What can you do with a BS in Physics?

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What can you do with a BS in Physics?

Postby wtfxcore » Mon Feb 27, 2012 3:04 am UTC

For a long time I considered majoring in Secondary Education for Math and Physics education but I don't know if I'm feeling that anymore.

I recently began thinking about majoring in Physics, but then there's a dilemma. I don't really know what's out there for me. This is one time when the internet has failed me- I can't get a straight answer. I don't know what kind of jobs are out there. And that's why I'm coming to you, xkcd-ers. I need some input- do you think it's worth it now to get a BS in Physics? Or should I just pursue a BA in Education?

If it helps at all, I hope to someday go back for a Master's degree in Physics and become a college professor or researcher.

PLEASE help me. I'm really confused and I don't know what to do!

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Re: What can you do with a BS in Physics?

Postby gorcee » Mon Feb 27, 2012 6:50 pm UTC

A professor's primary job is not teaching. A professor's primary job is research. Teaching is a thing they have to do, kind of like how nurses have to put in their share of weekend and holiday shifts.

Therefore, a BA in Education is not very useful to one who wants to be a college professor or researcher in physics.

If you want to research and teach physics at the college level, this is the career path to do so:

BS Physics Undergrad (4 years) -> PhD Physics (5-7 years, possibly more, rarely less) -> Post-Doctoral appointment (2-3 years, this used to be 1-2 years but a bloat in applicants is prolonging this process; by the time you get here it may well be longer) -> Assistant Professorship (6-9 years) -> Associate/Full Professor (tenured).

The green items are called the Tenure Track, and during this period of your life/career, you will be doing both teaching and research. However, while doing this teaching/research, you will be grossly underpaid, and wishing you were doing either one, but not both, of those activities. This is, in essence, the only real option that involves both teaching and research as regular career activities.

There are options in which you do one or the other.

If you're interested in teaching primarily low-level physics, you can do the following:

BS Physics (4 years) -> MA Education (1 year) -> Teaching (high school or community/junior college).

This career path will pretty much exclude any real physics research.

If you're interested in research, there are other options. Here are two:

BS Physics (4 years) -> MS Physics (2 years) -> Industry (10 years) -> Industry + Teaching on the side

Another option:

BS Physics (4 years) -> PhD Physics (5-7 years) -> Non-academic research environment (e.g. national lab)

These options will allow you to take a part-time professorship at a community college and teach low-level physics on the side, after you've been in the field for a few years.


Given that, what is it that you want your job to be like? Do you want to be dealing with younger students/parents, some of whom don't really want to be in your class? Equivalently, do you enjoy the challenge of opening a student's mind to a new topic? Do you want to be doing publication-quality research, fighting for grant money? Does the idea of dedicating a huge chunk of your youth to a low-paying and stressful, not to mention not guaranteed, career track sound appealing? Do you want to face those challenges head on, to establish yourself in your field?

There are all sorts of jobs for physics majors. You can teach, which seems to be the option you know about. You can be a PhD-level researcher, which lets you work in the field without necessarily having to deal with the perils of academia, but instead you have to deal with the fickleness of being a government employee. You can work in industry, which can have interesting problems to solve, but your success is often not made public.

Teaching is fairly stable, but low-paying.
University faculty is extremely difficult to get into, and low paying at first (the trade-off is that it can be extremely well-paying later in your career).
Non-university research takes a lot of education and time to get into, and can be moderately well-paying, but is perhaps unstable.
Industry work is often not bleeding-edge research, but is quite well-paying, and fairly stable.

Which of these is most appealing to you?

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Re: What can you do with a BS in Physics?

Postby Tirian » Tue Feb 28, 2012 5:22 pm UTC

*misposted post deleted* :)
Last edited by Tirian on Wed Feb 29, 2012 7:37 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: What can you do with a BS in Physics?

Postby Andromeda321 » Wed Feb 29, 2012 8:52 am UTC

Basically if you just want to teach on the high school level (or perhaps at a museum or planetarium) then do the education one- physics teachers are always at a shortage, so you won't have an issue finding a job. If you want to do something other than that, go get the physics BS.

I should point out btw that there's one option listed in the detailed post above that's worth mentioning, which is lecturing at either a community college or a small liberal arts institution. Basically unlike universities these are people who only teach, but one notch above the high school level, though you probably want a Physics BS and MS as a minimum to try for such a job (though a PhD is preferred). If you're that interested in education and research btw there's also a sub-field known as physics education research you might be interested in- turns out there's quite a bit behind the details on how people learn physics, and there are a few departments in the USA at least devoted to studying it in greater depth.

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Re: What can you do with a BS in Physics?

Postby wtfxcore » Fri Mar 02, 2012 2:58 am UTC

Thanks for all your input.

But what I'm mostly wondering is, if I choose to get a BS in physics, what jobs will I be qualified for upon graduation?

(I'm going to consider the rest later- choosing an undergraduate major is tough enough for me right now.)

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Re: What can you do with a BS in Physics?

Postby ConMan » Fri Mar 02, 2012 3:18 am UTC

It's actually a massively open-ended question. If you're asking "What jobs can I get where I will do actual Physics?" then gorcee's covered most of the main ones. But in terms of what companies a BSc in Physics can get you in the door of, you would be surprised. I work at the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and while I graduated with a BSc in Applied Mathematics, there are a number of Physics grads here too - and I'm pretty sure the same applies for a large number of businesses and organisations. Don't look at it so much in terms of "what things do I know", look at it in terms of "how do I think?". You know how to set out a problem to streamline the process of solving it (things like drawing diagrams, listing knowns and unknowns, building a toolkit of techniques to apply depending on the problem). You know how to get into the guts of a system to understand how it works. You know how to get a feel for numbers so that you can tell when things are obviously wrong. With skills like that, you can sell yourself to just about anyone.
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Re: What can you do with a BS in Physics?

Postby Jorpho » Sun Mar 04, 2012 4:45 am UTC

wtfxcore wrote:But what I'm mostly wondering is, if I choose to get a BS in physics, what jobs will I be qualified for upon graduation?
I think the question is not necessarily so much what you will be qualified for, but what potential employers will see you as qualified for. As Mr. ConMan points out, you may well end up capable of a great many things, but it might end up being something of a hard sell.

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Re: What can you do with a BS in Physics?

Postby nash1429 » Tue Mar 06, 2012 2:08 am UTC

For what it's worth, I've heard that math and physics majors are often hired simply because the people hiring assume that someone with such a degree must be intelligent. It's not something to base a plan for the future on, but it's worth keeping in mind.

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Re: What can you do with a BS in Physics?

Postby eSOANEM » Tue Mar 06, 2012 7:34 am UTC

wtfxcore wrote:But what I'm mostly wondering is, if I choose to get a BS in physics, what jobs will I be qualified for upon graduation?

From what I've been told. Almost anything. Most employers don't actually care about how good your physics is, they'll be using it to show that you're intelligent and can analyse and solve problems well. That said, I've been told that areas which tend to pick up particularly large numbers of physicists (at least in the UK) are financial sector stuff and patent law. That said, I've seen pie charts showing what fields physics graduates have gone into and it covers pretty much anything.
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