For those of you who don’t know, I’m in the final year of an undergraduate degree in physics. The last core course I have remaining is Electricity and Magnetism, although I also have to fulfill major elective requirements, so ultimately, I’m taking four physics courses this semester. As of now, I have no intention of pursuing a career in physics unless I get into one of the select few graduate programs I’m interested in.
So the first question is “why?” Why waste my time and money working towards a degree in a field that won’t ultimately make me money. To that question, I have two answers:
First, I thoroughly enjoy physics. The subject matter is interesting.
Second, physics is a unique degree in that, like similar subjects such as mathematics, philosophy, and computer science, physics trains the skills of critical thinking and problem solving.
The first response is self-explanatory, and completely subjective. I won’t touch on that for now; however, the second response explains the true value of a physics degree. You see, when a physics major finishes college, and decides to go into a field such as finance in order to make money, the physics major starts at a huge disadvantage when compared to finance majors. This logic makes sense, because a finance major has been training for four years in order to understand the workings of finance, and how to be successful in finance, while a physics major has been talking about why the lattice structure of sodium chloride doesn’t collapse and destroy the universe. For some potential employers, it’s hard to see the crossover.
The thing is, there is crossover. While there are no direct applications of Coulomb’s Law in finance, there is direct application of the critical thinking and problem solving skills learned in physics. Give that recent physics graduate a year, and he can be just as competent in finance as the finance major. Give that recent physics graduate five years, and more often than not that physics major will be better at finance than the finance major will be.
Why is this? Without going into too much detail, the problems encountered in physics are much harder than the problems encountered in most other majors. Physics requires more in the way of critical thinking and intuition and less in the way of tedious work and memorization. The physics major isn’t spending his time in university typing long papers with skills largely learned in previous education, he is spending his time solving some of the world’s historically most complex problems using math and logic. Physics is analogous, in a way, to training in as an MMA fighter, whereas a lot of other specialized majors, such as finance, are like training as a boxer. A boxer has no chance against an MMA fighter in an MMA fight, whereas an MMA fighter fighting a boxer in a boxing match could probably put up a good fight. Additionally, that MMA fighter will certainly pick up boxing much more quickly than an average non-fighter, and will likely pick up boxing a lot faster than a boxer will pick up other martial arts disciplines.