Originally Posted: Oct 12, 2012
Last Updated: May 27, 2016
Physics majors are all geeky lab rats, right? Wrong. Read on to learn about some of the many directions a physics degree can take you.
Sure, thousands of physics graduates work in laboratories where they study subjects from acoustics to manufacturing. But more are engineers or computer scientists, says Roman Czujko, Director of the Statistical Research Center at the American Institute of Physics.
“In physics, you’re using a lot of mathematics and you’re using a lot of reasoning,” says Dr. Benjamin Brown, chair of the Physics Department at Marquette University.
Physics students learn how the natural world works. The math and problem-solving skills they pick up are great for the job market. Physics majors teach, work on Wall Street, and serve in the military. They also perform well on the admission tests for law and medical schools.
Curious about physics but unsure where it might lead? Check out the career paths these physics majors have taken.
Related: Science Majors and Potential Jobs
Mark Tritch, Test Engineer
After high school, Tritch joined the US Marine Corps and worked with an air traffic control unit. Along with his wife, he then enrolled at Manchester College, now called Manchester University, near their home in Indiana. Manchester didn’t have the electrical engineering major Tritch wanted, so he chose physics.
Tritch had always been interested in technology, and as a physics major he learned how different systems worked. First he took his knowledge into a job as an engineer at a company that made machines for food processing plants and medical devices.
Now Tritch is at a different company advising engineers that work on a satellite system observing phenomena such as weather and vegetation patterns. He develops the process for testing the equipment. “It’s gratifying,” he says. “You know that it’s really impacting a lot of people’s lives.”
Sarah Curry, Research Physicist
As a girl, Curry enjoyed all kinds of science. “I liked building things,” she says. “I liked understanding how things worked.” Studying physics at Lawrence University gave her a broad understanding of how the natural world functions. Those fundamentals are key to her work on a team developing systems for chemical-sensing robots.
In a federally funded laboratory, her team takes robots designed by other companies and figures out how to enable them to perform different tasks. A robot Curry works on might test for chemicals inside a building in a war zone or search for dangerous levels of radiation in a nuclear power plant. “This robot might perform similar functions in different environments,” she says. Among Curry’s tasks are developing processes for the robots to follow as they go about their work.
Kohl Gill, President at LaborVoices
With a bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in physics, Gill’s background led him to start a company that monitors working conditions at factories worldwide.
As part of a government policy program for scientists, Gill worked on international labor issues for the US State Department. Afterward he started LaborVoices, which collects anonymous reports from workers at overseas factories about how they’re treated. LaborVoices shares this information with companies so they can learn about conditions in the factories where their products are made.
Gill’s education taught him how to come up with new ways to solve problems. “Part of physics is really understanding the limits of technology and how to work within them,” he says.
Erin Martin, Planetarium Operator
At Carthage College, Martin and her classmates had the chance to collaborate with a researcher from NASA. First she studied how effectively a dust-collection technique called cyclone filtration would work on the moon. For another project, she researched the angle at which dust would settle on the lunar surface. As part of the experience, the students flew on a NASA aircraft with reduced gravity.
After graduation, Martin took a job guiding visitors at the Adler Planetarium. She’s since been promoted to run live shows for visitors, pointing out constellations, planets, and formations in the sky. One of those formations is the planetary nebula Martin wrote about for her college thesis. “I’ll say, ‘By the way, here’s the picture I took,’” she says.
Robert Greeson, Patent Lawyer
Greeson enjoyed physics and was interested in law school. He didn’t know how to combine the two until a professor told him about patent law.
Now he’s a patent lawyer specializing in wireless technology, software, mechanical devices, and alternative energy. Greeson helps clients patent technologies they invent—giving them the exclusive right to make or sell their inventions—and defends those patents in court. He has to learn about different technologies so he can understand why each client’s invention is unique. “In physics you are exposed to a lot of mathematical tools, and if you can grasp them, you can understand how a lot of different technology works,” Greeson says.
Clara Asmail, Senior Technical Advisor
Earlier in her career, Asmail worked in a federal research lab. She even invented a technique to find imperfections on the surfaces of small objects by scanning a laser beam on the object.
Having the experience of inventing a technical process helps Asmail in her current job at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, working with businesses developing their own technologies. Through her interaction with about 1,500 engineers, she supports the work of small companies that do research with the federal government or want to make a profit from the technologies they come up with. “Every day I learn about a brand-new technology,” Asmail says. She’s assisted researchers who find advances in renewable energy, biotechnology, and more.
Austin Faught, Graduate Research Assistant
At first Faught intended to go medical school. But he changed his mind after taking a few physics classes. One of his professors at Kenyon College had a research focus in medical physics, which was a perfect match for Faught. “I don’t think I could be somebody who just works in a physics lab all day,” he says.
Now he’s pursuing a doctorate from The University of Texas and working at a cancer treatment and research center that’s part of the University. He helps doctors develop their plans to treat patients. Sometimes doctors use radiation therapy to treat cancer, and Faught calculates the correct dosage. He’s searching for a method to accurately determine the right amount of radiation for each patient in a quicker manner.
If you major in physics, you’ll pick up skills that translate into a variety of jobs. Czujko says the foundation you’ll gain will be adaptable for decades. At the heart of physics lies the question, “Why do things work?” he says. “That doesn’t change.”