Classic Edition: Master of None

A discussion in the back-channel forums reminded me about all the many things I've learned how to do badly in the course of my scientific training. My junior high shop teacher probably sprained something laughing the first time he heard that I was doing machine shop work as part of a research project, but it's part of experimental science, so I know a little bit about how to work a milling machine these days.

It's a crazy busy week for me, and today will be largely taken up by hosting Jennifer Ouellette, who's visiting campus to tell us about the physics of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So, I've dug this post out of the archives, from way back in December of 2002, about the jack-of-all-trades ethos in physics, and the consequences for the job market.


I'm a lousy plumber.

I'm also a mediocre electrician, a machinist and carpenter of indifferent ability, a fairly bad computer programmer, and a decidedly poor electrical engineer.

These are all job skills, as much a part of being a physicist as the ability to do clever math tricks. For some reason-- disciplinary arrogance, free grad student labor, the innate superiority of physicists-- physics as a field is organized a little differently than some other sciences. As a general rule, we don't have lab techs, and in a weird way, this is a point of pride. A working physicist is presumed to be able to do a variety of tasks that most normal people would quite happily contract out to somebody else-- not as well as professionals in those areas, but slowly and laboriously running water pipes to cool a high-power laser is a part of the business. To be a good physicist, you also have to be (at least) a lousy plumber, mediocre electrician, and so forth.

Small electronic widgets, as a rule, are home-built, sometimes, even when the specs are very demanding. Unless you need a really exceptional amplifier, you generally build what you need yourself-- I can't recall which end of a diode is which without cracking open a copy of Horowitz and Hill, but if I need to boost a small signal by a factor of five or ten, my first impulse is to grab a bunch of op-amps and a soldering iron. The design and construction of feedback circuits are routinely assigned as undergraduate summer projects. Some groups go so far as to do all the wiring in the lab themselves (sometimes with unfortunate results, as when a laser at NIST was wired directly into the mains, which eventually started a fire...).

Simple machined parts (laser mounts, for example) are generally made by hand-- any physics department worth its salt will have a fully-equipped machine shop, and learning to use a mill is as much a part of (experimental) physics training as learning to do complex integration. My junior high shop teachers get a huge chuckle out of the fact that I occasionally go into the shop and build stuff (though these days, I mostly shuffle that off onto students, supervised by the resident machinist). I actually sort of enjoy this stuff-- at the end of a day spent in the shop, you've got something solid to claim as an accomplishment (usually a chunk of aluminum or copper with holes drilled in it).

Even groups that are primarily experimental will do their own computer coding-- the difference between theorists and experimentalists, as far as I can tell, is that theorists doing theory write Fortran or C code, while experimentalists doing theory use MatLab or Mathematica. I've written data analysis routines in C++, and spent more time than I would've liked wrestling with the arcane syntax of Mathematica to check data against (simple) theory.

In a very real sense, being a physicist requires you to be a jack-of-all-trades. This disciplinary versatility has good and bad points, on a number of levels.

Some of the consequences are obvious. As noted above, it's very satisfying when you spend a day actually building stuff, and end up with something concrete to show for it. The flip side of this, though, is that the job isn't necessarily done as well as it could be (and it's never done as quickly as a real professional could do it). Most experimental physicists have at least a few stories of electrical wiring disasters, and I've never seen a lab containing water-cooled hardware (all plumbing done by physicists, naturally) that hadn't suffered at least one debilitating flood.

A less obvious consequence of the jack-of-all-trades nature of the field is that it changes the nature of the physics job market dramatically. In chemistry and biology, you can get good technical jobs with a Master's degree. In most engineering fields, the MS seems to be the real professional degree-- only hard-core academics go for the Ph.D.. In physics, however, there's not much you can do with a Master's degree that you can't do with a Bachelor's degree-- even Ph.D.'s in physics are expected to be able and willing to do work that, in other fields, would be assigned to people at a lower degree level. It's a Ph.D. or bust sort of field-- there are jobs you can get with a BA or BS in Physics (as Nathan Lundblad could tell you), but they're not all that common, and an MA or MS does little other than easing the certification process for teaching high school (which is a worthy profession, don't get me wrong...)

That makes it sort of difficult to find jobs for students graduating college who aren't quite ready to commit to five or six years in the grad school salt mines, but don't want to leave the field entirely, either. There are a lot of jobs in other sciences that you can get straight out of college, and still more good technical positions you can get with only a year or two of grad school, but physics, for whatever reason, is an all-or-nothing sort of gig, which is tough on students who would like to actually use their degree after graduation, but don't want to continue being a student. As a profession, we sort of waffle between shoving these people toward graduate school, or telling them to spend a couple of years on Wall Street, and then go to grad school. I wish I had better advice, or a wider range of options to suggest to these students...

