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Working in physics: Next steps for physics graduates

Leaving university is an exciting but daunting prospect for most students. Vishanti Lall describes some of the many different career paths open to recent physics graduates.

Where next?

Everyone knows that with a physics degree on your CV the world is your oyster, but this does not mean that deciding what to do next is easy. There are, quite simply, so many options available. One of the first decisions you need to make is whether to continue studying. According to a survey of graduates carried out in 2006 by the Higher Education Careers Service Unit, roughly a quarter of physics graduates in the UK stay in academia after obtaining their first degree, usually to study for a Masters or PhD. This is hardly surprising, given that most people choose to study physics at university out of a desire to learn and explore rather than to get them started along a particular career path.

In the UK, a Masters degree is a one-year course that can be either taught or research-based. Taught Masters involve producing course work, taking exams and writing a dissertation of 10,000–20,000 words on a topic of current interest in your chosen research field, whereas a research Masters is essentially a miniature PhD. Graduates usually opt to do a Masters because they want to broaden their knowledge by studying a new subject area or because they want to pursue a career, for example in medical physics, that requires a Masters-level qualification. These courses can be very intensive because you are studying for just a short period of time.

PhDs are in the main undertaken by those thinking of pursuing an academic or research career — the minimum entry requirement is usually a 2:1 at first degree — but there is nothing wrong with taking this option simply because you want to learn more about a particular subject area, which could be anything from Z-bosons to the physics of protein folding. When you come to apply for jobs, having a PhD will help you stand out in many commercial sectors because it shows you can work independently and can master a topic to a very deep level of understanding. In finance, for example, physicists are often employed as "quants" — specialists in quantitative finance who deal with risk management and financial products such as derivatives and options. Becoming a quant is almost impossible without the mathematical and problem-solving skills that you learn during a PhD.

When choosing a PhD, it is important that you pick a research area that you are passionate about because you will be spending the next three years of your life immersed in your chosen project. It is also important to carefully consider where to study and what the academic environment is like – you will be spending an enormous amount of time there, so you want to make sure that you will fit in and be comfortable. In the UK at least, a PhD need not be an expensive option: taxfree stipends of between £12,000 and £15,000 are available from the research councils. The funding can be even higher if your PhD is cosponsored by a commercial organization.

Getting out of the classroom
If you decide to join the world of work straight after your first degree, however, you will find yourself in a strong position. As a physics graduate you should have no shortage of skills. As well as being highly numerate, analytical and logical, the chances are that you are also a creative thinker, excellent at problem solving and meticulous — skills that are relevant in any work environment.

Where do physics graduates go?If you enjoy research but want to leave academia behind, then a large company such as Philips, Qinetiq, Rolls-Royce or Siemens could be a good option. Not only do these firms spend a lot of money on research and development, they also employ large numbers of graduates. With the current focus on climate change and the reduction of carbon emissions, there are also many job opportunities for physicists in the renewable-energy sector, for example with energy companies such as E-ON, and Npower.

Big oil companies like BP, Shell and Schlumberger also have major research and development projects into technologies such as solar cells where physicists have a role to play (see "Striking it lucky in the oil industry" and Physics World October 2005 pp46–47, print edition only). Indeed, the physicist John Browne rose to the position of chief executive of BP until he stepped down earlier this year, while Philip Watts, another physics graduate, was head of Shell from 2001 to 2004. There are also opportunities for physicists in nuclear power, which seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment (see Physics World April 2006 pp42–43, print edition only).

Beyond the lab
If research is not for you but you still want to remain in touch with the scientific community, then you might want to consider science communication. This is an umbrella term for roles — usually in public relations or journalism — that involve presenting scientific information to a more general audience, be it fellow scientists or the general public. These jobs often require a Masters in science communication, although practical skills gained on university newspapers and magazines are also highly regarded. There are also opportunities in publishing for physicists who want to work as publishers or production editors of scientific journals (see "Publish or be damned").

Beyond science, physics graduates tend to steer towards business services (law, accountancy, management consultancy, patent work and so on) as well as financial services, education and manufacturing. Many physicists choose a career in accounting because it offers a professional qualification transferable across any industry or organization. It also allows you to use your numeracy and analytical ability. Most big companies have graduate training programmes that let you study for an appropriate accountancy qualification, while the large accountancy firms like PriceWaterhouseCoopers and KPMG employ hundreds of new graduates each year.

Teaching also provides an opportunity for those with good communication skills to make a real impact. Although becoming a teacher is not for everyone, there are few other jobs where can you have so much influence on development of other people. Getting a complex scientific point across to a group of students can be an incredibly rewarding feeling. Indeed, teaching can be a very creative profession, in which you can continuously improve your lessons with new material and keep up to date with the latest educational techniques. The UK government now provides generous training grants and offers "golden hellos" to teachers in subjects such as physics where there is a shortage of applicants.

A helping hand
These are just a few of the careers available to physics graduates. With the right training you could become anything from an aeronautical engineer to a meteorologist. The hardest thing is deciding what you want to do. Help is available though — a few hours spent browsing the Internet can uncover a wealth of information about the various industries you might want to consider, and websites like Prospects and are full of job adverts and advice for graduates. Your university careers service will also be able to offer plenty of useful information to help with your job search.

The Institute of Physics also has its own careers service for physicists, which provides one-to-one advice by telephone, e-mail and or in person. You can book a mock interview session with one of the careers advisers and go through your CV or application form. The Institute has also produced a series of guides to help students with issues such as completing application forms, writing the perfect CV, succeeding in interviews and making extracurricular activities work.

A physics degree stands you in good stead, so make sure that you sell it for what it is actually worth. But whatever you decide to do — make your millions, ensure the planet is safer place or to just take a year out — the most important thing is to make sure you enjoy it.

Finding graduate opportunities
General careers information and job vacancies

Masters courses and PhD positions

Other resources

  • Company websites
  • Graduate recruitment fairs
  • Evening presentations by firms on campuses
  • Newspapers and careers publications

About the author
Vishanti Lall is the careers manager at the Institute of Physics.

This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Physics World

Image credit: Photolibrary

last edited: September 11, 2018

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