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What roles could a Physics major be employed in within the space industry? Systems Engineer or Technician? How rigorously do space companies adhere to engineering degree requirements in the job description?

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    $\begingroup$ Dr. Wernher vin Braun studied physics before his career in space engineering. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Jul 13, 2020 at 10:30
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    $\begingroup$ In my experience, when employers want an engineer they'll hire an engineer. And engineers get training that aren't emphasized in physics, like the design and documentation process, for one. But employers are also more comfortable going with what they know. They might hire the guy with the 2 year electronics degree over the PhD in physics because with the technical degree they know what they're getting. But that may vary for individual employers and applicants, so I don't really know. $\endgroup$
    – Greg
    Jul 14, 2020 at 19:26

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There are lots of jobs in the space industry done by physicists.

Find a project that has a science component and they might need a person with a degree in Physics. They also use people with degrees in Biology, and Chemistry.

Some experiments don't even enter orbit. They are launched from sounding rockets, and capture the data in a short duration flight. Others are launched to orbit planets, or search for planets around other stars. Some orbit the sun, or conduct flybys of other orbiting bodies. Some land on things other than Earth.

If space weather is a concern, then they might need a physicist. Physicists also deal with plasma. You might need a physicist when working on battery technology.

They aren't engineers. They are scientists.

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Dare I write, if you wanted to become an engineer maybe you should have studied engineering.

It may be interpreted as a harsh statement, but you've chosen a more difficult route to achieve a goal.

There is much discussion about diversity in society and the workplace. Hiring people who only have engineering qualifications has a danger of entrenching a mono culture within engineering fields. Having someone with a physics education as an engineer can introduce a skill set which "conventional" engineers do not have.

In the US engineers tend to get a Bachelor of Science as their first degree. It seems to be the accepted path - it's what US colleges tend to offer. Elsewhere in the world engineers get a Bachelor or Engineering degree. It might be a recognition that engineering is more than just science, because it includes amongst other things: economics, accounting, management, human perception and interaction. Apart from being problem solvers, engineers generally design things people will use and interact with, hence human perception and interaction.

It just so happens, yesterday I can across this news item about a person who finally got a Ph. D in Physics at the age of 89. Having had an interest in physics when he was young, in the 1940s, being a European emigre in the US he was advised by family to enter the medical field because of the employment opportunities it presented, as opposed to physics; which is what he did.

The small number of physicists I worked with were not hired to be physicists and had become retrained/re-educated in other fields of science to be employed.

Industry doesn't treat physicists well, possibly because industry doesn't really know what physicists have to offer, academia might have a better treatment. Unfortunately, these days people have to be able to hit the ground running and be immediately useful to their employers. Previously there used to be a period of grace, were a person was permitted to find their feet within the organization and eventually become useful.

To work in the space industry, you may have to sideline your physics qualification and do a bridging course in engineering, something like a graduate diploma, if they such things are still offered.

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    $\begingroup$ Not all industries are the same in this respect. In the case of the semiconductor manufacturing industry folks with degrees in Chemistry, Physics and Electrical Engineering work side-by-side; the Ph.D. simply demonstrates that you can learn and do, once one is on the job there is so much more that one must learn that isn't taught in universities what's really important is to maintain a high first derivative. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Nov 15, 2021 at 0:00
  • $\begingroup$ ...Applied Physics, Material Science, Industrial Engineering... $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Nov 15, 2021 at 10:19
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Fred's answer is great and clearly written by someone well-acquainted with the hiring situation in space. I have no real-world experience applying for work in this sector.

At the same time, I wonder if

To work in the space industry, you may have to sideline your physics qualification and do a bridging course in engineering, something like a graduate diploma, if they such things are still offered.

might be slightly pessimistic.

For instance, ESA has a document specifically regarding all the different positions that physicists can find in the space sector.

A spot-check of various jobs at SpaceX shows that physicists are explicitly invited to apply to many 'engineering' positions, particularly those that involve a specific, advanced field of expertise (like optical networking).

Beyond spacecraft and launcher companies, there are countless space sub-specializations that physicists are well qualified for, like remote sensing - although pursuing these might require a PhD.


It is true that, from a cursory glance, most of the superior positions associated with specific spacecraft, (e.g. Ingenuity) are filled by people with engineering degrees. A famous exception is Randall Monroe, who started work at Langley Research with a physics degree.

The same appears to be true of most of the high-profile tech-transfer technologists into SpaceX (e.g. PICA-X [Dan Rasky], g-fold[Lars Blackmore]); most seem to be engineers. On the other hand, the majority of behind-the-scenes workers on those technologies, at Ames and corporations, appear to be research physicists.

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