I spent much of the following month scouring the internet, within and beyond my personal and professional networks, looking for others who had recently made the transition from theoretical physics to industry. I reached out to everyone I could, across industries, roles, and stages of career, and was pleasantly surprised by how receptive and responsive most people were.
The bigger surprise came from listening to their stories. Most of the ex-physicists in industry whom I spoke with were satisfied with where they were in their careers by the five year mark post-Ph.D. — and some far earlier on than that. But when reflecting on their journeys, the prevailing sentiment everyone expressed was a combination of frustration, disappointment, humility, and regret.
In physics, it is common to be told that from physics, you can go on to do anything. People look around and see an ex-quantum physicist in finance; a researcher from CERN who is now the head of AI research at a tech company; a once-upon-a-time string theorist now masquerading as an oceanographer, and they think physics prepares you for everything, all at once. “They” are not wrong, but this picture is deceptive.
Sure, there are ex-physicists all over the place. And sure, the “physics mindset” is an invaluable foundation for more than a few careers. Speaking from my own experience, and from the conversations I had with others, however, I think it is less about the preparation that physics gives the person, and more about the person who is drawn to physics.
No matter what field you are trying to transition into, there are people who have spent years studying and honing their craft. Physics is not a substitute for skills, and it certainly is not a substitute for knowledge. In fact, there is no substitute for putting in the time. And most companies, it turns out, hire for skills — especially during a recession.
This is where the aforementioned humility comes in. Despite publishing papers in prestigious journals, bathing in oceans of mathematical equations, and learning how to approach ambiguous research problems, so many physicists entering industry had trouble finding a job.
One friend told me of his six-month endeavor to secure employment, during which he applied to more than one hundred openings before finally receiving an offer. Others expressed shame that the only jobs they were even given interviews for were well below their education level. And when they started working, many were frustrated by their belief that they would have been just as capable of doing said job before their doctoral studies.
To succeed, I heard again and again, you had to start from scratch. One quote from an ex-string theorist friend working in machine learning sums it all up:
“I don’t think of myself as a physicist. I look back at my time in physics like a hazy dream”