Career options for Condensed Matter Physicists

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Career options in condensed matter physics. Image credit

Daniel Lagos

One of the most important things to do before choosing a PhD program, or during a PhD, is to think about the next step, i.e. working life. The aim of this post is to show some possible career options for condensed matter physicists, including some of the things that I’ll be thinking about when selecting my future job.

Condensed Matter Physics (CMP) is a broad field of Physics research; according to SCImago 27.5% of UK publications in Physics belonged to CMP in the period 2012-2013. Most universities in the UK have PhD programs in or related to CMP and approximately one-third of physicists have a job in CMP. The research field and the type of PhD selected will have an important impact over your job options given that most prospective employers prefer people familiarized with their researching lines and tasks assigned to a specific position. The CDT-CMP of Bristol and Bath opens the door to a wide range of career paths because it trains us in both theoretical and experimental CMP, research themes are novel and diverse, and it offers us the opportunity to get first-hand experience in an industrial placement.

In the table below, I have classified potential occupational sectors into four categories according to the following question: Does the knowledge or skills acquired during your PhD match with the profile requirements of your prospective employer? If the answer is yes, then we have the three classic categories according to whether the requirements mostly fit in Theoretical CMP, Applied CMP or a mixture of the two. On the other hand, if the answer is no, we have an additional category where your background knowledge or complementary skills are used in combination with other branches of knowledge not necessarily related to CMP.

Table showing common job routes for condensed matter physicists, categorised according to expertise within CMP.

Table showing common job routes for condensed matter physicists, categorised according to expertise within CMP.

A common route chosen by PhD graduates is of course academia. Academia has traditionally been viewed by new PhD graduates as an attractive option because of its versatility, i.e. you can work in any of the three physics branches along your career. To be a lecturer, lab technician, referee or researcher in a Higher Education Institution is a good opportunity for professional growth in your speciality. But what are the alternative options for a condensed matter physicist outside academia? The following table shows some possibilities:

In which of those sectors is your ideal job?

For me, an ideal job would be something I can enjoy doing for the rest of my life. In particular, I would like a well-paid job that allows me to satisfy my personal needs and achieve my life goals – but, you’ll surely have your own definitions. However, it’s not always so easy to find the job of your dreams and fulfil their requirements. For example, achieving the required years of experience, extra-curricular courses, post-docs, and/or publications, may be challenging for new PhD graduates.

What is the job market situation for a new PhD graduate?

In 2014, a survey made in the US showed that the most popular route for Physics PhD graduates was a post-doc. 56% of those asked one year after their degree were in a post-doc position compared with 31% in potentially permanent employment (most of whom were in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields) and 9% in temporary positions, such as visiting professor or lecturer. In the UK, a survey of STFC-funded students from 2011 showed that 48% of employed PhD graduates (within 5 years of graduation) worked in higher education institutes, with the remainder in jobs in either the private (30%) or public (22%) sectors.

Self-employment and start-ups are interesting alternatives for a condensed matter physicist: as your own boss you are able to manage your own agenda and profits. For instance you could apply your knowledge in CMP to offer consultancy services or create new high-tech companies. Finally, if you want to know more about the graduate market, career options and job vacancies don’t forget to visit or Brightrecruits.

In summary, a PhD in condensed matter physics prepares us well for future employment in a range of diverse sectors. Selecting the right option is always a challenge, and here I’ve identified some key things I’ll be thinking about when making my next big decision.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Career options in condensed matter physics. Image un-edited credited to Scott Maxwell ( under CC BY-SA 2.0 licenses.
Table showing common job routes for condensed matter physicists, categorised according to expertise within CMP. Image credits: equation, microchip, equipmentfinance. Published under CC BY-SA 2.0 licenses.

Categories: Journal of Physics: Condensed Matter, JPhys+

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