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The Master’s route

29 Oct 2015
Taken from the October 2015 issue of Physics World

A physics Master’s degree provides multiple pathways to successful (and fun) careers, but is it for you? Alaina G Levine weighs up the pros and cons

A self-professed “space buff”, Talal Ashiq Qureshi originally intended to pursue a doctorate in physics. As an undergraduate, he attended the Florida Institute of Technology, which is located on the “space coast” of Florida, near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. After obtaining his bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in electrical engineering there, he embarked on a PhD in physics, planning to specialize in some area of space science or astrophysics.

But in 2003, as Qureshi was finishing up the requirements for a physics Master’s, the uncertain state of the US economy (then still recovering from the dotcom bust) convinced him it would be better to start his career right away, rather than gamble on being able to find a job later with a PhD. So, after graduating with his Master’s degree, Qureshi took a position with the telecoms giant AT&T as a network integration engineering manager, overseeing the firm’s vast fibre-optics networks for scores of clients in the Fortune 500 list of major firms. When he left the corporation in 2007, he began consulting for the City of New York. Since 2012 he has worked full-time for the city’s department of information technology and telecommunications, as a programme manager focusing on networks, Wi-Fi and voice-over-Internet engineering.

Qureshi couldn’t be happier with his choice. Throughout his career, he says, the skills he learned in his physics Master’s have consistently aided him in managing projects and risk, as well as in project forecasting. “God knows how many times I have had to use the Gaussian or bell curve to explain something,” he says with a chuckle. The biggest gains, however, have been intangible. “It has improved my thought process,” he explains. The skills he developed in managing stress and making presentations have been particularly important, he says, because in his job “everything is needed yesterday, and the pressure is not just from the boss but from the citizens of New York”.

Qureshi is hardly alone in finding value in his degree, or in discovering that employers appreciate the skills that a physics Master’s provides. According to a 2014 report from the American Institute of Physics (AIP), which surveyed physics departments across the US, 44% of those who obtained a physics Master’s degree between 2009 and 2011 were working in the private sector within one year of graduation, while 23% found jobs in universities, 11% were employed by the government (not including active military) and 10% were high school teachers. Of those who obtained positions in the private sector, 87% worked in science and technology-related fields, including engineering, computer and information technology, physics and astronomy, as well as other areas of science and maths.

Nor is the appeal of the physics Master’s limited to the US. Sandra Hill, managing director of the Hill Group of recruiters based in Manchester, UK, says she regularly places candidates with a physics Master’s degree in a variety of industries, in roles that range from engineering and operations to research and development (R&D) and even strategic purchasing. “The physics degree is phenomenal because [it shows employers] you are good at maths, have an inventive mind, can solve engineering problems and can articulate [all of this]…No other degree offers experience in highly complex calculations, with the engineering and communications component,” Hill explains. “A programme manager with a physics Master’s [has the capacity] to understand all of the business.”

A plethora of options

For physics enthusiasts who aspire to lead their own research programme – and want the chance to dig very deeply into a subfield that fascinates them – the PhD is a better option than the Master’s (see To PhD or not to PhD below). But for others, the Master’s provides just the right fit. Daniel Olson, who received his Master’s in physics in 2010 from San Jose State University in California, enjoys science but has no desire to become a principal investigator. Instead, he explains, “I always wanted to be in a position supporting research. The Master’s is perfect for that.”

While he was still an undergraduate, Olson landed a position with the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, and he continued to work there during and after his Master’s degree studies. Since 2013 he has worked for the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute (part of NASA’s Ames Research Center) as a research associate, and he spends much of his time writing algorithms to process the large data sets generated by numerous NASA missions. He has recently worked on projects relating to the refractive properties of the rings of Saturn and tracing chemicals in the atmosphere produced from forest fires. He also spends about a quarter of his time helping the SETI Institute produce high-quality archives of planetary data.

Outside the research environment, numerous vocations and sectors are both suitable and achievable for physics Master’s graduates. One such career path is medical physics. Medical physicists focus on ensuring accuracy, safety and quality in the use of radiation in healthcare such as medical imaging and radiation therapy. They are the bridge between physicians and patients, using radiation-producing technology both to diagnose and treat people. Their responsibility is to make certain that the radiation prescribed in imaging and radiation therapy is delivered accurately and safely.

Some medical physicists are employed as consultants providing services to multiple facilities. Others labour for one hospital or hospital system, which may be community-based or affiliated with a university, says Nicole Ranger, a medical physicist who earned her Master’s in medical radiation physics from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She has a perspective on the variety of roles medical physicists fulfil because she has worked in academic medical centres, has moonlighted as a consultant, and is now a senior research medical physicist at Landauer, a company based in Glenwood, Illinois, that provides integrated radiation safety products and services. “Regardless of the context in which we work, whether it be clinical work or research, medical physicists are essentially problem-solvers and no one day is like another,” Ranger says. “It’s a gift to be intellectually challenged every day, to find solutions that are practical and have a positive impact on the field of medicine and patient care.”

