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Molecular and Atomic Physics

Molecular and atomic physics involves the study of individual photons and atoms by using advanced methods of precise measurement for time, speed and temperature. Learn about job duties, salaries and related degree programs.

Is Molecular and Atomic Physics for Me?

Career Summary

Molecular and atomic physics, or AMO physics, covers a wide variety of research topics in physics at some of the world's most advanced research institutes and organizations, like the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA) and the Center for Ultracold Atoms (CUA). New and important areas of research include short and high pulse lasers, the Bose Einstein Condensate, optical lattices with Fechbach resonances and quantum entanglement. Physicists often work with other advanced technological equipment such as spectrometers and frequency analyzers. Additionally, they explore complex problems requiring deductive and inductive reasoning, creativity, originality and fluency.

Salary and Employment Outlook

As found by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for physicists was $110,110 as of May 2013 (www.bls.gov). The median wage for postsecondary physics teachers was $80,590 in the same year. The BLS also reported that the number of jobs for physicists would grow by 10% during the 2012-2022 decade, which is considered as fast as the average growth for all other occupations during that time. Additionally, postsecondary teachers were expected to see 19% growth during this same period, which is considered a faster than average increase.

How Can I Become a Molecular and Atomic Physicist?

Undergraduate Programs

It can help to take as many math and science courses as possible in high school. At a 4-year university, you could pursue a bachelor's degree in physics. Many programs will offer ample opportunities to focus on AMO physics while you immerse yourself in fundamental topics such as classical and quantum mechanics, particle, nuclear and thermal physics, electromagnetism, relativity, astrophysics and cosmology. Popular careers with overlap in AMO physics that you could attain after completing a physics bachelor's degree program include science writer and laboratory technician.

Graduate Studies

To be able to work as a researcher or college professor in this field, you must complete a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) program in AMO physics. A program like this will most likely initially cover topics such as research methods, the standard model, relativity, field theory, computer nanoscience, many-body physics and astronomy. Later, you will conduct your own AMO physics investigations. Multidisciplinary research and coursework in areas such as solid-state physics, biophysics and plasma physics may improve your employability. A physics doctoral program typically takes around six years to complete, and you'll be required to research and write a doctoral dissertation.

After graduating with your Ph.D. in physics, post-doctoral research can lead to a career at research laboratories and/or universities that conduct AMO physics experiments. From here, AMO physicists with great communication skills and research prowess can also go on to do research work for homeland security, NASA or private industry.