Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What Does One "Do" With an Undergraduate Physics Degree?

This article tries to answer the question that I get asked many times: "What Does One "Do" With an Undergraduate Physics Degree?" The writer presented this question to another physicist to get the answer.

David Saltzberg, PhD. is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at UCLA. He received his Bachelor's degree in Physics from Princeton and his doctorate from the University of Chicago. David has partially shifted his research towards neutrino astronomy, using radio detection techniques. He recently completed a scientific balloon mission looking for the electromagnetic pulses from neutrino interactions in the Antarctic Ice. He is also Science Consultant for the television sit-com: The Big Bang Theory.

While David is a scientist, he also has an undergraduate liberal arts education which made him the right person to ask: what does one "do" with a physics degree? He has not only taught many students, but has friends who chose less traditional pursuits. And he advises future educators at a leading university.

So I had high hopes that some very good answers and examples will be given here. But I'm a bit disappointed with the responses.

Why should college students consider majoring in physics?

I think there is only one reason to major in physics, and that is because you really like it. I majored in physics because I always liked my classes and wanted to learn more. Along the way, you meet some really smart people who also love physics in relatively small classes. You work together in labs and generally spend a lot of time together. It is a great way to go through college.

What have your former college classmates and students done (besides doctoral study) after earning their undergraduate degrees in physics?

It is all over the map. Various types of engineering are all possible. I even have one friend that designs robots. Others have gone into science journalism. Another friend with a physics major joined the Air Force and flies planes.

So essentially, the whole question in the topic is covered in this last paragraph. The rest of the article is about physics, funding, education, etc. There is no elaboration on the exact nature of jobs available for an undergraduate physics degree holder. So if I were such a degree holder and hoping that this article tells me a bit more on what jobs I'm qualified for, I'd say that other than some superficial information that is "... all over the map... ", I've learned nothing.

This is sad, because it is not as if such information isn't available. The AIP webpage has a wealth of statistics on the type of jobs such physics degree holders get employed in. So one could be quite specific on the type of jobs available.

But beyond that, when asked on why one should major in physics, is the best that can be answered is that "... you really like it.. "? What happened to the fact that the skills one acquire majoring in it can be quite useful in one's career, be it in science or outside of science?

I think this article missed a tremendous opportunity to produce useful information that students could have used. Instead, it had more emphasis on funding and physics education.



Anonymous said...

They go into the Defense Industry

Clay Dowling said...

An undergraduate physics degree is a lot like a liberal arts degree. It's useless by itself, but it provides a great basis for a career. Study it because you love it, then do something you're happy doing. If you managed to get a physics degree from a good school, you can figure out how to do or build almost anything.

Anonymous said...

Wow, the interviewer sure caught David Saltzberg on a bad hair day, or perhaps just failed to winkle out the the interesting aspects. I must admit, t'd be harder to come up with a less inspiring set of comments as to why one would want to acquire a degree in physics than was presented in this article! Check out his webpage at UCLA--he's led a rather more interesting life and probably served as far better example of why one would want to be as a physicist than this unfortunate interview indicates.

ajsteinm said...

Undergraduate physics degrees are great. The problem is that the hiring managers that don't know it. We can do just about anything. Just out of college, I found work as a chemical engineer and was blown away by how little people who'd been working for 10 years and had Master's degrees, knew what they were doing. It's been incredibly useful and has gotten me a lot of recongnition as "Physics Kid"

Anonymous said...

Most who do not continue on with education tend to work where ever they can get a job. Same with English majors and other degree holders who consider their diploma worth more than an education mark of achievement. You could teach at a Science Museum but there are better paying gigs that don't involve a degree. Try Audio Visual Tech for a college you tend to sit in on classes for free and stay withing the education field without the professional student taint most end up with.

Gary said...

How dare he suggest that somebody study something because they enjoy it! Obviously if it doesn't bring in the $$$ it doesn't belong on a diploma.

Anonymous said...

I work for a Defense Communications company, and a friend of mine here has his BS in Physics, and is a test engineer for one of our satellite programs. Makes really good money, and the company is paying for his Masters.

Anonymous said...

