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Physicist: Career Summary, Occupational Outlook, and Educational Requirements

Explore the career requirements for physicists. Get the facts about education requirements, salary and job growth to determine if this is the right career for you.

What Is a Physicist?

Physicists work in a range of areas, including molecular physics, medical physics and astronomy. They study how forms of matter and energy interact. Physicists develop theories and models to try to explain different properties in the natural world, and perform experiments to try and study these properties. This process often involves writing grants for funding, completing complex math to analyze data and developing software to help analyze results. These professionals will present their findings in scientific articles, conferences and other presentations. The employment prospects and salaries for physicists are discussed below, along with education requirements:

Degree Required A doctorate is required for most positions
Education Field of Study Physics
Key Responsibilities Study the behavior of matter and energy, investigate scientific principles
Job Growth (2018-2028) 9%*
Median Salary (2018) $120,950*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Would I Do as a Physicist?

Physicists study what makes up matter, as well as how and why matter behaves the way it does. As a physicist, you would identify and investigate the natural scientific principles that govern matter. You can then apply your findings to solve problems or develop new products and services in a wide range of industries, such as energy, medicine, communications or technology. Depending on your interests, training and qualifications, you could specialize in geophysics, biophysics, astronomy, medical physics, nuclear physics, molecular physics or elementary particle physics, among other subfields.

What Is the Job Outlook?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected that employment opportunities for physicists would increase 9% between 2018 and 2028. Physicists, according to the BLS, earned a median salary of $120,950 in May 2018. Many were employed by scientific research and development services, the federal executive branch and postsecondary academic institutions.

The American Physical Society (APS) reported that 65% of those who earned a bachelor's degree in physics in 2013 and 2014 obtained initial employment in the private sector. Of the 2012, 2013 and 2014 graduates with a master's degree in physics, only 53% of those who had jobs worked in the private sector, per the APS.

What Education Do I Need?

According to the BLS, in many cases, employers require a physicist to hold a Ph.D. However, some employers may accept candidates with a bachelor's or master's degree for certain positions. A baccalaureate program in physics usually requires classroom instruction and laboratory work in subjects such as quantum mechanics, physical optics, thermodynamics, electromagnetism and atomic physics.

Master's and doctoral degree programs in physics offer advanced training in these and other subjects, such as mathematical physics, kinetic theory and laser physics. Specific coursework in your graduate studies may depend upon your area of specialization. A master's thesis or doctoral dissertation that includes your original research may also be required for graduation.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Those interested in pursuing a doctoral or professional degree may also consider these additional related careers. Biochemists and biophysicists study the chemical and physical properties of living things and biological processes, per the BLS. Computer and information research scientists develop new uses for current technology and invent new techniques in computing technology. Post-secondary teachers are another related career that may include physicists. These professionals instruct students at the college level in various fields of expertise.