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Any Physics Majors in the house?


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#1 of 17 OFFLINE   Brian Harnish

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Posted May 01 2004 - 06:42 PM

Well, I may have (finally) decided on my major for when I return to college in the fall to complete my degree. I've always had a passion for physics. Throughout my later years in High School I read books by the likes of Kip Thorne, Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku, Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman and others in the realm of physics and science in general. I still have a passion for physics and finding out about how the world (and on a more astronomical scale, the universe) works.

I wanted to get some feedback from those that chose physics as their major. What kind of work (and what kind of work load) am I in for? What do you think of physics as a major and its effects on job placement? And of course, last but not least, do you enjoy your major? Why or why not?

#2 of 17 OFFLINE   Tim Hoover

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Posted May 02 2004 - 11:45 AM

Brian, while I can't offer any advice on your question, I would just like to say congrats on returning to school. I'm doing the same thing
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#3 of 17 OFFLINE   Brian Harnish

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Posted May 02 2004 - 01:31 PM

Thanks, Tim! And congrats to you as well. I'm 24 and it's taken me a freaking long time to decide what the heck I want to do for my college major. I figure since I've finally decided now's the best time for me to get my arse back to school and get to work.

What's your major, BTW?

#4 of 17 OFFLINE   BrianW

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Posted May 02 2004 - 01:49 PM

Congratulations, Brian. I have a double undergraduate degree in physics and math, with a minor in electrical engineering, so I'll take a stab at your questions, at least from a personal (i.e., anecdotal) perspective.

Q: What kind of work (and what kind of work load) am I in for?

The kind of work you could be "in for" is difficult to say. I'm a software engineer, but I've worked in several different industries that I could have chosen as a career. I chose software engineering because I found it to be personally rewarding.

The work load will likely be enormous, but that's more due to the fact that engineers are a dime-a-dozen right now, and really has nothing to do with the degree you seek.

Q: What do you think of physics as a major and its effects on job placement?

One thing I've found is that a degree in physics tends to open more doors than it closes. Most any job calling for a degree in EE, ME, or computer science will regard a degree in physics to be an equivalent. This is almost universally true of entry-level positions, but is even true for a few senior positions. The nice thing is that you don't have to "specialize" until you've found something you really like. In my case, I started out as a digital design engineer, and then I decided to "become" a software engineer. If I had had a EE degree, I don't think I could have convinced anyone to hire me as a software engineer on my first programming job. But a degree in physics made it easy to switch.

Q: And of course, last but not least, do you enjoy your major? Why or why not?

Oh, yeah, especially on this forum. (As if you couldn't tell. Posted Image) But in the bigger sense it's not having the degree that's fun, but just enjoying the march of scientific discovery. If you enjoy it now, then you'll enjoy it later, degree or no degree.

However, there is one enjoyable thing that happens many more times than I ever expected would happen, and that's the following:
Quote:
Some Stupid Jerk: "Oh, yeah? And how would you know that? Do you have a degree in Physics, or something?"

Me: "Why, yes. Yes, I do."
So, yeah, it's a lot of fun.
-Brian
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#5 of 17 OFFLINE   nolesrule

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Posted May 02 2004 - 04:50 PM

I was a physics major for a year or so, because like you, I enjoyed it and was very intereted in it in high school. After a year, I got burned out and switched to a different major.

My question for you is, how strong is your calculus?

Because you'll be using it quite a bit once you get past the basic physics courses. It's no longer simple algebra and trigonomtery, like it was in high school.

By the time I switched out of physics, I had already completed most of the math course requirements (calc 1,2,3 and differential equations),which were enough for me to minor in mathematics.

#6 of 17 OFFLINE   Holadem

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Posted May 03 2004 - 12:50 AM

Quote:
Most any job calling for a degree in EE, ME, or computer science will regard a degree in physics to be an equivalent. This is almost universally true of entry-level positions, but is even true for a few senior positions. The nice thing is that you don't have to "specialize" until you've found something you really like. In my case, I started out as a digital design engineer, and then I decided to "become" a software engineer. If I had had a EE degree, I don't think I could have convinced anyone to hire me as a software engineer on my first programming job.
I have to disagree: EE is much closer to Software Engineering than Physics. As EE major, you have to at least dabble with designing and coding for embedded systems, and therefore learning the basics of programming. I have never seen a software engineering job description that listed Physics as a major they would consider. It's usually Computer Science, Computer Engineering or Electrical Engineering. In a few cases, EE are actually preferred to software engineers themselves, because of better understanding of the hardware which embedded system programing requires.

