How to Become a Theoretical Physicist: Job Description & Education Requirements

Get the facts about theoretical physicists. Research the median income and projected job growth, as well as the education requirements and the skills you'll need to pursue a career in this field. Schools offering Biology degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Career Information at a Glance

Theoretical physicists study the ways in which matter and energy interact. Their aim is to develop scientific theories and increase scientific knowledge relating to the nature of time and the origin of the universe. In the table below, you'll find the education requirements, median salary, and projected job growth for theoretical physicists.

Education Required Ph.D.
Field of Study Physics
Required Skills Math skills, analytical skills, written and verbal communication skills, self-discipline
Projected Job Growth (2016-2026) 14% (for all physicists)*
Median Income (2017) $118,830 annually (for all physicists)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Does a Theoretical Physicists Do?

Theoretical physicists study the fundamental properties of matter and use their understanding of atoms and molecules to increase scientific understanding of the evolution of the universe. They are tasked with conducting experiments and developing scientific theories relating to their results. Their day-to-day work includes completing difficult mathematical equations and analyzing complex data sets. Theoretical physicists are also responsible for writing proposals to apply for funding for their research and writing scientific papers and scholarly articles explaining their findings. They may present research findings at scientific conferences and lectures as well. Often times, their research is applied to fields such as energy storage, medicine, navigation, and electronics and contribute to the development of new complex technologies.

What Education Is Required to Become a Theoretical Physicist?

In order for a physicist to work in research or academia, a Ph.D. is required. Students typically begin by earning a bachelor's degree in physics and then earning a specialized graduate degree in physics, concentrating on a subfield of physics such as condensed matter and material physics, particle and nuclear physics, or atomic and molecular physics. While working towards a doctoral degree, students must take courses in advanced mathematics and computer science alongside their physics courses. After earning a Ph.D. in physics, many theoretical physicists begin their research in temporary postdoctoral research positions in order to gain experience in academia. A Ph.D. in physics allows a theoretical physicist to work in either academia or for companies conducting independent research in the industry.

Who Employs Theoretical Physicists?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the two largest employers of physicists in 2016 were the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Department of Defense. Theoretical physicists typically work in laboratories with complex equipment or in offices planning experiments, analyzing data, and writing research reports. Theoretical physicists may also find jobs in colleges and universities. Many academic institutions are willing to fund scientific research in these fields so that the experiments and their findings are affiliated with the school and its publications. Other employers include federal, state, and local government positions and state, local, and private hospitals.

What Skill Are Required to Become a Theoretical Physicists?

Math and analytical skills are essential both for completing the education requirements as well as for completing the day-to-day work of a theoretical physicist. Theoretical physicists perform complex mathematical equations involving calculus, algebra, and geometry, and this math must be carried out precisely and accurately in order to ensure their data is valid. Written and verbal communication skills are also essential, as theoretical physicists must write research papers and scholarly articles to express their findings to the scientific community. They also present their research findings at conferences, which means they must be refined public speakers as well. Communication skills are also needed when working collaboratively with other physicists, university departments, and private corporations. Self-discipline is another skill that the work done by theoretical physicists demands. They are required to focus for long periods of time while working with long data sets and complex equations.

How Much Do Theoretical Physicists Make?

The median income for all physicists, as of May 2017, was $118,8300, according to the BLS. For all physicists, employment is projected to grow by 14% between 2016 and 2026. Work for physicists is projected to grow in the fields of scientific research, development services, educational services, and healthcare technology. Competition for permanent research positions is also expected to remain strong at the college and university level. Because much of the research in physics is federally funded, the year to year federal budget allocation plays a role in determining the number of positions available.

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