Domain Query: Careers for physicists

pumpsix is mulling over his options post-graduation:
The reason why I as is because I am plugging away at a degree in physics. I am just trying to figure out where I want to take it - definitely not academia. I am currently thinking about going into Econometrics, but I just don't know.
 There are actually quite a lot of good things about a degree in physics:

  1. You're actually studying a hard science, which means you'll walk out of your graduation ceremony clutching a piece of paper that is in fact worth something
  2. You're not afraid of a little (or a lot of) maths
  3. You'll know how to solve problems- difficult, challenging ones that require commitment and ingenuity
  4. With a bit of luck you've also done some computer programming during your degree
This is a rare combination these days, and it allows for quite a lot by way of postgraduate possibilities. I graduated with a joint degree in Maths and Economics (though I maintain to this day that the Economics part was a complete waste of time and money), which gave me rather a lot of options in retrospect:
  • I was actively looking for jobs in fields ranging from banking, to finance, to marketing, to consulting
  • I had an offer to do a Master's in England in Maths and theoretical computer science
  • I also had two offers to come here to the States and study mathematical finance
It so happens that I took the third option. I've not looked back since. I have no regrets whatsoever about doing my Master's degree, it gave me many of the skills and abilities that now make me the best at what I do in my organisation. And I would strongly recommend the same degree to anyone who wants to apply problem solving skills like the ones that physics majors routinely have to exhibit to difficult and complex products like financial derivatives.

There is also the possibility of doing a Master's in Actuarial Science. This is basically hard-core probability and statistics, without the economics mumbo-jumbo thrown in. I would argue that this is in fact much more useful. First, doing an MS in that subject allows you to skip the first couple of Actuarial Society exams, which is nice. Second, actuaries are in fact in demand right now- and they make good money. Modelling pension liabilities is an art as much as it is a science, and only actuaries are qualified enough to do it. It's also interesting work- I know this for a fact, my first job (which I hated) was as a risk management consultant within an actuarial consulting firm, so I worked alongside a lot of these guys. There's a lot of brainpower running around within pension funds, variable annuity hedging programs, asset-liability management groups, and consulting firms.

On the subject of econometrics- my disdain for the intersection between mathematics and economics is well known by now. I argue that you could get the exact same training and skills in hardcore statistics and probability while skipping over the nonsense by doing a Master's in statistics or actuarial science. If you must do econometrics, apply for a really hard course in the subject- this one, for instance, is a program that one of my best mates from college did, and it's possibly the hardest econometrics course in the world. Back in my day there were maybe 20 people out of Lord only knows how many applicants who got into that program; I looked over some of the game theory questions regarding Bayesian games of incomplete information once and was like, "what. the. f***. does this even mean???".

Studying physics, mathematics, or any other genuine hard science in university is the right starting point. What you do with the skills you pick up in a degree like that is up to you. It's important to recognise, though, that the bubble of academia may well filter out a lot of interesting career possibilities that don't seem obvious at first, but do result in good jobs and interesting and rewarding careers.


  1. Thanks, mate.

    I don't know if I was too rude in changing the subject from what you do for a living onto this topic. If I caused offence, I apologies.

    So, basically, Masters is the only real way to progress? If I am going to do Masters I was thinking of Geophysics/Geology/Hydrophysics - I live in Aus, so the mining industry is big (well, it's going down the shitter - but it should pick up in 20-30 years after the second Great Depression, FML).

    I will start learning a computer language or three, now-ish. When I finish up I will try and find a computer programming gig, while assessing further education from there.

    I just like the idea of fixing problems, whatever they are. That's the main reason why I chose physics to begin with. I didn't want to box myself into a single profession.

    1. I'm never offended by intelligent questions asked politely by inquisitive people. No worries mate.

      I do not think that a Master's degree is your only choice. It's just a useful qualification- provided you do it in a field that is actually in demand. I did a Master's degree because:

      a) I really liked Maths (still do)
      b) I was good at it
      c) I actually wanted to do it

      One of the best choices of my life. That doesn't mean EVERYONE should do it. It just happened to work for me. If you want to do a Master's, by all means go ahead, but do so for the right reasons- because you want to, because it'll make you highly employable, and because you won't graduate with lots of debt.

      If you're after a computer language, I recommend Javascript, Python, or VBA. MATLAB and R are also great scripting languages which I imagine you'll pick up pretty quickly, they are very easy to learn. I love R, for instance- fantastic language for statistics, mathematics, and graphics. VBA is a toy language and bloody dangerous in the wrong hands, but very much in demand; it's also extremely easy to learn. And the great thing about learning programming languages is that once you pick up one, you'll find others very easy to learn.

      BTW where in Oz are you? I used to live in Sydney, years ago.

    2. Ok, cool cool. These decisions are a while off, so I have a bit of time to think.

      I live in Perth.

  2. Avoid any graduate programs in Economics. They are just mathematics courses taught by people who dropped out of graduate math programs. Also, a graduate degree in Economics will make you pretty much unemployable...


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