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How Physics Careers Compare to Others

Earlier this week, a careers website released a fairly comprehensive ranking of 200 jobs from best to worst. Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other government agencies,'s team evaluated jobs based on factors including stress, income, employment outlook and physical demands.

Don't worry physics fans; "physicist" ranked pretty highly on the list at 25, ahead of "biologist," (27) "historian," (30) and "taxi driver" (187), to name a few. Newspaper reporters -- perhaps the most similar job to science communication on the list -- ranked very poorly at 196, squeezed between waitresses/waiters and oil rig workers.

Looking at the list, there's definitely a few surprises. Firefighting, the aspiration of many wide-eyed kids, was ranked near the bottom of the heap at 185. Many other jobs were ranked more highly than many would have guessed, and that makes me question how accurately quantified data can represent job satisfaction.

For the list, the researchers weighed income and job outlook equally, combining for two thirds of the overall score. Their methodology section provides some insight into why they weighed these factors more heavily than the final third representing "preferential" factors:

"The logic, simply put, is that most of us work mainly to earn a living and the most important criteria are therefore Income and Outlook, the latter being of course related to employment and income security over the long haul."

While there's certainly some truth to this statement, I think that the survey fails to fully account for key factors, especially those that applicable to careers in physics.

The Good

Both aspiring and established physicists list a number of reasons for their career choice. Here's a small sampling of the more popular reasons:

  • Intellectual Freedom: Physicists get to study the research problems that you want. Few other careers can be as intellectually flexible.
  • Challenging yet Rewarding Work: The payoff of unraveling some of the universe's mystery can be truly fulfilling.
  • Good Pay (eventually): Although income may not be the primary motivating factor for many physicists, established physicists at research institutions certainly make decent money. That's part of what made physics rank so highly on the Career Cast list.
The Bad

The downsides of a physics career may depend on whom you ask, but this list covers some common complaints.
  • Long, Difficult Preparation: Graduate school is tough -- and long. For many physics PhD candidates, the stress can be overwhelming at times, but many find grad school a rewarding experience. Take a look at this recent blog post from a physics grad student working at CERN for an interesting perspective on the ups and down of grad school
  • Tough Job Market in Academia: Upon completing grad school, most physicists have to take several postdoctoral positions before landing a more permanent research position at a university. Many others eventually choose a different career path outside of academia and research.
  • Bureaucracy and Politics in Academia: While you'll run into political bickering in most careers, academia can be particularly inundated with red tape and infighting.

Important factors like these are often glossed over when these career rankings are compiled, but there's certainly not an easy way to quantify all of these factors. Furthermore, weighting all of these factors for everyone doesn't work well: Diverse people are going to value different things in a career.

While these career rankings can be fun and interesting, I don't think they're quite as helpful as they claim to be. Then again, I might just be a sore loser: Newspaper reporters were ranked behind maids, dishwashers and meter readers.

So what factors are most important for you when choosing a physics (or non-physics) career?


  1. i love this blog
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  2. You study physics because you want to. Maybe long preparation time, but it should be enjoyable. Job market: if you are good, you will get your job, but most of us need to try to get a foot in the door first. There are lots of resources to help guide through search committees. Politics and bureaucracy: bad at Universities because time is not really money. I see two type of profs: those who want to be administrators and those that want to do research. It is not that sharp a division but a generalization.

    I think people go into physics because they like it and can do it.

    Once you have that faculty position and get your research underway, then life is good.

  3. Studying physics doesn't prepare you for the job market...In physics study programs, you learn the least of many fields and in the end you have a degree which certify that you don't know to do anything...It's the same for physics Mscs...It's far better to study engineering...At least you will learn to do something and with a Msc you will be an expert in your field in contrast with a physicist that continues to be an almost unskilled worker with a Msc...Sad but true...

    1. Engineering would not have been possible without the physicists. The things that are done by the engineers now are made possible by the discoveries that the physicists had made in the history.

    2. Overlord, I'm a physicista and you have just no slightest clue of what you were talking about. As physicists, we have wider skill set than engineers and other fields. We have problem solving skills than most people are lacking of, even engineers, I teach Physics to the engineers and I have seen how they are lacking of the skills the physicists have. We know programming. I know three programming languages and I use them in my research. We have to build the tools for doing research. Not forgetting that we are skilled with math, I'm not talking about at the algebra or calculus level. Not forgetting that we are equipped with data collection and data analysis. Many physics degree holder who don't go into the academia will go into the industry. I have friends that work at Google in the self driving car division developing codes and also friends who work in the optics lab.

    3. You have no idea of what you're talking about....infact physicts have more job prospectus...they can work as an accountant....a supervisor in a professor...a researcher...a manager.....even in pharma...e.t.c .....they excel in many fields.

  4. If i am studying physics (i am still 13)and planning to continue with it,is it a good choice? Are physicist actually in demand? I don't think physicist are unskilled person since they are the one who work on new ideas to help improving human skills, right? Well excuse me if I am wrong am still a child so still learning.


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