- American Physical Society Sites
- Meetings & Events
- Policy & Advocacy
- Careers In Physics
- About APS
- Become a Member
Peter Fiske advises physicists to reframe the question, “How much will I be paid?” to, “How much am I worth?”
By Liz Boatman | November 9, 2023
Students often study physics to learn about the fundamentals of our world, but they’re not always sure what viable career paths they can take or, perhaps more dauntingly, what salaries they can earn after graduating.
To help students navigate these murky waters, APS is sponsoring a series of career-oriented webinars available to anyone. You don’t have to be an APS member, and all webinars are recorded and accessible online.
In September, Peter Fiske, a materials scientist with career experience spanning academia to startups, spoke to students and early-career physicists from around the world about the versatility of physics degrees — and urged them to reframe the question “How much will I be paid?” to “How much am I worth?”
“Science-trained graduates often don’t realize the breadth of what they’re capable of doing,” said Fiske. “With a physics degree, you possess many of the traits and skills that are actually of highest value in the world.”
Physics majors learn skills that are extremely valuable to employers, Fiske noted — like the ability to defend a position with logic, speak publicly, and teach. Many physics majors don’t realize this.
“We talk about the science because we think that’s what matters,” said Fiske. “But these [other skills] are the things that really make a difference in a successful career.”
Fiske said having a clear handle on these so-called transferable skills is key to determining what you’re able to contribute professionally — your ‘value proposition’ — which, in turn, will inform how you negotiate during a job offer.
To start, “go back to your office,” he said, and “write down all the transferable skills you’ve learned.” This exercise won’t only help you develop leverage points you can use during negotiation; it will also reveal how well-rounded your physics experience has been, said Fiske, which can help you fill gaps before hitting the job market.
If you apply to a job and land an interview, go in prepared to gain more leverage. You can use subtle questions to invite a potential employer to share relevant tidbits of information.
For example, over a casual lunch, you could ask, “Have you been trying to fill this position for a while?” or “Have you had a lot of applicants like me?” In these examples, if the position has been open for several months, your perceived value in the eyes of a hirer increases; if many other applicants ‘look’ like you on paper, your perceived value decreases.
Fiske said it’s also critical to understand the complete compensation package: salary, healthcare, remote work, and stock options, among others. If you get a job offer, ask your potential employer to spell these items out for you, and ask the hiring manager to clarify where they can be flexible.
“Now, you look at that list and you rank, from the things that are most important to you to the things that you have a lot of flexibility on,” said Fiske. “It’s not all just about salary.”
On the employer’s side, the negotiation process will boil down to economics, said Fiske, and “whatever job you take, your employer will likely [offer to] pay you less than the value you are creating.”
Assuming you’ve done your homework, Fiske said, you should be in a good position to justify your value, while being mindful of the balance you must strike in negotiating your total compensation package.
And where does Fiske think physicists should take their careers?
“Frankly, you should go where you will be the happiest and do the most good in the world.”
Liz Boatman is a staff writer for APS News.
Are you looking for a job or trying to grow professionally in physics? Register for the next webinar in APS’s “Activating Careers” series.
©1995 - 2023, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
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: Taryn MacKinney