How to Become a Physicist: Career Path Guide
If you want to become a physicist, you first need to determine if this career path is a good fit for you. If the following description sounds like you, then you’re probably well suited for a career as a physicist:
Those who become physicists have a keen interest in the fundamental nature of the universe, including the nature and properties of matter and energy. They typically take great pleasure out of conducting research, or out of applying knowledge in physics in the creation of new and innovative products and solutions to problems facing our society.
To become a physicist, you need to have aptitude in science and mathematics, and an advanced education in physics. You also need to be effective working in a team environment, have excellent communications skills, and be skilled working with specialized instrumentation and computer programs.
Below we've outlined what you'll need to begin a career as a physicist. We've also included helpful information for this career, such as job description, job duties, salary expectations, a list of possible employers and much more!
Education Needed to Become a Physicist
To become a physicist, you need to develop a strong background in physics, quantum mechanics and mathematics. It is also important to have laboratory experience, skills in research and skills working with various computer programs, such as mapping programs and data collection and analysis programs.
Undergraduate Degree: To acquire this knowledge base and skill set you typically need to pursue an undergraduate degree in science, with a major in physics, or a degree in engineering. Having an undergraduate degree in physics will qualify you to work an entry-level physics job, such as Research Assistant, or Laboratory Technician.
Courses that you will pursue in undergraduate physics program typically include classical and quantum mechanics and thermodynamics. They will also involve a lot of mathematics coursework and a lot of laboratory experience. To gain communications skills, which are necessary for a career as a physicist, it is recommended that you pursues coursework in communications or related fields, as they will help you develop the necessary skills set.
Master’s Degree: Obtaining an M.Sc. degree in physics often qualifies graduates to work in responsible positions in industrial or government laboratories, as laboratory instructors at universities, as consultants, or as Medical Physicists or Meteorologists (if their MS.c. was in a related field).
Doctoral Degree: A Ph.D. degree qualifies physicists for permanent positions in industry. Some Ph.D. graduates choose to work as Post-Doctoral Fellows, typically for a period of 1-3 years, during which time their skills and reputations as independent researchers are enhanced. After the fellowship, long-term employment is usually found in university teaching, or in academic, industrial or government research laboratories.
What is a Physicist?
A physicist is a scientific professional who studies the fundamental nature of the universe, including the nature and properties of matter and energy. The subject matter of their work includes mechanics, heat, light and other radiation, sound, electricity, magnetism, and the structure of atoms. Physicists also apply their knowledge to develop new and innovative technologies, systems, methods and products in a variety of areas, such as:
• Lasers and optics (telecommunications, optometry, holography, etc.)
• Environmental science (weather, oceanography, pollution control, etc.)
• Health and medicine (medical imaging, radiation treatment, lasers)
• Space science (mission specialists, satellite design, etc.)
• Acoustics (speaker research, hall design, etc.)
• Electricity and magnetism (power management, antenna design, instrumentation, etc.)
• Energy and nuclear science (reactor design, waste management, etc.)
• Materials science (semiconductor devices, magnetic films, superconductivity, computer technologies, biomaterials etc.)
Physicist Job Description
The job description of physicists varies greatly from one position to the next. For a example, the job description of a physicist studying the safety of nuclear energy disposal methods will vary greatly from that of a physicist that is responsible for making soap have a more pleasant texture. In general physicists are responsible for:
Research: Physicists working in research aim to increase our understanding of fundamental processes in nature by designing and conducting research studies to test theories and draw conclusions.
Development: Physicists working in applied physics are responsible for developing practical applications of physics knowledge for the benefit of society. This ranges from developing products and systems (for example electronics, communications, power generation and distribution, aerodynamics, optics and lasers, medicine and health), to confronting and solving technological problems (for example, in diagnostic medical imaging or imaging the interior of the earth).
Physicist Job Duties
The job duties of physicists may vary depending on where they work, their level of responsibility, whether they work in research or applied physics, and many other factors. In general, physicists may perform the following duties:
• Develop scientific theories and models to explain the properties of the natural world, such as atom formation
• Plan and conduct research to test theories and discover properties of energy and matter
• Present research findings at scientific conferences and lectures
• Prepare detailed research reports for publication and presentation
• Write proposals for research funding
• Use or develop computer software used for analyzing and modeling data
• Do complex mathematical calculations to analyze physical data
• Design and assist in the development of scientific equipment, such as telescopes and lasers
• Collaborate with other physicists and scientific professionals, including engineers
Who Hires Physicists?
