As a Physicist You're Always a Career Changer

Transitioning from studying physics into the industry isn't easy, mostly because there is no “physical industry” akin to the chemical industry. You always change careers and often it is on you to motivate this change to employers.

In Summer 2020 I've finished my PhD in theoretical/computational hadron physics. What I did there was fundamental research on things which aren't going to be relevant for daily life any time soon. From my perspective my work was around computing a few more significant digits for some process which also happens in the Large Hadron Collider to figure out some basic things of nature. It was nice, but it didn't hold my interest in itself.

What really got my interest during university were the computational methods employed there. I learned a bunch of stuff about computers, CPUs, GPUs and high bandwidth interconnects. Also I learned about high performance computing and got a fair share of practical application of it there. Those are the transferrable skills that I got there.

In the industry there are no jobs for hadron physicists. The clostest might be nuclear power engineers and nuclear weapon engineers. I wasn't trained in either of these, I looked at different parts of hadron physics. Also there is no nuclear industry in Germany, therefore this wasn't an option either. So I knew I needed to do something else.

And this “something else” is the thing with the change of careers. I needed to figure out what jobs there are and how my skills transfer to that. This is a pretty hard thing and I would like to give some pointers on how to do that.

As physicists we have a mix of analytic skills and some basic to advanced ability to program. One has to be honest with the programming experience. There are people who have done heavy analytic work and little with programming. Those will have a rather hard time to land a software engineering job because they just lack the experience. The ones with more programming experience will have it somewhat easier.

Let's focus on software engineering. There are people who have studied computer science. These know more about software engineering theory than a physicist does. Then there are people who have done job training (Ausbildung) to be a programmer. These people have hands-on experience basically from the start. And also they are in a lower salary bracket. Now take the perspective of an employer who needs a programmer. Would you prefer a computer scientist, a trained programmer or a physicist who did an unknown amount of programming during their studies? You can see that the physicist will have to sell their other skills in order to be competitive here.

What one has to do is to emphasize with the employer and try to anticipate what they need. And then help them connect the dots. Tell them what programming experience you have and also try to mention things that are relevant in the industry like working in a team, getting code into a production state. Fixing bugs, stabilizing and operationalizing software and especially other people's code in a large codebase are bug advantages. University code can be small contraptions or large-scale collaborative things. Employers who are looking for a software engineer have a hard time to assess the quality of the university work if they are not told about it in the cover letter.

If one doesn't have that much programming experience, a job where one can use the analytic skills would fit better. Here one needs to compete against other people with analytic skills like mathematicians and also computer scientists. Chemists also have a fair amount of analytic training and enter the same market. A typical job with that skillset is consulting. There are strategy and implementation consulting firms, the former is more analytic whereas the latter is more hands-on. There the problem is again that physics isn't applicable but other skills like leadership, self-organization and management become the core. This has to be made clear in the cover letter and demonstrated with acomplishments during the course of study.

In the end, physicists are career changers no matter which job they pick in the industry. The formal training of a physicist only enables one to pursue the academic path of the physicist. Everything else has a certain distance that one needs to gap. People who are already in the industry have gathered industry experience and are therefore directly more attactive to employers. It is very hard to compete with people who already have job experience.

Therefore it is very hard to land the first job as a physicist. But once one has entered the industry, subsequent moves will likely become easier.