Nuclear physics is an applied physics specialty that's used in fields such as construction, energy and academia. Read on to learn more about education requirements, job outlook, salary and work responsibilities for this career.
Physics is the study of the principles and laws that govern motion, energy, structure and the interactions of matter. Nuclear physics is a specialty that involves the study of nuclear particles, nuclear matter, radioactivity, fission and fusion along with the interaction of radiation with matter. Applied physicists implement their research to solve practical problems in areas such as nuclear energy.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the majority of physicists work in the research and development industry (www.bls.gov). This means you could work in a government-funded national laboratory or directly within a government agency, such as the Department of Energy. On the other hand, you might work in a hospital, private research lab, educational institution or university. You could also consider becoming a high-school physics teacher or a university professor.
The BLS reported that the employment outlook for all types of physicists was good, with a 10% job growth expected between 2012 and 2022 (www.bls.gov). Competition for jobs was anticipated to be high; however, job opportunities should be good if you're interested in applied research and development or similar fields. As of May 2012, the BLS reported that physicists earned a median annual wage of $106,840, while postsecondary physics teachers earned a median annual wage of $78,540.
A bachelor's degree in physics could qualify you to work as a research assistant, nuclear technician or high school teacher. However, you'll probably need a doctoral degree for independent research, postsecondary faculty or management positions. A master's degree in physics might qualify you for some jobs in applied research and development or manufacturing and could be required by some states to maintain a teaching license.
Graduate physics courses teach you advanced concepts, such as electromagnetic theory, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics and computational physics. Concentrating on nuclear physics allows you to study topics in the systematics of nuclei and elementary particles, the structure of stable nuclei and radioactivity, as well as other theories, such as the theory of relativity. In addition, you could learn about particle accelerators, nuclear reactors and specialized nuclear instruments.
Depending on the type of work you do, you might need to become licensed or certified. Teaching at a public school requires you to obtain teaching instruction and experience as well as a teacher's license. Additionally, some government agencies might require you to have security clearance to work in nuclear energy research. If you want to work in the medical industry, you could earn board certification through the American Board of Science in Nuclear Medicine in the medical nuclear physics and instrumentation specialty with a graduate degree and 2-3 years of experience (www.snm.org). To work in nuclear physics within the medical field, you might need to obtain state licensure.
You'll need excellent mathematical, analytical and problem-solving abilities. Good communication skills are also important, since you might be part of a research team or deal directly with clients.