Physicists at DAMOP Share Tips on Breaking into Careers in Industry

By Leah Poffenberger

As early career physicists face an uncertain job market, the APS Careers team is hard at work providing resources for students and job-seekers. In addition to a summer webinar series (see APS News, June 2020), a career advice panel at the April meeting (see APS News, June 2020), and other online tools, the APS Division of Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics (DAMOP) meeting in June also featured resources for job seekers.

A panel discussion on industry careers in AMO physics gave DAMOP attendees a chance to soak up practical advice from professionals on career advancement. The panel discussion specifically focused on industry careers rather than careers in academia in part to reflect the current job market: according to Crystal Bailey, Head of Career Programs at APS and moderator of the panel, academia has been strongly affected by COVID-19 resulting in hiring freezes, but the private sector remains full of opportunities for physicists.

DAMOP 2020 logo

Four panelists with various career paths in industry joined Bailey to offer their advice and share experiences with attendees. Dan Farkas, technical specialist in intellectual property at Lathrop GPM; Ofir Garcia, a principal physics engineer at Raytheon, Inc; Susanna Jones, lead quantum systems technology engineer for defense at the UK’s Defense, Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL); and Brian Patton, research engineer at Samsung, fielded questions from the audience on a variety of topics related to AMO careers in industry.

The first two questions put to the panelists revolved around skills, namely: what professional skills undergraduate students should cultivate and how to develop project management skills. The panel consensus was that communication skills in general are important in both industry and academic jobs, but they also offered a few industry-career-specific perspectives. Jones and Patton both pointed out that in industry there is emphasis on communicating with stakeholders and customers and those interactions often dictate the direction of research.

“One of the things I’ve learned along the way [is] how to be less oriented towards research for research’s sake and more towards development of actual devices that need to work,” added Garcia, elaborating on the difference in goals when working in academia and industry. “There’s a certain spin to what the emphasis is when you’re doing the work in a research lab versus when you’re actually developing components that need to fly or get launched.”

To develop project management skills, each panelist had a different strategy or experience, with Farkas taking classes on project management, Garcia learning through trial and error while building his lab in grad school, and Patton as a post-doc juggling new responsibilities in lab management. Jones, however, discussed the importance of skills you can gain outside of the lab.

“A lot of the skills that I’ve picked up that contribute towards project management [are] actually interpersonal skills I’ve taught myself or learned outside of the lab. I’ve taught horse-riding, I do all sorts of hobbies externally, and it’s building those interpersonal skills [that] you’re going to rely on when you’re trying to build a successful team,” she said. “Working with people is one of the hardest things. You think physics is hard? Trying to get everyone to work together towards a common goal is even harder.”

Next, the panelists tackled a common conundrum in job applications: many people run into job listings with long lists of required skills that seem to be looking for someone with an engineering background rather than a physicist. Bailey described such job descriptions as “looking for a fictitious creature—they don’t actually expect any one candidate to have everything they’re asking for.” She encouraged would-be applicants to send in their resume to such jobs as long as they meet at least a subset of the skill requirements.

Farkas, Garcia, and Jones all pointed out that, in their experience, companies like to hire people with physics backgrounds who show an aptitude or willingness to pick up new skills in order to be successful—especially in Jones’ field of defense, where experience in that area can’t be gained elsewhere. Patton offered some perspective of the process of hiring at a large company, where the person hiring for a role—who knows best the qualifications of the candidate they’re looking for—is in a very different position from the person sorting through applications.

“There’s a filtering process, and everyone tells you when you submit your resume or statement of purpose to tailor it to that specific posting—that’s great advice,” said Patton. “The whole point [is] just to get the interview, which can be discouraging because many times it gets bounced back, but it probably hasn’t even reached the person who put down all of those qualifications... It’s probably not that they’re rejecting you because you don’t have every single one of those qualifications, it’s just a matter of the first impression.”

In contrast to academica, industry often hires people at all educational levels. The next question posted to panelists asked whether post-doc positions are valuable for getting an industry job. The panelists all agreed that, while a post-doc isn’t required, having the experience of at least one can help with developing new skills one might not have picked up during graduate school.

“It’s really good to branch out and try something different to see if you like it or not, even if you do wind up afterwards going back to do what you did for your PhD thesis, which is a common thing to do,” said Farkas. “You want to get something out of the post-doc that is meaningful in and of itself—learning some additional skills, leadership skills, management skills, soft skills, even teaching skills if you have to teach a class… take advantage of all of those experiences.”

For physicists looking to make a jump from basic research to industry, the panelists addressed ways to identify problems that are relevant to industry and pivot basic-research skills towards solving them. Garcia advised paying attention to global trends and fundamental problems of society and then finding a way to apply current basic research to meet one of those needs. Patton offered further insights into how a job applicant might show how their basic research work can pivot to industry.

“I think it’s hard to know…what the problem is that you’d be working on as you’re moving into industry. It’s a little bit of a chicken and egg problem,” said Patton. “The best you can do for yourself is to explain what you’ve been working on, which is very narrow and very deep, how that has taught you the skills to learn other things and work on other problems...Figure out how to stress that and convey that in both your statement and interview.”

The panel discussion can be viewed at the DAMOP meeting website.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

July/August 2020 (Volume 29, Number 7)

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APS Responds to COVID-19: Activities to Assist Graduate Students
APS Responds to White House Proclamation on Visas
From Passion to Action: Levers & Tools for Making Physics Inclusive & Equitable
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The Division of Fluid Dynamics
International Exchanges During COVID-19
New Grant from NSF Helps Support Physics REU Leadership Group
Defending My PhD Thesis in the Time of the Coronavirus
Learning Assistants at Arizona State University Help Virtual Classrooms Stay on Track
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