There was a time when a student with a special aptitude in physics would automatically be on the track to a professorship at some university. Between the development of the atomic bomb during and after World War II, the invention of semiconductor electronics in 1947, and the Cold War explosion in remote sensing technologies, the demand for trained physicists was so enormous that most of the best physicists were utilized to produce more physicists. In the process, of course, an enormous amount of basic research was funded and carried out at universities. (A work force of motivated and talented graduate students and postgraduate assistants can accomplish an enormous amount of research with minimal supervision!) The newly cloaked PhDs went out into the world, were snatched up by the best government and commercial research laboratories, and given nearly unfettered license to poke into whatever interesting pocket of physical ignorance they fancied.
This nice picture of a dynamic and expanding field of study started to fail as the Soviet Union fell. Research and development in nuclear physics were dramatically reduced as the quest for Mutual Assured Destruction became academic, and nuclear power plants became active foci for environmental concerns. In microelectronics, most of the basic physics underlying the field had been elucidated, so that most of the development effort in the field switched from basic research to device and process engineering. Interesting work, but not the physics research for which physicists had trained.
In short, although an active university physics professor might graduate a PhD each year over a 30 year career, in recent times no more than one or two is likely to follow a career-long basic research path. Physicists nowadays still have a unique set of problem solving skills, and are applying them on a vastly wider stage. Among these skills are a trained natural ability to express phenomena in useful and predictive mathematical models, a long attention span for problems, and most important, a real but limited respect for the time-tested ideas of the past.
Today, most new physics PhDs wind up in what is essentially an engineering path, applying existing knowledge in new ways to accomplish marvels such as ¼ inch thick high definition televisions, supercomputers on a chip, brilliant weapons of various types, global communications on an unprecedented scale, and a wide range of medical devices. This is fascinating and useful work, but a bit divergent from that for which their physics training prepared them.
More and more, however, physicists are finding new ways in which to apply their talents and interests. One rather remarkable direction is in the financial community. The development of advanced mathematical models to guide investment strategies is largely carried out by physicists on Wall Street – or in a home office on a quiet street in Montana. Of course, development of new ideas and models for economic activity carries a real risk when implemented in the real world. The development of financial derivatives and Monte Carlo market prediction were basically driven by physicists, but turned out to produce an unstable economic environment. We are currently struggling with many of these problems today.
Other career paths are open to physicists, of course. A fairly traditional one is to become a patent agent. A patent agent is a trained scientist who has also passed the Federal Patent Bar exam, and is thereby licensed to practice patent law at the administrative level – that is, to represent inventors in front of the US Patent and Trademark Office. Patent agents can perform all functions of a patent attorney outside of a court of law, and have been identified as practitioners of patent law by the US Supreme Court. The nicest thing about becoming a patent agent is that you get to work with everyone’s best ideas, improving and clarifying them for IP protection. Perhaps the worst aspect is having to perform stylized dances with the USPTO bureaucracy to get anything accomplished. However, there is a substantial demand for skilled patent agents, and, next to biomedical experts, physicist patent agents are most highly in demand as representatives who can handle any sort of invention.
Other career paths which are available to physicists, particularly if some appropriate courses are included along the way, include development of biomedical devices, consultancies in the area of systems engineering, and futurism.
Futurism is perhaps the most fascinating alternate career for a physicist. Futurism used to be limited to a very small group of Ivy League social scientists, science fiction writers, and visionaries such as Buckminister Fuller. Today, however, a small but growing community of futurists is growing at such venues as the Santa Fe Research Institute, the Singularity University, and the Perimeter Institute. Physicists hold a significant number of these exciting positions, and their influence in the world is increasing. Being a part of this development would be an exciting prospect!
The bottom line is that the traditional career path of the PhD physicist has largely become obsolete over the past 40 years or so. It has been replaced by a plethora of novel and exciting career directions. No talented physics student need worry about finding a suitable focus for their talents and life work.