Physicists are scientists who study the physical world. They work to understand how the Universe works on its most fundamental level, with an eye towards explaining how it all began and where it’s headed. Physicists are responsible for some of the most important discoveries about the physical world, including electricity, electromagnetism, relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and many others.
Physicists often make their living by applying their specialized knowledge to real-world problems. For example, physicists may work on projects related to public transportation or energy efficiency. Rather than working alone in a laboratory or university setting, physicists may also find work in sectors like medicine or law.
Read on to learn more about what it’s like to be a physicist and what it takes to become one yourself.
Physicist Job Duties
Physicists are typically responsible for the following duties:
- Conduct research to investigate phenomena in physics and related fields, such as chemistry or engineering
- Apply mathematical reasoning and knowledge of physical principles to analyze data and develop theories, laws, or models
- Tailor findings for specific applications like medical equipment, specialized materials, communications technology, aerospace industry applications, drug development, etc.
- Publish findings in peer-reviewed journals for academic advancement and/or public recognition
- Provide advice or consultation to governments regarding new technologies or technical processes
- Teach physics at the university level, particularly doctoral candidates in their area of expertise
- Perform administrative tasks such as overseeing the hiring process for new lab members or monitoring budgets
Physicist Salary & Outlook
The median annual wage for physicists is $129,850. The highest earners make over $189,000. Those earning higher wages tend to work in the scientific research and development services industry.
The employment of physicists is projected to grow faster than average over the next decade. This is due to the growing demand for alternative energy sources and the need to better manage energy consumption. Physicists will be needed to develop new energy-efficient technologies that can be used by consumers and businesses alike.
Physicist Job Requirements
The requirements for a physicist are as follows:
Education: A master’s degree is the minimum requirement for a physicist to work in research and development. A doctoral degree in physics is commonly required to teach at a university or join a research laboratory.
Training: The majority of a physicist’s training is done through an internship at a research facility, a private company or a university. These internships allow physicists to gain real-world experience by working directly with a professional physicist. Some physicists complete post-doctoral fellowships in order to receive two to three years of training and research experience.
Certifications & Licenses: In most cases, physicists do not need formal certification for their roles, but some employers may require them to hold a license or certification specific to their field of work.
Physicists must have a number of skills, including:
Scientific knowledge: A physicist needs to know a great deal about the scientific field he or she is working in, including all of its current theories and research methods.
Math skills: Physics is a science that relies heavily on math. The ability to do complex mathematical calculations quickly and accurately is essential for physicists.
Analytical skills: Physicists must be able to analyze data from experiments and formulate solutions based on those analyses.
Writing skills: In addition to journal articles, physicists often write textbooks and technical manuals as well as proposals for funding opportunities. They must be able to communicate their ideas clearly and persuasively.
Time management skills: There are many deadlines involved with research projects and publications. Physicists must learn how to manage their time effectively in order to meet these deadlines.
Thinking outside the box: The ability to think creatively and come up with new hypotheses is crucial for many areas of physics research.
Physicist Work Environment
Physicists work in research facilities, universities, and engineering companies. They may have to work with hazardous materials or equipment, so they must wear protective clothing. This can be stressful if the work is not well-planned out. Physicists use machines and computers in their work, sitting at desks most of the time. Some positions require standing for long periods when using sophisticated equipment.
Physicists usually work a standard 40-hour week; however, they may be required to put in extra hours if they’re working on a project that’s due at a certain time. They spend much of their time collaborating with colleagues on projects and research papers.
Physicist Career Path
Entry-level physicists work in a laboratory environment, learning to design and build experiments or parts of experiments from older physicists who have been promoted. They also do routine experiments and collect data under the supervision of a senior physicist, who may be able to help them publish their findings. In addition, beginning physicists must learn how to use the equipment available to them.
