From Computational Physics Research to an Industry Job

I am now at the end of my PhD program and have transitioned into the free economy. Other PhD students have done so already, and I have benefited immensively from their experiences. In the spirit of this website I want to share the things that I have learned and pass them on. There a myriads of guides for job seekers in the internet. Most of the are rather generic, and will try to skip these. This post will only contain things which are relevant for people who have a background very similar to mine.

The PhD program can be seen as the qualifying period to do a career in research. If you want to persue a career in the free economy, it might be more sensible to do that right after the Master's degree. I for instance had a high interest in doing more physics research after the Master's thesis, but I desired more practical applications after I have completed the PhD thesis. Additionally the outlook of a career in academic research did not appeal to me that much. This is something that you have to identify for yourself. But if you want to move into the free economy, then this article might be for you.

Be sure to start early enough. I have started to look at the market around eight months before I wanted to start in the industry, and have written the first formal application five months prior. It takes a bit of time to learn how all this works, how a proper cover letter is written and which positions and companies are on the market.

Identifying your strengths

In private enterprises, the value proposition of an employee is different than it is in research. You will have different tasks, and almost certainly it will be more applied than in research. Even if you aim for a research & development position, you will do more applied research than at the university. Therefore one needs to look at the transferable skills that one can bring into a company.

  • These is for instance programming. Which programming languages are you good at? Do you know certain libraries? Are there special tools that you have experience with? Did you use a Linux, Windows or macOS ecosystem?

  • Then there are implicit analytic skills that one picks up while studying physics. These skills are rather valuable, although they feel a bit intangible. But do note that you have them.

  • Some research groups can get away without much statistics, other groups routinely do a bunch of it. Identify how much statistics you are familiar with, and which methods you have. Typical skill requirements I saw in job postings where time series analysis, regression, signal processing or Monte Carlo methods. Perhaps you have done some machine learning already?

  • Visualizing data is an important skill, it is a technical skill but also a communicative skill. If you can present data in intuitive ways, it is a skill.

  • Project management and responsibility for other employees is something that can be transfered to the industry. Most companies are project based, and therefore it is good to have already worked in projects. In this sense a Master's thesis or a paper is a project and should be noted as such.

  • Taking care of computers is often needed at an university workplace. Depending on the depth of the task, this can also be a skill.

There are certainly more of them, I just listed the ones that I have found for myself.

Finding out what you want

Now that you have the skills, you need to map it to a company job. There are usually a few job profiles (in general) which have an overlap with your skills. In this case you need to identify which track you want to persue. Sometimes it is possible to find jobs which require more than one of your core skills (say programming and statistics) at the same time, making you a stronger candidate for that job.

Common jobs for theoretical physicists are software developer, data scientist and consultant. The first emphasises the programming skills, the second the data analysis skills and the last the analytic skills. There are combinations of these, but there are some other ones as well. I know one who became an actuary at an insurance company.

There are many different companies out there. There are a few factors by which you can categorize them:

  • Are they a product or a service company? A product company will develop some product and sell that to customers. You generally work on-site and improve the product and develop new features. You get a sense of ownership in the product. The technologies you work with are the ones used in the product, so you might learn now things, or you might stagnate.

Service companies either send out consultants to their customers, or at least work on customer projects. You will be able to look into various projects over the time, peek into various industries and get a much better overview of the market.

  • Some companies are working remotely only. You will get a computer and other equipment to use at home. This way you can live whereever you want, and you can move without changing your job. But then you will meet the team only virtually, which might not be right for everyone.

  • Do you want to travel to customers? This can be quite appealing to some people who are keen on travel. There are different levels. Some consulting companies do something which is called “5-4-3”, which means working five days per week for the client, working four days at the client's site, spending three nights in a hotel. This can be cool, but it could also be that the client just wants a particular number of faces there. Depending on your life outside of work, this lifestyle is something which works, works for a few years, or does not work at all. Other service companies have less travel, and only go to the client during kickoff and finalization. Some companies pay travel time as work time, others don't.

  • Depending on the sector, you will have the latest technologies or a legacy stack where no modernization is planned. Being ahead of the technology wave means that one lacks documentation and experience in the field, lagging behind will mean that you don't get to use the cool new features. For instance with C++, you can work with a company using C++17 and moving to C++20 soon, or with a company having C++03 code which shall stay this way.

  • I have seen companies where everything is Microsoft based. Some may use Linux for development but have Windows for everything else. Others do everything with macOS. And yet others are pure Linux companies. If this is important to you, this needs to be taken into account as well.