(This is, by the way, what brought this topic to mind-- I've got a student in this category working in my lab at the moment, who's doing great stuff, but has no idea what he's going to do after graduation. Anybody looking to hire a talented and hard-working physics major with a good computer background for a technical job in the general Springfield/ Hartford area, let me know...)

On an even less obvious, and more personal level, the above package of skills that I sorta-kinda possess probably leaves me well prepared for the thrills of home ownership and maintenance. Which will come in handy, what with our buying a house (closing this afternoon, in fact), and all that... It's in reasonably good repair, but needs a few coats of paint, and some general patching and tweaking, and quite a bit of yard work, so it's sure to keep me busy in the coming months, and provide plenty of excuses for slow blogging down the road...


2007 update: The student mentioned in the penultimate paragraph did, in fact, find a good job with an optics company in the Hartford area, and now makes considerably more money than I do. Such is the glamorous life of a college professor.)


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I often struggle with this. I love trying to be a jack of all trades, and hate the rest of the phrase - "master of none." (although according to Wikipedia, it goes on - "Jack of all trades, master of none, though ofttimes better than master of one").

To give you another data point - I got a BS in physics, just about done with a MS in EE, and want to go back for a PhD in physics, perhaps after working for a couple of years. Looking for a job with a company that I've interned with a number of times, I was told that I need to make my resume more "targeted." I have some pretty solid job prospects, though.

One of the most useful things I've done from a resume-building standpoint is internships. I got my foot in the door my first year as an undergrad, and have spent every summer since working in a variety of positions. It would have been nice to do research in the summers and write a senior thesis as an undergrad (might have helped me get into physics grad schools rather than EE), but I think the internships go a lot farther towards a job than a thesis does.

By the way, anyone who wants to recruit a potential physics PhD student who has a smattering of experience with semiconductor processing and metrology, programming (mostly Perl, and a bit of C/Matlab/Labview/etc), electronics, vacuum equipment, machining, etc, give me a call :-)

I can't say that I've done any significant plumbing work in the lab (unless you count playing with vacuum systems), but I've done the rest of what's on your list.

I'm also an awful mechanical engineer, a poor mathematician, a mediocre graphic artist, and an indifferent typesetter. The last two are necessary skills for producing theses and papers (many of the journals in my field use author-prepared copy) as well as conference presentations.

For most of those things, I know just enough that I could do it myself if I had to, but it's almost always cheaper (including the cost of my time) to hire somebody who actually knows what he is doing.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 24 May 2007 #permalink

Congrats on the house purchase. My Dad is an inveterate handyman, and he passed that on (the desire to tinker with things, if not the whole package of acquired skills) to me. Have fun putting those jack-of-all-trades skills to use on the house -- it sounds like a blast to me.

Congrats on the house purchase. My Dad is an inveterate handyman, and he passed that on (the desire to tinker with things, if not the whole package of acquired skills) to me. Have fun putting those jack-of-all-trades skills to use on the house -- I think it sounds like a blast.

I love this aspect of being a physics grad student. I've always felt I was too much of a generalist to be an engineer, so experimental physics is the best thing this side of professional liberal arts student. I've become a downright adept machinist - which is nice even if you're outsourcing it because the experience helps you understand how it will be made.

Ah, there is another Adam, albeit one with an uppercase 'A'.

I know what you mean about doing lots of stuff. I am always quantifying my ignorance (or 'learning new things', as one might put it) and it's probably my enthusiasm for working out how to do stuff that led me into physics. Plumbing and electricity are more my bag than, say, tiling and plastering (two tasks which experts make look effortless and I make look horrible). I can do functional carpentry and computer programming is now (or will soon be) my main job.

Graduates with a phyics bachelors reportedly do pretty well financially (although they're not doing physics, but perhaps I repeat myself).

This post really hit close to my heart because you have precisely described exactly what I loved about experimental physics work.

It really didn't matter much what the experiment is, the lab work is what is fun. My favorite part is figuring out how to get the work done from the scraps that are around the lab. My other favorite thing is fixing stuff that isn't working, especially if I didn't design it.

A professor I worked for had a way of determining whether he would let you in his lab or not. He asked you what you did when your car needed its oil changed. Only if you said that you did it yourself would he let you in.

Of course this meant he had to turn down the occasional math stud with no shop ability. Eventually he violated this rule. I wonder what he would have done if he'd seen his hot shot nearly cut his hands off at the wrist when he used them to hold down a beyond-razor-sharp piece of thin sheet steel at the drill press.

great green wall
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