Physicist Career

Physics is a science dealing with the interaction of matter and energy. Physicists study the behavior and structure of matter, the ways that energy is generated and transferred, and the relationships between matter and energy. They perform experiments and analyze the products or results of those experiments. They may teach, oversee scientific projects, or act as consultants in a laboratory. They inves­tigate and attempt to understand the fundamental laws of nature and how these laws may be formulated and put to use. There are approximately 16,000 physicists and astronomers (a subfield of physics) employed in the United States.

Physicist Career History

PhysicistAbout 330 B.C., when Aristo­tle was writing Physics, phys­ics was considered a branch of philosophy. It wasn’t until over a thousand years later that phys­ics evolved into a mathematically based science.

Galileo is often called the first modern physicist. His most famous experiment, in which he dropped a 10-pound weight and a one-pound weight from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, proved that all weights fall at the same speed. Both weights hit the ground simultaneously. Galileo’s later work in astronomy, with the aid of a telescope, proved that the moon was not smooth. Through mathematical calculations, he proved that the moon reflects the light of the Sun.

In the four centuries since Galileo demonstrated the value of conducting experiments to determine whether or not scientific theory may be valid, scholars have made great strides. Michael Faraday conducted experiments that made the modern age of electricity possible. A genera­tion later, Thomas Edison took advantage of his studies to produce more than a thousand inventions, including the incandescent light and the motion picture. In 1897, Sir Joseph John (J.J.) Thompson proved the existence of the electron. A year later, Marie Curie and Pierre Curie discovered radium. Niels Bohr proposed a theory of atomic structure; Albert Einstein developed the math­ematical theories that have led us into the atomic age.

Physicists have made great progress in recent years in probing the depths of the ocean and conducting research in nuclear energy, communications, and aerospace.

Physicist Job Description

Physics is the most comprehensive of the natural sciences because it includes the behavior of all kinds of matter from the smallest particles to the largest galaxies.

Basic, or pure, physics is a study of the behavior of the universe and is organized into a series of related laws. Basic physics can be studied from two points of view, experimental and theoretical. A physicist may work from one or both of these points of view. The experimental physicist performs experiments to gather information. The results of the experiments may support or contradict existing theories or establish new ideas where no theories existed before.

The theoretical physicist constructs theories to explain experimental results. If the theories are to stand the test of time, they must also predict the results of future exper­iments. Both the experimental physicist and the theoreti­cal physicist try to extend the limits of what is known.

Not all physicists are concerned with testing or devel­oping new theories. Applied physicists develop useful devices and procedures and may hold alternative job titles. Various types of engineers, such as electrical and mechanical engineers, are trained in physics. Applied physics and engineering have led to the development of such devices as television sets, airplanes, washing machines, satellites, and elevators.

Physicists rely heavily on mathematics. Mathematical statements are more precise than statements in words alone. Moreover, the results of experiments can be accu­rately compared with the various theories only when mathematical techniques are used.

The various laws of physics attempt to explain the behavior of nature in a simple and general way. Even the most accepted laws of physics, however, are subject to change. Physicists continually subject the laws of physics to new tests to see if, under new conditions, they still hold true. If they do not hold true, changes must be made in the laws, or entirely new theories must be proposed.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the laws of phys­ics were tested extensively and found to be too narrow to explain many of the new discoveries. A new body of theories was needed. The older body of laws is called clas­sical physics; the new is called modern physics.

Classical physics is usually divided into several branches, each of which deals with a group of related phenomena. Mechanics is the study of forces and their effect on matter. Hydromechanics studies the mechanics of liquids and gases. Optics is the study of the behav­ior of light. Physicists in this field study such things as lasers, liquid crystal displays, or light-emitting diodes. Thermodynamics is the study of heat. Acoustics is the study of sound, such as in recording studio acoustics, underwater sound waves, and electroacoustical devices such as loudspeakers. The study of electricity and mag­netism also forms a branch of classical physics. Research in this area includes microwave propagation, the mag­netic properties of matter, and electrical devices for sci­ence and industry.

Modern physics is also broken up into various fields of study. Atomic physics is the study of the structure of atoms and the behavior of electrons, one of the kinds of particles that make up the atom. Nuclear physics is the study of the nucleus, or center, of the atom and of the forces that hold the nucleus together. High-energy phys­ics, or particle physics, is the study of the production of subatomic particles from other particles and energy. The characteristics of these various particles are studied using particle accelerators, popularly called atom smashers.

Solid-state physics is the study of the behavior of solids, particularly crystalline solids. Cryogenic, or low-temperature, techniques are often used in research into the solid state. Research in solid-state physics has pro­duced transistors, integrated circuits, and masers that have improved computers, radios, televisions, and navi­gation and guidance systems for satellites. Plasma phys­ics is the study of the properties of highly ionized gases. Physicists in this field are concerned with the generation of thermonuclear power.

Although biology and geology are separate sciences in their own right, the concepts of physics can also be applied directly to them. Where this application has been made, a new series of sciences has developed. To sepa­rate them from their parent sciences, they are known by such names as biophysics (the physics of living things) and geophysics (the physics of the earth). Similarly, the sciences of chemistry and physics sometimes overlap in subject matter as well as in viewpoint and procedure, cre­ating physical chemistry. In astrophysics, the techniques of physics are applied to astronomical observations to determine the properties of celestial objects.

Most physicists are engaged in research, and some combine their research with teaching at the university level. Some physicists are employed in industries, such as petroleum, communications, manufacturing, and medicine.

Physicist Career Requirements

High School

If you are interested in becoming a physicist, take college preparatory courses. You should take as much mathemat­ics as is offered in your school as well as explore as many of the sciences as possible. English skills are important, as you must write up your results, communicate with other scientists, and lecture on your findings. In addition, get as much experience as possible working with computers.

