Examples on Non-Academic Career Paths

Sean Mattingly

PhD High-Energy Particle Physics, Dedicated Client Support, Bank of America

Sean Mattingly’s story starts out like many physicists. Both of his parents are university professors, his mother a physics department chair at a small university. Mattingly majored in physics as an undergrad and went straight into graduate school at UW-Madison. He did his PhD work in experimental high-energy particle physics and got a postdoc position with Brown University after graduation. Six years later, he was applying for faculty jobs. Only months after that, he was working for Bank of America. So what happened?

Mattingly says that he had always intended to stay in academia. When he applied for professorships, he says, “I wanted to be at a place where I could do good research.” But he was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with how the academic system works. Both of his parents are professors at a small university and Mattingly says he made about the same money as a postdoc as his parents did as full professors. In addition, he says “physics was becoming more corporate, and I figured if I have to go corporate, I’d rather be working for an actual corporation.”

A friend of Mattingly’s had been working at Bank of America since graduate school, and encouraged him to consider a similar career. At first, Mattingly wasn’t convinced, as he didn’t find the job openings interesting. His friend contacted him again about a different opening, Mattingly says, it was a “really interesting job” with an application hosting organization which “makes sure things run and handles IT infrastructure.” This prompted Mattingly to consider a corporate job. Mattingly says “one thing that’s really interesting at Bank of America and most corporations is that everyone has very narrow job responsibilities, as in, someone configures a database but doesn’t know what’s in the database.” But this job description was different. “My first boss and his boss had come from small companies, and they sold Bank of America on the idea of having generalists in the company who could take care of issues in a more broad way” Mattingly says, and “we were these generalists, working with the different components.” Six months ago, Mattingly joined a different group, which handles the relationship between the hosting organization and the line of business. This means “any questions they have about what’s going on, we handle” he says. His line of work is “very much like doing physics, just not analysis or writing papers – and professors don’t do that stuff anyway” he adds. There are other aspects of corporate life that Mattingly likes. He says “not only do you get paid more, but people actually thank you; they are much more thankful and collegial than academia which really surprised me.”

Mattingly says he didn’t do anything special to prepare for a career outside of academia, “at least nothing I did on purpose” he jokes. He admits that “basically I just got lucky” but he argues that “just having a PhD in physics prepares you for a job outside of physics.” He had some management experience from doing a postdoc but otherwise had no special experience when he got the job. However, he says “if I do decide to go into financial analysis, I will have to do some preparation [for that field]”. He adds, “I’m really happy where I am. I’ve had three promotions and I’ve been there two years.”

Of the career transition, Mattingly says “the only difficult part was letting go of the analysis part of physics; it can be very hard to let it go.” When asked if he received any encouragement from mentors or peers, Mattingly replies “there was nobody encouraging me; this is something you do on your own.” His graduate school and postdoc experience helped him; as a postdoc he was responsible for the data acquisition system for the D-Zero experiment at Fermilab, in charge of making it work and deciding how it would work. But, he says “I’m not really an IT guy, which is what’s funny about all of this; I was using computers as a tool, not because I really like computers.” For his job application, he cut his CV down to two pages, trimmed his publication list of all but his own papers, and highlighted the computing work he had done as a postdoc. He says he “ran it by some friends who were in the corporate world” before sending it in. He advises other students that you “definitely want something that tells people what you did, but has to be short and punchy.” However, he doesn’t think it mattered in his case. When he asked his boss once about his first interview, his boss said within five minutes he could tell Mattingly was intelligent and wanted to apply his skills, and that was what really mattered.

Mattingly’s first position was a combination of working from home and going to the office. He says “I was on call a couple nights a week and if I got called I’d probably work from home the next day, if not then I’d go into the office for basically a 9-5 thing.” His current position gets him home by 5pm. His typical day is “basically dealing with emails and calls with clients in development groups; project-managing, routing calls by putting them in touch with the right person.” Part of the day he goes out to clients’ offices to answer questions and “be a face they know and can talk to directly.” And he adds “if there’s nothing to take care of, I go home early.” He says the advantages of his job are the work schedule and the job stability as well as the acknowledgement he gets for a job well done. He says “there are a lot of people that are happy with what I do”, and adds that “it’s a career that’s easily transferable to another company.” The downside, he says, is that it can be frustrating working for such a large company (about 200,000 people) – he says “if you see something that could be better, it’s difficult to change the system.” However, his job allows him a good lifestyle and good hours. “It’s pretty much a 40-hour week and I can enjoy other hobbies” he says. He adds “I don’t feel guilty when I’m not working. In academia, you feel guilty if you aren’t working on a Saturday. I don’t feel guilty anymore and I don’t even think about work on the weekends.”

Mattingly has some good advice for those thinking about non-traditional careers. He says he was “very afraid” of leaving academia and thinks “at some level you have to throw yourself out there.” Networking helps, he says, and “having a personal contact makes a huge difference” in a job search. “However, if someone wants to do something where they have no contacts, just send out your resumes” he adds. To grad students, he says “have confidence that what you’ve done is important; if [potential employers] don’t recognize that, you don’t want to work there anyway.”

In particular, Mattingly thinks that particle physics graduates (and others in large collaborations) are well-prepared for the corporate world. “I think you get a natural preparation in particle physics because you’re working with these large collaborations” he says. He adds that “just because of the project I was involved with [as a postdoc], I ended up working with everybody on the experiment, people from lots of different backgrounds – this is very important in the corporate world, to know how to read someone, how to talk to them and get what you need.”

To prepare for a career similar to Mattingly’s, he advises that “if you’re going into a big corporation and you think you want to do IT work, I think it’s important to understand how enterprise applications work; knowing a little lingo and the basic architecture of the system impresses people, and it takes probably less than a day to learn this.” He adds that at Bank of America, “the things here are really simple but they’re very big and lots of the people don’t understand the whole system”, so it’s important to understand the big picture. In grad school, Mattingly advises that you get involved with large groups, get exposure to different kinds of people with different backgrounds and learn how to communicate with them. “In the end, if you can communicate well, you're going to provide a lot of value to the corporate world,” he says.

But what about the job market in IT fields? Mattingly says that the “job market in IT is really good; we’ve had job openings for two months that we’re desperate to fill.” He notes that “the general feeling in the field is that in the next 20 years, there will be far more jobs than people to fill them, even with outsourcing to China and India. It appears to be a very good field to be in right now, certainly in infrastructure/support areas. Finding good people is really difficult, and [IT] is pretty highly paid in the financial world.”

Mattingly adds “I think every student should be thinking about a job outside physics.” He notes that “in grad school we all think that we’re on the academic path, but you’re not – there’s a lot of competition for the few jobs available and most of you are going to have to leave the field.” He adds that “a lot of people in grad school stick their head in the sand and don’t think about where their career is going to go. I know some who are very bitter and I think it’s because they didn’t start thinking about their career early on.” Mattingly says he wishes he had known earlier how many skills physicists have, saying “a particle physicist is an impressive individual and we don’t realize that [when we’re in grad school].” He says “I was at the bank two weeks and realized that I was better than all the other people around me. All the fears I had about finding a job outside physics were completely unfounded; if you present yourself well you’re going to get a job.”

Mattingly says his advisor has a unique argument for funding physics research and that it took him a while to realize it meant his skills were marketable outside of physics. He says “my advisor said particle physics should be funded largely because it generates really talented people with a lot of skills and is a great training ground. It is a field that turns out a highly-skilled workforce – nobody tells you this when you’re in grad school, and I wish we told people this when they’re in grad school.”

If you would like to connect with physicists in similar careers to Sean, please check out the APS IMPact program.