Sectors to consider

There is a huge range of overseas careers for physicists. Here is just a taste of some of the most relevant sectors and the options out there, including opportunities you may not have considered before.

1. Academia

Few professions lend themselves as well to the international arena as academic research. Research naturally crosses national boundaries and academics are used to working with peers across the world. In this environment, working abroad can not only foster valuable links with other academics but it could also be a real highlight on your CV.

Many international jobs are advertised in journals, magazines and websites but a large number are gained through networking. So build your network of contacts at conferences involving international speakers and attendees, as well as talking to your current department and international guests.

The European Researcher’s Mobility Portal – covering European academic positions – is a good starting point for listed academic jobs. As the IOP's physics and engineering jobs website www.brightrecruits.com where you can select “academic” from the job type filter.

2. Teaching

Teaching is one of the most mobile professions. There are thousands of international schools around the world. Most of them cater for the sons and daughters of ex-pats and may run courses for the International Baccalaureate, American exam systems or the British system.

The majority are managed privately as businesses and the culture may be quite different from teaching in a state school in the UK. Unscrupulous employers are not unheard of, so be careful about negotiating a package and check your contract carefully.

Jobs tend to be advertised online or through specialist agencies, with January to March the busiest time of year. You may be expected to interview by Skype, travel in the UK or fly out.

3. Teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL)

This may not be for every physicist, but if you have strong English language skills along with your physics qualification, TEFL will offer you a huge range of employment options in some of the most exotic parts of the globe. It is best to do a short intensive course so you have a recognised qualification.

4. Energy

Energy is a massive and diverse sector, encompassing oil, gas, coal, nuclear power and renewables such as wind, wave and solar energy. With total global energy demand forecast to increase strongly over the next 20 years, the pace within the sector is growing.

If you are interested primarily in green technology, there is enormous interest in developed economies such as the EU in sustainable energy – and also China. In spite of the events at Fukushima, there is still significant interest in nuclear power. In Europe there are still many reactors in operation (especially in France, Belgium, Spain, and Sweden) and interest in new-build remains (with recent plans in Hungary, Czech Republic and Finland). Further afield, China is also investing in new nuclear. There is also a European push to emulate the Sun using fusion power. The ITER project currently being built in France employs over five hundred permanent staff from a kaleidoscope of nations.

However, the energy sector can also be more high risk. In the oil and gas industries, you can expect to be working in some of the more challenging environments. Remote locations and extreme climates are likely to feature. Remuneration, on the other hand, can be extremely competitive.

Read this candid first-hand account of physicist Stephen Mullens's experience of working in the oil industry in Azerbaijan.

5. Working in government

If you are interested in a challenging administrative career for the British Government, then your first port of call will be the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).                             

The FCO is responsible for promoting British interests around the world, employing 14,000 people in 160 countries. Salaries are competitive, job security is relatively good and in the words of the FCO website, they promise “a fascinating, personally rewarding career at the centre of world events”.

However, bear in mind that competition is stiff, the application process is relatively slow and a long-term commitment will be expected. Europe is another option. The EU employs over 40,000 people across 27 member countries. The European Personnel Selection Office (EPSO) organises “open competitions” to source staff.

6. Engineering

Physics is truly universal – and there are a huge range of overseas opportunities for engineers and physicists alike with the right mix of technical and soft skills.

In developing countries, population growth and tourism are fuelling a huge demand for construction, transport and energy infrastructures, civil, mechanical and electrical disciplines. Contracts in high-risk countries such as Iraq and in some African locations are likely to be paid at a premium, although you may have to make sacrifices in terms of lifestyle.

Look at opportunities with companies that have a big global reach, such as Shell, BP, Lloyd’s Register or General Electric. If you are planning to work in the EU, you will find the countries share standards of education and experience, although most European countries place a greater emphasis on experience within a degree course.

7. Financial services

Finance is a global business and international experience is prized by employers. The ability to interact successfully with overseas clients and to understand the international market are key.

Generally speaking, financial sector employers would favour those with a track record of success for a foreign posting. Make sure that you have the right mix of professional experience and language skills. A good command of Spanish or Chinese would be highly prized.

8. Space technology

Space technology is one of the most international sectors, and working overseas is almost a prerequisite for physicists interested in making a career in this sector.

While space research and technology helps us understand more about the universe and aids the development of physics, physics itself is essential to the development of the technology. The demand for extremely high performance, endurance and reliability in space technology adds to the physics challenge.

The US, the EU, Russia – and increasingly China, Japan and India – have space engineering programmes, including plans for manned and unmanned space travel. Language skills would definitely benefit British physicists hoping to work in these areas.

9. Defence

The range of technical skills required across the defence industry is vast. Physicists can be found designing tanks, planes and ships, whilst others are found kitting them out with the latest cutting edge technology. Other opportunities include counter-terrorism, computer simulation and cyber-defence.

In terms of working abroad, the big defence companies are often multinational. QinetiQ have bases in the US and Australia, for example. BAE Systems have sites there too, along with Saudi Arabia and Sweden. Rolls Royce have a presence in over twenty countries spread across five continents.

10. Volunteering overseas

If you are interested in experiencing life in a developing country and want to do something altruistic with your skills, then you might want to consider volunteering overseas. Although not an option for physicists looking to increase their earning potential, it could be personally rewarding and demonstrate valuable soft skills to add to your CV – something employers increasingly value.

Bear in mind that a voluntary placement will not be an extended holiday. The work may be stressful, the environment uncomfortable and demanding, and for many voluntary placements there is an expectation that you will achieve tangible results.

Charities such as VSO and Raleigh International offer structured placements for young people, retired people and professionals looking for a career break.