Leaving Physics: How to Do It

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.

OK. Now you've decided not only to leave academic physics behind, but on a particular career path, or maybe a couple that you want to explore. (If you haven't yet made that decision, you might want to visit the previous page on my Leaving Academic Physics web site, on what there is to do outside of academic physics.) This page talks about the steps you can take to find a job in your chosen area.

I can think of four basic steps to a job search, and I'll make some comments on each separately:

Finding and Contacting Potential Employers

One piece of job-searching advice that I read or heard somewhere, and which has stuck with me ever since, is that anyone you know that has a job is a potential job contact. When you start looking for a job, tell everyone you know, and I mean everyone, that you are looking for a job in your particular area or areas. Obviously, if you know people who are already working in that industry, they will probably be your best contacts, but even your Aunt Erma's friend's niece could be the one who gets you in contact with the company that you eventually land a job with. When you do find someone to talk to in your target industry, you might start out by telling them you are thinking of working in their area, and ask them how they like it, if they have any hints on how to break into it, etc, and then move on to the question of whether they know of any job openings. This process is called "Networking", and there are zillions of books on how to do it effectively, keep good records, and things like that.

Another route to making contact with potential employers is to use the services of a recruiter, temp agency, or consulting firm (believe it or not, there are temp agencies even for engineering and programming). I would not advise using the services of an employment agency that wants to charge you money to use their services, but I do think that using a recruiter is a good idea. They are in the business of keeping track of what companies are hiring for what kind of positions, and they can give you tips on how to improve your resume and interviewing, industry outlook, and things like that. There's no reason not to talk to more than one of them -- they're working for the company, not for you, and each one has a different set of contacts. And if one says that he or she is unable to place you, don't give up, just try another. These days, there are many of them who also recruit for temporary and contract jobs; these may or may not turn into permanent jobs, if you are so inclined. You can find recruiters on the Web job sites -- most of the ads there are from recruiters.

A third route for making job contacts is through electronic or print classified ads. This is a good way to find recruiters that are working in your geographical and career-choice area, but from what I've seen from physics-types looking for work outside of physics, it's not usually a good way to find companies to work for (though there are some exceptions, notably myself). Generally, when companies receive unsolicited resumes, they either go straight to the wastebasket or get put on the bottom of a large, backlogged stack, and then looked at for about ten seconds a few months later. This is not the best recipe for a successful job contact.

Writing a Resume

First, consult either your university career center or a book on writing resumes for some general help on making an effective resume. These sources will get you started.

Some additional dos and don'ts (somewhat redundant, but I'm trying to make a point and I've found in the past that it doesn't get across in the first or second telling):

  • Sound professional, and make sure the resume is neat, pleasant to look at, and organized. Proofread it and get someone else to look at it, maybe even someone who has a professional job. Think about whether you would hire the person represented by your resume if you owned the business you're applying to.
  • Be specific in detailing your education and experience, but don't talk about your research unless you're applying for jobs that are directly related to that research. For example, say that you solved differential equations, not that you studied your particular niche of fluid dynamics, if you are applying for a job at an educational software company.
  • Do not send a research CV to commercial employers, unless they specifically ask for one. Your thesis advisor probably is not the best person to ask about the format of your resume, unless he or she has recently landed a commercial job.
  • Think about your transferable skills, and make sure that they, and not your specific research projects, get mentioned. Some skills to consider including (if you have them): programming, mathematical modeling, data analysis, computer simulations, Monte Carlo technique, teaching. You might also want to list relevant courses and educational experiences.
  • Keep it short. The people you send your resume to probably have a lot of resumes to look at, and are likely to spend no more than 30 seconds with yours. An email correspondent wrote to suggest "a resume should be a teaser... It is better to tell less and hint at the rest, to tease so as to induce further interest." One page is probably ideal, unless you really have a LOT of experience, in which case perhaps two pages is OK. If your resume is going to more than one page because of the three paragraphs you wrote about your current research position, you would probably be better off cutting that down and going to a one-page resume.


Again, consult your career center or a book on interviewing for general interviewing pointers. Some things that potential employers of physicists will be looking for in the interview:

  • Confidence in your skills and your value to the company
  • Professionalism, as opposed to academicism (if that's a word)
  • Ability to relate to other people, and work in a group
  • Ability to answer technical questions, and perhaps to explain your research to non-specialists
  • Clarity on your reasons for leaving academia and choosing this particular career path

Getting Feedback

If you've been in the academic world for several years, you are probably not an expert at getting a job in the commercial sector. It's likely, therefore, that your first interview will not result in a job offer. You can take this as an opportunity to find out what went wrong and figure out how to improve it.

For example, in my first commercial-sector interview, I found out from one of my interviewers that they were not sure about my programming skills. This was quite a surprise for me, since I had spent the last four years at least doing very little else than writing programs in C, the language they would have wanted me to program in, in the course of my theoretical physics research. So I took a closer look at my resume, and found that it didn't stress all the programming I had done, and I was able to revise it to do that. I've never had that particular problem again.

In your case, you may be able to get feedback from someone at the company you interviewed with, your recruiter, or even from your gut feelings. You may find that you need to change your resume to emphasize a different part of your background, or practice interviewing to overcome shyness, or practice answering a particular type of question that you performed poorly on, or even take a class to learn a particularly valuable skill that you're weak on. Or the reason that you didn't get the job might be that they were simply looking for someone with a different background or skill set than yours. But it's important to find out why you didn't get the job, so that you can get the next one.

The next page on my Leaving Academic Physics web site is on what it's like to work outside of academic physics.