The Top 5 Myths About a Degree in Physics

On the cusp of graduating a science degree, and with an extensive history of advising prospective students on study options, I have heard every question imaginable about studying physics. Here, I break down the top 5 myths about a degree in physics.

1. You have to be brilliant at math

2 milkshakes + 2 burgers + 1 physicist = what?

Have you ever heard someone say ‘the best way to learn a language is to live in the country’? Embarking on a degree in physics is equivalent to that trip overseas. Just like a language, Math is hard to learn without a context and without a reason.

Physics is ultimately an attempt to understand the way the universe works – and the language with which the universe speaks to us, is mathematics. You by no means have to be innately brilliant at math to be a good physicist, but you absolutely must be ready to learn a new language, and be captivated by the concept of talking to the universe.

2.  There are no jobs for physicists

In a sense, that’s right. But there are also no jobs for ‘people skills’ , ‘thinking laterally’ or ‘team players’.

Having a physics degree, is much like adding a fundamental skill set to your resume. Physicists are renowned as some of the best critical thinkers and problem solvers produced by the academic system. These skills are highly sought after by industries you would never imagine. Did you know that the second largest employer of graduate physicists is the finance industry?You won’t find that job in your local employment classifieds by searching for ‘Physics jobs’.

3. All Physicists Are Astrophysicists

As an aside from point 2, when most people think physics, they think astrophysics. The most popular science communicators of our generation have all been astrophysicists and the majority of popular physics books, tell astronomical tales.

The reality is, less than 5% of graduate physicists have anything to do with astronomy2. Whilst astrophysics may be the most commonly associated field in physics, nearly a quarter of all Physics PHD’s are actually awarded in condensed matter physics3 – the exploration of the properties of large numbers of interacting atoms and electrons.

4. Physics and Engineering are basically the same thing

It is common place for someone to be deciding between studying engineering and studying physics. Often, engineering wins out due to its more streamlined career paths (see myth no.2) and more obvious real world connections. Let me try, as best I can, to summarise the main difference between the two degrees.

 

Engineers use tools

Physicists make tools.

 

An engineering degree, is very much about using tools (both metaphorical and literal), to better society. A bridge to connect people, a dam to provide water, a solar array for power.

A physics degree, on the other hand, is about understanding how these tools really work, and applying fundamental knowledge to revolutionise the way we do things. What is gravity, and why is it trying to pull down our bridge? How are electrons really behaving in the wires that transmit our power?

5. Physicists work alone, slaving away on a problem.

The stories of Isaac Newton locking himself away for 20 hours a day in order to solve problems are indeed true, however, the field of physics has come a long way since the 17th century.

A modern physicist, more often than not, forms an integral part of a close-knit research team. Communication both inter and intra-discipline, as well as forming strong relationships with scientists around the world is integral to the success of a modern physicist.

 

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