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CAREER AS A

PHYSICIST

Institute Research Number 143


ISBN 1-58511-143-0
DOT Number 023.061-014
O*Net SOC Code 19-2012.00

CAREER AS A PHYSICIST
STUDYING HOW THE UNIVERSE WORKS AND USING YOUR
KNOWLEDGE TO PLAY AN INTEGRAL PART IN FUTURE
ADVANCES IN MEDICINE, COMPUTERS, NATIONAL DEFENSE,
LASERS, TRANSPORTATION, ENERGY EFFICIENCY AND THE
ENVIRONMENT

SOME PEO PLE MAY HAVE AN IM AGE OF THE PHYSICIST-SCIENTIST AS A SHY,

disheveled absent-minded professor who wears socks that dont


match and who would rather talk to a computer than a real person.
Nothing could be further from todays reality. Physicists come from all
walks of life, have a wide variety of interests, and are more likely to go
to parties and meetings than to lock themselves away in a laboratory
and forget what day or year it is. In fact, the most famous scientist the
modern world has known, Albert Einstein, was a physicist who had a
keen interest in many social issues and questions.
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Most people enter the field of physics because it is a science that


is almost entirely devoted to the exploration of the unknown. Physics
and physicists often deal with the big questions, like Where did the
Universe come from? or What happens when you travel at the speed
of light? But they are not content with just asking the questions. They
want to find the answers.
Of course physics does not just deal with cosmic questions. The
science of physics is involved in nearly all aspects of technology and
science that have become the practical realities of our day-to-day lives.
Physics has been integral to many advances in medicine, computers,
national defense, lasers, transportation, energy efficiency, and the
environment.
Physics is a fundamental science because it deals with the
fundamental elements of nature and life, like force and motion,
gravity, electricity, light and heat, and sound. Physics also deals with
the basic particles of life, from atoms, electrons, and protons to the
fundamental particles of matter known as quarks, which combine to
form composite objects like protons and neutrons. As a result, physics
is a basic building block for such sciences as chemistry, biology,
medicine, electronics, and geology.
In essence, physicists study how the universe works and then take
their knowledge and apply it to solving problems. Some have obvious
practical applications concerning food and energy supply, or
advancing communications technology. Others deal with more
theoretical problems such as how space bends or curves. But, even
with the more esoteric questions, the physicist is ultimately looking for
practical applications that will increase our knowledge about the
world around us and improve our lives.
Because physics is such a fundamental science, people with
physics degrees work in a wide variety of fields and jobs for private
companies, universities, schools, research centers, and governmental
agencies. In fact, a complete list of the types of jobs that physicists
work in would be very, very long. Here is a sampling of some of the
areas and industries a physicist may work in:
Aerospace
Astronomy
Biophysics
Computer system engineering

Research assistance
High-tech design
Mathematics
Medical products design
Meteorology
Research
Administration
Data analysis
Education
Technical consulting
There are more than 40,000 physicists working in industry,
education, government and medical centers today. Although the
majority are active scientists and engineers, some have become
lawyers with a technology specialty while others have opted for
careers in the military, sales, law, accounting, and medicine. For many
years, physics has been the domain primarily of men, but more and
more women are entering the field and matching the
accomplishments of their male counterparts. In fact, recent statistics
show that young women make up nearly half of all high school physics
students.
If you are inquisitive, have an aptitude for math, and like to tackle
the tough problems, physics may be for you. A background in physics
can prepare you for many careers and lead you in many directions,
including the road less traveled.

