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Careers outside of academia

The problem-solving skills necessary to succeed in physics are sought after in a wide range of technology, financial, and industrial sectors. 

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Skills from physics

Training in physics provides students with skills that have enormous value to potential non-academic employers. The challenge often lies in communicating this value to the employer.

A university career service (like University of Waterloo’s Centre for Career Action) can work with you to appropriately translate your skills using language tailored to your specific training and the desired position.

To get you started, here is a list of some of the valuable skills you might acquire during physics graduate studies.

Grad students can get involved in organizing local conferences, hosting visitors in their research group, and running student events. They learn the ins-and-outs of event logistics, including booking rooms for talks, making accommodation reservations, interacting with university administration staff, and more.

Teaching assistantships are part of most graduate programs, and often require leading tutorials and grading student work. A teaching assistant for an undergraduate class is responsible for giving lessons, answering questions, and managing the learning styles of many students. Student committees offer another way for postgraduate students to develop leadership skills.

Grad school requires juggling many competing priorities: doing research, writing journal articles, attending courses, submitting homework, preparing tutorials, grading assignments, organizing committee meetings, booking flights and accommodation for conferences, preparing presentations, communicating with collaborators, scheduling meetings with supervisors, hosting visitors – not to mention personal and family life. Many of the deadlines associated with these demands are self-determined, requiring students to develop an independent work ethic and strong organizational skills.

Presenting and explaining research is a significant part of graduate education. Through committee meetings, conference talks, thesis defenses, tutorials, and journal clubs, students hone their public speaking and presentation skills. They also write journal articles, grant and scholarship applications, and – of course – a thesis. In doing so, they learn how to effectively convey complex and valuable information to others.

Doing physics research is hard. Throughout a typical research project, a graduate student will need to solve many difficult problems. This requires not only technical skills and attention to detail but also personal competencies like dedication, grit, and tenacity.

As young researchers, graduate students sort through, read, and analyze a large body of prior work in order to put their projects in the proper context. They learn to interpret information, evaluate its merit, and determine whether it supports or opposes their own research conclusions. Many students also use computer programming and mathematical software to wrangle large sets of data and become adept at using publishing software to share their results.

Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Graduate students often collaborate in small or large groups that include senior researchers and faculty, postdoctoral researchers, other graduate students, and sometimes undergraduate students or co-ops. They develop the communication skills needed to contribute productively toward a collective goal. Many research groups use collaborative software tools including Dropbox, Skype, ShareLaTeX, Overleaf, Git, and many others.

With any luck, a graduate student might get the opportunity to travel to present their work at a research conference in another city or country. This gives the student a chance to develop practical skills such as booking transportation, making accommodation arrangements, managing a small conference budget, applying for visas, and claiming expenses.

Career specific skills

Below is a list of industries, and the relevant skills required for those industries.

Skills that physics graduate students may have:

  • Specialized math knowledge
  • Calculus, statistics, probability
  • Keen analytical, project management, and problem solving skills
  • Solid communication skills (oral and written)
  • Strong computer skills
  • Self-motivation
  • Creativity
  • Independence

Additional skills that may need to be acquired:

  • Strong knowledge of finance, accounting, economics
  • Good business sense
  • Formulating spreadsheets, statistical analysis programs, database manipulation, programming languages

Skills that physics graduate students may have:

  • Quantitative skills
  • Ability to interpret numbers
  • Ability to handle a wide variety of tasks

Additional skills that may need to be acquired:

  • Basic understanding of accounting and financial management principles
  • Ability to draw conclusions from results of various financial strategy changes

Skills that physics graduate students may have:

  • Solid intellectual capacity
  • Ability to elicit information from others and to synthesize that information into a cohesive story
  • Strong listening skills
  • Ability to see the big picture
  • Creative/conceptual ways of thinking
  • Project management skills
  • Ability to determine key issues from confused and incomplete information
  • Ability to assess situations and devise solutions

Additional skills that may need to be acquired:

  • Ability to communicate with all levels of management, from line managers to the CEO
  • Solid business judgment and desire to tackle complex business problems
  • Professional presence

Skills that physics graduate students may have:

  • Strong quantitative skills
  • Being a team player
  • Ability to handle multiple tasks/multiple bosses
  • Ability to analyze diverse information
  • Ability to synthesize large amounts of data into small manageable chunks and then communicate these chunks both written and verbally
  • Willingness to take risks, deal with uncertainty and accept occasional failure
  • Ability to take criticism lightly
  • Strong internal motivation and ambition

Additional skills that may need to be acquired:

  • Strong financial skills
  • Ability to formulate recommendations quickly
  • Ability to perform well under pressure

Skills that physics graduate students may have:

  • Ability to translate the latest technical papers into implementations
  • Ability to learn, adapt, and solve tough problems
  • Strong analytical skills, strong model skills
  • Experience writing complete, clear, and concise designs, data models, and algorithms
  • Proficiency at disseminating complex technical concepts in both written and oral forms
  • Strong project management and organizational skills

Additional skills that may need to be acquired:

  • Knowledge of specific software (e.g. Java, Sequel, C, SAS, SPSS, R or Python)
  • Software development skills
  • Ability to communicate this across all levels of a business

Local companies

Below is a list of companies (mostly in the local area) in industries where physicists are already making contributions.