Physicist Job Description
Physicists study the laws and properties that govern matter, space, time, and energy.
Because physics applies to everything in the universe and nobody can ever hope to understand all of it, physicists normally specialize in a subfield. Here are some examples of popular specializations:
Atomic, molecular, and optical physicists study the behavior of electrons, light, atoms, and simple molecules. Each of these areas are highly specialized, but there is unavoidable overlap between the specialties.
Astrophysicists study the physical properties of the universe — and yes, this is just as expansive of a field as it sounds. Their work largely overlaps with the work of astronomers, so astrophysics is a subfield of both physics and astronomy.
Particle and nuclear physicists study electrons, nuclei, quarks, and other subatomic and atomic particles. These physicists often work with nuclear power generation, nuclear medicine, and magnetic resonance imaging.
Medical physicists apply their knowledge of physics to the creation of new medical technologies and treatments. Without medical physicists, we wouldn’t have ultrasounds, MRIs, or radiation-based cancer treatments.
Condensed matter physicists study phenomena of condensed phases of matter. If you’re not a physicist, you are probably most familiar with liquid and solid phases, but the superconducting phase, ferromagnetic phase, and antiferromagnetic phase are examples of other condensed phases that are often studied. Presently, most physicists are condensed matter physicists.
Work Environment and Schedule
Most physicists are employed by research and development firms, colleges and universities, and the federal government.
The majority of physics research is conducted in small and medium laboratories, though some branches of physics (such as nuclear physics) require the use of extremely large equipment like nuclear reactors and particle accelerators.
In some cases, physicists are required to travel extensively to meet with clients or visit laboratories that have rare and valuable equipment that they need to conduct their research.
Regardless of the area that they work on, physicists spend a lot of their time working in an office environment where they analyze data, develop reports, and plan experiments.
Most physicists work full time.
How to Become a Physicist
A minimum of a master’s degree is required to work as a physicist, but a Ph.D. in physics is required for most positions.
If you want to earn a graduate degree in physics, you should get an undergraduate degree in physics or astronomy. These programs provide students with the broad background in mathematics and physics that they will need in their graduate studies.
Master’s level programs generally focus on providing students with the skills that they will need on the job. Many graduates of master’s programs go on to work at research and development firms.
Ph.D. programs in physics normally require 5-7 years to complete. Graduate level courses include courses in advanced mathematics and computer science. Since many physicists use computers to generate models and analyze data, a background in programming can be extremely useful.
After completing a Ph.D., many graduates spend 2-3 years working in temporary postdoctoral research positions. These positions allow them the opportunity to work with advanced physicists, and help them hone in on their interests. Sometimes, these positions can lead to permanent employment.
There are currently 18,300 physicists in the United States, with 800 new physicist job openings created each year.
Physicist jobs are not expected to see much growth beyond their current levels in the next decade.
Physicist salaries can vary depending on your experience, the location, company, industry, and benefits provided. Nationwide, most physicists make between $79,300 – $138,600 per year, or $38.10 – $66.63 per hour.