Your case Brian, IMHO, is the exception, not the rule. The skills that allowed you to land you digital design job were acquired from your EE minor, not your physics major. I simply have a hard time believing that a physics guy who stuck to his major would know his way around VHDL or Verilog.

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H

#7 of 17 OFFLINE   LDfan

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Posted May 03 2004 - 01:42 AM

Most of the big defense contractors here in the DC area will take a physics major for any technical type of job. They are basically seen as equal to EE's and sometimes CS majors.

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#8 of 17 OFFLINE   PhillJones

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Posted May 03 2004 - 05:23 AM

I have a degree and PhD in Physics.

I'd say that it's not a good degree for landing entry level jobs. Engineering is much better. I've found that most employers are definately put off by a degree in physics. The only options I've really had are computer programming and teaching, neither of which I particularly want to do.

Having said that, the job market in Boston is appauling at the minute so employers are very picky and exacting about an employee haveing precisely the right degree and background so maybe it'll loosen up in a couple of years when you'll be entering the market.

I don't want to scare you off because there is life after physics, especially if you're willing to re-locate, but it may not be in physics. I'm trying to make the move over to medical physics at the minute.

So, my advice is if you want to do physics the do it because you should be able to find a job afterwards but don't be under the impression that it'll make you more employable than an engineering degree.

Phill

#9 of 17 OFFLINE   BrianW

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Posted May 03 2004 - 05:27 AM

Holadem, you may have a very good point. I'm a sample of only one, so my inability to employ an identical twin (for instance) as a control sample undoubtedly disqualifies me from claiming that my personal experiences can be applied as a general rule.

And even if I had had an identical twin, it would be just my luck that I'd be the evil one, or that he would have been born rich, or some other initial-condition foul-up.

So I repeat my warning (more directly, this time) to Brian: Anecdotes are not evidence of a general trend.
-Brian
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#10 of 17 OFFLINE   PhillJones

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Posted May 03 2004 - 05:40 AM

There's a point I forgot to mention,

As Holodem says, there are lots of jobs in defence for physicist. I don't tend to think about them for two reasons. Firstly is my moral objection to using my physics for killing people and second is my lack of US citizenship.

You might think the first objection is bit spineless but I know a guy who had nightmares for years after working on a classified project for GE. I don't know what he did, it was classified. He said he joined the company to work on something non-military but got transfered. Almost everyone in the division was the same as they found it hard to recruit directly.

One of the things my career counsilor at University in england said was: there's three jobs you can always go into as a physicist; "Teaching, medical physics, and thermonuclear weapons. For some reason, they're always struggling to recruit at AWE"

#11 of 17 OFFLINE   Tim Hoover

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Posted May 03 2004 - 06:35 AM

Gracias Brian...I'm 27 and will be slogging my way through mechanical engineering. Incidentally, when I first went to college after highschool my major was engineering physics...
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#12 of 17 OFFLINE   Greg_R

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Posted May 03 2004 - 11:41 AM

BrianW's experience is the same as my own, except that I did the hiring! I work for a huge semiconductor manufacturer and can assure you that physics majors are not poo-pood due to their degree. Obviously, the classes you'll take (and projects you've done) will have a large effect (just like EE's who specialize in motors typically aren't designing digital logic).

From a research standpoint, physics majors are sought out because they usually have a stronger background in the underlying fundamentals (science) of how something works. BS Physics + MS EE is a popular combination...

Quote:
I simply have a hard time believing that a physics guy who stuck to his major would know his way around VHDL or Verilog.
SW Engineer does not equal HW description languages. All the physics majors I've met have a strong background in (at least) C because they write intensive programs to test their concepts (think supercomputer intensive). I would imagine these skills would translate nicely to most SW jobs (efficient coding skills, etc.).

#13 of 17 OFFLINE   Holadem

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Posted May 03 2004 - 12:44 PM

Quote:
quote:

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I simply have a hard time believing that a physics guy who stuck to his major would know his way around VHDL or Verilog.
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SW Engineer does not equal HW description languages.
I mentioned VHDL and Verilog in relation to Brian's entry level digital design job, not his current SW position.

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#14 of 17 OFFLINE   Christ Reynolds

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Posted May 03 2004 - 03:10 PM

Quote:
the job market in Boston is appauling
hopefully this will change in the 2 years it will take me to finish my EE degree. Posted Image

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#15 of 17 OFFLINE   Julie K

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Posted May 03 2004 - 11:21 PM

My undergraduate degree was in astronomy and physics and my PhD was in physics, with my thesis concerning the orbital dynamics of the Uranian ring system.

