Skills

A physicist’s training has applications that reach far beyond the technical aspects of a particular research project. Many of the skills they develop are highly sought after in the “real world.”

Training in physics provides students with skills that have enormous value to potential non-academic employers (see here for a list of skills that are relevant to particular industries). The challenge often lies in communicating this value to the employer.

A university career service (like University of Waterloo’s Centre for Career Action) can work with you to appropriately translate your skills using language tailored to your specific training and the desired position.

To get you started, here is a list of some of the valuable skills you might acquire during physics graduate studies.

EVENT ORGANIZATION

Grad students can get involved in organizing local conferences, hosting visitors in their research group, and running student events. They learn the ins-and-outs of event logistics, including booking rooms for talks, making accommodation reservations, interacting with university administation staff, and more.

LEADERSHIP

Teaching assistantships are part of most graduate programs, and often require leading tutorials and grading student work. A teaching assistant for an undergraduate class is responsible for giving lessons, answering questions, and managing the learning styles of many students. Student committees offer another way for postgraduate students to develop leadership skills.

MANAGING MULTIPLE PRIORITIES

Grad school requires juggling many competing priorities: doing research, writing journal articles, attending courses, submitting homework, preparing tutorials, grading assignments, organizing committee meetings, booking flights and accommodation for conferences, preparing presentations, communicating with collaborators, scheduling meetings with supervisors, hosting visitors – not to mention personal and family life. Many of the deadlines associated with these demands are self-determined, requiring students to develop an independent work ethic and strong organizational skills.

Presentation & COMMUNICATION SKILLS

Presenting and explaining research is a significant part of graduate education. Through committee meetings, conference talks, thesis defenses, tutorials, and journal clubs, students hone their public speaking and presentation skills. They also write journal articles, grant and scholarship applications, and – of course – a thesis. In doing so, they learn how to effectively convey complex and valuable information to others.

PROBLEM SOLVING Skills

Doing physics research is hard. Throughout a typical research project, a graduate student will need to solve many difficult problems. This requires not only technical skills and attention to detail but also personal competencies like dedication, grit, and tenacity.

Research & ANALYTICAL SKILLS

As young researchers, graduate students sort through, read, and analyze a large body of prior work in order to put their projects in the proper context. They learn to interpret information, evaluate its merit, and determine whether it supports or opposes their own research conclusions. Many students also use computer programming and mathematical software to wrangle large sets of data and become adept at using publishing software to share their results.

Teamwork and collaboration

Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Graduate students often collaborate in small or large groups that include senior researchers and faculty, postdoctoral researchers, other graduate students, and sometimes undergraduate students or co-ops. They develop the communication skills needed to contribute productively toward a collective goal. Many research groups use collaborative software tools including Dropbox, Skype, ShareLaTeX, Overleaf, Git, and many others.

Travel

With any luck, a graduate student might get the opportunity to travel to present their work at a research conference in another city or country. This gives the student a chance to develop practical skills such as booking transportation, making accommodation arrangements, managing a small conference budget, applying for visas, and claiming expenses.