STARTING TO PREPARE EARLY


IF YOU ARE IN HIGH SCHOOL AND CONSIDERING A PHYSICS CAREER, YOU CAN

start exploring the career now. Find out as much about the field as you
can to make sure that it is the right one for you. Talk to your teachers
and guidance counselor. Go to the library and read up on the field;
your librarian can point you in the right direction.
You can also learn a lot through the Internet. Physicists, after all,
have played a major role in developing computer technology. The Web
contains vast amounts of information about the field targeting
potential students and the general public. Much of it is supplied by
top physics organizations, like the American Institute of Physics (AIP)
on their Web site http://www.aip.org/. The information you find there
can help you determine whether you have the aptitude and
commitment needed to pursue a career in physics or a physics-related
field. For example, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration,
or NASA, has a Web site at:
http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/YBA/yba-intro.html
This website is designed to give you the experience of solving a
problem that an astrophysicist might face.
One good way to find out if physics is for you is to take as many
math courses as possible. You should have some aptitude for math,
but it is more important that you enjoy it and be willing to work hard
on your math skills to improve them.
Since physicists do a lot of research and work on many advanced
projects in science and industry, you should join a science club at your
school. Also volunteer for science fairs and other events that require
you to design and complete science projects. You can also read science
magazines like Scientific American, which will keep you abreast of the
latest advances and give you insights into where science is headed for
in the future.
Talk to your science teachers and contact the physics department
at a local college or university. They can give you some great insights
into the field.
If you are already in college, you can ask a professor whose work
interests you if you can volunteer to help in the research laboratory.
Summer fellowships in the field will also provide you with valuable
experience to help you decide if physics is right for you.
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HISTORY OF THE PROFESSION


THE FIELD OF PHYSICS AS IT IS KNOWN TODAY DID NOT BEGIN TO TAKE SHAPE

until the later part of the 19th century. However, the practice of
physics, the study of nature, dates back at least to 580 BC in ancient
Greece, when Thales of Miletus noted a magnets attraction to rubbed
amber. Around 440 BC, Leucippus of Miletus originated the concept of
the atom. His pupil, Democritus of Abdera, refined and extended the
concept. Aristotle also described the workings of celestial bodies and
other parts of nature in works called Physics and Metaphysics around
350 BC (although we now know he was mistaken in many of his
assumptions). In 240 BC Archimedes developed the principles of
hydrostatics (concerning fluids at rest, especially pressure in a fluid.)
The field of physics was also developing in other parts of the
world. Around 250 BC, the Chinese developed the concept that free
bodies move at a constant velocity. Arabian scientists would also play
an important role in physics several centuries later. For example,
around 1000 AD Ali Al-hazen made great strides in the study of optics,
including reflection, refraction, and lenses. He also developed a
pinhole camera to demonstrate that light travels in straight lines to
the eye.
For the most part, however, early physics was largely philosophical
and literary in nature and relied little on mathematics, mechanics, and
experimentation. Nevertheless, some early physicists were surprisingly
accurate in their guesses about aspects of nature, including the atomic
theory of Democritus and the heliocentric view of the solar system
advanced in 260 BC by Aristarchus, who said that the planets revolve
around the sun.
For the most part, the teachings of formal physics remained
anchored for centuries in Aristotles incorrect picture of Earth as the
center of movement in the skies and in many of his other erroneous
views about dynamics and other aspects of nature. It wasnt until
1600 and the publication of William Gilberts book about magnetism
called De Magnete, that the first known extensive report of
experiments that were connected and reconfirmed appeared in the
history of Western physics. In 1609, Aristotles views of mechanics
were attacked by Galileo, who said the earth was not the center of the
universe. Galileos ideas, in turn, were condemned by the Inquisition in
1616 and 1633. In 1644, Ren Descartes Principles of Philosophy was
based on an implicit mathematical scheme involving such natural
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phenomenon as motion. Descartes also said that real physics should


