Advice For Physics Majors (a serious article, for once)

“Somebody, anybody, hire me!!!”

A brief word on the working world, and getting a job

“Brief”, because there’s no way I’m going to turn this into a physics career help site — it’s long enough as it is, isn’t it? I’m not qualified to give a long exposition on every detail of the job search, but I did want to pass along a few ideas that worked for me. If you’ve gotten to this point in the essay, you’re presumably in the same boat I was in — as a new physics grad, inexperienced in the job market, who probably never even did an internship, much less a true industry job. How do you switch gears from academia to the job hunt, especially considering the poor-to-absent help from most physics departments in this area? If you’re like I was, you probably have lots of questions and a couple misconceptions.

Generally, most of the same lessons you’ve learned so far will apply to the job hunt — do your homework, research prospective companies as much as you can, and invest time in figuring out exactly what it is you want to do. You are now going to sell yourself to a company, much the same way you sold yourself to colleges or grad schools. Your grades, past experience, independent research, and personal recommendations will all be examined again. Rising in importance this time, however, is the one-page summary of your worth as a human being, the resume. You will also have to adjust to the greater concentration on applied skills and work experience — proving that you can do the job you interview for is tantamount, and so employers will look most closely at what you’ve done in the past similar to the current job.

One big surprise for me was how little clout the physics degrees carried with potential employers. I expected people to recognize my great genius and hire me on the spot, even without any relevant work experience. “After all, I did a physics major, so I can handle whatever measly little job comes my way, right? All they have to do is train me — I’m practically doing them a favor!” I thought to myself. What a rude awakening… You aren’t going to get hired at Microsoft just because you got cum laude in a physics major, and listing your fifteen papers in gravitiation on your resume won’t help much for that database programming job. Of course the physics major is impressive, but employers are looking for more — generally employers don’t hire under the assumption that you are “eminently trainable”.

And why should they? You may not be! Plenty of ex-physicists don’t cut it in other jobs, because they get bored, can’t take direction, insist on their own opinion — in general behave as if they were still in academia. The brilliant mathematical theorist may just plain stink at web page coding. In fact many employers may have been burnt by ex-physicists before. I got my first job despite the interviewer’s misgivings about my background — she mentioned that about half of all physicists she hired couldn’t succeed at the job. You absolutely positively have to do your best to prove that you can excel at the job they want you to do — the more concrete evidence, the better.

Call me Jack, Jack OfAllTrades.

This brings me back to what I said earlier, about how physics isn’t really by itself an industry trade. If you’re job hunting with a physics degree, the reality of that just might be setting in now. You at this point might have a beef with what I’ve said, with my suggestion that a physics degree alone is not enough preparation for the job market. When people list the advantages of a physics degree, near the top of the list is it’s flexibility — a physicist has exposure to a wide range of topics, a broad set of skills, and is at least ideally trainable to do just about every science. This is all true — physicists are great people to have around the workplace, for just this reason. But in my personal experience, the broad range of skills and flexibility are more of a benefit in a job, after you’ve already joined a company and begin to make yourself useful.

When I was trying to get the job, the breadth didn’t do nearly as much for me as my specific skills, skills directly related to the job I was applying for. Now that I’m inside a company, I find that my physics background keeps me from being pigeonholed — but in order to get the job, I needed to show that I was “pigeonhole-able”, if you get my drift. It’s handy to be known as someone who fits into multiple niches at a company, but you need to be able to fit in at least one well enough to get hired. Also keep in mind that when you apply for a particular job you’re competing against people who aren’t broadly trained — your competitors might be narrow one-trick-ponies, but that don’t mean squat if they can do that trick better than you.

Further reading

Again, I’m not going to give comprehensive advice here on the job hunt — this will just be a small taste, a couple bits of advice I want to pass on.There’s no way I’m going to give interviewing advice, discussion of industries or companies to work for, or detailed resume help — you’ve got a lot of homework you’ll have to do on your own for that. Let me instead give you the names of a few books I found pretty helpful, who can do a better job at this sort of thing:

— Jobs That Don’t Suck, by Charlie Drozdyk. Good no-bull advice on getting the job and acting professionally when you got one. His advice boils down to “be proactive, don’t be an idiot, and act like an adult!” But worded much better, and with loads of good advice.
— Ask The Headhunter, by Nick A. Corcodilos. When I try to explain his main point, it winds up sounding like common sense. But his approach, like Drozdyk’s, breaks out of the rut that most other guidebooks push you into, centered on your main task: proving to your potential employer that you can do the specific job they want you to do. He’s a bit repetitive, but I think that’s because he’s trying to break us job hunters from some very-ingrained bad habits.
— Alternative Careers in Science, edited by Cynthia Robbins-Roth. A good informative collection of essays by people who have left the traditional academic-professorship career track.
— Career Renewal, by Stephen Rosen and Celia Paul. Geared toward scientists and technical people.

Check these out — and I’m not getting paid to mention them, by the way. (I’m not getting paid at all, in fact!)

The resume — hope you like to talk about yourself

Where do you think I got so good at talking about myself? I’m no expert in crafting and judging resumes, but I wanted to mention a resume approach described in detail in the books I mentioned above. My first strategy for the job hunt, which I thought seemed pretty reasonable, was to work up one generic all-inclusive resume and cover letter and mail it out to every company that seemed remotely relevant. The resume would go to, say, 100 to 500 companies, with the hope that somewhere, someplace, I’d happen to match the profile of some job well enough to get an interview. The vast majority of the resumes would be wasted, but maybe 2 or 3 percent of them would trigger an interest. I’m now convinced that this method is too passive, leaves too much up to fate, that a more proactive approach can get you a better job.

