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What are your career options?

A qualification in physics or a related field can lead to a truly fascinating array of careers, ranging from space technology to finance, and engineering to fundamental research. Whether you've just graduated or have several years' work experience under your belt, you'll need to spend quality time exploring all the career possibilities open to you.

We've put together a range of case studies to help you choose which industry sectors would suit you best. But first it's a good idea to think about you really want to do – what, in an ideal world, would you be doing career-wise? What are your ambitions? What would make you feel fulfilled?

What kind of person are you?

A good starting point is to think about your personal attributes, since these will have an important bearing on the work environment you're likely to prefer. Consider the following:

Your interests
What are you interested in – academic pursuits, high culture, current affairs, sports? An interest in politics and current affairs could lead to a job as scientific policy advisor, while number-crunchers might enjoy a career in high-performance computing.

Your personality
Are you ambitious and competitive, or quiet and creative? Enthusiastic and original, or practical and steady?

Social skills
How would you describe yourself – a good mixer, influential, a leader, a team player? Or do you prefer to work alone?

Motivation

What about your levels of motivation? Are you ambitious? A real go-getter or a more cautious type? Are you entrepreneurial, a promoter of change or a "safe pair of hands"?

These are exactly the kind of personal qualities employers will be measuring you by, so take a little time and make a mind-map of adjectives that apply to you. It works well to do this exercise with a friend, and compare results.

Remember as well that employers don't just value the academic skills you will have picked up in the lab and the library. They're looking for softer skills such as communication, negotiation, motivating others and teamwork.

Next, think about more practical issues. Your long-term goals may require further study, in which case you’ll need to consider how your studies would be financed, what class of degree you’re likely to need and which institutions offer the course you’re after. A dedicated section on brightrecruits.com now allows you to search for available postgraduate opportunities.

There are several other important questions to consider.

  • Would you be happiest in the public or private sector?
  • What about an academic setting or an NGO?
  • Is location an issue? Would you be willing to move location to get a job? Would you consider working overseas? There's a big difference between working somewhere like the US and a developing country like India.
  • How would you cope with culture shock? Life in a remote observatory can be fascinating for some – or a real turn-off for others.
  • Should the organization be big or small? A multinational or a start-up?
  • Do you want to work full-time or part-time?
  • Would you consider contract work, consultancy or freelance?

Armed with this information, you'll have a better idea of the kinds of jobs that would suit you.

Reach out

The next step is to talk to people. If you're a recent graduate, your university's careers service should give you support and advice for the first year or two after you graduate. Many produce vacancy lists of possible jobs suitable for graduates, details of local employers and other useful resources. Remember though that your careers service will be able to help you more if you've already thought your options through.

If you know someone working in one of the fields you're interested in, ask them out for a coffee and a chat about their job. It's always useful to get an insider's view, but do remember that their opinion may be subjective. You may want to ask them about what motivates them in their job, what fulfils them and what aspect of their job they least enjoy.

If you really feel at sea, you could try talking to a qualified career counsellor or take a career-orientated psychometric test such as Morrisby or MBTI. These tests can be quite expensive, so if you want a taster, then type "free MBTI test" into an online search engine.

Beyond physics

Surveys by organizations such as the UK Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) and the American Institute of Physics (AIP) indicate that fewer than 15% of graduate physicists end up working in scientific research. AIP data show that 31% of recent physics graduates working in the private sector are employed as engineers, while 32% have obtained posts outside science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Physics graduates, it seems, can do almost anything.

If you want to work in industry, you can exploit your degree to apply for jobs in areas such as engineering and defence. You’ll be employed because of your physics training, but you won't necessarily be called a physicist. You may be labelled as an engineer, games developer or wind analyst, so you need to focus on the person specification and job description, and not be put off by the job title.

If you enjoy talking to people and think you're one of life's persuaders, why not consider technical sales? Were you better known at university for your pithy sense of humour than your academic brilliance? If you have a literary bent, you might want to consider a career as a technical author.

Meanwhile, if you enjoy the company of children and get a kick out of passing on knowledge, you might find that a career in teaching offers a level of job satisfaction many others can only dream of.

You can check out our case studies to get a physicist's view on working in a variety of areas. Another useful resource is the Once a physicist series from the Institute of Physics, which offers profiles of physicists who have made some unlikely career moves.

This information was supplied by the Institute of Physics, which offers a range of careers advice and resources for people with a background in physics.

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