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How easy is it to transfer skills from a physics BS to a job in industry?

I feel like a lot of recruiters will ask about engineering project experience or software expertise, and so far my classes have been math/theory focused. I'm comfortable with Python and have taken a few labs, but I feel like I don't have the experience a lot of employers expect. What sort of industry jobs are out there for physics majors?

#physics #undergraduate #job-experience #industry #physics-major #career #givingiscaring


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Tim’s Answer

Hi Abby,

I was a physics minor and math major in college and transitioned into the software industry. The fundamental skills (rigorous thinking, mathematical knowledge) are a firm grounding and I know many colleagues who have taken a similar path.

Some questions that might help you narrow down what to do:

- Do you enjoy writing computer programs (and would be willing to do so full time)? If so, interview for a Python development software engineering role. You may wish to contribute to some open source projects if you feel you would like to brush up on your programming. Note that the systems that most software engineers work on are large (100,000+ lines of code) so it will be different from a python script.

- Do you enjoy data driven experimentation that uses software? If so a data science role might be more appropriate. Here, you are more focused on using Python (or another language) as a tool to help you manipulate data and create models. The systems you work on will be smaller and iterated on / replaced more frequently

- Would you enjoy data analysis that is more business focussed and enjoy thinking about data presentation? If so, a role as a data analyst might suit you. Here you are focused on understanding data sets, manipulating them (often in Excel as well as in Python) and then creating a presentation which will inform business decisions and outcomes.

Note that there's not a final choice you have to make at the outset. In particular the boundary between software engineer and data scientist and the boundary between data scientist and data analyst are quite blurry (in fact the same position may be called different names at different companies).


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Vinciane (Vinci)’s Answer

Hi Abby!

I'm a software engineer, and I have many friends and coworkers who actually studied physics in school! Especially in more entry-level jobs for software engineers, you'll generally do well in interviews if you are able to solve the coding questions (I would recommend practicing regularly with tools like Leetcode) and talk about any projects you have done in a meaningful way. They don't need to be engineering projects specifically. If you're doing more math/theoretical work, were there any problems or projects that were particularly challenging? How were you able to work through them, get help at the right times, or ask the right questions to solve those problems? Side projects are definitely good to have as well, but I wouldn't consider them a necessity earlier in your career. If you're already using Python, you could try your hand at some Kaggle competitions.

You could also look into fields like data science or machine learning! Those fields seem well-suited to physics majors since they are often a bit more analytical and may align well with any data modeling you have done in school. (Your Python experience would also come in handy in those fields.) There are also many financial firms who hire analysts with physics degrees! Really, a lot of technical and analytical fields would be interested in hiring folks with a physics background, so just keep applying to jobs and getting interview experience.

Hope this is helpful!

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Luke’s Answer

I was a math major in undergrad, and also struggled to figure out how I would apply that to entering an industry. As Julio mentioned - if you want to be an engineer, then power through the entry-level work and you're comfort level will grow. Other areas in business are often looking for sharp, quantitative minds to help solve their problems, too. Many companies hire analysts to support their product, sales, marketing, finance, and human resource teams. If you get your foot in the door with a company that interests you, you can decide your next career step from there. You'll be surprised how much you learn from simply being exposed to a business environment, and how you can apply the problem-solving skills you learned in undergrad to a variety of business problems.

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Julio’s Answer

Hey Abby!

First off, you should feel proud to be one of few who choose to do Physics, that’s awesome! Many people struggle with any entry level STEM classes, so seeing someone majoring in Physics is always good to see. Two things that Immediately pop into my mind are that for many physics careers, they expect PhD’s in more concentrated fields (more about that in a bit) and as I’ve come to learn recently, you are in a situation that many engineering students are in as well which is that they feel as if they are not prepared when they leave college to begin a career in engineering and many students in engineering only pursue their Bachelor’s degrees.

So, to start off, many of the subjects you learn now will be gateways for your more advanced classes in graduate school whenever you pick a more niche and concentrated field such as Astrophysics, Theoretical, Quantum, etc. Once you are in one of these programs, you begin to learn more and more about the specific programs, theories, mathematics, and more that you will use in day to day life as a Physicist. For now, try and grasp as much information as possible to apply to your future classes. Unlike many degrees such as business, education, etc. where even when students feel like they are not prepared and can learn on the job with little to no recollection of what they learned in college, STEM majors are more likely to NEED many of the subjects they learn in school to apply to their careers, so be sure try and retain as much knowledge as possible.

Secondly, many of the engineering students I have talked to fear they may not have the knowledge they need when going into their respective fields and yet they always end up successful. These graduates start off as entry level engineers, a position that many before them have been through and had the exact same thoughts of impostor syndrome, but have always pushed through. Think about them next time you have doubts and know that many people in your field have also had these thoughts, but persevering through your program and future programs will not only provide you with all the resources you need, but you’ll learn that workplaces will also work with you and understand that you don’t know it all.

Good luck and I hope this helped!

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Joseph’s Answer

You're right, there is a problem known as the "Skills Gap"; in that a lot of prospective employers are looking for experience and practical skills that aren't taught at universities and colleges. There's a number of ways round this problem though:

1. Make sure you really "sell" the experience you do have.
You probably have experience you didn't realise. Make sure your applications, CVs and resumés show these things off.
Most physics BS's will get you doing at least some project work, often for a final year project thesis, group lab projects, or similar. Make a point of highlighting any of this sort of work you do.
You've probably got experience from outside your studies too. If you can, try to describe things you've done elsewhere in terms of being a project; whether it's tasks for family, clubs and groups, or anything else.

2. Look for opportunities targeted at fresh graduates.
A lot of larger companies in physics-based industries run graduate entry programs or internships. These are an ideal starting point as a first job, and are designed to help you build skills, experience, and professional recognition in your first couple of years of "proper" work. However, there's usually many more graduates than there are places for these kinds of program, and competition is tough. It's an excellent route if you come out with top marks, but can be a real struggle to get into if you didn't get the best grades.

3. Think about a change a year or so further on.
A lot of employers really are looking for someone who's gone out and got their first year's experience before they consider taking them on. Once you get that experience, you'll find your options massively open up, and places that wouldn't have considered you a year ago are suddenly fighting to have you on-board. It might be worth being a little flexible with your first job, and maybe do something that's vaguely STEM-related but doesn't entirely relate to your degree or isn't something you'd want to do long term; just so you get that valuable first bit of experience.
My first job out-of-uni was in a lab analysing sample data. It was more chemistry than physics, was repetitive work and not well paid; so a high turnover of staff is pretty much expected. After a year of doing that, I'd got that valuable first experience however, and all the "proper" physics jobs I really wanted were much more eager to consider my applications, and I was getting job offers in quick succession.

4. Consider postgraduate study
If you're finding your BS hasn't quite prepared you for a career in industry, you might consider further study. I've heard it said that a Batchelor's is just learning the basics of a subject, while a Master's is learning what you need to actually practice it as a career. That's not really true, but having a Masters or PhD is certainly a big help toward getting a job in general, and can be necessary in certain fields of physics-based work.

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