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Your career questions answered

26 Mar 2015 Margaret Harris
Taken from the March 2015 issue of Physics World

Not sure what to do after you graduate? Join the club. Margaret Harris explores the findings of a recent survey that asked physics students to share their career concerns and aspirations

Your career questions answered

Last summer, the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World, invited around 8500 physics undergraduates in the UK and Ireland to complete an online survey about careers. The 319 students who responded hail from 57 different institutions, and while they are not a random sample, their views seem broadly in line with those of their peers. In particular, their career aspirations will sound familiar to many physicists. When the survey gave students a list of 25 sectors of the economy and asked them to choose up to five that appealed to them, the most popular option was “academia”, but there was also a long tail of interest in other areas. All told, 11 different sectors caught the eye of at least 10% of survey respondents, reflecting the fact that a physics degree opens many doors.

When students were asked to name up to five companies where they would like to work, the answers were even more diverse. More than 400 different organizations made the list, including universities and government bodies as well as private-sector firms. In general, the most popular sectors and the most popular companies overlapped (see “Top picks” below). A closer look at the survey data, however, turns up a few oddities. The optics and photonics sector was fairly popular, with more than 20% of respondents saying they would be interested in a job in that area. However, when the students were asked to name actual companies, few (3%) picked firms that do business in an optics- or photonics-related field. Similarly, interest in the petrochemical sector was relatively low (8%), yet the oil firm BP was nevertheless among the top five preferred employers.

If you think that sounds like some physics students aren’t quite sure what they want to do, or where they want to do it, you aren’t alone: the students in the survey agree. “One of the major problems I personally am having is deciding what areas to go into,” one wrote in the survey’s comments section. Many said that they found the number of possible paths overwhelming (see “So many options” figure below). Others were unsure whether jobs advertised to graduates in other fields, such as engineering or computer science, would also accept applications from physicists. Overall, nearly two-thirds (63%) agreed that there was “a lack of information about job opportunities” for physics graduates.

Engineering an opening

To help fill this gap, Physics World asked physicists and human resources managers at a variety of companies to respond to some of the concerns that came up in the survey. First up: competing with applicants from other degree courses. “There is a lack of clarity in careers advice about which jobs are open to physicists and which are actually only recruiting engineers,” one student complained. “Most jobs I see are looking for engineers or degrees in computation,” echoed another. When applying for jobs in those fields, argued a third, “it seems as though physicists would be at a disadvantage”.

Oliver Collis, a physics graduate who is now an engineer, begs to differ. After earning his degree in physics and astronomy from Cardiff University, he spent 10 months teaching English in China before applying for an engineering role at MM Microwave, which supplies antennas and other microwave components to the aerospace, defence and telecommunications industries. While Collis says he was “concerned” about not having an engineering degree when he applied for his current role, he did not let that stop him. “I decided that what you learn on the physics degree is really problem solving,” he says. “Physics gives you such a strong background in maths as well, and then it’s just about applying what you already know to a different scenario.” Thanks to this background, he says, “I very quickly went from not knowing anything about antennas to designing them.”

Mathematical prowess was also an important transferable skill for Michael Bennett, who joined the software firm Integrated Environmental Solutions (IES) after earning a PhD in physics from Keele University. IES makes software that helps building professionals create more energy-efficient buildings, and its human resources (HR) manager Lorna Findlay estimates that almost half of the 40-member software development team in the company’s Glasgow office come from a physics background. Other physicists at IES create mathematical models and simulations of heat flow in “green” buildings, something that Bennett says is “not worlds away” from academic research.

Claire McCormick, an HR manager at the electronics firm Freescale Semiconductor, is slightly more cautious about welcoming physics graduates into non-physics roles. “For most of the engineering opportunities we have, we do tend to look for electronics and electrical engineers,” she says. However, physics graduates who have relevant experience in electronics thanks to their coursework, a final-year project or a summer internship would be seriously considered for roles in Freescale’s research and development (R&D) groups. “When we bring in any graduate, they have to learn on the job,” she explains. “We’re looking for someone with a good grasp of electronics, someone who knows their way around a basic circuit, but a full understanding of microcontrollers would not be required.”

Using your skills

Another concern for the physics students who participated in the IOP survey was the difficulty of finding jobs that actually use their physics skills, as opposed to more general graduate-level roles. “In the easily available careers information, much more emphasis is put on ‘jobs you can do with a physics degree’ rather than ‘jobs you should do with a physics degree’,” one student wrote. “If I were to guess why this is, I’d say it’s because a lot of technical jobs for physics graduates are with small companies.”

