IOP Institute of Physics

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Reviewing your career options

Whether you are a new graduate or have several years of experience, you are likely to be working for three, four or even five decades before retirement!

Given the proportion of your life you’ll be spending at work, isn’t it worth investing some time and effort so your career choice is the right one?  

Whether you are a new graduate or have several years of experience, you are likely to be working for three, four or even five decades before retirement! Given the proportion of your life you’ll be spending at work, isn’t it worth investing some time and effort so your career choice is the right one? 

There are many options open with a physics background. Some will relate directly to your scientific skills, knowledge and experience. Some will be based on other skills (link to new key-skills-researcher)  developed during your research. To make the right choice you need to know what options are available and you need to know enough about yourself and your preferences to make a good match between you and the career opportunities out there. This will take time, access to good information and can be made much easier by talking to an expert.

Whatever you decide, bear in mind that a physics qualification can lead to a truly fascinating array of career options, from space technology to finance, and engineering to the world of museums.

Where should you start? I doesn’t really matter if you start your career investigations by looking at the options available or by looking at your own personality. All that matters is that you consider both aspects. If you would find it more inspiring to start by thinking about what other physicists and researchers have done with their qualifications and backgrounds there are many profiles or individuals and career sectors on the Institute website and elsewhere.

For possible options for physics researchers:

If you decide to start by thinking about what you want from a job, then you should start reflecting on what you enjoy, what you have a natural talent for, what other people feel you are good at and what you find personal motivating and fulfilling.

What influences career choice?  Career choice is affected by the availability of suitable positions, constraints such as geographical preferences, your financial situation and by the suitability of those positions for your ambitions. The questions below will help you to start developing your career ideas, but when you are ready you should also discuss your thoughts with a friend, mentor or careers professional.

Do you want to use your physics qualifications and experience directly, in a job which is very scientific or technical? (Perhaps as an academic, postdoctoral researcher, industrial scientist or engineer, teacher)

Do you want to use your physics qualifications and experience indirectly, in a job for which your background is useful but is not a research position? (Maybe moving into manufacturing, working in a research related role in a journal, professional body, funding body)

Do you want to work in a career related to science or physics but in a non-scientific role? (In scientific or lab management, patents)

Are you ready to leave physics and science completely?

If you hadn’t chosen to study and work in physics, what do you think you would be doing now?

Are you willing to undertake further study to pursue your new career direction?

Which elements of your current job or role do you find fulfilling?

Which elements of your current job or role are you really good at?

Which elements of your current job or role do you find challenging?

Which elements of your current job or role do you want to drop from a future career?

Outside physics, what interests you? (politics, culture, sport, current affairs) An interest in politics and current affairs led Mike Long to become a speech-writer, while for James Acton it was a springboard into international security.

Do you prefer to work alone or in a team?

Are you looking for a lot of variety or the chance to focus on projects or tasks without interruption?

Are you willing to take risks or looking for security?

Do you prefer to work without supervision and instruction or feel happier when you work to set tasks?

Different jobs need very different qualities, so take a little time and make a mind-map of adjectives that apply to you. It works well to do this exercise with a friend, and compare results. When employers are recruiting, they will have their own ideas about which personal characteristics suit them, so look at words used in adverts and careers information – do any relate to your own list?

Practical choices
Once you’ve done some analysis of your career preferences, you should also think about more practical elements of your choice.

What kind of employer appeals?

University? Industry? Private sector? Working for government? A Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO)?  Small company or large company?

What location attracts you?

Are you willing to move for work? Would you move overseas? Do you need to stay close to family or a partner? Do you want to be in a city or busy town, or could life at a remote observatory suit you?

Which working patterns will suit you?

Do you need to work part-time? Or flexible hours? Do you want a permanent job or are you happy with short-term contracts or even being freelance?

Again, you need to look at your preferences and start to match them against the jobs that appeal to you.

Getting started
Armed with this information, you’ll have a better idea of the kinds of jobs that would suit you. The next step is to talk to people. If you’re a recent graduate, you could contact your university careers service, but the more thought you’ve given to the issues above, the more they’ll be able to help you and the more use you’ll be able to make of their resources. If you really feel at sea, you could try talking to a qualified career counsellor or take a career-orientated psychometric test such as Morrisby or MBTI. These tests can be quite expense, so if you want a taster type in ‘free MBTI test’ into a search engine or (if you are a research student or member of research staff in a university) look for workshops in your researcher development training programme.

If you know someone working in one of the fields you’re interested in, ask them out for a coffee and a chat about their job. It’s always useful to get an insider’s view, but do remember that their opinion may be subjective. Questions that you may ask them include: what motivates them in their job? What fulfils them? What aspect of their job they least enjoy. The questions in the case study section might help you to gather useful perspectives during interviews.

Finding a job
 
If you know the kind of job you want, but don’t know which organisations offer it, try doing Google searches or reading a specialist “trade” magazine to find out more. Trade magazines will have job sections, too, and may advertise events or forums where you could network to find a job (see our section on networking). Look in Physics World and the New Scientist.

Of course, more and more jobs nowadays are advertised on the web. Check out the IOP’s own job site brightrecruits or these alternative job sites.

If you have a clear idea of the companies you’d like to work for, it’s a good idea to send off a few speculative CVs. Find out the name of the Chief Executive and write to him or her. Don’t be tempted to write to the HR department - they don’t have the power to hire people. You have nothing to lose, and your initiative will probably be admired.

Recruitment Agencies
You could sign up with a specialist recruitment agency for scientists such as CAMCO Scientific CK Science or Jobs in Science

You’ll be assigned a recruitment consultant who will be able to talk through your options and give advice, and, with luck, put you forward for upcoming vacancies they have on their books. Agencies can be a great hassle-free way of finding a job, but be aware that sometimes the advice they give can be slanted towards jobs they happen to have on their books rather than jobs that will ultimately suit you.

And finally …
Think outside the box. A physics degree needn’t necessarily lead to a career in IT, finance or engineering. Once a physicist is a series of case studies that includes profiles of physicists who have made some unlikely career moves, from politicians to jazz musicians.

last edited: November 01, 2012