be based on mathematics.
Sir Issac Newton was the first to explain many aspects of natural
phenomenon in mathematics in his book Mathematical Principles of
Natural Philosophy, published in 1687. Newton greatly advanced the
science of motion with an emphasis on postulates involving the
principles of gravity, mass, and force. He explained the laws of bodies
falling to the surface of the earth, the laws that preside over the
motion of planets around the sun and of satellites (moons) around the
planets, and the laws that govern the high and low tides of the sea. In
all, Newton gave science its first unified picture of the universe in
terms of space and time.
Many advances were made in physics throughout the 18th and
19th centuries. The study of electricity, light, and optics were firmly
established in the 1700s. Research into heat and thermodynamics also
advanced when Joseph Fourier published his theory of heat
conduction in 1822 using a series of trigonometry calculations that
bear his name (Fourier Analysis).
By the end of the 19th century, physics was rapidly advancing into
the modern scientific field as it is known today. In 1873 James Clerk
Maxwell discovered the electromagnetic nature of light and predicted
the existence of radio waves; two years later he proposed the theory
that atoms must have a structure. In 1883 George Fitzgerald
developed a theory of radio transmission, and in 1892 Hendrick
Lorentz came up with the theory that electricity is due to charged
particles. Two years later Heinrich Hertz discovered that radio waves
travel at the speed of light and can be refracted and polarized. In 1895
Wilhelm Roentgen developed X-rays.
Although many credit Albert Einstein with initiating the modern
era of physics, an important earlier contributor was Marie Curie,
whose discovery of the radioactive element radium was a key to a
basic change in the understanding of matter and energy. Curie also
formed a crucial hypothesis that the emission of rays by uranium
compounds could be an atomic property of the element uranium
something built into the very structure of its atoms. Her hypothesis
would prove revolutionary and ultimately contribute to a fundamental
shift in scientific understanding. After Curie, scientists realized that the
atom was not the most elementary particle of matter, a fact that had
already been hinted at by the discovery of the electron by physicist J.J.
Thomson.
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Nevertheless, the birth of modern revolutionary physics is largely


associated with Neils Bohr and Einstein. In 1905, Albert Einstein wrote
several papers that greatly impacted physics and transformed 20th
century scientific thought. He established the special theory of
relativity, predicted the equivalence of mass (m) and energy (e)
according to the famous equation e = mc2, where (c) represents the
velocity of light.
Einstein also created the mathematical theory of Brownian motion
(the observed movement of small particles as they are randomly
bombarded by the molecules of the surrounding medium) and
founded the photon theory of light (photoelectric effect) for which he
received the Nobel Prize in 1921. By 1920 Einstein had published
Relativity, the Special and the General Theory: A Popular Exposition,
which profoundly modified the simple concepts of space and time on
which Newtonian mechanics had been based.
In 1910, Ernest Rutherford discovered the nucleus of the atom,
showing that the atom consisted of a positively charged nucleus with
negatively charged electrons in orbit around it. Neils Bohr followed up
on this discovery in 1913, with his theory about the structure of the
atom. Bohr proposed that electrons travel only in certain successively
larger orbits. He suggested that the outer orbits could hold more
electrons than the inner ones, and that these outer orbits determine
the atoms chemical properties. Bohr also described the way atoms
emit radiation. He suggested that when an electron jumps from an
outer orbit to an inner one that it emits light. Others later expanded
this theory into quantum mechanics.
In the 1920s, the formulation of quantum mechanics occurred,
and the 1930s saw the emergence of what became known as big
physics, that is, the development of expensive and time-consuming
experiments supported heavily by industries using optics and
electricity. By the 1950s, physicists were among the most respected
scientists in terms of public recognition largely because of their
extensive research into thermonuclear weapons and satellites. The
ensuing years saw the emergence of many new specialties, such as
applied electronics.
By the late 1950s, physicists such as Richard Phillips Feynman
began to emphasize the aesthetic value of their research more than its
practical application. Since this time, theoretical physics has gone even
further beyond the realm of pure science to raise profound
philosophical questions concerning the nature of reality. For example,
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in quantum physics, which deals with discrete and indivisible units of


energy called quanta, there is a theory concerning the dual nature of
physical entities. Quantum physics describes quantum particles and
light as having both wavelike and particle-like characteristics. In
essence, a quantum particle that is being measured (or observed) acts
like a particle. When it is not being measured it acts like a wave. This
leads to the theory that matter does not exist until it is observed!
Physics, however, is largely a practical science responsible for
much of the technology that is routinely accepted today but would
have been thought of as modern miracles less than a century ago.
Without physics, it is highly unlikely that discoveries in the last half of
the 20th century such as the double-helix structure of DNA, the
synthesis of complex protein molecules, and developments in genetic
engineering would have ever occurred.
Physics and physicists have greatly impacted many technological
developments in the later part of the 20th century, including
contributions to medicine, computers, national defense, countless
consumer goods, telecommunications, lasers, medical imaging, space
travel, and much more. Most recently physicists have been prime
contributors to interdisciplinary efforts in biophysics, solid-state
physics, and astrophysics. For example, solid-state physicists pioneered
the revolution in information processing. Astrophysicists are also
behind new insights into the large-scale structure of the universe and
its parts.
Today, physics continues to broaden scientific knowledge about
basic laws of the physical universe, from the laws governing
elementary particles to the irreversibly thermodynamic processes.

