Leaving Physics: What's Out There to Do

If you found this page through a search engine, you might want to go back to the beginning of the Leaving Physics Web Site before reading this page.

Here is a list of some things I thought of doing, or that people I know of thought of doing, when we decided to leave academic physics. Along with each career path I have added some notes on it, which I am sorry to report are probably mostly relevant to people here in the U.S. If you're not sure what you want to do, I'd recommend either talking to a career counselor or reading one of the many good career advice books available, keeping in mind that you don't have to select a single career and stick with it for the rest of your life.

  • Academic career in another field: chemistry, engineering, applied mathematics, biophysics, neurophysics, and finance are some that people consider. This might require some additional coursework, or convincing someone across campus (or elsewhere) in the target field to hire you as a post-doc, or doing some research in that field on your own time and publishing a paper or two to establish credibility. One thing to consider is that the same reasons that you've decided to leave physics may apply as well in the other field; then again they may not.
  • Industrial Research and Development or Engineering. This can range from nearly pure research to pure development/engineering, might be in a field closely related to your previous research or something totally different, and might be at a large company or a high-tech startup in Silicon Valley (or elsewhere).
  • Software: analytical, educational, general, business, games, graphics, Internet. Languages and technologies that are in pretty common use in the commercial world right now include C, C++, Visual Basic, Cobol, SQL, Java, Perl, PHP, JavaScript, Flash, HTML, CSS, XML, TCP/IP, C#, ASP.NET. Fortran is not.
  • Systems Administration. Anthony Rafanello suggested adding this option to this page, and said that being a systems administrator is "better than programming for a physics student that doesn't want to do it for the rest of their life since I did not have to be an expert in any programming language and all I had to do was read some computer manuals." It certainly could be a good thing to do as a transitional job (between undergrad and grad school, or to get some solid experience under the belt, or while thinking about what to do next); maybe even for a long-term career, you never know. Thanks, Anthony, for the suggestion.
  • Management Consulting. People that choose this route will probably either obtain an MBA degree first, or else receive "mini-MBA" training from the firm that they work for. This type of work usually involves going into a company with a team of consultants from your firm and spending a short but very intense period studying one particular aspect of their business to try and improve it or fix a problem. It's rather stressful, but interesting and lucrative to those who choose this career. Admissions to good MBA programs and corporate "mini-MBA" programs are quite competitive, and most programs prefer you to have some commercial work experience first, so apply to several programs to insure admission to at least one, if this is what you want to do.
  • Technical Consulting: engineering, software, modeling. There are many technical consulting firms who hire physics PhDs who seem able to do something practical. Can be stressful, probably depends on the firm.
  • Finance/Wall Street: Derivatives pricing, strategies for trading, trading, analysis, research, programming. I believe that Wall Street firms are still hiring masters and PhD graduates in physics, math, engineering, and other fields. You will need to have a good programming background, but not necessarily a background in finance. The job market on Wall Street fluctuates with the stock, bond, and commodities markets, however, so at any given time it is hard to say how easy it will be to find a position. I worked on Wall Street for two years, and for me, the stress and long hours were too much to be made up for by the excellent financial compensation. Others are willing to make the tradeoff, and I even know one person (a mathematician) who actually enjoys working there.
  • Technical Writing: science journalism, software manuals, other product documentation. Obviously you need to be a good writer to do this.
  • Science Teaching: university, college, high school, in your field or a related field. There are not many four-year college and university positions that do not involve research as well, but there are some, and sometimes they can be created. Community colleges generally require only masters degrees of their teachers, and they pay poorly and require a lot of hours; the students are often rather poorly prepared, but also often quite dedicated to learning. Public, but not private, high schools will require a state teaching certificate, but in some cases it can be obtained while beginning to teach.
  • Corporate Training. Jobs can be found with large companies as well as with firms that contract with companies to do corporate training.
  • English Teaching Overseas. Chris Murray of Ireland wrote and suggested teaching business English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in a foreign country as a possible career track, if you want to live in a foreign country (where it may be difficult to get a technical position without a very strong grasp of the local language). Chris suggests taking a short (e.g. 1 week) course in EFL teaching, and he writes that EFL teachers who are native English speakers with technical backgrounds are in high demand, "and as a bonus, you can work short contracts, travel the world, [meet teachers from all over], learn new stuff and have a blast!" Check the web for language schools offering jobs, or the "EFL Teachers Weekly". Also, there's a small section on my Social Responsibility page with information.
  • Patent or Technology Law. One option is to go to law school and combine your scientific background with a law degree to become a patent/technology lawyer. Another option is to become a patent agent; to do that, all you have to do is to pass an exam called the Patent Bar exam. For more information about this exam, check out www.patentbarstudy.com.
  • Entrepreneurship. Just about anything that you could do for a company (e.g. most of the above), you could do for yourself instead, if you are so inclined and are able and willing to take some financial risks. Think of a product or a service, and go for it. Also see the article I wrote on my business web site about starting a software consulting business for some information, books, and other resources.
  • Save the World: Arms control, Peace Corps, or whatever is important to you. These positions are often quite fulfilling, but usually offer little financial compensation. For one example, see Daniel Kammen's page on energy/environment careers for physicists. Also, see Antonella Romano's list of links related to science, security, and disarmament. Or if, like me, you would like to save the world in your spare time rather than at work, you might want to check out my social responsibility page.

The next page on my Leaving Academic Physics web site talks about how to go about getting a job outside of academic physics.