Physicist jobs are available on a part-time, full-time or contractual basis with organizations that are involved in researching physics principles, or applying those principles in a variety of industries, ranging from product development to healthcare.
Organizations that hire Physicists include:
• Colleges and universities
• Federal, provincial/state and municipal government departments
• Hospitals, clinics and health care organizations
• Private and public research laboratories
• Organizations involved in public education
• Scientific or engineering consulting organizations
• Patent offices, agencies and law firms
• Companies that develop residential, industrial or commercial products
Find Physicist Job Opportunities
Physicist Jobs - Canada
Physicist Jobs - United States
Industries for Physicist Jobs
Physics graduates can find jobs in a wide variety of industries, depending on their level of education, their level of experience, as well as their interests and ambitions. These areas of employment include, but are not limited to:
• Research and Development
• Health Sciences
• Management and administration
• Product Development
• Sales and Marketing
Gaining In-Field Experience for Physics Careers
In addition to academic work and developing a strong knowledge base in several areas of science, practical in-field experience is essential for a career as a physicist. Hands-on experience for physicist careers is commonly available at many universities, in collaboration with national laboratories and energy producers, through work-placement, internships, and cooperative programs.
Success Tip: If these opportunities are not arranged for you as part of your degree program, speak to your professors or career guidance staff to help arrange them for you. These opportunities will not only help you refine your skills, they look great on a resume, and will help you get your foot in the door with an organization that hires physicists.
Skills and Traits Needed to Become a Physicist
In order to be effective in a career as a physicist, regardless of your area of specialty, you need to posses certain skills and personality traits. These skills and traits will not only help you perform your job with competence; they will also help you endure the challenging aspects of this career.
• A natural interest in the composition of matter and its behaviour
• An interest in building things and understanding how they function
• An aptitude and education in physics and mathematics
• Enjoy using sophisticated equipment to perform tasks requiring precision
• Excellent verbal and written communications skills
• Ability to use specialized equipment and computer programs
• Able to pay close attention to detail, and perform calculations with accuracy
• Able to apply scientific and mathematical concepts to solving complex problems
• Must be able to work well in collaboration with others, be they physicists or other professionals
Fortunately for those who want to become physicists and are trying to determine what their earning potential is, there is detailed information available. It is important to remember, the salary level of physicists can vary considerably depending on a wide variety of factors, including their area of specialization, their level of education, their level of experience, the specific responsibilities of their job, and many other factors.
Physicist Salary Alberta: According to the 2011 Alberta Wage and Salary Survey, Albertans working in the Physicists and Astronomers occupational group earn an average of between $46.17 and $55.94 per hour. The mean wage for this group is $51.74 an hour.
Physicist Salary Canada: According to Service Canada, the average salary level of workers in the Physicists and Astronomers occupational group is $66,968 per year.
Physicist Salary United States: According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary level of Physicists is $106,370. The lowest 10% of salaries for physicists are below $58,850, and the highest 10% are above $166,400 per year. The median annual salary level of physicists in the United States can further be broken down by industry, as follows:
• Health care and social assistance $151,970
• Management, scientific, and technical consulting services $132,040
• Federal government $112,220
• Research and development (physical, engineering, and life sciences) $102,420
• Colleges, universities, and professional schools $80,130
Careers Similar to Physicist
Listed below are careers in our database that are similar in nature to Physicist, as they may involve many of the same skills, competencies and responsibilities.
References: How to Become a Physicist
Please consult the references below to find more information on the various aspects of a career as a physicist.
Alberta Learning and Information Service website: alis.alberta.ca
American Institute of Physics website: www.aip.org
Canadian Association of Physicists website: www.cap.ca
Service Canada website: www.servicecanada.gc.ca
United States Bureau of Labor Statistics website: www.bls.gov
Scholarships for Becoming a Physicist
Success Tip: Be sure to apply for any scholarships that you even barely qualify for, as there are millions of dollars of scholarships that go unused every year due to a lack of applicants!
Becoming a Physicist: Applicable Majors
Studying one of the university majors listed below is an excellent starting point to becoming a physicist. Click on the links to find out what else you can do with these majors!