Physicists: Your Next Career Move Might Be to Silicon Valley

Companies focused on big data and machine learning need your skills

20 April 2017

Now is a great time to be a physicist, but not necessarily if you want to get a job in your field, where the opportunities are slim and the pay isn’t great, according to the article “Move Over, Coders—Physicists Will Soon Rule Silicon Valley” in Wired. Instead, many physicists are flocking to Silicon Valley where their knack for abstract thought and math skills is put to use in data science, artificial intelligence, and other in-demand fields.

“If physics and software engineering were subatomic particles, Silicon Valley has turned into the place where the fields collide,” the article says. It concludes that the skills Internet companies seek today are in fact more and more suited for physicists, “right down to their socks.”

Although physicists are not new to computer science per se (Dennis Ritchie, the father of the C programming language was a physicist, for example), the demand for them is higher now. And many are happy to make the transition for better pay and the intellectual challenge, the article adds.

To find out more about the opportunities for physicists to break into emerging fields, The Institute interviewed John Keppler, senior manager of professional education and training at the IEEE Computer Society in Los Alamitos, Calif.

What are your thoughts on the Wired article? Do you agree that physicists will be replacing coders?

There is no doubt that physicists will be front and center in Silicon Valley’s future. Their skills are already in high demand there. Physics involves the study of matter, motion, and particle behavior through space and time. The discipline helps us understand the physical laws that govern our universe. Designing and developing innovative new technologies, applications, and devices rely on our understanding of these laws. If software developers attempt to write a program for self-driving cars, for example, and their code doesn’t conform to the physical laws of motion, the car will never function properly.

With that said, there will be a greater need for physicists as well as proficient coding professionals, who can work together hand in hand.

What kinds of opportunities are available to physicists today that might not have been the case just a few years ago?

A physics degree is a passport into a broad variety of science, engineering, and technology careers. While the options vary depending on their degree and area of expertise, there are many new opportunities for physicists in data analytics, machine learning, optics, image recognition, speech recognition, machine translation, material science, energy, and the Internet of Things.

How can IEEE members with a physics degree land a job at a high-tech company?

It is not hard to break in. I suggest researching which companies are doing cutting-edge work in your area of interest and write to them, expressing your desire to join their team. Innovative companies are always on the prowl for talented candidates. The important thing is to demonstrate that you possess the skills they need to take their projects to the next level.

Is there additional training physicists might need to qualify for such positions?

Naturally, continuing education and training are essential for success in any field. I encourage all physicists to learn about the process of software development and to have a basic understanding of general coding principles. This will significantly enhance their skills and make them more attractive to any potential employer, particularly in Silicon Valley, where they will be working closely with developers and coders. [Such courses can be found on the IEEE Computer Society website.]

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