Who has more options physicists or engineers

The profession of physicist

Physicists - aren't those guys with the lumberjack shirts and the beards? Or the smart high-flyers and all-rounders who always talk about the big bang at parties? There are certainly enough clichés. The times are long gone when physicists could only be found in the laboratory or hatched brilliant theories.

But what exactly do physicists actually do after graduation or a doctorate? Nowadays the answers can be found in banks and insurance companies, in law firms and software companies, in optics and semiconductor companies, in management consultancies, in the automotive or energy industry and of course in research institutes - at all levels of the hierarchy. A few prominent examples of physicists who have made it to the top are the Siemens board member for Corporate Technology, Hermann Requardt, the spokesman for the board of SAP AG, Henning Kagermann, a qualified theoretical physicist, or the former head of McKinsey Germany, Jürgen Kluge.

But before a graduate can pursue such a career, they have to say goodbye to the university after completing their diploma, master's or doctorate - except of course for those who want to stay in research, usually with the aim of becoming a professor. While the start of a career in a company is still relatively clearly mapped out for a mechanical engineer or an electrical engineer, a physics graduate is now confronted with a multitude of opportunities that are open to him depending on individual knowledge and inclinations. This is primarily due to the fact that, in contrast to mechanical engineering or electrical engineering, for physicists there is no physical industry in the narrower sense.

On the other hand, physics is the basis of most technical disciplines, and therefore physicists are considered generalists among natural scientists, with correspondingly diverse fields of activity - from classic research and development tasks in technology companies to management consultancies and financial service providers. Here, the physicists benefit from their ability to systematically apply the analytical skills they have acquired during their studies and their physical way of thinking to the solution of new problems. “What I like about physicists is that they are able to think. Don't muddle ”is how a manager of a consulting company described this quality. And the physicist and science journalist Ranga Yogeshwar sums it up: "We are the intellectual all-purpose weapons."

Unemployment figures among physicists

Physicists therefore often come into play when there are no special courses or appropriately trained specialists for new technologies. In times of economic downturn, this generalist advantage also harbors the risk that physicists will miss out on the job market because they are said to be able to do a little of everything but not really do anything. In addition, physicists are usually rightly said to have a certain lack of practicality. Very few graduates have an idea of ​​how a business oriented towards economic success works, in which the marketing of products is in the foreground. “The strength of physicists lies in research and development, using new approaches and concepts to achieve specified parameters. The engineers guarantee that this will become a product ”, says a managing director from the laser industry.

After the labor market for physicists had darkened in the early 1990s, the tide has now turned again. Since 1998 there have been practically no unemployed physics graduates. But not only among the graduates, but also in general, the job market for physicists has relaxed significantly. From a maximum of around 4,500 (Uni and FH) in 1994, the number of unemployed fell to around 2,500 by the turn of the millennium. After the “dot-com bubble” burst, the number briefly rose again to around 3,200, but has fallen dramatically again since 2004 to around 1,300. All age groups benefit from this relaxation, especially those over 45 years of age . The turnaround in the labor market is also reflected in the fact that the number of job advertisements looking for physicists is increasing. A total of around 80,000 physicists are employed in Germany today.

Industry spectrum

Industry overview for physicists

In the past two decades, the proportion of physicists who are employed in research and teaching in the public service at universities, other research institutions such as Max Planck or Fraunhofer Institutes, as well as schools or authorities, has continuously declined: This area accounted for 1988 65 percent, while only 35 percent were employed in industry and business. For the 1997 graduate class, however, a study by the HochschulInformations System GmbH (HIS) shows that the proportion of physicists in public research and teaching had fallen to 28 percent, while 31 percent of the graduates were employed in an industrial company and 39 percent in a service company. The physicists employed in industry and business are divided into a wide range of sectors, as the survey of its members carried out in 2001 by the German Physical Society revealed. This division is by no means static, but follows technological advances and economic cycles. Nuclear technology or space technology, for example, no longer play a major role in the labor market of physicists, while the software and semiconductor industries have clearly gained in importance, as a look at the age-dependent distribution shows impressively: According to this, the software industry is taking on the under-35s. Year olds even account for 25 percent, the semiconductor industry 16 percent. Unfortunately, there is no more recent survey on the range of physicists in industry and business. The professional fields whose importance has grown in recent years also include, for example, photovoltaics and energy trading. In addition, you can find physicists in a variety of other areas, from politicians like Angela Merkel or Oskar Lafontaine to the writer Ralf Bönt or the artist and photographer Jochen Viehoff.

