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Physicist vs. Engineer: What Are the Differences?

Learn about the two careers and review some of the similarities and differences between them.

Physicists and engineers are both professionals who work with science and math. They may have similar job duties, but their work is different in many ways. If you’re interested in a career in physics or engineering, it’s important to understand the key differences between these two fields. In this article, we compare and contrast physicists and engineers, and we provide information on what you can expect from each profession.

What is a Physicist?

Physicists conduct research into the natural world to discover how it works and to develop new technologies. They use their knowledge of physics to solve problems in a variety of fields, such as healthcare, energy, transportation and manufacturing. Physicists typically have a bachelor’s degree in physics, although some jobs may require a master’s degree or higher. Physicists typically work in research and development, academia or government.

What is an Engineer?

Engineers are problem solvers who design and oversee the construction of various structures, machines and systems. They use their knowledge of math and science to find the most efficient and effective solution to a problem. Engineers typically specialize in a particular field, such as mechanical, civil or electrical engineering. They use their skills to design and oversee the construction of buildings, bridges, roads, railways, water systems and more. Engineers typically work in an office setting, but they may also travel to job sites to oversee construction projects.

Physicist vs. Engineer

Here are the main differences between a physicist and an engineer.

Job Duties

Physicists and engineers both perform research, design solutions and develop theories. However, the tasks they carry out during these processes differ. For example, a physicist might use their research to hypothesize about how certain particles behave under certain conditions. An engineer might use that same research to determine how to build a device that meets those conditions. This means that an engineer typically focuses more on the practical applications of physics in engineering.

Another key difference between the jobs is that physicists usually work with theoretical concepts, while engineers apply practical solutions to real-world problems. Physicists often work in academic settings, such as laboratories or universities. Engineers tend to work in industrial or commercial settings, where they apply physics to solve everyday issues like transportation, communication and energy production.

Job Requirements

Physicists typically need a bachelor’s degree in physics for entry-level positions. Some physicists also pursue a master’s degree or doctorate to qualify for more advanced positions. These programs usually include coursework in calculus, differential equations and other mathematics topics. Physics students might also take classes on electricity, magnetism and optics.

Engineers often need at least a bachelor’s degree from an engineering program accredited by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET). While some engineers hold only a bachelor’s degree, many ambitious professionals decide to earn a master’s degree, too, so they can pursue high-level positions. They can earn their degrees in civil engineering, architecture, design or a related field.

Work Environment

Both physicists and engineers work in a variety of environments, depending on the industry they’re working for. For example, an engineer might work at a construction site to help build structures that meet building codes. They may also work in laboratories or offices to test products before they go into production.

A physicist typically works in a laboratory setting, but some may work in other settings like hospitals or research facilities. A physicist’s job is often more focused on research than an engineer’s job, so they may spend most of their time in a lab conducting experiments.


Both physicists and engineers use problem-solving skills in their jobs. For physicists, they often are researching ways to solve problems that exist in the natural world. For engineers, they typically design products that will solve a problem or address a need facing individuals, families and business owners.

An engineer needs technical skills to perform their job, including circuit design, advanced mathematics, linear systems and analysis and electrical schematics. A physicist also needs technical knowledge, but they need to know more about concepts like quantum mechanics, thermodynamics and optics. Both of these professionals need to have the ability to follow safety protocols because they are often working with dangerous materials.

While an engineer uses communication skills when they are creating reports of their research, corresponding with other engineers and colleagues and developing blueprints for their products, they are not necessarily going to be interacting with customers directly. A physicist is not likely to interact with customers at all as they conduct their research.


The average salary for a physicist is $104,477 per year, while the average salary for an engineer is $89,577 per year. The average salary for both positions may vary depending on the type of work you do, your level of experience and the location of your job.


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