What do physicists do? Research, software, and finance

After I got my PhD in physics, I started working for a bank. People often ask why I left physics. I usually reassure them by saying that this career choice isn’t exceptional. In fact, most physicists don’t work “in physics”.

A report by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) tracked down physicists working in the private sector, who earned their PhDs in the U.S. about ten years earlier. The respondents were employed in a variety of industries, working as consultants, managers, (software) engineers, etc.

But what about the rest of the world? Are the AIP findings representative for all physicists?

To answer this question, I needed an international sample of physicists. I found such a sample by looking up the list of participants of the International Physics Olympiad (IPhO). The IPhO is an annual competition for high school students.

I picked the 2002 IPhO edition to gather names. These contestants have had 15 years to go to university, possibly earn a PhD, and join the labor force1.

Then I started googling random names from the list. Sometimes I had to add ‘physics’ or ‘linkedin’ as a keyword to guide my search in the right direction. When I found a match at a university site, or on a Linkedin profile, I did some sanity checks to be sure it really was the person I was looking for. In practice, that required checking the year they started university. Luckily for the quest of this post, the overwhelming majority studied physics after high school.

Although this post is based on publicly available information, I would hate to “dox” anyone. That’s why I only use first names in the overview below. If you are mentioned in this post and you want your name removed, please send me a mail (jan dot musschoot at gmail).

I grouped 38 people that I tracked down according to the kind of job they do2. The country of origin (i.e., the country for which they participated in IPhO2002) is mentioned after the physicist’s name. I also added the organization and country they currently work in.

Here’s the data:

Academic research

Amir from Iran works at Haas School of Business/University of California Berkeley (USA).
Attila from Hungary works at QuTech (Netherlands).
Hong-Hsi from Taiwan works at New York University (USA).
Lenin from Cuba works at McGill University (Canada).
Matjaž from Slovenia works at Jožef Stefan Institute (Slovenia).
Matthias from Germany works at Syracuse University (USA).
Milan from Yugoslavia3 works at Vienna Center for Quantum Science and Technology (Austria).
Mohammad from Iran works at University of Maryland (USA).
Monsit from Thailand works at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi (Thailand).
Nikola from Yugoslavia works at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität (Germany).
Péter from Slovakia works at Freie Universität Berlin (Germany).
Rodrigo from Mexico works at University of Utah (USA).
Sándor from Hungary works at Paul Scherrer Institut (Switzerland).
Tiberiu from Romania works at CUNY Graduate Center (USA).
Umut from Turkey works at Harvard University (USA).

Software

Aida from Bosnia and Herzegovina works at ASI Data Science (UK).
Alex from Georgia works at Apple (USA).
Bence from Hungary works at Google (USA).
Jan from Czech Republic works at Testomato (Czech Republic).
Julius from Lithuania works at Barclays4 (Lithuania).
László from Hungary works at Google (Switzerland).
Shannon from Canada works at Google (USA).
Tomas from Spain works at Google (USA).
Tural from Azerbaijan works at Twitter (USA).

Finance

Giga from Georgia works at Credit Suisse (USA).
Giuseppe from Italy works at Goldman Sachs (Australia).
Kasper from Denmark works at Novo Holdings (Denmark).
Miron from Poland works at Goldman Sachs (Japan).
Nicholas from Singapore works at AJO (USA).
Senthooran from UK works at Royal Bank of Scotland (UK).
Widagdo from Indonesia works at Getco (USA).
Yernur from Kazachstan works at AIFC Bureau for CPD (Kazachstan).

Engineering

Igor from Russia works at Align Technology (USA).
Thomas from Switzerland works at Sensirion (Switzerland).
Xiangjun from China works at Qualcomm (USA).
Yousef from Iran works at Baker Hughes (Canada).

Other

Jan from Belgium is a blogger5 (Belgium).
Jonathan from Canada works at Céteg (Canada) and has published a novel.

Before discussing some trends, it should be pointed out that the sample is special in a number of ways. Small countries are overrepresented due to the nature of the IPhO competition (each participating country, large or small, can send five students). Although I would have loved to include a U.S. physicist in the overview, the United States didn’t go to IPhO2002 due to security concerns6. Furthermore, the people in the list don’t represent the ‘average’ physicist. These individuals showed an aptitude for physics as high school students.

A first observation is the staggering percentage of physicists who work abroad. Almost three quarters of the people in my small survey live outside their country of birth.

The United States is by far the most favorite destination country. Of those living abroad, more than half are residing in the U.S.7 Other rich countries (Western Europe, Australia, Canada, Japan) also welcome migrant physicists.

The institutions and funding in rich countries attract (former) physicists looking for better financial and/or intellectual opportunities than they can find at home.

