Careers for physicists in a dynamic world – Physics World


The Dynamic Earth Centre in Edinburgh, UK. (Courtesy: Margaret Harris)

“Only three or four in every hundred PhD students in the United Kingdom will land a permanent staff position at a university. Start planning your next step now!”

This eye-catching statistic – and the imperative that follows it – appeared front and centre on the registration page for a careers event organized by the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance (SUPA). Judging from the event itself, which took place yesterday in Edinburgh’s Dynamic Earth centre, it’s a message that finally seems to be getting through – at least among the organizers of careers events.

I’ve spoken at more than a dozen such events, flying the flag for careers in science communication and physics-based industries. At a few of them, I got the impression that I was there as a wild card among more “conventional” speakers (read: researchers in university or government labs). Other, more representative events were nevertheless advertised as promoting “alternative” careers, even though the statistics suggest that non-academic career paths for physicists are about as “alternative” as flannel-shirt-wearing Nirvana wannabes were in the 1990s.

At the SUPA event, though, I was pleased to see that all 10 of my fellow speakers had spent significant portions of their working lives outside universities. Mantas Butkus, for example, parlayed his PhD in quantum dot-based semiconductor lasers into a career at a laser manufacturer, Coherent. Similarly, Kirstin Hay’s astrophysics PhD focused on exoplanet transits, and she is now putting her data-science skills to use at Sainsbury’s Bank. Even Euan McBrearty, who is now a research fellow at the University of Glasgow, worked at a string of private companies (including QinetiQ, Helia Photonics and Clyde Space) before joining Glasgow’s Quantum Technology Hub for sensors and metrology.

The 11 of us spent the morning circulating between tables full of PhD students and answering questions about what we do. It’s a common format, and one that seems to work well; the students get to ask about things that interest them, and the speakers don’t have to address the whole group at once. Since there were more speakers than tables, I had the pleasure of accompanying another physicist, Ewan Hemingway, around the room and listening in on his answers.

As a PhD student at the University of Durham, Hemingway worked on computational fluid dynamics simulations, and his post-doc focused on modelling flow instabilities in particle physics. Nowadays, though, he’s an image analysis expert in the white-hot field of machine learning in medicine. The projects he works on typically involve training computers to do tasks such as segmentation (that is, delineating which parts of an image represent different organs or structures in the body) and registration (determining how those organs or structures change with time, over a series of images). The goal, he explained, is to develop products that help clinicians diagnose and treat disease.

The most common question the students asked Hemingway concerned how much experience he had in machine learning when he applied for his current job at Canon Medical Research Europe. His initial answer was “very little,” although he later acknowledged that he took an online course on artificial intelligence (AI) in his free time during his postdoc.

To me, this answer was both encouraging – it’s great to hear that employers are willing to look beyond tick-box lists of skills and hire physics PhDs based on talent, demonstrated interest and potential – and familiar. Certainly, the most valuable skill I gained during my PhD was a willingness to approach a difficult new topic and dive into it. And with luck, it’s also a skill that will help the 60 or so physics PhD students at yesterday’s event find their way into interesting careers – either in universities or outside them.

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