  • The current size of the company as well as the growth rate also provides an interesting measure. There are small to medium companies who have found their nieche and do not grow so much. There you find a stable environment and usually they are highly profitable. Then there are start-ups which are really small (say 20 people) and rapidly growing. There one has a really relaxed atmosphere, but one has to be a tad careful that the hype might fail at some point. This is hard to tell from an outside perspective, I think. Then there are corporations, they are said to be really slow and inert. Some of them have implemented a start-up like environment, which can be authentic for some and strange for others. Generally the larger corporations pay more, but it can also be harder to find a job there.

  • Are there things that you do not want to do? There are jobs in gambling, defense and surveilance that one can take. One just needs to be clear up front before accepting an offer whether one has the moral to do that.

  • What is the time a week that you want to work? Some companies offer 38 h/week, others have 45 h/week. Certain jobs pay more, but you will need to put in much more time. Finding a serious position with just 20 h/week is hard, part-time jobs are usually not offered to specialists.

There are likely more factors that you can look at. It might make sense to write down the things that you want to have in a job.

One should have some salary expectations, most of the time one is asked to submit it with the application. In order to get some idea, one can start looking at the public sector. In research, the post-docs get an TV-L E13 position, and that has a certain wage associated with it. The free economy tends to pay more, and has less job security. One can also ask other people for their wage, but a lot of employees must not tell you. You can still ask them to give some range which you can use in applications.

Finding job offers

Actually finding job offers is not that trivial. There are large platforms like StepStone, Indeed and networks like LinkedIn and XING which feature job postings. Some of them are redundantly posted, some are exclusive to one of the platforms. I have had good experience with search notifications on StepStone and Indeed and just browing through those networks on occasion.

Job postings are often expired on these platforms. There are certain companies who just post their offers every week such that they are on the top of the list. But then ther is a huge backlog of expired postings that they do not delete. One always has to check whether one can actually apply for a job.

I found that applying sooner than later is always good. Sometimes the HR department gets so many applications within the first couple of days that they take down the job posting from the platform.

On the networks I have regularly been contacted by independent recruiters with job offers. Most directly told me which company the job was with, others did not tell me directly. In general one finds that such recruiters seem overly friendly and also very optimistic about your chances with a job. They get a commission when you get the job via them, so their incentive for them is to make sure that you get the job. The problem is that the jobs that they offer are usually not the best ones. If a company has a great job, they don't need the help of an independent recruiter to find suitable candidates. So be careful there. The job might require a lot of travel, which wears out employees and end up with a high turnover. Or the industry is a really unappealing one, and good candidates usually look for more prestigious causes.

Some companies only post their jobs on their own website. If you therefore want to work with some particular company, take a look at their website.

Writing an application

For almost all jobs, you need to have a cover letter, a CV and your diplomas and grade transcripts. I have used pdfunite to create a single PDF with my master, bachelor and high school diplomas and grade transcripts. Then I used GhostScript to make that file much smaller and with uniform quality.

gs -sDEVICE=pdfwrite -dCompatibilityLevel=1.4 -dPDFSETTINGS=/prepress -dNOPAUSE -dQUIET -dBATCH -sOutputFile=supplements-small.pdf supplements.pdf

This way I had a file with 2.5 MB, which you can easily upload or attach via e-mail.

The biggest negative that one has as a fresh graduate is the lack of job experience. And although it seems obvious that a graduate did not have a chance to aquire it, a lot of companies turn down fresh graduates basically on principle. It is common in certain fields to already do internships while one is studying, but I haven't. An internship must be paid with minimum wage unless it is part of the curriculum of an university. Basically it will be hard to get an internship if you course of study does not explicitly contains it. So you cannot gain job experience this way, but you need to have it to start.

Here you need to have a solid list of your skills. Of course you were studying, but in your thesis project you likely did a couple of things really well. And you must mention these things, otherwise employers will not know about it. If you just have “PhD in physics” in your CV, employers will assume that you just did physics and nothing relevant for the industry.

In the CV you should add a bunch of bullet points and write about things that you did there and why they are outstanding. A recruiter gave me the following advice:

  • Have 1/2 sentences describing your role, then have achievement-based bullet points.
  • Use the CAR method with your bullet points, and try to quantify results and the impact they made to the business where you can. Keep it relevant.

As a PhD student one officially is a research assistant (Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter). In that capacity one works on side projects in the work group, helps master students, publishes papers and teaches a bit. All these things can be put into the CV as bullet points. The employer does not know what you did, you need to explicitly write the things, even if they seem obvious to you.