Let’s turn to the sectors the physicists are working in. In this survey, they are clustered into three main groups: research, software and finance.

Perhaps not surprisingly at first sight, many work as scientists at universities or research centers. The stereotypical image of a physicist is somebody doing experiments in a lab or making up new theories.

However, the fact that 40% (15/38) of those in my little survey work in not for profit research is an artifact of the biassed data. It’s almost certain that the IPhO participants have an above average interest in research.

I would guesstimate8 that it takes about 5% of all physicists to replace existing professors. Let’s double or triple that number to include researchers at non university research centres. Clearly, the careers of those with an IPhO history are skewed to research.

Of those working outside research, 40% (9/23) work at software companies. Most physicists acquire advanced software skills during their training. They build computer models that simulate physical phenomena. Or they build and use software to analyze experimental data.

Based on my physicist friends, I would say that 40% working as software engineers and in related jobs is the right order of magnitude9.

Remarkably, 4 of the 9 ‘software physicists’ in my sample work at Google. That reflects the high standards of both the company and the employees.

The third cluster of physicists, 35% (8/23) of the non academics, work in finance. Banks and investment firms like physicists because of their analytic and software skills.

Although quantitative analysts (“quants”) are the best know physicists in finance, not all ‘finance physicists’ are model builders. Some work as portfolio managers, business analysts, or they have more general management or software jobs.

Based on my own experiences, I would guess that about 10% of all physicists in the private sector work in finance. This figure also matches the API findings on PhD physicists10. So the IPhO sample is ‘finance heavy’.

As physics deals with materials11 and their properties and interactions, it’s no wonder physicists work in engineering. Many industries, such as semiconductors, electronics, nuclear energy, and aerospace, require knowledge of physics.

In this sample, 17% (4/23) of the non academics have engineering12 jobs at companies that produce medical devices, crude oil, and the stuff that makes your smartphone work.

Whereas the employment of the ‘IPhO physicists’ in this post is overweight research, software and finance, fewer of them hold engineering jobs relative to physicists in general.

I think that about 30% of the physicists who I know from university work in some kind of corporate engineering or R&D job.

Just 5% (2/38) of the physicists in the sample of this post do something outside of STEM or finance. If I had classified myself under finance (my introductory book on finance will be published in August!), the number would be even lower.

Looking at a wider range of people who studied physics, you would find more of them in unexpected jobs than the results above suggest. Some work as patent attorneys, radiation physicists in hospitals, consultants, comedians, managers, journalists, teachers, or politicians.

Suggestions for further research

This post clearly only scratched the surface of an understudied topic. A student could write a great thesis about this subject. You could start with multiple years of IPhO participants, or with a list of graduates at selected universities.

As this post shows, the internet is awesome (and somewhat creepy). Starting with nothing but a name, you can quite easily figure out what a person on another continent is doing.

A motivated researcher could go further than I did by doing in depth interviews to discover why people chose a certain career path. Do people value their physics background? Or do they consider it a waste of time in retrospect?

It would be interesting to see which industries become more and less popular for physicists, how job descriptions evolve throughout careers, whether doing a PhD has an effect on careers outside of university…

Although I’m confident that the conclusions based on my small study will hold (international mobility, the importance of software and finance jobs), it would be nice to see this confirmed with a larger data set.

Most scientific papers are aimed at a niche audience. A full study of what physicists do would be of interest to all students and degree holders. Your findings would have a good chance of getting published in a widely read journal.

You can share your own story in the comments. Or contact me on Twitter!


 

  1. I also had a more personal reason for picking that specific year ;)
  2. There’s no deep reason why it’s 38, I just got bored and thought there were enough data points to say something meaningful.
  3. The Yugoslavia of 2002 was later dissolved into Serbia and Montenegro.
  4. Yes, I’m aware that Barclays is a bank. Since Julius’ Linkedin profile stresses the software engineering side rather than finance, I categorized him under ‘software’.
  5. Thanks for reading my blog right now!
  6. It was the year after the 9/11 attacks.
  7. The influence of the United States is even larger than the data suggests. While looking at the Linkedin profiles, I noticed that some people studied at prestiguous American universities (Caltech, Harvard…) and now live outside the States.
  8. Based on the physicists I personally know and elementary considerations of the number of graduates and professors, and the length of tenure.
  9. If I had to guess, I’d say that about 30% work in software jobs.
  10. 46 of the 503 physicists in the private sector worked in finance, see page 22 of the report.
  11. In the broadest sense, from elementary particles over condensed matter (metals, semiconductors, nanoparticles, biological materials…) to astronomical objects.
  12. Excluding software engineering.

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