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A Physics Career?

July 2001

It feels like a long time since I've written one of these. I've been thrown off track the last few months by yet another twist in an already bizarre career. An opportunity came up out of the blue in customer training and benchmark testing for electric and magnetic applications simulation software at Integrated Engineering Software. My life is settling down again now so I thought I'd use my first new monthly feature to offering some musings about the career value of a degree in Physics.
1. Stability
As far as I know, some Physicists in my era found stable careers. I came very close to it myself. A proposal that would have kept me at Acadia University unexpectedly made it past several hurdles - including the Faculty of Science setting aside money that other departments had been counting on for microscopes etc. In the end, after everyone else had approved it, the proposal was killed by the president and vice-presidents.

2. Academia
Having lost my chance at a fast track into an academic career I discovered that many people took offense at my going straight to a professorship without doing a post-doctoral fellowship first. I was hammered on this repeatedly while looking for work. My advice to those seeking an academic career: don't step out of line, follow the usual course. If a gamble doesn't pay off, you can suddenly find yourself a couple of years behind in building up your publications list etc that are so important to an academic career. With so much stiff competition thats a lot of ground to make up again. Teaching experience does little to make up for a small stack of publications.

3. Industry
First of all, industry pays a heck of a lot better than academia (at least here in Canada). However, the fact you have a degree in Physics means squat to most companies. In industry you need to identify some "marketable skills" which you possess. There better be a good mix of hard skills (ability to program in C++, your knowledge of electron gun design...) and soft skills (your work ethic, how you relate to co-workers...). Large companies may have policies in place related to degrees and there will be some sort of quota for number of physicists, but small companies are more likely to simply be looking for good people. They may not have ever considered a physicist before. When you go to an interview remember that the person you are talking to probably took a physics course once and probably hated it. There is some bias you might need to overcome.

4. Physicist vs Engineer
An engineer is somebody who does engineering, but a physicist is not somebody who "does physics" let alone engineering. Physics is a subject, a physicist is somebody actively pursuing the advancement of that subject. If you want to do engineering, become an engineer - coupled with your physics degree this can make you very employable. Don't fall into the trap of resenting how much easier it is for engineers to find work - industry needs a lot more engineers than physicists. Your goal is to find aspects of a company's work where they have been repeatedly disappointed hiring engineers. You may find the skills they are lacking are the very ones a degree in physics promotes.

5. Ability to Find Work
I've had a horrible time finding long-term stable work - on the other hand I've had ample opportunity to prove the claim that we are generalists who can tackle almost anything. Need to learn a new operating system - no problem. Need to learn how to set up a business - no problem. Learning is what I do best, and I already know the basics about a lot of things. With this approach I've never been long looking for work. The only thing is that your business card might read "Benchmark and Testing Specialist" rather than "Physicist" - I can live with that.

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A Bit About Me

  • as an undergrad I worked summers in the pit shop at Gibralter Mines, as a surveyor for the BC Forest Service, and for a couple of summers in a real physics research facility - TRIUMF
  • after graduating I worked at SFU studying coating methods for window glass
  • I completed my BSc at UBC, and my MSc and PhD at the University of Waterloo studying ion bombardment effects on the growth of amorphous sililicon films. In 1991 I set out to find stable employment...
  • I spent 2 years as a professor at Acadia University replacing those on sabbatical. I then tried to beef up my publications list by taking a Research Associate position in positron spectroscopy at the University of Winnipeg - but that came to an end when NSERC made an across the board cut in funding. I have, however, taught the occasional course at the University of Winnipeg since then.
  • At this point the career became much more bizarre. I took a job modeling an rf communications network for Iris Systems. When Iris went out of business I took a short term position in Pharmacology at the University of Manitoba setting up data recording and analysis techniques. When that ended I founded DC Tech - part of which is the DC Physics site. Recently I began working for Integrated Engineering Software as outlined on the left.