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A study of everything that physical existence encompasses, physics explores the smallest subatomic particles along with the whole universe. Those who pursue this field are called physicists. In a nutshell, the job of a physicist is concerned with discovering the properties of matter and energy. It also involves planning and conducting scientific experiments and studies to test theories.
Many careers deal with research in a wide range of branches of physics and related areas of study, including:
- Atomic Physics
- Quantum Informative Science
- Materials Development
- Renewable Energy
A lot of the discoveries made in physics significantly contributed to pivotal developments and innovations, from television and radio to computer technology and nuclear weapons.
There are diverse career options for those who wish to pursue the field of physics, whether one wishes to explore space, time, and matter or delve deep into the intriguing elements of the physical world. A lot of the jobs mostly focus on in-demand skills such as data analysis, numeracy, problem-solving, and communication of complex ideas.
Among the industries where physicists are essential include automotive, education, defense, aerospace, healthcare, materials, and information technology.
What Do Physicists Do?
Physicists are mainly dedicated to exploring and learning more about the fundamental laws of nature. They tend to focus on studying theoretical areas, often exploring the nature of time and the origin of the universe.
A lot of physicists apply their knowledge of physics to practical areas, extending to the practical development of electronic and optical devices, medical instruments and equipment, and other advanced materials. They may also be called to design and perform experiments involving high-tech equipment. This often includes equipment such as mass spectrometers, particle accelerators, and lasers.
Physicists also help in gaining a better understanding of the laws governing the forces of nature, observing and analyzing gravity, nuclear interactions, and electromagnetism, among others. Consequently, they seek ways to apply physical laws and theories to problems in various areas such as optics, communications, nuclear energy, electronics, medical instrumentation, and aerospace technology.
Known to be curious, dedicated, and creative, physicists pursue numerous career paths, including teaching and doing research at universities and developing products, devices, and processes.
The bulk of their work is confined to research and development. Many physicists pursue industrial-related jobs, from inspection and testing to production and quality control. Others are more inclined to conduct extensive experimentation in laboratories, while many spend time in offices for various tasks such as planning, analyzing, and reporting on the research they are conducting.
Specializations in Physics
Physics is a broad and diverse field. For those who want to focus on a certain area of study within the discipline and hone their expertise, choosing a specialization is the best course of action. Since potential career options are spread out across various industries, a concentration on a particular field of physics will want to develop their skills and become experts at what they do.
Students pursuing a degree in physics may be able to tailor their education and training to their professional needs and goals. This will shape the course of their career and equip them with relevant skills and a deeper understanding of the key laws of physics and how these can be applied in various settings. Here are some of the common specializations offered in undergraduate and graduate physics programs.
Students who want to specialize in astrophysics will gain a solid foundation in various phenomena surrounding the known contents of the universe. The specialization will allow them to immerse themselves in contemporary issues involving the nature of dark matter and dark energy, the structures, and the evolution of the early universe.
The rigorous courses include theoretical and observational studies, particularly of planets, stars, and galaxies.
This specialization builds upon the foundational knowledge of physics, biology, chemistry, and medical sciences. It is often characterized by research-heavy courses that tackle the application of physical concepts, theories, and methods that create discoveries in biology. It also aims to improve the fields of medicine and healthcare.
Those who pursue this specialization are expected to have a deeper understanding of the biological and physiological systems and gain competence in physical and mathematical science.
The study of the earth’s physics and structure with the use of mathematical and physical methods and geophysics as a specialization explores the earth’s properties and physical processes. It covers topics such as the microscopic properties of minerals and rocks to global processes that include minerals and rocks.
This concentration often uses the geophysics method of seismic data collection, which has pioneered the mapping of the earth underneath in an effort to gather more knowledge about its structure.
An important field in physics, materials science sheds light on the relationship between the atomic and molecular structure of a material, along with its properties and the way it is manufactured or processed to create a shape or a product.
This specialization explores a wide range of materials, including metals, composites, natural fibers, and biological structures.
This specialization tackles the study of scientific problems by utilizing computational methods. It is a combination of physics, computer science, and applied mathematics, all of which are integral to developing scientific solutions to complex problems. Students who pursue this discipline will be able to tackle real-world problems in the field of science and engineering.
Becoming a Physicist: A How to Guide
Physics is a field that offers opportunities for career growth and professional development. A multitude of career paths is available to those who want to pursue this field, including working in the healthcare industry, government sectors, private organizations, businesses, and non-commercial entities.
Physicists are instrumental in leveraging the advances in science to help make better sense of the world, often leaving a huge and lasting impact on people and society.
Those who are interested in pursuing an illustrious career in physics require particular competencies, knowledge, and skills for a deeper understanding of how the world works. To become one, the following steps must be kept in mind.
