By Danny Rogers
When I was a grad student about to enter the job market a couple years ago, I attended a panel session at an American Physical Society meeting about non-traditional careers for physicists. The first speaker, Don Engel, described a realization he had had while he was a grad student. One day he looked around at his lab mates and counted seven other students and four post-docs, all working for one relatively senior professor. In all, he counted 12 people being trained to take over one job.
The math didn’t work out. The job ads seem to indicate that academic positions outnumber industrial ones 3 to 1. And yet, with all of these students and post-docs competing for one professor’s job, where were the other 11 going to go?
If they aren’t entering academia after graduation, where are all of these other jobs to which they’re flocking? We don’t hear about a lot of unemployed physicists, even in these challenging economic times. It is a legitimate question that should dawn on every student as they near the end of grad school.
What is the lesson for new job seekers?
Be creative. Most of us begin our searches in the same place—with our advisers. However, more often than not, our advisers’ advice simply reflects their own career paths, which always have the same ending: an academic professorship. To fully consider your options, think more broadly and creatively. What kinds of jobs outside of academic science would benefit from someone with your unique skill set? What other interests of yours, whether food or fashion or finance, have a strong scientific or mathematical component that you may not have considered?
Be open-minded. Try searching mainstream job boards like Monster.com or SimplyHired.com for science-related positions, and be open to opportunities that may not be what you initially had in mind. I recently had lunch with a senior scientist for Tropicana. You know, the juice company? Turns out there is a lot more science to producing fresh-tasting orange juice year-round than simply building a giant factory full of squeezing machines.
Market yourself. Bill yourself as a scientist who can do math. Point out that what you really learned in grad school was not just your thesis topic, but the ability to deeply analyze and excel in challenging new subjects.
Be persistent. Even through you may apply for literally dozens of jobs, and you may be rejected from many, you only need one. Check your ego and keep trying.
Match who you are with what you do. Academia is about scholarship and teaching, so before simply being herded in that direction, think carefully about whether it would be a good fit for your personality. Are you willing to put up with the lower pay and long, uncertain track to tenure? Do you like teaching young people? If not, industry may be more suitable. However, industry often requires a faster pace, longer hours, and broader communications and management skills than we typically learn in graduate school. Other options might include public policy, science communications, and entrepreneurship. Which options plays best to your strengths?
Network, network, network. Instead of limiting your search to the back pages of Physics Today, look around and, more important, ask around. What are the “other 11” you know doing after graduate school?
Don’t try to write the story of your career before it has happened, and don’t be afraid to become one of the other 11—I did, and I have never looked back.
Danny Rogers (firstname.lastname@example.org) graduated with his Ph.D. in chemical physics from the University of Maryland in 2008. He is currently a member of the professional staff at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md., U.S.A. For more advice from Danny, read his related column in the Career Focus column of Optics & Photonics News this October.