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An Education in Creative Problem Solving: Transcending the Field of Physics


You’ve given hundreds of hours of total dedication to memorizing, researching, and studying the field of physics, all to earn a shiny new title at the end of your name — doctor. That degree is well worth your time and effort!

Thinking ahead to graduation and your career, although academia is a popular option, you are not limited to teaching in the classroom and pursuing tenure. In addition to their topic-specific knowledge, a graduate education offers students soft skills that may be transferred to a variety of different careers and fields.

With a little help highlighting those skills on your resume, and a little practice marketing yourself in an interview — you can take the skills you earned in your Ph.D. program and pull them into several (non-academic) career fields. Read on to learn about these transferable skills, and how past Southern Methodist University (SMU) students have leveraged them to work in creative careers outside of the university.

Versatile Skills You Develop During a Physics Ph.D. Program

Students from physics Ph.D. programs are rightfully recognized and praised for their perseverance, tenacity, and cogency. But after several years of immersing yourself in the niche of your chosen field, hard skills and topic-specific knowledge are not the only things you have to offer an employer. Here are several skills you develop in order to study physics at the graduate level, which are universally applicable to creative careers.

Physics Ph.D. students have an enormous capacity for complex theoretical thinking. The majority of graduate work is discovering problems that no one knows existed, and then coming up with solutions to these problems. This process of thinking through complex and undefined issues with incomplete data is a highly marketable skill.  

Graduate students — especially within the physics discipline — have a distinct ability to visualize information and models. This skill helps job seekers take in data and information and analyze and process it in visual ways that are easier to understand for individuals not in the field. Similarly, these graduates are known for their ability to carefully analyze data and draw conclusions. This skill of information synthesis, evaluation, and transformation applies broadly to any occupation.

Ph.D. students are well-versed in best practices for research. Most of their time studying consists of problem identification and then completing the necessary work to find answers. These students possess the ability to follow leads through books, peer-reviewed articles, and authoritative resources — all to find credible information. They do not let failure or dead-ends deter them; instead, they press on until they have a satisfactory answer grounded in proven facts. This high-standard of work would be coveted by any employer.

Because of the nature of their graduate work, Ph.D. students thrive on both competition and collaboration. Throughout their time in school, these students have worked with peers, partners, professors, and experts in the field. This work prepares them to work on a team in any occupational setting. Additionally, having to distinguish themselves as a leader in their field makes them competitive and eager to prove themselves.

Creative Occupations Beyond Academia for Physics Ph.D.'s

Many SMU graduates continue on to teach or work in academia — but not all. Several of the graduates from our Physics Ph.D. program have leveraged their skills and experience to obtain creative positions in their occupational field. Below are a few examples of positions and companies our graduates have gone on to work for:

  • System Engineer at RT Logic
  • Deep Learning Software Engineer at NVIDIA
  • Senior Data Scientist at AT&T
  • NASA Physicist
  • The Math Works
  • California Institute of Technology

Two graduates in particular have taken this creativity to the next level by founding and running their own companies.

Lu Liang — who graduated from SMU in 2005 — founded 5miles, a company that serves as a online retail space for local buying and selling. Founded in 2014, Lu’s company seeks to provide a free, easy, and secure place for online transactions.

SMU alum Vasilii Shelkov founded and remains the CEO of Rock Flow Dynamics. After earning his Ph.D. in Physics from SMU and working in the Lawrence Berkeley Lab at UC Berkeley, Vasilii went on to found his own company in order to meet a practical need for engineers working in reservoirs. His company developed and provides a state-of-the-art dynamic reservoir simulation technology, meeting the demands of modern expectations for raw performance, rich-modeling functionality, advanced Graphical-User interface capabilities, and smart-license pricing.

Whatever career you choose to pursue, take advantage of the skills you have perfected and leverage them to earn the creative job you want. Academia remains a noble pursuit, but if you are interested in doing something else with your Ph.D., know that it is attainable if you highlight your desirable set of skills.

You've heard about career options — now, learn all there is to know about Physics at SMU by Exploring the Universe: A Guide to Studying Physics at Southern Methodist University!

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