You can lead the CV with this job experience, and then have your education below that. It might look like you are cheating here. But if you have done things that are comparable to tasks in a company, they should be listed as such, I think. Mention the projects that you did, what outcome they had, which technologies you have used.

In the cover letter you need to write everything that it important about you. Remember that the employer only knows your cover letter and CV. Colleagues and friends know a lot more, but the employer just does not. So introduce yourself, keeping it relevant. Play the recruiter for a moment, think about the questions you would have for a potential candidate in the company. I for instance learned that my physics research just does not matter in the industry. Although it defines me at the university, it is not my most important qualification at a software company. There I would lead with the programming projects I have done, the languages I know and the techniques and technologies that I can apply.

You also have to mention obvious things. I hated that in German and English classes, but you really have to:

  • Write why you want to work at that particular company. It may seem obvious to you, but they want to know your motivation.
  • The analytic skills from physics allow a quick grasp on new concepts. It is not obvious that people are willing and able to learn now things on a daily basis. For students it is, but not for everyone.
  • Working independently is something that has been proven with a PhD thesis, but an employer might not directly see it in this way. Also if you did not mention it in the cover letter, you perhaps aren't able to.
  • Writing a PhD thesis sometimes requires long days of work, putting in lots of effort. This needs to be mentioned as well.
  • Teamwork is not obvious either. Not all people can establish relationships with coworkers, so this is a skill again.
  • Being open to criticism and striving to improve.
  • Communicating complex things in a way tailored for the target audience.

For each company, the cover letter needs to be tailored. The first one taskes a lot of time, but one will get faster over time. Eventually one has a few nice sentences and can combine them. I always asked myself: If the recruiter reads that letter, do I want to add something? And if not, I feel that I have mentioned the most important facts about me.

One should let somebody else check the cover letter. Let relatives or friends read it, check for spelling and grammar mistakes. Although one might still get invited with a few mistakes in the letter, they are easy to avoid. The University of Bonn has a Career Center which offers checks for applications.

Depending on the job offers that one tries, one has to write a bunch of applications. Unfortunately not all companies answer, some just never come back. Others take a lot of time, and few are really quick in the response.

I recommend taking notes on the progress with each company. A free text format works rather well, with one paragraph per company. Just write half-sentences and the date, this way you know which company has answered, scheduled an interview and so on.

Interview process

One can find endless guides on job interviews. They usually feature recommendations for stock questions like “What is your greatest weakness?”. I found that technology companies never ask those questions. All interviews were really honest, straightforward and felt like a two-way conversation. There might be industries where you need to prepare for such questions, but in the realm of software development and data science I have not encountered them.

There usually is a phone screening at first, the HR person will want to talk to you for like half an hour. Then some technical interview is scheduled where they will verify your skills a bit. The process after that depends on the company. Some will give you a little project that you have to present at the next meeting. Others do just more rounds of interviews with increasingly senior people. And others will already introduce your future coworkers to you.

In all this there is no need to be afraid. Although parts might appear like an oral examination, it was more a two-way conversation where one wants to see whether it is a good fit for both. I was asked some programming questions, but it was always rather fun and did not feel pressured. Nobody asked me any trick questions. And I have always answered honestly to the questions because there is no point in pretending anything. Either you fit the job and the job fits you, or it does not. Even if one manages to pass the interviews with pretenses, these lies will quickly become apparent in the qualifying period.

The application process has different speed with various companies. It may be that one gets a reply within a few days, other companies take six weeks to write an initial reply. One needs to be a bit patient there and start applying early enough to have the dream job ready when you want it.

If you are turned down, it might be a for a variety of reasons. It could be that you don't match the formal qualifications, other candidates have more pertinent job experience or that you just did not seemed like a good fit into the team. It could even be that you are overqualified and the recruiter is afraid of a bore-out and you leaving the company soon after. In all of these cases, you will not get any useful feedback. They will just tell you that they are sorry to not give you an offer. They do this for legal reasons. If they give you a reason, you have leverage to sue them for the job. Unfortunately this means that you will have a hard time improving your cover letters. I found it helpful to call the recruiters via phone, such that it is off the record, and politely ask how one can improve. Some will still not say anything, others will provide some more insight.

Conclusion

The first job after studying supposedly is the hardest one to get. I have benefited from the experience of other PhD students in this process. I hope my experience can be useful to you. If you have questions, you can just send me an e-mail and I will try to answer.