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A physicist could...

Develop clean, unlimited fusion energy. the sun Design a laser to fix people's vision problems. diagram of lasik eye surgery
Research maglev technology to prototype high speed trains. bullet train Simulate a roller coaster ride on a computer. roller coaster
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Key Facts & Information

Overview Physicists have a big goal in mind—to understand the nature of the entire universe and everything in it! To reach that goal, they observe and measure natural events seen on Earth and in the universe, and then develop theories, using mathematics, to explain why those phenomena occur. Physicists take on the challenge of explaining events that happen on the grandest scale imaginable to those that happen at the level of the smallest atomic particles. Their theories are then applied to human-scale projects to bring people new technologies, like computers, lasers, and fusion energy.
Key Requirements Curiosity, imagination, initiative, as well as strong math, problem-solving, and analytical skills.
Minimum Degree Bachelor's degree
Subjects to Study in High School Chemistry, physics, computer science, algebra, geometry, calculus; if available, statistics
Median Salary
US Mean Annual Wage
Min Wage
Projected Job Growth (2010-2020) Faster than Average (14% to 20%)

Meet Associate Project Scientist Ivo Gough from the University of California at Irvine.

Watch an interview with a real-life physicist, Dr. David Milstead, who never stops learning, hopes to make a better world for everyone, and is searching for a mysterious magnetic monopole.

Read or listen to an interview with Dr. Leon Lederman, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1988 for his his work with subatomic particles, like the mysterious top quark.

Related Occupations
Source: O*Net, BLS

Training, Other Qualifications

Because most jobs are in basic research and development, a doctoral degree is the usual educational requirement for physicists. Those with master’s degrees qualify for some jobs in applied research and development; whereas those with bachelor’s degrees often qualify as research assistants or for other occupations related to physics.

Education and Training

A PhD degree in physics, or closely related fields, is typically required for basic research positions, independent research in industry, faculty positions, and advancement to managerial positions. This prepares students for a career in research through rigorous training in theory, methodology, and mathematics. Most physicists specialize in a sub-field during graduate school and continue working in that area afterward.

Additional experience and training in a postdoctoral research appointment, although not required, is important for physicists aspiring to permanent positions in basic research in universities and government laboratories. Many physics PhD holders ultimately teach at the college or university level.

Master’s degree holders usually do not qualify for basic research positions, but may qualify for many kinds of jobs requiring a physics background, including positions in manufacturing and applied research and development. Increasingly, many master’s degree programs are specifically preparing students for physics-related research and development that does not require a PhD degree. These programs teach students specific research skills that can be used in private-industry jobs. In addition, a master’s degree coupled with state certification usually qualifies one for teaching jobs in high schools or at 2-year colleges.

Those with bachelor’s degrees in physics are rarely qualified to fill positions in research or in teaching at the college level. They are, however, usually qualified to work as technicians or research assistants in engineering-related areas, in software development and other scientific fields, or in setting up computer networks and sophisticated laboratory equipment. Increasingly, some may qualify for applied research jobs in private industry or take on nontraditional physics roles, often in computer science, such as systems analysts or database administrators. Some become science teachers in secondary schools.

Other Qualifications

Mathematical ability, problem-solving and analytical skills, an inquisitive mind, imagination, and initiative are important traits for anyone planning a career in physics. Prospective physicists who hope to work in industrial laboratories applying physics knowledge to practical problems should broaden their educational background to include courses outside of physics, such as economics, information technology, and business management. Good oral and written communication skills also are important because many physicists work as part of a team, write research papers or proposals, or have contact with clients or customers with non-physics backgrounds.

Nature of the Work

Watch pbs.org NOVA particle physics career video
Watch this NOVA scienceNOW video
to visit the largest international particle physics laboratory in the world--CERN--where physicists smash atomic particles together in a 16 mile circular loop that passes through two countries.

Physicists explore and identify basic principles and laws governing the motion, energy, structure, and interactions of matter. Some physicists study theoretical areas, such as the nature of time and the origin of the universe; others apply their knowledge of physics to practical areas, such as the development of advanced materials, electronic and optical devices, and medical equipment.

Physicists design and perform experiments with high-tech equipment, such as lasers, particle accelerators, electron microscopes, and mass spectrometers. On the basis of their observations and analysis, they attempt to discover and explain laws describing the forces of nature, such as gravity, electromagnetism, and nuclear interactions. Experiments also help physicists find ways to apply physical laws and theories to problems in nuclear energy, electronics, optics, materials, communications, aerospace technology, and medical instrumentation.

Most physicists work in research and development (R&D). While some do basic research to increase scientific knowledge, others conduct applied research to build upon the discoveries made through basic research, and work to develop new devices, products, and processes. For example, basic research in solid-state physics led to the development of transistors and, then, to integrated circuits used in computers.

Physicists also design research equipment, which can often even lead to additional, unexpected uses. For example, lasers are used in surgery, microwave devices function in ovens, and measuring instruments can analyze blood or the chemical content of foods.

A small number of physicists work in inspection, testing, quality control, and other production-related industrial jobs.

Much physics research is done in small or medium-sized laboratories. However, experiments in plasma, nuclear, and high-energy physics, as well as in some other areas of physics, require extremely large, expensive equipment, such as particle accelerators. Physicists in these sub-fields often work in large teams. Although physics research may require extensive experimentation in laboratories, research physicists still spend a lot of time in offices, planning, recording, analyzing, and reporting on research.

Physicists generally specialize in one of many sub-fields:

  • Elementary particle physics
  • Nuclear physics
  • Atomic and molecular physics
  • Condensed matter physics (solid-state physics)
  • Optics
  • Acoustics
  • Space physics
  • Plasma physics
  • Physics of fluids.

Some specialize in a subdivision of one of these sub-fields. For example, within condensed matter physics, specialties include superconductivity, crystallography, and semiconductors. However, all physics involves the same fundamental principles, so specialties may overlap, and physicists may switch from one sub-field to another. In addition, growing numbers of physicists work in interdisciplinary fields, such as biophysics, chemical physics, and geophysics.

Work Environment

Most physicists do not encounter unusual hazards in their work. Some physicists temporarily work away from home at national or international facilities with unique equipment, such as particle accelerators. Physicists whose work depends on grant money, are often under pressure to write grant proposals to keep their work funded.

Physicists often work regular hours in laboratories and offices. At times, however, those who are deeply involved in research may work long or irregular hours.

On the Job

  • Perform complex calculations as part of the analysis and evaluation of data, using computers.
  • Describe and express observations and conclusions in mathematical terms.
  • Analyze data from research conducted to detect and measure physical phenomena.
  • Report experimental results by writing papers for scientific journals or by presenting information at scientific conferences.
  • Design computer simulations to model physical data so that it can be better understood.
  • Collaborate with other scientists in the design, development, and testing of experimental, industrial, or medical equipment, instrumentation, and procedures.
  • Direct testing and monitoring of contamination of radioactive equipment, and recording of personnel and plant area radiation exposure data.
  • Observe the structure and properties of matter, and the transformation and propagation of energy, using equipment such as masers, lasers, and telescopes, in order to explore and identify the basic principles governing these phenomena.
  • Develop theories and laws on the basis of observation and experiments, and apply these theories and laws to problems in areas such as nuclear energy, optics, and aerospace technology.
  • Teach physics to students.

Source: BLS

Companies That Hire Physicists

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Additional Information

  • American Institute of Physics, Career Services Division and Education and Employment Division, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740-3843. Internet: www.aip.org
  • American Physical Society: www.aps.org


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