Communications and consulting

Science journalism, editing and communications are also exciting career paths for people with a physics Master’s. Julie Gould, the editor of Naturejobs – the careers arm of the journal Nature – has a physics MSc from Cardiff University, UK. She says that not only does her educational background give her the foundation she needs to get a better understanding of the technical aspects of the articles she oversees, but it also helps her organize her editing and writing strategy. “My physics degree gave me a broad base in critical thinking and analysis, predictive thinking and logic,” she says. Furthermore, having studied such difficult problems in physics helps her feel more confident in approaching subjects she doesn’t know and taking on complicated projects. “It’s so useful to have that extra bit of scientific method so when you talk with researchers you can rigorously ask the right questions to get the right information for your story,” she adds.

Consulting is another possibility, notes Edward Caner, director of the Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Programmes (STEP) at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), which includes a Professional Science Master’s (PSM) degree in physics and entrepreneurship (see Mixing physics and innovation below). McKinsey & Company, one of the largest management and business consulting firms in the world, has recruited several of his students and regularly hires physics graduates from other universities. And for good reason. “Each graduate really attacks a problem with fervour,” Caner says. “They don’t just look for a stock solution. They always look at the problem carefully, especially just below the surface to understand it better.” The result, he says, is more creative and innovative solutions for McKinsey’s customers.

The “rep” of the Master’s

Given the range of careers open to people with a Master’s in physics – and the cachet that such a qualification has with employers – it is a surprisingly rare degree. In two separate reports published in 2014, the AIP found that, between 2009 and 2011, an average of 790 students per year left US physics departments with a Master’s degree, compared with a total of 6296 and 1688 people who received a physics bachelor’s and PhD, respectively. In the UK, the picture is complicated by the fact that some undergraduate degrees are “enhanced”, meaning that they include a Master’s-level qualification (an MSci or MPhys) gained during an additional fourth (or, in Scotland, fifth) year of undergraduate study. This “undergraduate Master’s” is fairly popular; a 2012 report by the Institute of Physics (which publishes Physics World) found that just under half of the 2730 students who completed undergraduate physics courses in 2009/10 obtained this enhanced degree. The separate postgraduate Master’s degree (MSc), however, is typically more specialized and much less common: only 530 physics students at British universities obtained this degree in 2009, compared with 710 who completed a PhD.

Part of the reason for those low numbers is that in some parts of the world, Master’s degrees in science suffer from a branding problem. Unlike a Master’s in engineering or an MBA, which carry a positive reputation, in some circles – especially academic ones – a science Master’s may be perceived as a potential mark of failure to achieve a PhD.

Such attitudes are hardly universal, though, and there is some evidence that they are changing. Gould notes she has received only positive responses to her Master’s education choice. “It’s viewed as one step further beyond a bachelor’s, giving me greater insight into the discipline,” she says. Within the US, where the view of a Master’s as a “consolation prize” for not getting the PhD is more entrenched, a number of universities have developed PSM programmes as a way to address the degree’s image problem, while also providing innovative career paths for students who want more depth in their subject than a bachelor’s degree can provide, but have no wish to spend four or more years pursuing a PhD (see “A new model Master’s”, August 2010 pp44–45).

Selling your skills

While some job advertisements will explicitly ask for a physics Master’s degree, most often this is not the case. Ray Ryan, a senior careers consultant at the University of Warwick, UK, whose focus is on students with bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in physics and maths, says that while he is “regularly” contacted by employers and recruiters looking for physics graduates, “In the UK recruiters do not generally specify that a Master’s level qualification is required for their graduate schemes.” He notes that employers specifically request physics candidates because of the plethora of robust abilities they bring to the table, including critical thinking, analysis, working in a team and being detail-oriented. But in his experience, he adds, “Although there may be a financial premium and higher entry point for physics Master’s level and PhD graduates for specific roles and sectors, in quantitative finance and R&D for example, this is not the case for the overwhelming majority of graduate schemes in the UK.”

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, however. A Master’s degree can “improve your earning potential”, argues Padraig Moloney, a senior scientist and programme manager at Lockheed Martin who received his PSM in nanoscale physics from Rice University, US, before pursuing a PhD. In many cases, though, the onus will be on you as an applicant to prove that your degree has given you skills that are worth a premium. A Master’s thesis, in particular, can set you apart from the competition and enable you to develop your “brand” (or promise of value) in a given field. “The physics Master’s thesis should relate to your [intended] industry,” advises Hill. “Focus on what you want to do when you leave university, because sometimes the thesis will get you the job more than experience.” As an example, Hill cites a candidate who had produced a thesis focusing on how vehicles can potentially be powered by their own emissions, and who she placed in an engineering role at an automotive firm.