Postsecondary Training

Physicists may have one, two, or three degrees. Physicists at the doctoral level command the jobs with the greatest responsibility, such as jobs in basic research and develop­ment. Those at the master’s level often work in manu­facturing or applied research. Those with a bachelor’s degree face the most competition and generally work as technicians in engineering, software development, or other scientific areas.

Some employers in industry are attracted to those with a broad scientific background. With a bachelor’s degree in physics or a related science, you may be hired with the intention of being trained on the job in a spe­cialty area. As you develop competency in the special field, you may then consider returning to graduate school to concentrate your study in this particular field.

In addition, some teaching opportunities are available to those with bachelor’s degrees at the primary and secondary school level. However, in order to teach at the col­lege level (and even at some secondary schools), you will need an advanced degree. While a master’s degree may be acceptable to teach at a junior college, most universities require that professors have their doctorates. Those with a master’s degree may obtain a job as an assistant in a physics department in a university while working toward a Ph.D. in physics.

More than 510 colleges and universities offer a bach­elor’s degree in physics, and about 253 schools offer master’s and doctoral programs. The American Institute of Physics provides a list of graduate institutions; see the end of this article for contact information.

Certification or Licensing

Those who plan to teach at the secondary school level may be able to obtain a teaching position with a bach­elor’s degree if they also meet the certification require­ments for teaching (established by the state department of education in each state). Because different states have different certification requirements, undergraduates should research the requirements for the state in which they hope to teach.

Other Requirements

Physicists are detail oriented and precise. They must have patience and perseverance and be self-motivated. Physi­cists should be able to work alone or on research teams.

Exploring Physicist Career

If you are interested in a j ob in physics, talk with your science teachers and research careers in the school library. See if your school offers science clubs, such as a physics or astronomy club, to get involved with others that hold the same interests as you. Participation in science fair proj­ects will give you invaluable insight into theory, experi­mentation, and the scientific process. If your school does not sponsor science fairs, you may find fairs sponsored by your school district, state, or a science society.


Approximately 16,000 physicists and astronomers work in the United States, most of them in industry, in research and development laboratories, and in teaching. Twenty-five percent of all physicists work for the federal gov­ernment, mostly in the Department of Defense. Other government physicists work in the Departments of Energy, Health and Human Services, and Commerce and for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Those working in industry jobs may hold a j ob title other than physicist, such as computer programmer, engineer, or systems developer.

Starting Out

The career services office of the college or university from which you obtain a degree will often have listings of jobs available. In addition, many industries send personnel interviewers to college campuses with physics programs to seek out and talk to students who are about to receive degrees. Students should also attend industry, career, and science fairs to find out about job openings and interview opportunities.

Those who are interested in teaching in public schools should apply to several school systems in which they may want to work. Some of the larger school systems also send personnel interviewers to campuses to talk with students who are about to receive degrees in science and who also have acquired the necessary courses in education.

Teaching jobs in universities are often obtained either through the contacts of the student’s own faculty mem­bers in the degree program or through the career services office of the university.

Jobs with government agencies require individuals to first pass a civil service examination. For more informa­tion on federal employment, check out the USA Jobs Web site,


High school physics teachers can advance in salary and responsibility as they acquire experience. Their advance­ment is also likely to be facilitated by the attaining of advanced degrees. The college or university teacher can advance from assistant to full professor and perhaps to head of the department. Higher rank also carries with it additional income and responsibilities.

The research physicist employed by a university advances by handling more responsibility for planning and conducting research programs. Salaries should also increase with experience in research over a period of years.

Physicists in federal government agencies advance in rank and salary as they gain experience. They may reach top positions in which they are asked to make decisions vital to the defense effort or to the safety and welfare of the country.

Scientists employed by industry are usually the highest paid in the profession and with experience can advance to research director positions.


According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median salary for physicists was $89,810 in 2005. The lowest paid 10 percent earned $49,070 or less; the highest 10 percent earned $136,870 or more. Physicists employed by the federal government had median earnings of $104,917 in 2005.

In 2004, median salaries for members of the Ameri­can Institute of Physics ranged from $72,000 for those with a bachelor’s degree to $104,000 for those with a doctorate.

As highly trained and respected scientists, physicists usually receive excellent benefits packages, including health plans, vacation and sick leave, and other benefits.

Work Environment

Most physicists work a 40-hour week under pleasant circumstances. Laboratories are usually well equipped, clean, well lighted, temperature controlled, and func­tional. Adequate safety measures are taken when there is any sort of physical hazard involved in the work. Often, groups of scientists work together as a team so closely that their association may last over a period of many years.

Physicists who teach at the high school, college, or university level have the added benefit of the academic calendar, which gives them ample time away from teach­ing and meeting with students in order to pursue their own research, studies, or travel.

Physicist Career Outlook

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, employment for physicists should grow more slowly than the average through 2014. Although increases in government research, particularly in the Departments of Defense and Energy, as well as in physics-related research in the private sector, will create more oppor­tunities for physicists, there will be stiff competition among Ph.D. holders for basic positions. The need to replace retiring workers will account for almost all new job openings.

Private industry budgets for research and develop­ment will continue to grow, but many laboratories are expected to reduce their physics-based research to focus on product and software development and applied or manufacturing research. Opportunities will exist for physicists who work with computer technology, infor­mation technology, semiconductor technology, and other applied sciences.

Job candidates with doctoral degrees have the best outlook for finding work. Graduates with bachelor’s degrees are generally underqualified for most physicist jobs. They may find better employment opportunities as engineers, technicians, or computer specialists. With a suitable background in education, they may teach phys­ics at the high school level.

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