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05 Oct 2017
Taken from the October 2017 issue of Physics World

Physics graduates must sharpen and tailor their skills for careers in industry, says Crystal Bailey, who also calls on faculty members to provide more support in this area

Are you a young physicist about to complete your degree? Contrary to what you or your supervisors believe, you will most likely find a permanent career in the private sector. Indeed, a 2016 report by the American Institute of Physics’ Statistical Research Center (AIP SRC) found that 70% of the (potentially permanent) initial hires of physics PhD graduates in the US are in the private sector. A survey by the US National Science Foundation, meanwhile, has found that, over the past three decades, 40–55% of all PhD graduates go on to work in the private sector. And while four-year colleges (universities) were the second most common employer for the same group, most of those jobs were temporary positions such as lectureships and postdoctoral positions. Even at the bachelor’s and Master’s degree levels, of those graduates who go straight into the workforce after receiving their degrees, more than half will be in the private sector.

It should come as no surprise that physicists have an important role to play in the wide variety of careers available outside of academia. The far-reaching expertise that physics students develop while receiving their degrees – through exposure to a broad set of skills and techniques – makes them exceptional problem solvers. Moreover, their ability to approach problems from general principles often means that physicists can apply their knowledge in novel contexts, leading to innovative advances in technological development. Their intimate understanding of the laws that govern the universe, along with the ability to harness the powerful machinery of mathematics to model and predict, puts physics graduates in a unique position to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges.

However, many of these graduates find private-sector careers in spite of, rather than because of, the career mentorship of their physics department. In the US, there are generally few faculty members in physics departments with prior experience of working in industry. This is in stark contrast with other STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines, which often – especially in engineering – employ staff with private-sector experience. Furthermore, while many well-meaning physics faculty members want to advise their students on how to pursue careers outside of academia, few have industrial colleagues in their professional network who could offer advice, or whom they could ask to be industrial mentors for their students.

Beyond this, there is also a prevailing attitude in some university physics departments that the only worthy career path for students is to follow in their mentors’ footsteps and pursue permanent academic roles. Given that nearly 1800 new physics PhD graduates enter the US workforce each year, while only some 350 permanent faculty members depart their positions, this career aspiration is simply not attainable for most students – including those who are considered the “best candidates” for becoming career academics.

Shaping your skills

In order to bring the physics discipline forward into the 21st century, physics graduates must shape their skills for careers in industrial and entrepreneurial settings, while faculty members must confront the attitude that careers in private sector and entrepreneurial settings are somehow inferior to their academic counterparts. Fortunately, there are many things that you as a graduate can do to broaden your career focus. You can (and should) spend time on career planning and self-assessment years before you anticipate entering the job market. There are several good tools available – often through a university’s career resources centre – which will help you gain insights into which career paths might be a good match for you as a person, rather than just a collection of skills. These tools can provide a baseline of suggestions (besides “academic physicist”) that you can consider.

Another good way of learning more about careers outside of academia is by setting up a meeting with people in businesses or organizations of interest so that you can find out more about the opportunities they offer and the skills they demand. This type of informational interview is a “classic” job interview turned on its head: you, as the jobseeker, get to ask the questions. You can take this opportunity to ask everything from what a typical work day involves to what special training they recommend to successfully work in their field – you could even ask for typical salaries for a specific job as a reference.

If the interaction goes well, your industry contact might become a valuable member of your professional network. Setting up these kinds of meetings while you are still studying will mean that you have a contact who can be useful later on, when you are getting more focused on entering the job market. The American Physical Society (APS) has some good advice on arranging these informational interviews as well as some sample informational interview questions.

Learning mentorship

Academic staff can also play an important role in helping students widen their career nets by inviting industry speakers to their departments to talk about the exciting work they do. Graduate students often say that one of the main reasons they do not seek industry experience before graduation is that their adviser disapproved of or even forbade such activity. Faculty members should not only allow, but also encourage students to take advantage of research opportunities in company settings. Academics can also learn basic professional-development concepts (such as the difference between a CV and a résumé) and be able to point their students towards appropriate resources that address questions about applying to industry jobs that they can’t answer. These include career websites from the likes of the APS and the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, as well as university career services.

Responsible career mentorship means giving students a clear idea of their future employment options, and affording them every reasonable opportunity to explore those possibilities. We owe the next generation of scientists – most of whom will be chief executives, research scientists or entrepreneurs solving important world problems – the best support and encouragement they can get.

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