Been there. Was being groomed for grad work, but bailed after college burn out. You can't get hired for science positions because they require a grad degree of some sort. I had interviewers tell me the Physics degree scared them when I interviewed for non-science jobs. Finally got a job in IT after every other applicant for the position failed the drug test. Now that I am in the market place it looks great, but didn't help at all to get in. My college was no help in job placement either(they kept suggesting I go to grad school)

Jasmine said...

Actually I think that's the best answer I've heard in a long time about why a person should choose a major. Too many young students focus on things like what skills they are going to learn and how those skills will get them a job, but none of that really matters. I've seen so many people doing poorly in jobs they hate, for this reason. Pick a major because you love it, and ignore what the market is doing. I majored in Biology because I love it, not because of any career prospects - and I've been a computer programmer for 25 years. Point being, pick something you love is a perfect answer to this question - caring about what you will learn and how it will apply to your future is a worthless waste of time, because you can't predict the future, and even if you could, you wouldn't want to be stuck doing a job you hate.

Anonymous said...

True story on the defense industry. I have a BS in physics and work for the military doing chemical defense research. I will be honest though, it was not my degree that got me the job. It was my research experience during undergrad, and a proven ability to apply what I leaned in real world situations. Also, learn programming and modeling. It has been invaluable to me, and is applicable to any engineering or hard science.

Unknown said...

The True Value Of A Degree: They teach Science students to ask, “Why does it work?”. They teach Engineering students to ask, “How does it work?”. They teach Accounting students to ask, “How much does it cost to make it work?”. They teach everyone else to ask, “Would you like fries with that?”.

El Charro said...

René - funny but somehow sadly true.

I think that the answer he gave is probably true given the current way a Physics program works.

Many people will agree that getting a BS degree in Physics is probably harder than to do engineering. Why would someone go through all that pain just to learn skills that would get him/her the same job as one doing engineering? Only because (s)he reaaaaaally like physics.

Unknown said...

To Rene: I think that if you know why things work you also know how they work. :D But then as my physics professor said when I was in my undergrad years "Physicists know how but only God knows why"

"The first time you do something, it's science. The second time, it's engineering. A third time, it's just being a technician. I'm a scientist. Once I do something, I do something else. So I'm not going to talk about that."
- Clifford Stoll

Unknown said...

He should make some practices over it to be a master of it and always search for more relevant results,

Fabian Madurai said...

To El Charro, Why do you say a Physics degree is harder than engineering? Engineering is probably one of the most intense degree programs out there. I know cos i have a degree in Electronic Engineering. Dont wana start a debate about physics vs. Engineering, but these days too many people call themselves Engineers!

Clay said...


Because Physics students have to take all of the same required math and science courses as engineers, but instead of taking mechanical electives, they take more difficult science electives like quantum physics.

Kamaroyl said...

Being a undergraduate in physics, these questions really scare me. I know PhD physicists who ended up in IT or telecom. Looking at the job market with only a B.S., it seems you're fairly screwed. No one knows what a physicist does, they just know that physics I and II were hard, and worthless to them.
Engineers are definitely on the same level as physicists as far as difficulty of the courses, though Comp sci is far easier than EE or ME.
Perhaps we become physicists because we like it, but the more I find out about things, the more I feel retarded for choosing it. A career in Engineering would have been far more useful, especially in application. There's far too much theory and not enough practical in the current physics programs; it seems that the purpose of the undergraduate degree is to get you up to speed so you can actually understand something when you go to grad school and not just prepare you for general problem solving and tool use.
At the same time, I think this is a question everyone comes across despite field; that their degree was perhaps worthless socially and career wise.

Unknown said...


I'm a sophomore studying EE and am in a class right now (semiconductor physics) that is all about quantum mechanics. I think how difficult a physics undergrad is very dependent on what university you go to, because the one at mine seems easier than the engineering curriculums. They need 7 less credits too. My school's physics program isn't known to be good though so it's probably that.

mikelrysk said...

