A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication

Physics PhDs advise students how to land jobs outside academia

10/06/11

SLAC Today published this story on Oct. 6, 2011.

Physics Ph.D.s who – by choice or by chance – don't get an academic appointment can still find opportunities to use their skills in good, interesting, fulfilling jobs, according to four panelists at an event last week for SLAC and Stanford graduate students and postdocs.

Left to right: Chris Barnes, Stanford and SLAC '07, late of Solyndra; Samantha Edgington, Caltech '07, now at Lockheed; Paul Doherty, MIT '74, Exploratorium and Klutz Press; and Googler Ed Wu, Stanford '09. These four physicists counseled SLAC and Stanford graduate students and post-doctoral researchers on how to get a job.

All four speakers had worked in private industry. And each of them stressed that physicists, whether theoretical or experimental, have valuable analytical and often software skills, and many experimental physicists have experience with building instrumentation. According to the panelists, all that's needed to make employers aware of these abilities is preparation, perseverance and an open mind.

"I can tell you from experience that preparation helps," said Stanford alum Ed Wu ('09), who was hired by the RAND Corporation, a public policy think tank, four weeks after Lehman Brothers collapsed. He currently works at Google as a software engineer. "Most candidates have a fatalistic attitude – either the job's meant to be or not, like a marriage,” he said. “They clearly haven't prepared."

It's never too early to start, added Chris Barnes (Stanford, '07, and SLAC), and late of Solyndra. "The time to acquire the specific skills is when you're still in school and can take classes,” he said. Some of the panelists focused on programming skills as a good example, but Exploratorium Senior Scientist Paul Doherty (MIT, '74), said it never hurts to expand your physics problem-solving repertoire, as well.

The panel was organized by the SLAC Association for Student Seminars, best-known around SLAC for organizing weekly student-delivered talks on research and other topics.

"This event was the first of its kind and we're eager at SASS to extend our group's activities to provide more resources for SLAC students," said Catherine Graves, former SASS czar and one of the organizers of the Sept. 28 event. It was attended by more than 40 graduate students and post-doctoral researchers who are usually so busy with data gathering, number crunching, thesis or paper writing, conferences, and more that they have little time to focus on what comes after the degree: actually getting a job.

Whatever you do, the panelists said, make sure the right words are on your resume. Wu recommended learning the "vocabulary" of the industry of interest. Barnes emphasized including practical, hands-on experience: "I built this. I coded that."

After all, said Lockheed systems engineer Samantha Edgington (Caltech, '04), an image of Ph.D.s as impractical, ivory-tower dreamers persists in industry. "Oh, you've got a Ph.D.? You can't do anything useful."

Which got the panel talking about perseverance. "Nobody knows they need a physicist," said Wu.

Edgington agreed: "Industry still thinks they need electrical engineers, or software engineers, or mechanical engineers."

Perseverance can break down that that barrier, Wu continued. For example, getting a resume in front of the right person can result in an opportunity to demonstrate skills, not titles. "If you have the skills, employers won't care if it says 'physicist' at the top of a resume," he said. And put those resumes in everywhere; paper job fairs with them, Wu said.

Barnes suggested bypassing human resources as much as possible, for the simple reason that recruiters must follow job descriptions which contain such dreaded labels as E.E., S.E., or M.E. – or specify a B.S. or M.S. degree instead of a Ph.D. "Find the highest-level technical person – but not too high, or they won't write back," he said. "Keep guessing at their email addresses until you get it right. It's usually not too hard." In that email, stress practicality: "I'm versatile, I know how to think – hire me."

All the panelists recommended networking – but for that effort to pay off, being on good terms with other graduate students or post-doctoral researchers on a project is a must. Doherty got his first job on the recommendation of a fellow student at MIT. He also spoke of hiring two scientists to work at the Exploratorium on the recommendations of two former professors. "And I didn't regret either one," he said.

But while preparation and perseverance are necessary to finding a job outside academia, keeping an open mind might be the key to finding a satisfying job. As Doherty tells it, a mountain-climbing trip after graduation led to a personal epiphany: "It occurred to me that I was a physics teacher." A research stint at SRI in Palo Alto led to his discovery of the Exploratorium. And as the resident Ph.D. who is willing to travel, Doherty has gone to places with "germs and bullets and erupting volcanoes. I really have an exciting life as a physicist," he said.

According to Edgington, another point to keep in mind is that going into industry is not selling out. "I just wanted to be the person who builds the stuff that goes into space and observes things," she said. Even though Edgington admitted to having "no idea what a systems engineer was" when she was hired, her job at Lockheed enables her to do precisely that.

"You can have a fulfilling job in industry, and it's OK," Edgington said. "It's not going to be this horrible place where nothing happens. It's not the end of your dream in physics – it's the beginning of a wonderful job in life."

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