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Once a physicist: The Invisible Physicist

To coincide with this issue on invisibility, this month's column profiles an "invisible physicist".

Who are you?
I am someone who studied physics, then chose to pursue a career in a field that has little or nothing to do with physics – at least, not on the surface. Statistically speaking, I probably "left" physics after I got my undergraduate degree (in 2010 roughly one-third of UK physics graduates went on to further study, while a further 8% found jobs in scientific research), but I may also have "left" after finishing my PhD, doing a postdoc or after working for a few years as a researcher.

Why are you invisible?
One possible reason is that I don't really consider myself a physicist these days. A lot of people seem to equate being a physicist with being an academic researcher, pure and simple, even though there are plenty of others, like me, who still make use of their problem-solving skills and critical thinking even if they haven't done an integral or soldered a circuit in years. Except for last weekend, when I fixed the buzzing noise in my stereo. But that was just for fun.

Are there other reasons?
Physics graduates are pretty rare, and although there are clusters of us in certain industries (such as engineering and finance), others are real novelties in our workplaces. We may be the only person in our company with a physics degree and, as a result, our colleagues often don't even know that we're physicists. I experienced this first-hand a couple of years ago when someone from Physics World rang my company's human resources (HR) department and asked if any physicists worked there. I think they wanted help with an article about physics in industry. But HR told them "no, we don't employ any physicists". A few months later, I found out that our CEO has a degree in physics, too, so I know I am not alone – but as far as visibility goes, I might as well be inside a cloaking device.

How can we help make you more visible?
Well, this column has helped to unmask quite a few previously invisible physicists over the years. I particularly liked the operatic soprano (January 2009) and that guy in the Netherlands who makes beach animals (October 2008); both had studied physics in the past, which proves that physics graduates are doing all sorts of wonderful things! It is also interesting to read that many of them still feel connected to physics and believe that their physics degree helps them in subtle ways. But I think we need to hear from invisible physicists with more "typical" careers, too.

This sounds like an opportunity for some shameless self-promotion.
Indeed it does. If you work in an area that has not featured in Physics World's careers section recently, or you know a former physicist whose career has taken them in a new and unexpected direction, e-mail with the subject line "invisible physicists". We want to hear from you!

This article appears in the July 2011 issue of Physics World

last edited: September 11, 2018

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