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As the job market for Ph.D. physicists continues to tighten, Geoff Heuter is one of a growing number of young Ph.D.s, who are turning to the world of business as an alternate career choice. Hueter, who founded his own company last year based in La Jolla, CA, believes that the role of the physicist in creating and applying new technologies to commercial products remains a vital, exciting and economically important function.
"Physics is not just a philosophical enterprise," he said of the rather narrowly defined traditional career path for physicists. "As the time-to-market of new products decreases and the activities of development, production and marketing become less sequential and more concurrent, there is greater opportunity for the role of the physicist to expand into traditional non-technical areas."
Hueter arrived at the University of California, San Diego, in 1979 to pursue graduate studies in physics, joining the X-ray and gamma-ray astronomy group the following year. He received his Ph.D. in 1987. His thesis topic used data from NASA's High Energy Observatory-1 to study the nature and distribution of cosmic gamma-ray bursts. After a postdoctoral stint at UCSD, he joined a small local business, HNC Inc., involved in developing neural network technologies for commercial applications. "I felt I had other abilities that would not be expressed in a research setting, as well as a long-standing interest in industry," he said of his career decision. In 1994, he formed Far Point Technology, a company that specializes in machine vision.
While Hueter has not used his training in gamma-ray astronomy in his present work, he has found many of the skills developed during his graduate training extremely useful. He uses a wide variety of technical skills on a daily basis, such as computer programming, regression analysis, electronics and basic physics and mathematics. Equally important are more the general skills associated with completing a successful doctoral degree, including oral and written communication, writing proposals and designing and planning experiments. "My physics degree has been far from wasted," he said. "On the contrary, I think that a background in physics is the best preparation for the rapidly-evolving, technically-challenging environment in which many companies find themselves."
Hueter offers four basic tips for physics graduate students interested in making a successful career transition into business. First, he suggests they get to know the nature of the business world in general and the issues that confront companies by reading books on business planning and organization, as well as magazines such as Fortune and Business Week "Most scientists have more skill in business than they might think," he said. "Anyone who has written a grant proposal has written a business plan, although the packaging is a little different."
Acquiring programming skills is also important, since software has become the biggest driver of new high-technology products. While the world of finance relies heavily on COBOL, most commercial development in the future will be based on programs like Visual Basic or other sophisticated GUI-based tools. However, Hueter emphasizes that computer engineering is as important as computer science. "Learning some basic software design skills, or learning to apply organizational skills that you may already possess, is as important as learning the syntax of a computer language," he said.
Since it is likely that physicists seeking careers in business will be entering an environment they were not specifically trained for, they should get to know their target business area. "It's important to have at least a minimal technical understanding of the field," said Hueter. "Better yet, if you can display even simple proficiency in the field, your chances are much better, since this shows initiative and ambition to a prospective employer." For example, to prepare for his job with HNC, he took several university extension courses on neural networks and developed some original work in the field, which, although not revolutionary, made a positive impression on the company's management during the interview process.
Finally, physicists must learn to evaluate their skills in light of their value to potential employers. "Technical creativity, critical thinking, the ability to adapt to change and innovate in new fields, written and verbal communication, integrity, and self-motivation and discipline are all skills natural to a physicist, and valued by employers," said Hueter. The trick, he admits, is presenting these skills to prospective employers in a way that is relevant to their respective businesses, and suggests trying to place technical accomplishments in a context that is easily understood by someone who is not an expert in the field.
"The physicist brings creativity, vision and entrepreneurial fire to this country's technology-based economy," said Hueter. "In an era of public misunderstanding and distrust of the role of science in our society, and the decline in physics funding, it is in the interest of all in the physics community to rely not just on the lofty esthetics of scientific research to sell new programs, but also to promote the ultimate social and economic benefit of physics research and the role it plays in training potential business leaders."
Career Corner is a regular feature describing diverse job opportunities and career advice for physicists, appearing as space permits. If you would like to contribute to future columns, send a letter describing your background, how and why you changed careers, and any advice you might have for physicists seeking to do the same to APS NEWS, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740-3844; FAX: (301) 209-0865; (email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
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