Acquire the right education.
The path of physicists often starts with education. Interested students need to plan out how they will gain entry into the field of physics. This includes taking relevant subjects that can help them develop the skills and knowledge essential to the study of physics, including subjects such as physics, mathematics, and chemistry.
Most physicists start with a bachelor’s degree in physics or related fields, such as applied mathematics, computer engineering, or even biology. According to the Labor Statistics Bureau, the typical entry-level education for physicists is a doctoral or professional degree for those who want to enter the astronomy field or the academe. It is not uncommon for physicists to further their education by earning a master’s and doctoral degree in physics to hone their knowledge and skills.
Many universities and colleges that offer physics degree programs allow students to pick a specialization to help them align their education with their career goals. Some of the usual specializations include quantum physics, biomedical physics, and materials physics.
Gain relevant training and experience.
Becoming a physicist does not end when one completes one’s education in the physics field. It is just as important that potential physicists are able to gain ample experience in the field. They will be able to do so by applying for physicist roles at different organizations, from the government sector to the private organizations. Some may begin with an entry-level job to help them get started and develop expertise that they can build upon.
A lot of physicists gather experience by working on projects in an academic setting, often combining theory or research with teaching. Others prefer to seek employment in industrial research as a way to continue their physics studies. Those who enjoy imparting their knowledge to undergraduate students stay in universities and become pillars of the physics department.
Consider joining postdoctoral research projects and fellowships.
Postdoctoral research projects are a great way to provide physicists with advanced research experience after they have completed their Ph.D. degrees. They must have scholarly qualifications and research interests that support the organization’s or university’s research programs and goals. Usually, postdoctoral appointments can be awarded in support of ongoing research projects.
Postdoctoral opportunities are often training-focused, serving as a stepping stone between students’ experience and the full-time professional experience. One can expect more in-depth training in a postdoctoral research project where they can have more flexibility in exploring other topics while securing grants and funding, thus reducing the financial cost.
Postdoctoral opportunities, while more common in academic institutions, can also be found in various industries and sectors, including the government, non-profit, and other organizations.
Different Career Paths in the Field of Physics
A degree in physics paves the way for a wide range of careers in various scientific and engineering fields. Here are some of them.
Around 18.2% of energy in the US is generated by Nuclear energy sources, and this industry is kept up and running by the country’s around 13,800 nuclear engineers (2002). Nuclear Engineers help design and develop nuclear equipment such as reactors, radiation shielding, and other related instruments. They also oversee the construction of these and design protocols for safe operation. Requirements vary by state, but nuclear engineers typically require a professional license in order to practice.
Pay Rates: Median $122,480 annually
Industry Outlook: 1% growth projected over the next ten years
Educational Requirements: A bachelor’s degree is a minimum requirement for entry; advanced roles require a master’s degree or higher.
Certificates Required for Practice: State Licensure/Professional Licensure
Optical Engineers work with equipment related to the production and manipulation of light for various purposes and are also involved in designing and developing various optical systems and equipment. Depending on the industry they work in, optical engineers may be involved in developing camera lenses, telescopes, microscopes, medical instruments, laser systems, and other optomechanical equipment. Like other engineering fields, optical engineers typically require professional licensure.
Pay Rates: Median pay $134,000 annually
Industry Outlook: Projected growth of 4% through to 2028 (US Dept. of Labor)
Educational Requirements: A Bachelor’s Degree is the minimum requirement in some workplaces, but most careers require at least a Master’s Degree in engineering or physics.
Certificates Required for Practice: State/Professional Licensure
The work done by geophysicists lies at the intersection of geology and physics and largely involves studying the earth’s physical structure and dynamics, typically using a variety of instruments and analyses, such as magnetic, seismic, and other analytical instruments. Geophysicists can work in a variety of fields, including civil/structural works, scientific research, or the petroleum and energy industries.
Pay Rates: Median pay $139,220 annually
Industry Outlook: Projected growth of 5% over the next ten years
Educational Requirements: Bachelor’s Degree for entry-level careers; advanced and research-related careers typically require Master’s Degrees or higher.
Certificates Required for Practice: Certificates & licenses required vary by state, especially in careers related to public service.
Aerospace is a large and highly diverse industry, encompassing civil aviation, space travel, and even some parts of the defense industry. Aerospace engineers design various components and systems relevant to their specific industries (e.g., airplanes, spacecraft & satellites, missiles, etc.), and their work also involves extensive and rigorous testing and development.
Pay Rates: Annual Median Pay $126,880
Industry Outlook: 6% growth projected over the next ten years
Educational Requirements: Entry-level positions in the industry require bachelor’s degrees as a minimum; advanced careers require at least a Master’s Degree in a relevant field, such as engineering or physics.