That sort of double major may not place you exactly where you want to be, but it got me the job I wanted - kicking stuff off this planet to hit some other planet.
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#16 of 17 OFFLINE   Andrew Testa

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Posted May 05 2004 - 05:07 AM

Brian,

I have a BS in physics and your situation sounds similar to mine. I was originally a music major (French horn and composition) but ran out of money three years into it. I was finally in a position to go back to school after a few years slinging luggage into airplanes and decided to go into physics because I loved astronomy and cosmology. I had some vauge notion of being an astronomer but I had no clue really what that entailed. In other words, I didn't do any research into the actual jobs, I just acted based on my interest in the subject.

From this perspective, I would highly recommend you figure out now what you want to do with your degree. What kind of work do you want to do? While earning the degree was rewarding, I may have chosen something else if I had a better idea of what potential careers I might pursue. If you can tell us more about what careers you are excited about we can be more specific. And the usually unrealistic career paths like astronaut are perfectly acceptable goals!

In the near term, you can expect that you'll need to become very comfortable with calculus. The first two years will be a lot of basic courses that involve problem solving and are most translatable to real world events. By that I mean it's fairly easy to have a mental picture of what the problem is describing. You'll learn a lot of formulas and rules covering things such as mechanics, electricity, optics, thermodynamics, and a small amount of nuclear and quantum. Expect a hell of a lot of problem solving.

In the 3rd and 4th years the focus changes from learning formulas to deriving them. Many of these classes are extremely math intensive. For example, in your first classes on electricity you'll be given formulas about how to solve the motion of a charge in a given field. In later classes you'll follow the derivation of Maxwell's equations, and determine their consequences (relativity for one). These classes can often become quite divorced from the well-worded descriptions you can read in popular books on physics. It can be hard to link the math you're learning with what you are trying to describe. The worst of this that I experienced was in quantum mechanics, where I had a horrible instructor. I became so focused on struggling to learn the math that at times I had no clue what the math was describing.

As for job placement, I had moved to Houston partly to try to get into an internship progaram at NASA while in school. That didn't happen, but I had no trouble finding work with a contractor after graduation. The interesting thing about interviewing at JSC is how many potential carrer paths exist depending on which office you interview in first. You can interview for a position to develop EVA hardware, walk into the building next door and interview for a Mission Control position in navigation, then cross the street to interview for robotic hardware testing. A BS in physics is a good jack-of-all-trades degree for the kind of work done at JSC. There are many instances where the grounding in science gives me an advantage over the EEs and MechEs, but on the other hand there's a lot of hardware work I can't get into without that MechE or EE background. You'd be surprised how many engineers here know their field inside and out, but don't understand orbital mechanics.

In other disciplines the Physics BS could be a hindrance as has been mentioned already. There are employers who want to fill an engineering position and aren't open to considering you if you don't have an engineering degree. This is whay I asked what your career intentions are. For some careers you'd be wise to invest in a double major in some form of engineering.

If you envision yourself as an "official physicist" with a PhD and all, you'll most likely need to focus on academia. Julie has a great gig at JPL, but I know a good number of people who struggled for years to get their PhDs and found it impossible to get a job outside of universities. Many I know who went to the commercial sector are doing the same work as people with a BS. There are precious few commercial jobs where you'd actually get to work on physics, and I'd say almost none if your primary interest is in cosmology. If you can formulate a good idea of what kind of work you want to do, now is the time to plan how to make a physics degree work for you.

So after posting some negatives about going into physics, I have to say I'd do it all over again. I have no regrets about running away from graduate work. Fiften years after my first job with the degree I have yet to see any situation where I'd be better off with an MS or PhD. I'm the guy the engineers come to when they don't understand some basic science that impacts their work. I'm the guy who gets to point out to the EVA hardware designers that if you tie a boom of a very long robot arm down at only one place you've created a simple lever, and instead of stabilizing the boom for the astronaut to work from you'll just rotate it and still break hardware. I never use any of the quantum or statistical mechanics. I hardly ever use most of the math I learned. But I use the basics of the science almost every day.

And as a bonus you'll get to post on audio tweaker forums the exact physical laws that preclude things like CD treatments or freezing wall outlets. Posted Image

Andy

#17 of 17 OFFLINE   CalvinCarr

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Posted May 05 2004 - 05:35 AM

We have several people here with degrees in Physics. I work in the contact lens industry in Research and Development. Their jobs deal mostly with developing new desingns of lenses with new materials and a way to actually measure the critical parameters.


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