Another potential pitfall for people with a physics Master’s is that many positions in industry request degrees in engineering or related technical fields, rather than physics. Sometimes, this problem starts before the Master’s level. When Jeff Bargiel, who earned his Master’s in physics entrepreneurship from STEP at CWRU, was an undergraduate looking for a co-op position (similar to an internship), he faced confusion from the careers adviser at his institution. “The co-op manager had no idea what to do with me because I was in physics,” he says, explaining that the counsellor was used to working with companies that requested engineers. “I had to educate her that I could be qualified for jobs that require electrical, mechanical or optical engineering degrees.” In the end he found a co-op position on his own.

Similarly, at the Master’s level, it is often up to applicants to make sure their application clarifies why their physics degree is a match. “Evaluate what skills you have to justify what you can do,” Qureshi suggests. “Try to understand what the [organization] is looking for,” and use the specific vocabulary of the position to describe your physics expertise in their terms.

Of course, physics-educated professionals who have migrated into industry jobs already understand the value that a physics degree provides. Many of them clamour to hire other physicists, as Matthew Thompson, a lead scientist at an alternative energy start-up, attests. A PhD physicist, he serves as group leader for the diagnostics and instrumentation at Tri Alpha Energy, a firm based in Foothill Ranch, California, and when given the choice between hiring an engineer or someone with a physics Master’s, he goes for the physicist every time. While engineers can build equipment and do technical analysis, in his view physicists provide something special: innovation. Physicists with Master’s degrees can conceptually design experiments and understand the parameters of what can and cannot be built, he notes, which is especially important in his physics-heavy company. “The devices we are trying to design have incomplete physics information associated with them,” he says, “so initial physics experiments are needed.”

Caner attests that “the MS in physics is the best kept secret in hiring” among employers, compared with someone with a Master’s in engineering. “If I am a CEO and I hire someone with a physics Master’s, I know that if something happens and I have to revamp the system, that person is going to be able to roll with the punches, redefine themselves,” and solve the problem better than anyone else, he says. Furthermore, the extra year or two spent learning and researching physics beyond the bachelor’s allow the students to “get to another level of problem-solving ability”, he says. “Your brain is trained as a problem solver and not as a regurgitater.”

Advice for blissful employment

Although it helps to know where you want to go after graduating with the degree, even if you are unsure, consider that extra year or two as an investment in your future. “I wanted to develop products and work on projects with commercial impact”, says Bargiel. “The physics Master’s degree is so universal. I made it into what I wanted it to be.” Adds Qureshi: “Physics is applicable to any career. The opportunities are endless.”

 

To PhD or not to PhD

Conceptual illustration showing boxes drawn on yellow paper and marked "yes", "no" and "maybe", with a pencil nearby

If you want to do additional study after your undergraduate degree, but are trying to decide whether your final degree in physics should be a Master’s or a doctorate, do a self-assessment concerning your overall interests, career objectives, skills you enjoy using and tasks you enjoy doing. “For a PhD, you have to have a very specific reason for doing it: to add to the overall scope of human knowledge,” says Daniel Olson, a research associate in a division of NASA Ames who has a Master’s degree in physics. Given that a PhD can take four or more years to complete, ask yourself: Do I enjoy digging deeply into a very finite subject? Would I have fun doing this every day for the next four to six years?

If the answer to these questions is “yes”, the next thing to consider is whether the PhD will give you entrée into the career you desire. Is it required for your dream job? If you endeavour to work as a professor or in corporate R&D, the answer is generally yes. “A PhD is required for a very specific kind of success, such as a professor or in a national lab, where you conduct experiments and write papers,” notes Matthew Thompson, a lead scientist at Tri Alpha Energy in California. “If you like physics but don’t want to do that, a Master’s degree can be a better ticket.” This is especially true if you are keen to do “scientific problem-solving”, using your physics knowledge and skills as a means to find solutions in sectors such as government and industry, as opposed to conducting original research. “For a lot of people the PhD is not the best investment” of time and energy, concludes Thompson. “The Master’s level [professional] fills the role of scientific problem solver.”

Mixing physics and innovation

Although there are plenty of traditional Master’s physics programmes offered around the world, many other courses specialize in burgeoning areas of physics innovation, combine physics with business, or prepare students for very specific career paths. Here are a few to consider:

  • Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Programmes (STEP) at Case Western Reserve University, US: a Professional Science Master’s (PSM) in physics entrepreneurship
  • PSM in nanoscale physics at Rice University, US: for students interested in nanotechnology, combined with business and project management classes
  • MSc in radiation and environmental protection at the University of Surrey, UK: courses include radiation physics and biology, nuclear power and non-ionizing radiation, and environmental physics and protection
  • Master’s in beam physics and technology, from a joint partnership between Indiana University and the US Particle Accelerator School (a national consortium sited at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory)
  • MSc in information security, from Royal Holloway University of London, UK: focuses on cyber security, security management, digital forensics, cyber crime and security testing
  • Polymer materials science and engineering MSc, from the University of Manchester, UK: one of many materials science Master’s programmes coveted by industry, according to recruiters
  • Master’s of applied physics, Michigan Technical University, US: launched in autumn 2015, it offers students flexibility to customize the programme to meet their interests in innovative areas such as optoelectronics, plasmonics and biophysics

 

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