Think you already know what kind of career you want with your physics degree, but aren't sure how to get started? Here are some tips for getting involved with some of the major career sectors.
You can jump to graduate school, industry, education, the military, or civilian government.
Admission to graduate schools can be highly competitive. it is a good idea to have a range schools to apply to: a top-ranked school that you are really interested in, as well at least one lower-ranked school you can be confident will almost surely accept you. It is a good idea to talk to faculty and the Director of Undergraduate Studies about your plans; they are in the best position to give you advice.
The following are the main components of a graduate school application:
Your GPA, particularly your technical GPA, is quite important. To a certain extent, your GRE score and GPA can compensate for each other if one is low, but at least one should be high to maximize your chances.
Letters and Research Experience
Letters of recommendation from faculty and other professionals are an important part of the application. Most graduate programs require three letters. The best letters will come from people who can write in detail about your strengths and their experiences working with you, and at least one letter should come from a faculty member that has supervised you in some kind of research. Research experience can come from a Undergraduate Research Opportunity, a senior thesis, or employment (paid or unpaid) as a research assistant.
Another good source for a letter of recommendation is a professor who has taught you in a 5000 level course, particularly if that course had considerable work beyond traditional exams. Letters from faculty or professionals outside the School of Physics and Astronomy are also acceptable if they can speak to your research potential, as long as there is good representation from within the School as well.
Letters from people who can speak to your character, but not your potential as a researcher, are not as valuable. Research is a large part of graduate school, and research experience and potential are the key components of a letter of recommendation.
Many graduate programs in physics or astronomy require the GRE, although it is a good idea to check with the schools you are applying to whether this is the case. Some programs will require the general GRE, but not the Physics GRE, some will require both, and a few may require neither. Here are a few things to keep in mind about the GRE:
The Physics GRE is difficult: it will require plenty or preparation for a good performance. Feedback from former students recommends forming a study group and going over as many example and previous exams as you can. Physics course work alone will not be sufficient, especially given that the format of the Physics GRE is quite different from the format of exams in your classes.
When to take the GRE: At the absolute latest, take the Physics GRE by the October of the fall semester of your senior year. This is the last exam date that will have scores available before applications are due. Former students recommend taking the Physics GRE the spring of your junior year. If you are not satisfied with your score, there will be time to retake it the fall of your senior year. The general exam can generally be taken any time (the computer version of the exam is offered most days in the Twin Cities), but again, it should be taken by October of your senior year for the scores to arrive in time for applications.
The personal statement is your opportunity to write about yourself. It is OK if you don't have a specific field that you already know you want to work in. Graduate schools recognize that the field of research often changes throughout graduate school. It is most important for your statement to sound enthusiastic, and draw attention your unique strengths and experiences. Your statement should also cleary state your professional and career goals. Avoid making excuses for shortcomings unless you have good corroborating evidence or compensating strengths.
There are many different paths you can take in industry, but very few jobs will be advertised specifically for physicists. Here are some tips from alumni who are now in industry:
- Visit the CSE placement office in Lind Hall. Instead of asking about interviews for physicists or astronomers, ask for help finding a job as a general purpose physicist, laboratory scientist, programer, data analyst, etc. Many jobs will be listed as engineering jobs; remember that you are qualified for those jobs even though you are not an engineering major.
- Try to find a summer job or internship in industry, either through a University sponsered program or by some other means. Many companies will hire from their pool of summer internships, so this is a good way to get your foot in the door. Even if you choose to apply for jobs at other companies, they will look favorably on your previous job experience.
- In interviews, use your physics or astrophysics degree as an indication that you can work on more ill-defined problems than can be found in typical engineering programs. Be interested in what the company does, and ask them what their needs are, and demonstrate how you can fill them.
APS, AIP, and AAS also provide tips and resources for finding jobs, as well as job listings. You can find links to their various resources, as well as to the CSE career center and the University career resources on the Resources page.
In addition to your physics or astrophysics degree, obtaining a job as a junior or senior high school teacher will also require a completing a secondary education program. By the beginning of your junior year, you should visit the Education Department's website, which has general information about their Master's program, and review the requirements for the Science Education degree. Even if you choose to enter a secondary education program at a different institution, the requirements at the U are a good place to start.
It is very important to complete all of the preparatory work as an undergraduate, particularly in-class experience. This should be completed by the fall of your senior year, or earlier if possible. The School of Physics and Astronomy typically hires several upper division majors to work as teaching assistants in introductory courses.
The ROTC program at the University of Minnesota maintains intense scrutiny of your academic program. The basic demand is that you meet the requirements for your Bachelor's degree. Beyond that, the requirements will be made clear by the ROTC program officer for your individual branch of service, and they may vary by service branch. If you complete the requirements of your physics or astrophysics degree, and the requirements of the ROTC program, your prospects for a military career are excellent.
The U has ROTC programs for the Army, Navy, and Air Force. New recruits are typically only accepted as freshmen or sophomores, depending on the branch, so if you are interested in joining ROTC, it is best to get involved as early as possible.