Information for Undergraduates
Investigating Physics Careers in College
Physicists have careers in a wide range of fields. You can investigate some of the options in the Physicists Profiles section of our website. These profiles give you the opportunity to see what real Physicists do, what skills they use, what jobs they do and where they work.
A quick review the skills used by physicists in their jobs, you'll find that "the ability to solve projectile motion problems" is not the only skill physicists use on a day-to-day basis.
Not only are Physicists often not in jobs that have the word Physics in the title, the fields in which they are employed are changing. Venture capitalist, patent attorney, market analyist, systems analyst, medical specialist and many others careers that don't seem to be connected to physics, but are ones for which a Physics major is now being recommended. People in these fields are recommending that students complete a bachelors degree in a science, engineering or mathematics area and then pursue graduate training in business, law or other areas.
One way to learn about your options would be to participate in the series of FREE webinars for students currently offered by the APS. The webinars provide information in physics careers, as well as other professional development resources (such as how to prep for the Physics GRE, how to choose a graduate school, how to find a good undergraduate research program, etc.). Visit the APS webinar homepage for information on upcoming broadcasts.
If you want to learn more about what industries are considered high growth fields so that you can explore how to tailor your undergraduate Physics program to prepare you for these fields, start at the Career Voyages website from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Labor. As you use general career advice websites, remember that scientist, engineer, physical scientist and many other labels are used to describe jobs that physicists do. Often a simple search using physics or a physics field of specialty, such as nuclear, energy, solar, etc., will provide more useful information than a search using the word "physicist". Once you identify interesting career options, work with your faculty advisor and your campus careers services office to identify the skills you need to develop and to explore options for building these skills.
Not surprisingly, you should take the physics and mathematics courses recommended by your physics department. However, don't limit yourself to taking only physics courses. Explore other fields that are of interest. Physicists work in interdisciplinary teams with biologists, chemists and computer scientists all the time. If you are interested in the business side of investigation and innovation, business courses may be useful. Physicists often participate in international collaborations, so if you are interested in foreign languages, pursue them. Probably one of the most important skills all physicists will need is the ability to communicate (both orally and verbally). Take courses that help you master these skills!
Career exploration and skill building
Explore your options by making connections. If your Physics department has a Society of Physics Students chapter, join! Many departments have a weekly seminar or colloquium where physicists present their current research to students. Attend! At first you may not follow much of the science, but you will get to know the physics students and faculty. Ask them questions about what they do. (Physicists LOVE to share their work with others!) If the person is interesting, and you have time, ask if you can shadow them occasionally when they work in their research lab or conduct group meetings in order to get to know more about what they do. This type of job shadowing is a common practice that pre-medical students employ to learn about various fields in medicine!
Once you've done some job shadowing, it is time to do some volunteer work or possibly an entry level research technician job. Ask one of the physics faculty you've met at the seminar if you can possibly help in their lab for a few hours a week (as course work permits). If you enjoy it and if you find you can commit to participating regularly, you can explore the possibility of moving up from a volunteer to either a paid employee or possibly an intern that received academic credit for the work.
You can also explore job shadowing non-academic physicists! Either your physics faculty or you campus career services office will be able to help you find department alumni or department supporters in non-academic careers that will be willing to talk to you about their careers. If a connection to someone close to the college is possible, you may be able to job shadow and/or pursue an internship with this individual.
In exploring all of these options, ask about the options for summer employment either in research programs or as interns in industrial positions. If you are looking for industrial positions, the career services office on your campus will provide input on the local companies that may provide opportunities. If you are looking for research programs, ask your physics faculty, but also look at the summer research program database at the Nucleus. As you begin your search, keep an eye on the skills the potential employers are looking for and work with your career services office staff to develop a cover letter and resume that will best sell your strengths for these positions.
Planning for the future
As you progress through your undergraduate career, you will eventually have to choose to pursue graduate education in medicine, law, physics or some other field, or whether to enter the workforce. The choices will depend on what career options you are most interested in pursuing and, to some degree, the cost of pursuing the different paths. Some of these graduate programs will seem expensive, but will result in a much higher initial salary when you complete them. Other graduate programs will effectively be free since tuition waivers or graduate assistanceships or fellowships are readily available to help support you while you pursue your advanced degree. To learn more about graduate programs in physics and related fields, you can check out two online resources: GRADSCHOOLSHOPPER.com and the American Physical Society Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (CSWP) survey of graduate programs in Physics.
If you choose to enter the workforce directly upon graduation, you will need to hone your resume and identify what type of employment you would like to pursue. One very good resource for Physics students is the book "Landing Your First Job - A Guide for Physics Students" by John Rigden. As your Physics faculty or campus careers service office if they have a copy! Many jobs that specifically require a degree in Physics are listed in Physics Today. Subscribe to their RSS feed for up to date listings. Take advantage of your campus careers service office and their career fairs on campus. Even though many of the companies may not specifically say they are looking for a physicist, many of the companies searching for engineers, computer programmers and chemists are looking for individuals with the skills a typical physics major will have. So be prepared with a clear resume with your skills identified and a cover letter that convinces them that they should read more about you and then visit them at the career fair on campus!