But not only the industries vary greatly, but also the areas of activity within the industries: Although almost every second physicist employed in the economy has to do with development and technology, the activities of physicists also include industrial research, production and manufacturing , Corporate management, quality control, sales / distribution and marketing. Accordingly, physicists have a wide range of options open to them, even within a selected industry, including careers: 36 percent of physicists were employees in management positions five years after graduating.


The starting salary of a physicist in industry and business depends heavily on the personal career and the individual knowledge and experience that an applicant brings with him. If, for example, an applicant dealt with a special type of laser during their doctorate and now applies to a company that manufactures precisely these lasers, this specialist knowledge will be noticeable in the wallet. The same applies, for example, to knowledge of the Chinese language and a company that has business relationships with China. The salary development is also very different from person to person. Five years after their exams, the 1997 graduates earned an average of 52,500 euros. Electrical engineers, mechanical engineers and computer scientists earn slightly higher incomes than physicists, while chemists and biologists receive lower incomes.

The variety of possible fields of activity for physicists is also expressed in the fact that the requirements for the subject-specific knowledge acquired during their studies are very different. At least 41 percent of employed physicists (HIS study) state that they are not adequately employed in terms of their professional qualifications - these are primarily physicists in the software industry, consultants and generally physicists in management positions, for whose work the subject-specific knowledge is more of are of minor importance. This value is by far the highest among physicists; for mathematicians and biologists it is 30 percent, for chemists and engineers around 30 percent. But even physicists in technology-related activities cannot rest on their specialist knowledge: “A physicist who has made a career with us no longer works as a physicist; he has to mentally develop halfway to become an engineer, ”says a department head at Volkswagen. However, 82 percent of physicists state that they are adequately employed with regard to the level of work tasks, 74 percent say yes with regard to the professional position.


Strengths and weaknesses of physicists

If the subject-specific knowledge is of secondary importance for so many physicists, the question arises whether they even had to study physics for their work. The European REFLEX study, which surveyed the 2000 graduates in 2005, provides information on this. According to this, only 19 percent of the physicists surveyed actually had to study physics, while 61 percent stated that they could also do their job while studying a related subject. With at least 13 percent, a completely different subject would have been better suited. If it's not about the expertise, what other skills have the physicists acquired? Not surprisingly, physicists call “analytical thinking” with a clear margin (only mathematicians mention this competence more often, graduates of other disciplines much less often), followed by the ability to acquire new knowledge quickly. A recruiter from Deutsche Bank underscores this result with the words: "For investment banking, the physicist's ability to penetrate complex issues and think analytically qualifies him above all else. We are convinced that this is promoted more strongly by studying physics than by any other Studies. ”And physicists are said to have another quality: frustration tolerance! Markus Dilger, former head of research at Infineon and today managing director at Carl Zeiss NTS GmbH, says: “Anyone who has stood at the cryostat and filled in this helium at night, and then the whole thing is lubricated and the measurement does not work ... Anyone who has endured it , he actually has everything he needs. "

Regardless of whether they work in a physics-related or non-physics-related occupation, three quarters of the physicists surveyed are satisfied with their work, the working conditions, the working atmosphere and the creative options. And looking back, 81 percent of the physicists surveyed said that they would study physics again.

Literature tip

Big Business and Big Bang, Physics professional and study guide, by Max Rauner and Stefan Jorda, 2nd expanded edition, Wiley-VCH Weinheim (2008)