Certificates Required for Practice: State Licensure; some careers in the defense industry may also require security clearance because of the sensitive nature of the work.
Astronomers study the universe and its myriad features, including our solar system, other stars in the Milky Way, and other deep space objects such as neighboring galaxies and star systems. Astronomers typically specialize in the study of specific object types (stars, galaxies, pulsars, etc.) and use a variety of land and space-based instruments and telescopes in their work. While professional research astronomers don’t need licensure to practice, the educational bar to entry is high, with most research astronomers holding a PhD either in Physics or Astronomy.
Pay Rates: Annual Median Pay $139,220
Industry Outlook: Projected growth of 5% over the next ten years
Educational Requirements: Advanced careers in Astronomy (i.e., research) typically require Doctorate degrees in Physics or Astronomy, and education beyond high school takes about ten years.
Certificates Required for Practice: None required for astronomers in the United States
Physicists are scientists who specialize in the field of Physics in one or more subfields, such as acoustics, mechanics, biophysics, particle physics, theoretical physics, and more. Physicists work in a wide range of public and private industries, which include the country’s network of national research laboratories, academic institutions, and various private corporations and ventures. Most of the fields physicists work in don’t typically require certification, with the exception of teaching careers, which typically require state-level licensure.
Pay Rates: Median annual pay of $152,430 for Physicists (2022)
Industry Outlook: Projected growth of 5% over the next ten years
Educational Requirements: Entry-level careers require a bachelor’s degree; advanced careers often require a Master’s Degree as a minimum.
Certificates Required for Practice: Typically, none for most related fields.
Meteorologists are scientists who work with the weather and the atmosphere. Their work typically involves data analysis to make weather forecasts, observe and predict the movements of unusual (and often dangerous) weather events like hurricanes, and conduct research that expands our understanding of the weather.
Pay Rates: Median annual pay $83,780
Industry Outlook: 4% projected growth over the next ten years
Educational Requirements: Entry-level careers require a bachelor’s degree, while more advanced research-related careers typically require master’s or doctorate degrees.
Certificates Required for Practice: While meteorologists typically don’t need to acquire licensure, professional organizations do provide certification credentials, such as the American Meteorological Society.
Essential Skills & Qualities of Physicists
Most physics-related careers require total mastery of mathematics. While most careers will have a range of analytical tools available, a fundamental knowledge of core and advanced mathematics concepts is still required.
A lot of physics-related careers require individuals to have a good grasp of computers, particularly in work that involves a large amount of data analysis and computer modeling. These careers also typically involve some degree of programming, such as research work that requires highly specialized software and programs built from the ground up.
Writing & Communication
A good command of the language is important in this field, especially in careers that are involved in research. The other half of research involves communicating ideas, concepts, and discoveries, and it is important to be able to write with clarity and brevity.
Virtually all careers in physics require individuals to have a solid sense of critical thinking. This is true not only for physics careers in scientific research but also in related fields and industries.
A lot of the work done by physicists is often groundbreaking and involves making inroads into previously unexplored areas and fields. This is where a sense of creativity and out-of-the-box thinking comes in in order to come up with solutions and viewpoints to explore research problems that may lead to new knowledge thoroughly.
Curiosity & Open-mindedness
The twin qualities of curiosity & open-mindedness are a staple of scientific research, including research-related physics careers. A sense of curiosity means individuals are open to looking at potential avenues to explore and pursue questions, and a good amount of open-mindedness means they are able to objectively see whether their exploration has hit dead ends or whether it already requires rethinking and a different approach.
Attention to Detail
Physicists and other related careers work in fields that are often highly technical, have narrow margins for error, or have huge risk factors. It is important then to have good attention to detail not only on certain aspects like computer code, safety factors, & other parameters but also on wide-scale things like processes and theories.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does a degree in Physics transfer well to non-Physics careers and fields?
Absolutely. Physics degree holders have the reputation of being one of the most employable in the world. While there is a wide range of careers and industries outside of academia that are open to physics degree holders, their training that is anchored on problem-solving and the relevant skillsets they have acquired means physics degree holders often thrive in other industries, such as IT and software, finance, accounting, and even law.
Is the work currently being done in physics-related research crucial?
Yes! A lot of scientific breakthroughs over the past several decades (that have translated to many advancements) are built on discoveries in fields within and closely related to physics, and the present-day work remains highly crucial, making the top research universities available a great choice.
Research into areas such as quantum computing, superconductors, energy, and other related areas is a source of the latest breakthroughs in the next generation of computers, communications, energy sources, more efficient transport, and other cutting-edge technologies.