Leaving Physics: What's it Like

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.

This page of my web site on leaving academic physics is about what to expect from a career on Wall Street or as a software professional, as compared to a career in academic physics research. These are only my views on the subject, and of course others may have different experiences.

I basically have two answers to the question of what it's like to work outside of academic physics, with a job on Wall Street or in software:

Answer 1: Just like doing physics research

  • Similar daily tasks: some programming, some math, some writing
  • Smart colleagues to work with and bounce ideas off of
  • Long hours
  • Some organizational politics to put up with

Answer 2: Nothing like doing physics research

  • Much shorter time frame on projects (days instead of years on Wall Street, and likely days to months instead of years in software.)
  • High pressure, especially on Wall Street -- I found that this made the long hours much more tiring than similar numbers of hours would be doing physics research
  • Less freedom -- in academic research you can pretty much study whatever you can get funding for, but if you are working in the corporate world, you are unlikely to have that freedom
  • Well paid, especially on Wall Street
  • Fluid job market (especially on Wall Street, where it changes monthly) -- though I must clarify this by saying that while you might not have much job security in the sense of having a life-long job with one particular firm, most people I know of who left jobs on Wall Street due to market fluctuations or personal choice were able to find jobs at other firms fairly rapidly. People who chose to leave Wall Street didn't seem to have much trouble finding another commercial-sector job, either. However, it's certainly not as much job security as a tenured professor has, and the probability of finding your first job on Wall Street certainly fluctuates a lot (though, unlike academia, some of the fluctuations are upwards). Software is somewhat less fluid, but similar in the sense that I think most people don't make a lifetime career out of working for one particular company, and that it is pretty easy to move from one company to another, or one city to another (which is less true on Wall Street, where almost all of the action is centered in New York and London).
  • Everyone is a professional, and no one around is a student
  • Generally somewhat less politically liberal co-workers (especially on Wall Street, and less so in software)
  • People have different reasons for working than academics do (money rather than love of their work, in many cases, especially on Wall Street)
  • Not everyone you work with or for is an intellectual
  • Hiring time scale is very short (days or weeks instead of months)
  • Different dress code (at least on Wall Street)
  • You may spend more time explaining your work to people (clients, end-users); on the other hand you probably won't be spending time teaching classes.
  • The objective of your work is making money for the company, not advancing science

Software Consulting: In a category of its own

Since mid-2001, I have been running my own software consulting business, and have found that (for me), it has aspects that are similar to both academia and having a commercial Wall Street or software job, and aspects that are different. Since this is a site on leaving physics (and not on leaving the world of employment and setting out on your own), here I've compared my experiences in software consulting to working in academia.

  • I have "Academic Freedom", meaning I am free to work on anything I can get funding for, I must satisfy the client that I did the job well in order to get more funding, and I must continually be marketing my work in order to secure future funding.
  • Of course, I am marketing to business clients, not funding agencies and my peers.
  • The time frame for projects I am doing as a software consultant is a day to a month or two, rather than years.
  • I am working day-to-day mostly alone in my office, instead of having many colleagues around to discuss things with. When I do have people to talk to, it is either non-technical clients (that is why they are hiring me!), or other business people.
  • Since I'm my own boss, I have no organizational politics to deal with.
  • I get to choose the hours I work, and correspondingly the amount I earn, so I can choose to work less and live on less.
  • The objective of my work is making better software for my client, not advancing science.
  • I rarely write reports about my work -- usually the main deliverable is easy-to-use software, not documentation.
  • I often spend time educating my clients, and sometimes even teaching classes.
  • When teaching classes, there is no grading, the students are motivated to learn the material, and the longest classes last only a few days.

The next page on my Leaving Academic Physics web site contains questions and answers that didn't fit anywhere else.