The sky is not the limit

Analytical skills acquired studying nanotechnology and outer space can be applied in many careers
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The Independent Online

Have you ever wondered why the sky is blue? Ms Kwan Cheung, aged 20 from Bournemouth, did and that set her off on her present path studying for an MSc in Physics at University College London. She became fascinated with this question and others such as: how can light behave both as a wave and a particle? And why does the universe appear to look the same no matter which direction you view it from?

Now in her third year, she has found the UCL course extremely challenging. Quantum mechanics, astronomy, thermal physics, electro-magnetism, solid state physics - she has studied a wide range of topics. "With such a varied programme, there are lots of opportunities to develop transferable skills such as communication, teamwork, problem solving and computer literacy, which are the key skills employers nowadays are looking for from the ideal candidate for any job," she says.

"Graduates with a physics degree go into research, engineering, teaching, banking and accountancy. And it is not unheard of for physics graduates to go into advertising and design."

Ms Cheung is now thinking of doing a one-year MSc in electronic engineering before embarking on a career in that field.

Physics graduates are indeed sought after by commercial and industrial sectors far beyond the obviously physics-based industries. This is because they offer many transferable skills including simplification by approximation, systems analysis, hypothesis generation and problem solving. These skills also enable physicists to adapt rapidly to business management, despite the absence of significant commercial content in a typical physics degree.

Information technology, telecoms, the pharmaceutical industry, financial analysis in banking, environmental science, energy technology, intellectual property law and medical physics are all areas where physics graduates are in demand.

An education in physics and related research techniques, in short, is increasingly being recognised as outstanding analytical training and many physics graduates are finding well-paid jobs in systems modelling, business consulting and the financial sector.

Just how diverse a range of job opportunities is available can perhaps be illustrated by the case of 26-year-old Matt Thomas. He graduated from Warwick University in 1999 with a MPhys (2.1). He then joined a firm of building services consultants, Max Fordham, which specialises in designing environmentally friendly, energy-saving buildings.

While architects design the buildings, and structural engineers hold them up, he and his colleagues make the spaces work, he says. This April, after just four years, he was made a partner - one of 48 in the firm. Today Mr Thomas earns around £30,000 a year. He is currently working with a team that is redesigning the Young Vic theatre in south London. The idea is to retain the auditorium but add two new studio theatres.

Physicists, he says, bring an ability to understand things from a basic to a complex level. They are clear thinkers who are capable of going back to first principles. They break a problem down into its constituent parts. "I never really thought of holistic building services before," he said. "I actually saw the advert, which was for scientists/engineers who are interested in building, and I thought: 'Well, how can you not be interested in buildings? You have to live with them every day.'"

He and his colleagues use physics among other disciplines including mathematics, engineering and chemistry, to help them design their buildings, but they are not engaged in the kind of ground-breaking developmental physics to be found in, say, the defence industry.

Also, today an increasing number of young physicists are starting up their own companies to bring their own ideas to fruition in the marketplace. Such start-ups allow the original researchers to retain control of the idea and avoid the long drawn-out process of persuading existing companies to get over their aversion to imported ideas.

One good example of this in America is the E Ink Corporation, which emerged from the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The Media Lab produced an electronic ink, which could be used in commercial signs, books and newspapers. The ink is a so-called "smart" material that responds to an electronic field. Physicist Joseph Jacobson and two MIT undergraduates - Jonathan David Albert, a mechanical engineer, and Barrett Comiskey, a mathematician - worked together to develop the idea which has just spawned its first practical application: a display board for sales messages.

Traditional physics-based industries, of course, still continue to employ large numbers of physicists. Such industries include defence, the transport sector and the nuclear and power-generation industries. However, the way physicists are employed in these industries has changed a lot during the past decade.

In the defence industry, for example, the emphasis has shifted from delivering deterrent through sophisticated means of attack to developing means of intelligent defence. The modelling of weaponry is now taking over from live testing.

The transport industry is also investing considerable effort in developing more efficient vehicles and greener fuels that do not harm the environment. Spin-offs from basic research are even being used to solve age-old problems such as how do you remove leaves from railway tracks.

LaserThor, a spin-out company that emerged from the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, has deployed the lab's knowledge of high-power lasers to get rid of leaves and thus save the UK rail industry time and money.

The nuclear industry is increasingly concentrating on decommissioning work and environmental monitoring has become a major activity. Green issues have also come to the fore in the power generation industry. Here physicists are being employed to develop and improve the efficiencies of alternative sources of energy for the future.

In the past decade, new technologies such as fibre-optics and nanotechology have emerged. Nanotechology is the business of making things in very small dimensions. Photonics is no longer confined to transmitting data from place to place. It is now possible to devise integrated optical circuits that can perform some of the signal processing previously performed electronically. And they can do this faster, more reliably and more cheaply.

One outstandingly successful physics graduate is Dr Dolores Byrne, who is now the managing director of the public sector arm of QinetiQ, formerly the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA), which researches weapons, radars, ships, tanks, secure telecoms and encryption techniques. Ms Byrne graduated from Queen's University, Belfast, and went on to do a PhD in electro-optics. After working in academia, she moved to the MOD's Admiralty Surface Weapons Establishment. Eleven years later she completed a part-time MBA and embarked on a career in management, while at the same time bringing up a family.

"Physics," she says, "teaches you how to think and to try different approaches to problems: these are generic skills for many professions. If I were asked to offer advice to someone considering whether to study physics, I would say that it was a gateway to many careers - an excellent choice."