(note — at some point I’d like to post some example resumes, showing how my resume evolved with time — stay tuned!)

Why leave it up to the hiring managers to do the work in deciding if you’re right for a job or not? Do the work yourself — do some investigative work, and find a short list of 10-20 companies that you really want to work for. Get to know them inside and out, figure out which of their openings you’re qualified for, and write individual, targeted resumes for each of the job openings. Get down and dirty — take each of the requirements listed in the job opening and put them in your resume and cover letter — make it mind-numbingly easy for the hiring manager to check off each requirement that you fulfill. This approach requires a great deal of homework and research, so it’s a lot more time consuming. Months went by between my decision to get an industry job and the first resume I sent out. I literally had separate, tailored resumes for each position I applied for — multiple resumes even within one company. In hard numbers, I believe I sent resumes out to roughly 20 or so job openings, for about six or seven companies, and out of those I was offered two interviews. Not bad, I thought — much better response rate than if I had done the scattershot approach. The difference, I believe, is that I invested my time into just the few openings I really fit, and so boosted my chances at them much higher than if I had mailed them my generic one-size-fits-all resume. I look at it as maximizing the probability of success into just a few options, rather than spreading it out among hundreds — it may be more risky, but at least from my perspective, the risk was more than rewarded by the results. (Of course this is a case of N = 1, so maybe my evidence isn’t all that compelling. So I hope my arguments convince you a bit better…)

Am I starting to sound repetitive? This method is the same in spirit (if not in details) to getting into grad school. Do giant amounts of research on schools (companies), to figure out where it is you really want to study (work). Make your decision based on the research (job) — choose above all the research (job) you really want to do. Tailor your application (resume and cover letter) to the school (job), making sure you spell out exactly how you match up to the type of research (work) being done. Make it blindingly obvious why you’d be a great match for them. To make a long story short4, convince yourself utterly and absolutely of what it is that you want to do, and then start convincing the people in charge of hiring/accepting you.

Chicken Soup for the Physicist’s Soul

I’m heading into dangerously preachy waters here… with my dangerously shaky metaphors, it might be a rough ride. “Homework” doesn’t end when you leave school — you’re going to be assigned a lot of it when you look for a job, and even more when you get one. The big difference from school is that you aren’t given a set list of problems to do. It’s up to you to find what homework needs to be done, and to do it. Your reward isn’t better grades, it’s finding and keeping your job. The hardest adjustment I’ve had to make, both in getting through grad school and in the workplace, is the disappearance of a structure of homework, classes, grades, etc. from which to judge how I am progressing. In school, the hoops you need to jump through are pretty much laid out in front of you. Beyond school, the responsibility is on your shoulders.

And be careful with that physics attitude. Once you get that job, you may get antsy, think the job is not challenging enough for you, think you’re above doing the kind of work they give you. You’re probably right. But so what? You’re being paid to do a job, and you need to either do it or get out. It’s not your employer’s responsibility to appease you with work worthy of your abilities. Do what they ask of you, do it well. Whining, complaining, and skirting your responsibilities is not the way to get the more interesting work. It’s okay to be arrogant, and demand to be treated with respect, but you have to be very valuable to the company to pull off arrogance successfully. Most physicists entering the job market (me included) have an overinflated sense of their value to the company.

Let’s get back to talking about me: specifically, two anecdotes to show what I mean. First, the anecdote that makes me look good. Back in that undergraduate advanced lab class I keep talking about (see above), I got stuck on an atomic force microscope for one of the three required experiments. The thing didn’t work very well — its computer was a mess, the probe tips were all bent, it basically wasn’t capable of doing the experiment it was supposed to do. In my less mature days, I might have blown off the experiment, maybe even dropped the class. “The teacher doesn’t care enough to get working equipment,” I’d whine, “so why should I care enough to work hard on the experiment?” Instead, I kept at the dang thing for a couple more weeks. Sure enough, after a lot of sweat and tears, it still couldn’t do the experiment. So I said so — in my report, I explained what it is I could do, why it couldn’t do the required work, and what needed to be done to fix it. Guess what? That’s what the teacher was looking for — I got the good grade, even without the experimental result. Sure, the teacher could have put more work into fixing the thing, but he didn’t — and he was the one giving out the grade. My “job” as a good student is to do the best with whatever situation is in front of me, not to whine and weasel out of what I feel is a flawed experiment. You could argue that there’s a bit of “teacher’s pet” to this attitude, which you may rebel against. But there’s a subtle difference between a teacher’s pet and acting professionally — you don’t have to agree with everything the teacher (or boss) hands at you, but you still have an assignment (or job) to do.

Of course I’ve been guilty of whining, complaining, and not doing my job like I should — maybe that anecdote above stands out in my mind because I actually got it right for once. I’ve already mentioned my pathetic attempt at undergraduate research, but now let me talk about my last job. It was with a science-software firm, and had a lot of interesting work being done by very smart people. One guy in particular was doing some really cool stuff, and I continually tried to get into his group to work with him. Every so often, I’d ask him if he had any work I could help him with, but there was hardly ever anything I was qualified to do. After a while, I became discouraged — I really wanted to get experience in this particular field. But I didn’t have any experience in it, and therein lies the rub — I just didn’t know enough to be useful to him. I expected that he would “recognize my genius”, let me in the group, and teach me the subject matter as I went along. But he’s not going to have time for that, of course! What I needed to do was learn the area on my own, and come to him with something to offer — I needed to get the skills to work in the group, which meant… homework.

My point is, don’t lay back and wait for the academic or career world to hand you your dream career. You’re on your own. Make the most of opportunities that come your way, and do the best job you can at what you’re doing now — you never know who might be watching, deciding whether to entrust you with something cooler…

4. Too late!


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