice/4-questions-to-ask-your-network-besides-can-you-get-me-a-job?ref=carousel-slide-1 ##
  • Locate and attend meetings of professional associations to which people who are doing what you think that you want to do belong, so that you can get their advice. These associations may offer or know of intern, coop, shadowing, and scholarship opportunities. These associations are the means whereby the professionals keep abreast of their career area following college and advance in their career. You can locate them by asking your school academic advisor, favorite teachers, and the reference librarian at your local library. Here are some tips: ## https://www.careeronestop.org/BusinessCenter/Toolkit/find-professional-associations.aspx?&frd=true ## ## https://www.themuse.com/advice/9-tips-for-navigating-your-first-networking-event ##
  • It is very important to express your appreciation to those who help you along the way to be able to continue to receive helpful information and to create important networking contacts along the way. Here are some good tips: ## https://www.themuse.com/advice/the-informational-interview-thank-you-note-smart-people-know-to-send?ref=recently-published-2 ## ## https://www.themuse.com/advice/3-tips-for-writing-a-thank-you-note-thatll-make-you-look-like-the-best-candidate-alive?bsft_eid=7e230cba-a92f-4ec7-8ca3-2f50c8fc9c3c&bsft_pid=d08b95c2-bc8f-4eae-8618-d0826841a284&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=daily_20171020&utm_source=blueshift&utm_content=daily_20171020&bsft_clkid=edfe52ae-9e40-4d90-8e6a-e0bb76116570&bsft_uid=54658fa1-0090-41fd-b88c-20a86c513a6c&bsft_mid=214115cb-cca2-4aec-aa86-92a31d371185&bsft_pp=2 ##

Greg’s Answer

Updated Sunnyvale, California

Physics is an awesome major! There are a few caveats, of course, but I think it's close to the top of all the STEM fields.


Pros, at a very high level:

  • It covers the entire universe, and there's just an astoundingly large number of cool things being discovered every week. I'm personally partial to astrophysics and cosmology, but low-temperature physics, solid-state physics, material science, biophysics, nuclear physics, particle physics, etc., are all full of fascinating stuff. In fact, I chose a non-astrophysics topic (acoustic microscopes) for my PhD qualifiers presentation; it was just a beautiful little nugget of niftiness. I sometimes wonder if I'd still be doing physics every day if I'd gone down that path instead...
  • It's a great foundation for other things, including electronics (EE), data science/analytics, statistics, software engineering, and other types of engineering. I followed the software development path myself (and within that I've done a lot of different things), but I also did "electronics for physicists" as an undergrad (and TA'd it as a grad student), and I worked in a physics professor's rocket lab; with those I might conceivably have gone into instrument engineering or one of the commercial space programs. (In fact, a recruiter from one of the latter contacted me some years back; if it hadn't involved relocating, I might have gone for it.)

Cons:

  • Physics is very math-heavy, and not everyone has a talent for it. Don't be scared off just because of that, but if you've struggled with single-variable calculus (for example), it might not be the best choice for you. (If you've struggled but succeeded, then it might very well be for you: hard work counts for a lot. I watched a "normal-smart" but hard-working student surpass a "genius-smart" but less-hard-working student when I was a TA.)
  • The most common dream for doing physics as a career is academia (i.e., aiming to become a professor, and most commonly a professor who does a fair amount of research). But professorships are relatively scarce relative to the number of physics PhDs who'd like one, and the path is pretty long and rather poor-paying until you get to the end: four years of undergrad, 5-7 years for a PhD program, 2-6 years for postdocs (not sure of the current average), some number of years as an assistant (non-tenured) professor--or even as a mere lecturer or "adjunct professor"--and only then, if all goes well (which means if you've published a lot of peer-reviewed papers and ideally have brought in a lot of cash via successful grant proposals and aren't stuck at a university that's using you solely for freshman-level teaching), might you get tenure (associate professorship). But there are also government labs and companies that employ physicists, so if you're not hung up on the academic route, things are quite a bit rosier.


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