Now That I Have a Degree, How Do I Get a Life?

3rd August 2018
graduates throwing their caps in the air

The big question. The one many students dread at family gatherings. It causes more and more anxiety every year. “What are you going to do once you graduate?” The Stanford D.School puts it, “Once I have my degree, how do I get a life?” How do I find something that not only pays the bills but also lets me find fulfillment?

I, like many of my peers, don’t know the answers to any of these questions. Everyone must contemplate this topic individually, and do what they decide is best for themselves and their lives. Many universities have services, staff members, or classes that will help students do just that.

The good news is that things look bright for those graduating with a degree in physics, graduate and undergraduate alike. There are many open doors, more than I originally realized when choosing my degree program, as long as you know where to look and how to market your skills correctly.

Being trained to think like a physicist means being trained to solve problems, but not the kind of problems you find in a textbook - with the answers provided in the back. While most physics educations do contain their fair share of problem sets, thinking like a physicist means thinking creatively about them. It means taking the knowledge you have from previous lessons and applying it to solve the problems of the present and the future. Doing research means learning to manage difficult situations with many moving parts and no clear, predefined answer. It means being trained to work with a diverse team to achieve a specific goal in a timely manner. When you start to talk about your skills in these terms, you can start to attract the attention of recruiters and hiring managers.

I won’t pretend to be an expert in the field of careers, but here’s a look into some of the pathways some of my fellow physics peers have recently taken:

Research science: You can continue to do research. Some research is being done solely for its own sake (like the dark matter search I work on), but much of it is targeted at pressing problems facing society today. Professional research positions can include a being professor at a research university, serving as a researcher at a university, one of the 17 DOE national labs or other research organization such as NASA, or working for a private company’s research branch, like Google Labs or IBM Research.

Science administration: You can work to support science from a management perspective, and enable people to do the best science they can. This can come in a lot of different forms. It might mean becoming the head of an academic department, or a dean, provost, or president for a university (typically after being a professor for a while). There are similar roles at national labs and other science facilities, such as being a lab director, or an associate director in charge of a particular branch. My favorite example is Dr. Persis Drell, who has been a Professor in the Stanford Physics Department, Director of SLAC National Lab, Dean of Stanford Engineering, and is now Provost of Stanford University.

There are many management positions at funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation or the Department of Energy. Many of the people who have held the Secretary of Energy position are Ph.D. physicists, like Prof. Steve Chu and Prof. Ernest Moniz. There are also professional societies like the American Physical Society or the American Astronomical Society.

Going even further, you can work on science policy for a particular politician or committee in the legislative branch. You can even run for public office! There is currently one Ph.D. physicist in congress - Dr. Bill Foster, senator from Illinois.

Private industry: You can apply your technical skills working for a private company, or for a different type of organization (like the nonprofit Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). This can be in a number of different industries, including data science, finance and trading, consulting, project or product management, solar power, defense, lasers and optics, medical devices, water and sanitation… the list goes on and on. This usually isn’t considered “research” since you aren’t creating new knowledge, but it is applying your skills and knowledge to create products and solutions for a wide range problems.

Science communication: You can work to teach and communicate science to the public. A large fraction of this is teaching and developing science curricula - middle and high school teachers, lecturers at research universities, professors at teaching universities, etc. Another side of it is science outreach and communication, which can include positions at museums, planetariums, national lab communications departments or tour programs, university outreach programs, science publications like Symmetry Magazine, and non-profit organizations that focus on science outreach.

Medicine: You can go into medicine. Physics is an excellent undergraduate major if you are considering becoming a doctor. In fact, physics majors score better on the MCAT than many other majors. There is also a whole branch of medical physics, where people work on things like medical imaging, radiation safety, and radiology and medical accelerator operations for radiation therapy to treat cancer.

You can also do something else entirely! I know people who have left academia to go into eSports management, outdoor education, art, etc. The skills you learn as a physicist can be transferred to many other fields.

There you have it - a very incomprehensive list of things you can do with a physics degree. So even though I don’t know the specific answer to the big question of “What do you want to do when you graduate?” at least I know there are plenty of options waiting for me. Over the next three years, I will have to wrestle with the question of what option is best for me and will leave me feeling satisfied and fulfilled, but I know that my physics education will enable me to follow whatever path I choose.