How to Become a Physicist in 5 Steps

Explore the career requirements for physicists. Get the facts about education and training, salary, and potential job growth to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Biology degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Physicist Do?

Physicists investigate how various types of energy and matter work together. They use research and analysis to explain natural forces like electromagnetism, and they may help develop materials like medical equipment. Physicists working in research develop experiments to test theories and models using equipment like lasers, particle accelerators and electron microscopes. Their work may involve developing software and performing complex math to analyze their data. Physicists often need to raise money for their experiments by applying for grants and other funding. Much of their funding is based on their findings that they present at conferences and lectures or through scientific papers. The following table provides information about education, training, and salary for physicists.

Degree RequiredPh.D.
Training RequiredWork in a post-doctoral research position for 2 to 3 years is common
Education Field of StudyPhysics
Key SkillsAnalytical, critical thinking, math, problem-solving
Job Growth (2014-2024)8%*
Median Salary (2015)$111,580*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Is a Physicist?

A physicist is a scientist who studies the fundamental particles and forces of nature and the interactions between them in an effort to understand the universe. Your duties might include developing mathematical models to make predictions about the behavior of matter and energy or conducting experiments to observe their properties and confirm or refute a model. Electron microscopes, particle accelerators and lasers are among the tools of your profession. You would document your findings in research reports that you would submit to physics journals for publication and present at physics seminars. Often you would carry out your research in collaboration with other physicists. You may also have a role teaching undergraduate and graduate students.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Bachelor's degree programs in physics use a combination of classroom instruction and labs to teach classic Newtonian mechanics and a survey of more advanced topics. Some programs are divided into one or more concentrations, such as theoretical physics, engineering physics, chemical physics or astrophysics. You may have to carry out a research project in your senior year, especially if you're part of an honors program. A bachelor's-level degree can qualify you for applied research positions in industry or as a database administrator and systems analyst.

Step 2: Complete an Internship

Internships provide you the opportunity to participate in research assignments that advance your education, the sponsoring institution's objectives and the frontiers of science. Your sponsor may also assign a mentor who can help you develop professionally and serve as a contact after you graduate. You could potentially arrange one through your school or through the Society of Physics Students, which offers 9.5-week internships for undergraduate students (www.spsnational.org). NASA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories and the American Physical Society are among the prominent organizations that participate in internship programs.

Step 3: Earn a Doctorate Degree

Doctorate programs in physics are research-oriented. In the first year you would complete a set of core courses in such topics as electrodynamics, classical mechanics and quantum mechanics, and elective courses that explore areas of specialization. In the second year you're expected to choose a specialization, conduct research in that area and develop a dissertation. Possible specializations include complex systems, cosmology, molecular physics and particle physics. A doctorate degree may take 5-6 years to complete.

Step 4: Obtain a Job

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, most of your employment opportunities will be with industrial research labs, semiconductor and information technology firms, federal research agencies and postsecondary institutions (www.bls.gov). You could also find a smaller number of positions with scientific consulting firms and hospitals. Employment for physicists was projected to rise 8% to around 19,500 from 2014-2024. Estimates from 2014 showed about 18,100 physicists held jobs, not including the self-employed. As of May 2015, physicists earned a median salary of $111,580.

Step 5: Advance Your Career

Advancement will mean having more autonomy in your choice of projects and security in the form of steadier funding or tenure at a university. If your research results in the development of a new product or manufacturing process, you could consider starting a company or joining an existing company to market them. Alternatively, you could pursue a managerial and administrative career path.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Biochemists and biophysicists are alternative careers that also require a doctoral or professional degree. They study the physical and chemical properties of living things. Their work is often utilized in the medical field. Computer and information research scientists are also similar positions that need a doctoral or professional degree. They are responsible for improving current technology and inventing new computing technology. Their work is utilized in the fields of medicine, business and more.

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