Five Years Out
At five years, physicists take on more responsibility. They are often involved in building new equipment or designing experiments using existing equipment. Most physicists begin to develop a specialty interest by this time, such as plasma physics or quantum electronics. Some take their talents out into industry, working as consultants to large corporations or as research scientists for companies that produce products based on physics principles. Salary increases but hours remain long. Satisfaction is average; job security is low because funding for research is uncertain.
Ten Years Out
By ten years out, physicists have developed enough skill and reputation that they can choose where they want to work and what projects they want to work on. They may choose to become an administrator at a university or government laboratory or work as a consultant for a corporation or agency that funds physics research. Their salaries increase again and hours decrease slightly. Their satisfaction with their work is high; job security has increased significantly, because they can now afford to be selective about their next position.
Here are three trends influencing how physicists work. Physicists will need to stay up-to-date on these developments to keep their skills relevant and maintain a competitive advantage in the workplace.
Increased Need for Cybersecurity Skills
Cybersecurity has become a critical issue for many industries, including physics. For example, there are currently almost 200 positions related to cybersecurity listed on the site physicsjobs.org. This figure is more than double the number of positions that were listed on the site two years ago, indicating that demand for these skills is increasing.
There are many reasons why cybersecurity is becoming an increasingly important skill for physicists. These include advances in technology which have created vulnerabilities as well as increased global collaboration between physicists and other disciplines, such as computer science and mathematics.
Increased Collaboration with Other Disciplines
Physicists are increasingly collaborating with other disciplines, such as chemistry and biology, to understand the fundamentals of physical phenomenon and solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.
For example, physicists and biologists recently worked together to discover a new molecule that is capable of killing cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed—the first time this has been achieved using only a molecule. This collaborative effort resulted in a Nobel Prize for medicine in 2017.
Emergence of Artificial Intelligence
As the artificial intelligence industry continues to grow, there will be an increased need for physicists who are able to develop new methods of implementing AI.
According to a recent report by MarketsandMarkets, the global artificial intelligence market is expected to reach $11.5 billion by 2022. This is a 31% increase from 2016 and is due in large part to an increased interest in AI applications whic can improve business operations and customer service experiences.
How to Become a Physicist
1. Planning Your Career
If you’re interested in becoming a physicist, it’s important to decide whether you want to focus on research or teaching. Many physicists teach at the university level and conduct research in their spare time. However, if you prefer working directly with equipment, consider joining a research team at a private company.
If you’re interested in pursuing an advanced degree, be sure to research the types of programs available to ensure that they will align with your career goals. Candidates hoping to land jobs in academia should prioritize programs that prepare them for the rigorous demands of the tenure track.
2. Writing a Resume
The best resumes for physicists should list any certifications they may have, as well as any awards or achievements that highlight their knowledge or skills. You should list your relevant experience in the work history section of your resume. If you are just starting out, be sure to include brief explanations of your role and the way in which it helped benefit the organization.
It’s important to detail how you were able to bring value to the team and company through each position you held. You can also emphasize traits like creativity, problem-solving abilities, communication skills, leadership qualities, teamwork ability and more.
3. Applying for Jobs
There are a few ways to find jobs as a physicist. First, you can be proactive by attending conferences and joining professional organizations to learn about upcoming job opportunities. This will also give you the chance to meet potential employers and ask them questions about what it’s like to work for them. The other method is to search online job boards for postings in your field. Check out the Physics Today jobs board for information on companies hiring physicists.
4. Ace the Interview
It is important to make sure you bring the appropriate knowledge to the interview. Since physics is such a broad field, you will want to be prepared for many different types of questions. How you answer questions will depend on the area in which you specialize and what your professional aspiration is in terms of career advancement and job growth.
It’s also helpful to come up with “elevator speeches” that describe your area of study in layperson’s terms. That way, if your interviewer doesn’t understand some of the technical jargon, they can get a sense of what kind of research goes on in your field.
It’s also helpful to express enthusiasm about the company itself as well as its goals and vision moving forward.