An Alternate View: Is Industry Really a "Nontraditional" Career? 

Jeffrey Hunt
Jeffrey Hunt

By Jeffrey Hunt, Boeing Corporation

It seems there is still a good deal of discussion and confusion regarding the sort of employment physicists can and should aspire to when seeking jobs in the nontraditional (or "industrial") sector. Are graduate students to be directed towards areas where skilled technicians are needed? Should we be encouraging universities to de-establish exotic technical areas in favor of those where jobs are plentiful? What are the special qualities that a physics background can bring to a company?

I'd like to begin with another question: when, exactly, did industrial laboratories become non-traditional? If you look back to the applied journals in the 1940s and 1950s (and even the 1960s), most of the exciting new developments were not coming from universities of national laboratories. They were coming from companies. This included not only Bell Labs and IBM, but also Xerox, General Electric, Hughes and Varian, among others. All had R&D development within their companies, and several had separate divisions altogether.

Things changed in the 1970s when companies stopped hiring, due to less than optimum economic conditions. At that time, many graduating PhDs had to abandon their dreams of working in exciting research areas, and were forced to take low-paying jobs as professors. There, they spent many years toiling away in poorly equipped labs with untrained students, forced to watch the company-sponsored research labs from the sidelines. [Don't laugh - you'd be surprised how many 50-something physics professors have told me this privately.] Thus, being a professor was the fallback position in a weak economy. But times change, and nowadays, only failed academics are supposed to go into industry, or so some grad students and professors have informed me.

Regardless, there are some things which every grad student should know, but most professors will not tell you. I offer the following "Seven Undeniable Facts":

Physicists cannot do...

  • electrical engineering as well as electrical engineers.
  • chemical engineering as well as chemical engineers.
  • software engineering as well as software engineers.
  • mechanical engineering as well as mechanical engineers.
  • optical engineering as well as optical engineers.
  • aeronautical engineering as well as aeronautical engineers.
  • mathematics as well as mathematicians.

Given these facts, why the hell would anyone want to hire a physicist? The answer: Physicists can do 80% as well as the experts on all these tasks, whereas each of the experts' abilities goes quickly to zero once outside their disciplines. Even in my company, there are engineers of many types on many tasks, but the guys at the top are disproportionately physics PhDs. [Okay, there are a couple of engineers and maybe even a chemist.] Why? Because they are the ones who can comprehend the big picture and make sure that all the subdisciplines are exchanging the right information with each other.

So, am I in favor of directing the workforce away from, for example, optoelectronics and microelectronics and toward rf and microwaves? Of course I'm not. I'm against physicists being directed to any one area of specialization. From the time you leave high school to the time you receive your doctorate will be at least a decade. Today's practical growing industry is tomorrow's out-of-date technical assembly line.

What I do favor is making graduate school what it is supposed to be: an apprenticeship at working independently. Too many students these days do experiments with equipment that is all commercially manufactured. They never learn electrical control and design; they never learn machining. These are indispensable skills in an industrial environment. If you're being paid the big bucks that industrial physicists make, you're not getting them because you only know how to work with things that already exist commercially. You're being paid to come up with new ideas and adaptations on a daily basis. This is the sort of thing you learn to do if you have a "homemade" project as a PhD dissertation. Even though your experiment may look primitive by industrial standards, the skills you learn are the same. Only the complexity changes. Put another way, the sophistication and expense of the things that don't work increases.

While in school I performed a measurement in which I (1) designed the optical system, (2) machined most of the set-up, (3) designed and built the electronics, (4) integrated the system, and (5) programmed the (simple) computer controls. And oh yeah, I conducted a neat experiment, too.

The truth is, in most cases, no one will give a damn about your thesis six months after you leave school. But the abilities you learn stay with you. Who cares if you have no rf or microwave experience after leaving school? A "good" PhD should be able to hit the library, read up and be able to start making contributions within a few weeks, if he knows what he is doing. Since your schooling should be concerned with making you a generalist, you should be able to come into a scenario that you don't understand at all, get the background under your belt and be able to start to contribute quickly.

That is what a PhD in physics is about. It is not about whether you're an expert within some given area of specialization. This is the message that we really should be sending to faculty who are training students. The students have to do things on their own. Even if things are available commercially, they should still go out and do as much as they can from scratch. It's the thing that makes you useful and, dare I say, employable down the line.

[From the Fall 1998 FIAP Newsletter.]

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette

February 1999 (Volume 8, Number 2)

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Centennial News: Hawking Confirmed as Centennial Speaker
Centennial News: A Century of Physics Timeline Decade
Centennial News: Physics in the 20th Century
Centennial News: Additional Centennial Exhibits
Centennial News: Centennial Meeting Tutorials
Survey Looks at 'Two-Body' Problem Among Physicists
APS Workshop Targets Tribulations of New Managers
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Fusion Pellets, Most Powerful Laser Highlight DPP Meeting
New: Plasma Astrophysics Group Formed
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Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science
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