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Physical scientists can do anything: Here's how you start your career planning

Venturing outside the world of academic physics to look for a job is not as daunting as you might think.

By Alaina G. Levine

Alaina G. Levine
Alaina G. Levine
I once had an adviser outline available career options for someone,  like me, with a bachelors in mathematics. Other than my becoming a  professor or teacher, or going into actuarial studies (calculating  insurance tables), he intimated there was nothing I could do with my  math degree. Nothing—as in zero career opportunities. He advised me to  go to grad school and give in to academia.

At the time, I was shocked and dismayed, but in the end I ignored his  advice. Instead I launched into science communications and have since  crafted an intellectually stimulating career, anchored by my love of  science, at the crossroads of writing, professional speaking, career  consulting, and even event planning (so if you have a wedding that needs  to be arranged, please tweet me). I consider myself lucky: I was able  to figure out that people with science, technology, engineering, and  mathematics (STEM) degrees have n career options, where n is  significantly greater than zero and in fact, theoretically approaches  infinity

So how do you find these careers, access them, and assess whether they  are right for you? To begin, you have to understand how much value you  have as a professional with an education in the physical sciences,  whether you are just graduating, completing your postdoc, or have been  working for 10–15 years. Most physical scientists think their only value  lies in the subject of their expertise: I am a physicist, therefore I  can only do physics. And although is it absolutely true that you have  great talent in conducting physics research, you have much more to offer  potential employers. You have highly coveted skills that you gained  simply as a byproduct of studying physics or other STEM fields. As a  result of your schooling, you are

  • An exceptional problem solver who can see and solve puzzles both granulistically and holistically and in many dimensions.
  • An amazing critical thinker who can analyze and imagine situations and scenarios with a 360 degree perspective.
  • A talented project manager who can multi-task on diverse teams with great aplomb.
  • An adaptive and flexible worker.
  • A person who is knowledgeable about how the physical world  works. and how to apply that knowledge to solve problems in new realm

Problem-solving is the most important skill anyone has. In fact, when  you are hired for any job, as a professor, a president, or a custodian,  you are hired to solve problems. And if there is one thing physical  scientists excel in, it is solving problems.

To find the career of your dreams, you have to examine the unique  problem-solving capabilities that define your value and then start  thinking about how you can use those skills in other industries besides  academia. This is not an easy task; it takes extensive self-exploration  and external research, networking and informational interviews, time,  and even more self-analysis. But know this: The investment you make in  discovering your unique value and being able to articulate it to career  decision makers will pay off. You will find not only one career option  that gels with your interests, goals, and values, but rather n options,  where n is much, much greater than 0.

So here’s how you start: Conduct a skill inventory. Make a list of all  the experiences you have had—jobs, research assistantships, teaching  assistantships, volunteer experiences, committee assignments, and even  the part-time jobs that are far outside your discipline. Write down all  the technical and scientific skills you gained from each experience.  Next, think about the business and soft skills you learned in those same  experiences. It may seem strange to think that you’ve acquired, and  even mastered, hard business skills from studying the physical sciences,  but you have, and they are treasured by employers. Here’s an  abbreviated list of the business talents you may already possess:

  • Oral and written communications (including your fabulous Power Point presentations).
  • Project management.
  • Grant and proposal writing.
  • Teambuilding and conflict resolution.
  • Risk management and safety assessment (as in ensuring the safety of yourself and your team in the lab).
  • Marketing (as in convincing your colleagues that your work is significant).

The final action is to try to remember what you loved and, more importantly, what you hated about each experience. That task will help you concretely see not only what you are talented in but also what types  of problems you enjoy solving and what ecosystems you enjoy solving them in. And since your career options are great—even if you don’t realize it yet—by determining what you have hated about your diverse experiences, you can begin to put boundaries on what types of career opportunities you should pursue.

The skill inventory is one tool that we will explore with these career articles as we chart a course for you to access, assess, and land your dream job. Once you realize your extensive value by conducting the skill  inventory, your next step will be to start looking for opportunities that match the skills you enjoy utilizing, your interests, and your values. In future articles, we will discuss the specific steps to finding these opportunities. Here’s a hint to get you started: It’s all about networking.

If you have suggestions for future column ideas, please send them my way. I am committed to opening your eyes to an entire new world of  career opportunities that are yours for the taking—simply because you  chose to study physical science and recognize that zero is never an acceptable variable.

Alaina G. Levine is a science and engineering writer, career consultant, and professional speaker and comedian. She can be reached through her website or on Twitter at @AlainaGLevine. She thanks Jim Crandall for help with this article.

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