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Physics Careers

Career Description

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.

Common Work Tasks

  • Conduct research to understand the nature of the universe
  • Observe, measure, interpret, and develop theories to explain celestial and physical phenomena using mathematics
  • Study the fundamental properties of the natural world and apply the knowledge gained to design new technologies
  • Design and perform experiments with lasers,  particle accelerators, electron microscopes, mass spectrometers, and other equipment
  • Attempt to discover and explain laws describing the forces of nature, such as gravity, electromagnetism, and nuclear interactions
  • Find ways to apply physical laws and theories to problems in nuclear energy, electronics, optics, materials, communications,  aerospace technology, and medical instrumentation
  • Design research equipment
  • Planning, recording, analyzing, and reporting on research

Other Job Titles

Physicists are also known by other titles, including:

  • Biophysicist
  • Geophysicist
  • Quantum Physicist
  • Astronomer
  • Scientist

Education,  Training, and Experience

Education and Training
 
A Ph.D.  degree in physics or closely related fiends 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 subfield during graduate school and continue working in that area afterwards.

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 Ph.D. 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.

Experience
 
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.

Salary

The median annual salary for a Physicist is $97,000. The top 10 percent earn more than $145,000, and the lowest 10 percent earn less than $52,000.  Median earnings in the industries employing the largest number of physicists are:

  • Scientific Research and Development Services - $102,610
  • Federal Executive Branch - $104,740
  • Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools - $73,630
  • General Medical and Surgical Hospitals - $133,700
  • Architectural, Engineering, and Related Services - $93,980

Job Outlook

  • 2006-2016 Employment growth:  7%
  • Number of new jobs created 2006-2016: 1,100
  • Employment 2006 : 17,000
  • Employment 2016:  18,000

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