Career Highlight: Physicist

Interested in becoming a physicist? Read on to know more about what this career looks like! 

Job Duties:

Physicists write and publish scientific papers about the results of their research. This research can vary from developing theoretical models that describe properties of the natural world like the force of gravity or the formation of sub-atomic particles to more practical things like examining how materials change their structure when undergoing different processes or looking at how microtubules pull chromosomes apart. Physicists also need to write proposals to receive funding for their research and present their findings at scientific conferences and lectures. For this reason, physicists will occasionally need to travel locally or internationally to go to conferences to present and discuss their research with other scientists (the costs for these trips are typically covered by the institution they are researching for). If working in academia, they may also teach courses or give lectures at universities in addition to research. Mentoring and advising students (both graduate and undergraduate) may also be part of their job duties. 

Because physics is such a broad field with many applications, there are many branches. Astronomy or astrophysics focuses on the physics of the universe and space while particle and nuclear physicists examine properties of atomic and subatomic particles and the forces responsible for their interactions. Atomic, molecular, and optical physicists study atoms, molecules, light, and the interactions among them. They may also research ways to control states of individual atoms because this can help develop better semi-conductors and transistors. Materials physicists examine physical properties of matter in molecules, nanostructures, and novel compounds. Plasma physicists study plasmas, which occur naturally in stars and are found in neon signs and plasma screen televisions. They also study ways to create fusion reactors, a potential future source of energy. Some branches of physics are more inter-disciplinary, like medical physics, which involves using physics to develop new medical technologies and radiation-based treatments. Biophysics is also another example which applies physics theories and methods to understand how biological systems work.

Where They Work:

Physicists generally work in offices and research labs. Around 31% of physicists work in scientific research and development services (which includes privately and federally funded labs). Examples of labs include the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the Goddard Institute in Maryland and the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California. Some of the biggest employers of physicists within the federal government are the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Department of Defense according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Something to note: U.S. citizenship is required for most research opportunities in the Department of Defense, Department of Energy and NASA). 

Some physicists choose to take alternative pathways beyond academia and research and go on to work in private industries. This includes a variety of industries such as those engaged with engineering, computer science, and companies who work for government contractors. The research or work done for private industries might be a little different from doing research in a government funded lab; for example, in a government funded lab you might be working with a high energy particle-accelerator because you are researching high-energy particle physics but for a private tech company, you might be researching ways to create better semiconductors and lasers which might have practical applications in electronics or medical imaging. 

Education and Training:

Most roles as a physicist will require advanced academic training. While many believe that getting a Ph.D. is necessary to getting a job in research, that is not always the case. There are other ways to working in research without getting a master’s degree or Ph.D. For example, if you already have research experience, you might be eligible to apply for entry-level positions like research assistant positions (especially within a school of medicine of health sciences), lab managers, or lab technicians. The American Physical Society also has a helpful guide to pursuing bachelor’s degree-level physics research roles in government-funded laboratories. For these roles, it is important to pursue physics research as an undergraduate (e.g., summer research programs, REUs, etc.). 

Pay and Job Outlook:

The average projected employment growth for physicists is around 8%, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. The median annual wage in May 2020 is around $129,850 with the lowest 10 percent earning less than $67,450, and the highest 10 percent earning more than $208,000. However, these numbers start to change when looking at specific industries. For a more detailed look at median wages by industry in the United States, you can visit the Occupational Outlook Handbook website.