Small companies can certainly have a lot to offer, particularly for students with broad interests. PolyPhotonix, a small start-up firm based in north-east England, is developing new products and devices based on organic light-emitting diodes. Its managing director, Alex Cole, says that he looks for people with skills in more than one field. “With us, you’ll do a bit of engineering one day, a little chemistry the next, and then you’ll be looking at Schrödinger’s equations,” he says.

Another advantage is that unlike big companies, which may receive thousands of applications for a few dozen graduate jobs (and can thus afford to be extremely picky), small firms are often willing to consider applicants who meet most job specifications, but not all of them. “They said that two or three years’ experience was ideal, but I sent them my CV and cover letter anyway,” says Collis, of MM Microwave. “I’d always wanted to be involved in designing things and making things that were ‘mine’, so I expressed that on the cover letter and that’s what convinced John [McGreevy, the company director] to give me an interview.”

That said, students should not rule out finding physics-based roles at larger firms. Ian Taylor, a physics graduate who works on lubrication science at Shell Global Solutions, says that his company offers many opportunities for graduates to put their physics knowledge to work. “Developing fuels requires an understanding of combustion physics, and both fuels and lubricants require a good understanding of friction and wear,” he says. In other areas of Shell, Taylor explains, physics graduates are trained in petrophysics and seismology before being sent to exploration sites. Physicists also go into the company’s R&D centres, where they work alongside engineers and chemists to develop next-generation products.

How to stand out

The IOP is working to raise awareness of jobs that use physics. As well as hosting company-specific careers fairs, the Institute runs events where students can talk to physics graduates who are employed in a variety of different fields. “It’s part of my job to find companies that people haven’t thought of,” says Vishanti Fox, the IOP careers manager. For students who already know what they want to do, but want more information about a specific field (see “I want to do X but all I hear about is Y” figure below), Fox suggests getting involved in one of the IOP’s subject groups and making use of networking opportunities there.

Once students have identified a company that interests them, there is still the small matter of applying for a job there. How can they make their application stand out? Reassuringly, Findlay, of IES, says that the first hurdle is actually not that high. “When I review applications, I always like it if our company name is mentioned,” she says. “It shows that the applicant has bothered to do some research about what we do.” McCormick, of Freescale Semiconductor, suggests that students take time to review old course notes before attending a technical interview. “Too often, students don’t go back and think, ‘What questions might I be asked here?'” she says.

Aside from getting the basics right, everyone that Physics World spoke to for this article agreed that relevant experience is a huge advantage. Companies both large and small regard their summer internship and “year in industry” placement programmes as prime recruiting grounds, and they also look favourably on applicants who have completed similar programmes at other firms. Students without formal industry experience should not get too discouraged, though. Other ways of gaining experience and demonstrating interest include programming mobile-phone apps, making 3D-printed models, getting involved in science outreach or becoming active members of university societies. “In general, what would knock people back is if we can say, ‘this person has been to university and that’s all they’ve ever done,'” Cole says. The CV of one recent hire, he adds, stood out because it mentioned that the applicant was an enthusiastic kayaker and president of the university’s cheese society.

As for the value of postgraduate degrees – an area of concern for several students in the IOP survey – opinions among employers are mixed. Most of those contacted by Physics World regard advanced degrees as “nice to have” rather than essential. “We don’t go out looking for postgraduate degrees – it’s more a question of finding the right person,” McCormick says. For others, though, an MSc or PhD degree is a definite advantage. “There’s a lot of skills that you develop during a Master’s or a PhD that make you a more well-rounded person,” Bennett says. “We are interested in developing software further. We want to develop models that are physically consistent and match reality. Lots of postgraduate courses provide skills relevant for those purposes.” Getting a second degree in a different subject also broadens the range of activities you can do, says Dan Kolb, a senior scientist at PolyPhotonix who has an undergraduate degree in physics and a PhD in engineering.

Summing up

Because physics is not a vocational degree like, say, medicine or law, physics students may need to work harder to identify jobs that use their skills. However, there are many employers out there who value the skills that physics graduates can offer. If students can show they have those skills, as well as convey passion and interest in their prospective employer, they will be well on their way to great careers – regardless of which field they choose to enter.

Top picks

Most popular sectors

Academia 55%
Nuclear 42%
Aerospace and defence 40%
Energy, excluding nuclear 34%
Engineering 30%

Most popular companies

Google 16%
BAE Systems 13%
EDF 11%
Rolls-Royce 9%
BP 9%

(Data source: Institute of Physics online survey of undergraduate physicists 2014)

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