What Is a Nuclear Scientist?

Explore the career requirements for a nuclear scientist. Get the facts about salary, education requirements, job duties and job outlook 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 Nuclear Scientist Do?

Nuclear scientists can work in either the engineering industry or academia. Nuclear engineers apply the concepts of nuclear science in order to design and develop industrial and medical technologies that utilize nuclear energy and radiation. Nuclear engineering professors work at colleges and universities, where they conduct academic research in the field and train future engineers by teaching courses and mentoring graduate students. Postsecondary physics professors may also focus their research and teaching on nuclear or medical physics, both of which involve radiation.

Take a look at the following chart for an overview of how to enter this field.

Degree Required Bachelor's; graduate degree may be preferred PhD
Education Field of Study Nuclear engineering Nuclear engineering, nuclear physics
Key Responsibilities Nuclear fuel management, nuclear reactor operation, safety, emergency response, nuclear research Teaching, mentoring, independent nuclear research and publishing, grant writing
Job Growth (2014-2024) -4%* 13%* (for postsecondary engineering teachers)
Average Salary (2015) $106,060* $104,220* (for postsecondary engineering teachers)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What Is a Nuclear Scientist?

One common career in nuclear science is nuclear engineering. As a nuclear engineer, you'd work on devices that run on nuclear energy by processing and harnessing nuclear power and measuring its benefits and effects. You could work in a nuclear power plant, designing plant schematics, processing equipment or safety mechanisms. Alternately, you could design vehicles that run on nuclear energy, such as spacecraft or sea vessels or focus your efforts on developing related technologies, like fusion energy. Some of your specific job duties could include the following:

  • Testing the behavior of nuclear fuels
  • Developing or improving nuclear theoretical models
  • Refining accident-prevention protocols
  • Keeping track of nuclear reactor operations
  • Designing nuclear equipment
  • Handling emergency situations
  • Ensuring a facility adheres to safety policies
  • Performing experiments
  • Estimating, budgeting and planning construction projects

What Are Other Common Jobs in This Field?

With the necessary education, you could become a professor of nuclear science at the university level. You could teach a particular specialty, such as nuclear physics or nuclear medicine. In this position, you could perform independent research and publish your findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals, present it at conferences or write books.

You would also likely have other responsibilities, like teaching classes, mentoring students and leading academic research projects. This might entail developing a curriculum, grading student work, giving lectures and leading classroom discussions. You'd also have administrative responsibilities, like participating in department committees and pursuing funding for your research.

What Degree Do I Need?

You can secure a position as a nuclear engineer with a bachelor's degree, although some employers might prefer a graduate degree. A degree in nuclear engineering trains you in areas of mathematical analysis for nuclear engineering, nuclear emergencies, nuclear reactor physics, radiation engineering and reactor safety. Other areas of study could include reactor design and construction, reactor operation and nuclear fuel cycles. While some bachelor's degree engineering programs offer a concentration in nuclear studies, you'll usually find this particular specialty at the graduate level.

If you'd rather enter academia and research, you'll usually need a doctoral degree. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree programs in nuclear engineering and science further your master's studies and allow you to perform additional research in such areas as nuclear energy, plasma physics and fusion technology. A PhD program can typically be completed in 4-6 years.

What Is My Job Outlook and Salary Potential?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that employment for nuclear engineers is expected to decline by 4% between 2014 and 2024, most likely due to an increase in regulations, which will reduce new plant construction (www.bls.gov). In May 2015, nuclear engineers made an annual average salary of $106,060.

If your career goal includes teaching and research, the subject you teach can have a considerable affect on your salary. The BLS listed the average annual wage for post-secondary instructors of physics at $93,950 in 2015, while those who taught engineering, including nuclear engineering, earned $104,220. During the 2014-2024 decade, employment growth for engineering teachers is expected to increase by 13% while physics teachers might see a 15% growth in employment opportunities.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Instead of focusing your career on studying nuclear science and developing technologies, you could consider getting a job as an oncologist, where you might apply the concepts of nuclear science by using radiation therapy to treat patients with cancer. In order to become an oncologist, you would need to complete a Doctor of Medicine (MD) program, an internal medicine residency and an oncology fellowship. Alternatively, you could think about getting a job in another area of engineering, such as chemical engineering, environmental engineering or civil engineering. Entry-level engineering jobs usually require at least a bachelor's degree.

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