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Physics as a college major

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This page evaluates physics as a college major. In other words, it can help you answer the question: Should I major in physics? The page offers relevant information and considerations, that you can then combine with private information about yourself in making decisions.
See all pages evaluating particular college majors|See our main pages on choosing a college major: factors to consider, Quora answers about college majors
Most of the data that we report on in this page is from the United States. We draw on sources such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Center for Educational Statistics. The situation in other countries may or may not be similar.

Physics is attractive to many highly intellectually capable students, because

  • Physical theories represent pinnacles of human achievement
  • It's intellectually stimulating
  • It has a reputation for being a subject that smart people do

See the comments on the post What attracts smart and curious young people to physics?.

We discuss some of the career options open to physics majors, as well as earnings, below.

Career prospects

Some high level points:

  • The primary reason to major in physics (outside of intrinsic interest) is as a prerequisite to a physics PhD or as background for teaching high school physics.
  • Over 50% of those who get PhDs in physics don't become physicists, often because of difficulty finding jobs.
  • Physics majors are able to get jobs in other quantitative fields, but often with more difficulty than they would had they majored in those fields.

In an answer to the Quora question What is it like to major in physics? PhD physicist Joshua Parks wrote:

It may not be too crazy to claim that as far as career options go, physics majors may be much more like English or other humanities majors (who often make career choices unrelated to their study) than their science and engineering counterparts.

At Physics Forums, ParticleGrl wrote

If you are an engineer, you can almost certainly get a job in a technical field right out of college. Physics majors, on the other hand, end up all over the place (insurance, finance, teaching high school, programming, etc).

We describe specific career options below.

Physics

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 17k people work as physicists, so about 20% of physics majors.

Majoring in physics is a step toward becoming a physicist, but it's usually not sufficient. In an anonymous answer to the Quora question What is it like to major in physics?, the answerer says

There are no jobs in physics as the BS level. You need a PhD to do work related to physics, and even work at the Masters level is not that great (so I've heard).

This may not literally be true: the American Physical Society reports that 5% of physics majors who enter the workforce right after college work in physics or astronomy. But broadly, a physics PhD seems to be a prerequisite to becoming a physicist.

Graduate school is a common path for physics majors. What's It Worth?: The Economic Value of College Majors reports (pg. 27) that 67% of physics majors go on to earn a graduate degree (without giving a breakdown of what kinds of graduate degrees they get). The American Institute of Physics reports that there are about 900 US citizens who earn physics PhDs a year, suggesting that a large fraction (30+%) of the ~2k physics majors who graduate in a given year go on to earn PhDs in physics.

The default career path for a PhD physicist is academia. We give some general considerations on our page on academia as a career option. There seems to be a general consensus that the job market in physics academia is extremely competitive. Don't Become a Scientist! by Jonathan Katz describes the scarcity of jobs relative to PhDs and its implications. Physicist rknop writes

My own field is physics, and the problem of physicists being trained for and expected to get tenure-track faculty positions, without enough of these positions being out there, has been a sore topic for two decades (at least). [...] There is absolutely no guarantee that the PhD will allow them to spend the rest of their lives in physics research.

Putting the number of physicists together with the number of physics PhDs, it appears as though roughly 50% of physics PhDs are physicists (whether in academia or industry).

Success in physics seems to be driven in large part by intelligence, so exceptionally intelligent people may have an easy time getting a job, but they have to be sufficiently intelligent to stand out amongst a population that's already strongly selected for intelligence.

Computer programming / software engineering

What's It Worth? (pg. 165) reports that 19% of physics majors end up in "computer services." This is vague, but it seems reasonable to guess that it's mostly software engineering. Answers to the Quora question Why are there so many physics majors in software engineering? give some reasons for this.

Physics majors' coursework and research can involve computer programming, but this tends to be limited. Broadly, if one wants to be a software engineer as a physics major, one has to minor in or double major in computer science, or spend a significant amount of time programming on one's own. In general, one can get a job as a software engineer without a computer science degree, so majoring in physics exclusively doesn't bar one from the career path, but it also seems strictly inferior to majoring in computer science from a professional point of view, for future software engineers.

In an answer to Can a physics major get hired as a software engineer? at Physics Forums, fss writes

You will start out at a disadvantage compared to computer science people who have demonstrated programming ability, and it will be up to you to decide how best to show that you can bring something to the table that would make up for this deficiency (real or perceived).

Engineering

The American Physical Society reports that 32% of physics majors who enter the workforce directly go into engineering. What's It Worth? (pg. 165) reports that 17% of physics majors are engineers.

The answers to Can a Physics major get a job as an engineer? and Engineering Job with a Physics Degree at Physics Forum suggest that physics majors can get jobs as engineers, but that they're at a disadvantage relative to engineering majors, and that those who plan to be engineers should major in engineering.

Physics majors are sometimes able to go to engineering graduate school, for example, Dan Recht.

High school teaching

The Physics Teacher Education Coalition reports that there are 27k high school physics teachers, 35% of whom have degrees in physics or physics education, suggesting that up to 10% of physics majors become high school physics teachers. We have not yet done a writeup on high school teaching as a career, but hope to do so.

Earnings

  • Payscale reports that median midcareer salary for physics majors is $101k/year, which ranks 9th in median midcareer salary amongst majors, after computer science, actuarial mathematics, and some engineering specialties.
  • The median starting salary for physics majors of $53k/year is lower than the median starting salary for engineers, which is more like $60k-$65k/year.
  • What's It Worth? (pgs. 23-24) reports that the 25th percentile of physics majors' income is $38k/year, compared with $85k/year for engineering specialties.

The relatively low median starting salary and 25th percentile salary may be dragged down substantially by the fact that physics majors attend graduate school and do postdocs with higher frequency than engineering majors do, during which they have low earnings.

After controlling for years of education and intelligence, physics majors make less than engineers, even mid-career. As above, physics majors complete PhDs more frequently than engineering majors do, and one source reports that physics majors' average SAT scores are about 100 points higher than engineering and computer science majors' on a 1600 point scale (equating to about 0.5 SD in IQ). So it's plausible that they make less money than their counterparts of similar intelligence who majored in engineering or computer science. This doesn't necessarily mean that they couldn't get jobs where they made more money – it could be that they prefer lower paying academic jobs over higher paying jobs outside of physics.

See also

We posted an early draft of this article to Less Wrong. The comments there may be of interest.