Education and Training: Doctoral degree
Salary: Median—$87,450 per year
Employment Outlook: Fair
Definition and Nature of the Work
Physicists are scientists who investigate motion and gravity, the behavior of gases, the structure and behavior of matter, the generation and transfer of energy, and the interaction between matter and energy. They identify basic forces and laws of nature. Theoretical physicists investigate these areas without thought to practical application, concerning themselves with concepts such as the nature of time and the origin of the universe. Other physicists apply their knowledge of physics to practical matters, such as the development of computers, transistors, laser beams, microwave appliances, communications satellites, and a wide variety of other devices. They solve problems in industry, medicine, defense, and other fields.
Physicists work at colleges and universities, independent research centers, hospitals, and government agencies. Many work in private industry, especially for companies that make chemicals, electrical equipment, missiles, and aircraft. Some physicists spend most of their time doing research. Others teach physics and related science courses.
Physics is a very broad science. Many physicists specialize in one branch. For example, nuclear physicists study the structure of atomic nuclei and the way that they interact with one another. Nuclear physicists sometimes use particle accelerators to smash nuclei as an aid to their research. Their work has led to the development of nuclear power plants and the use of radioactive substances that help medical doctors diagnose illness.
Solid-state physicists study the structure and properties of such materials as metals and alloys. They may grow synthetic crystals in a laboratory. The work of solid-state physicists led to the development of the transistor. Health physicists devise equipment to detect harmful radiation. They design and supervise radiation protection programs for nuclear power plants, hospitals, and industries that use radioactive materials. Astrophysicists develop instruments for observation and experimentation in space. Optical physicists are interested in how to control light. Their research on lasers has already been applied to everything from eye surgery to cutting tools. Elementary particle physicists study atomic and subatomic particles. Fluid and plasma physicists investigate the properties of liquids and gases. Plasma physicists are interested in electrically charged fluids, while fluid physicists are interested in uncharged fluids. Plasma physicists help in such areas as reentry of space vehicles into the atmosphere. Acoustical physicists study shock, vibration, underwater sound, and noise. Biophysicists research the medical application of physics. They are responsible for the development of the betatron for radiation therapy.
Education and Training Requirements
Graduate training in physics is generally needed for most jobs in this field. It takes about four years to earn a bachelor's degree and another one or two years to earn a master's degree. With these degrees you may qualify for a job in applied research in either the federal government or private industry. Depending on the courses you take, these degrees could also qualify you for a job teaching either in a high school or in a two-year college. Many teaching jobs also require you to be certified to teach in your state. Research assistantships at four-year colleges or universities are often open to those with a bachelor's or master's degree. Many physicists hold such jobs while they study for a doctoral degree. Most jobs in research require a doctoral degree. It takes about four years of full-time study after receiving a bachelor's degree to get a doctoral degree. During graduate school, students narrow their studies to a specialized physical science area. In addition to formal course work, they complete research in their specialty and prepare written reports of their studies.
Getting the Job
The four major areas in which physics majors can find jobs are industry, government, laboratories, and colleges and universities. Your best sources for job openings are likely to be your college professors and advisers. Your college placement office may also be able to help you find a job as a physicist. In addition, you can apply directly to private companies and government agencies. Other good sources of job openings are professional associations and scientific journals.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Advancement opportunities are good for physicists with doctoral degrees. Those in teaching positions can advance by moving through the ranks from assistant professor to full professor. Physicists in research centers and in industry can advance by taking on more responsibility and heading project teams. Some become administrators. Those who develop new products sometimes form their own companies. Many physicists consider recognition as an expert in one particular area of physics to be the highest form of achievement in their field. Physicists can generally reach this point only after doing a great deal of research and having the results of their research published in scientific journals.
Persons with bachelor's or master's degrees in physics have less chance to advance than those with doctoral degrees. Their best opportunities are found in teaching physics or other science courses in high school. They can also advance in jobs related to physics in the fields of engineering and computer science.
Employment of physicists is expected to grow more slowly than average for all occupations through 2014. Most job openings for those with doctoral degrees will be to replace physicists who retire. However, there will be some demand in the applied sciences, such as information technology and semiconductor technology. In addition, opportunities should be available for those with master's degrees in applied research and development, product design, and manufacturing. Persons with only a bachelor's degree in physics may qualify for non-research positions related to engineering, mathematics, computer science, and environmental science. Those who meet certification requirements can become high school physics teachers.
Most physicists work indoors in clean, well-lighted laboratories and classrooms. Some types of physicists may spend a great deal of time outdoors. Others may work some of the time in hospitals or factories. Physicists generally work at least forty hours per week. Overtime is often necessary for special projects. Most physicists employed as college teachers spend six to eight hours a week in the classroom and the remainder of the workweek preparing lesson materials, advising students, conducting research, and writing. Physicists engaged in research frequently work irregular hours while conducting experiments.
Physicists must be patient and hardworking. They must be willing to devote many hours to research. Physicists must be able to work both independently and as part of a team. They need to have the ability to communicate their ideas to others both orally and in writing.
Where to Go for More Information
American Institute of Physics
One Physics Ellipse
College Park, MD 20740-3843
American Physical Society
One Physics Ellipse
College Park, MD 20740-3843
Earnings and Benefits
Salaries vary according to education, location, and job. The median annual income of physicists was $87,450 in 2004. The average annual salary for physicists employed by the federal government was $104,917 in 2005. Physicists at colleges and universities can usually supplement their salaries by doing research and consulting work. Benefits generally include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and pension plans.