I recently graduated with a BS in Physics, Mathematics and Computer Information Systems all at the same time. The reason I joined the Physics program was because i was interested in Electronics and there wasn't an engineering program at the university, I joined the CIS program because I enjoyed fooling around with computers and thought I was good at it, and finally I added Mathematics because I only needed 6 more classes to get the major. Do not recommend doing all three at the same time. I enjoyed physics immensely, however completing all three majors at the same time diminished the overall outcome of the degree. Sure I know a lot about this stuff, but I don't have any of it memorized and college seemed like you needed to memorize stuff in order to pass the classes. If I really need to memorize it then why do you let us use cheat sheets on tests?
Anyways, I work at a call center now and love it; don't have to think at all and I get to talk to different people all day. Still enjoy fooling around with electronics and computers and my education enhanced my understanding of what I want to do and where to look if I don't know the answer and it isn't called Wikipedia, even though it's a great reference. Just saying I wouldn't have minded going to graduate school, but my grades weren't impressive and after seven years of college, I was completely burned out. My friend is actually going back and getting a teaching degree online and he was a physicist with me.

Anonymous said...

In the vast majority of cases, a physics degree is harder to obtain than an engineering degree, but is far more useful. A physicist can get a job in literally any field they wish, unlike their engineering counterparts.
Many engineering grad programs prefer physics undergrad students to engineering undergrads, because it is easier to teach a physicist engineering than trying to get an engineer to understand physics.
Physicists study physics because they love it. They truly enjoy knowing and learning about how the world works. It would be very hard to get any physics degree without a love of the subject due to the somewhat "dry" or "useless" subject matter.
If you want to be a career physicist and actually do some real, meaningful research in a physics lab, you will almost certainly need a higher degree. Most career physicists have a PhD.
I agree with the earlier comment that learning programming and modeling would be very useful. I believe these skills are taught in most Physics undergrad programs. I learned programming in my physics classes, and the modeling in both physics and math classes I had to take for the Physics major.

Nick C said...

I was both a physics major and an chemical engineering major. It's not even close, the chemical engineering degree was far harder. While the material in the two majors was of roughly equal difficulty, the competition in engineering, the grading, and the sheer amount of work far exceeded that of the physics degree. Chemical engineering is indisputably one of the harder engineering disciplines though, mechanical or petroleum engineering would be closer to the difficulty of physics.

My school is top 25 in both fields.

Unknown said...

I would have to say that Physics is definitely harder than engineering. I could not see every engineering degree holder doing a physics degree but I could easily see a physicist doing an engineering degree.

I have wondered about the what do you do with a physics BSc for a long tome alright.I hold a BSc Astrophsyics, Hdip Mathematics, MSc Meteorology and have yet to see any industry jump out at me. That is with the exception of the met service but these days you need a PHd to get in the door there.

the problem is that physics is one of those non descript degrees. its not like a nursing degree or an accounting degree where you know your career path before you even take your first exam. For this reason too I think better direction in Physics programs is definitely needed. I know too many people with physics degrees who leave college wondering what the hell to do next. Its a shame but I have slowly realized that a physicist could do anything engineering,mathematical, IT,financial related and would be really good at it.

We all know how hard we worked during the undergrad degree and we all knew we worked more and harder than pretty much any other college course. For this reason I think we are quite capable of doing anything that anyone else in college is not going as a career.

To end I have to say I only did physics because I loved it any that was it. Its one of the few subjects out there where the majority of the class are just doing it out of love..nothing else. Makes for a great atmosphere!

Unknown said...

*For this reason I think we are quite capable of doing anything that anyone else in college doing going as a career.

Unknown said...

I received my B.S. in physics in 1974. This physics degree was considered the perfect background for a wide variety of physics and engineering graduate schools. I chose to pursue a Ph.D. in metallurgical engineering. I continue to enjoy my career as a government researcher in electronic materials

Unknown said...

I had an undergrad degree in Physics and a course based Physics graduate degree. I am working as an electrical engineer in a high tech company. I have earned my p.eng title from Canada and Hong Kong as well.
Physics does help you in engineering field and also get you a great career, but without persistence and luck (sometimes) you'll end up in a very poor position.

The Dude said...

not worth the effort, and you'll probably have to compete with engineers who are much better prepared to solve real world problems. You must have a Masters to find work at your liking otherwise you ill likely be unhappy.

Unknown said...

Because physics is more intensive