WHERE YOU WILL WORK


PERHAPS MORE THAN ANY OTHER GRADUATES WITH A SCIENCE DEGREE,

physicists have an extremely wide range of opportunities from


academia to industry to high finance. As a result, you may work in a
laboratory, in an office, in the classroom, or a combination of these
places. You could even end up on the space shuttle!
For the most part, physicists who work for industry or the
government spend a lot of time in laboratories. Depending on the size
of the project, these laboratories may range from small one-room
facilities to large complexes and spaces. For example, physicists who
work in such areas as nuclear and high-energy physics often work with
enormous expensive equipment, like particle accelerators. Although
physicists often spend much of their time in laboratories doing
research, they also work in offices, where they plan and develop
research projects, proposals, and prepare reports.
Depending on your career path, you could end up working on
Wall Street or other financial districts, where many financial services
companies seek the expertise of physicists in computers. You could
also work in a planetarium or even a museum that houses a
planetarium. Physics graduates have also gone on to work in the
military and even traveled to outer space as astronauts.
Many people with physics degrees also become educators, both at
the high school and college or university levels. In that case, expect to
spend time in the classroom with students imparting to others your
own knowledge and excitement about the field.
As to geographic location, the sky is literally the limit. (Although
some theoretical physicists will likely tell you there are no limits!)
Because there are so many opportunities in such a wide variety of
fields, you can work almost anywhere in the United States or the
world depending on your willingness to relocate and your sense of
adventure. Even when located in one geographic area, you may get
the opportunity to travel the globe attending conferences and other
scientific meetings pertinent to your field.
As you can see, where you work will depend a lot on what you
ultimately want to do with your degree or degrees. You can work for a
small or a large corporation or organization or any size in between
depending on your goals and such issues as the need for structure or
freedom in the workplace.
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WHAT PHYSICISTS DO
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A TYPICAL DAY IN THE WORK LIVES OF ALL PHYSICISTS.

What you will do as a physicist depends largely on the type of physics


you get into and your employer, whether it be industry, the
government, or academia.
In most cases, whatever you do you will be involved with problem
solving. Physicists are given situations or problems and are asked to
solve them. Your work will most likely involve both experimental
investigations and theoretical analysis. Throughout the course of your
career, you may perform the duties of a scientist, engineer,
mathematician, analyst, and even computer programmer.
Physicists are often roughly divided into two kinds: experimental
and theoretical physicists. As an experimental physicist, you might
design and run thorough investigations on a broad range of natural
phenomena, such as the electrical properties of materials when they
reach near absolute zero or the characteristics of energy emitted by
hot gases. As a theoretical physicist your focus will be more on
proposing and developing models and theories to analyze and predict
the behavior of the natural world. Of course, the areas of experimental
and theoretical physics often overlap.
The general duties of physicists are widely varied. You may be
developing new products or types of computer hardware and
software. As an astrophysicist, you might be looking for new planets
and solar systems. Or your duties may be really unconventional, such
as developing new golf ball dimple patterns and researching the
properties of sporting equipment.
What you do and the duties involved will also depend on your
education. People who major in physics and get a bachelors degree
often work in the private sector or in secondary education. They may
be computer engineers and even go into management, where they
supervise projects and people and manage budgets. Those who hold a
masters degree are more likely to have higher levels of responsibility,
from supervising research in laboratories to solving complex problems.
With a graduate degree you are also more likely to have management
responsibilities.
More than half of those who get their doctorate in physics work
for colleges and universities. Their duties not only include conducting
long-term research projects but also various aspects of teaching and
supervision, which may include developing a course of instruction,
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presenting lectures, and grading tests and papers. Often, physics


professors also serve as mentors to specific students, helping to guide
them in their research projects and in their future careers.
If there is one universal aspect of a physicists duties, it is the fact
that you probably will be working with mathematics. You will have to
perform numerous calculations, and you will also do mathematical
modeling. As a part of this effort, you may design and perform
experiments with lasers, cyclotrons, mass spectrometers, and a host of
other equipment. In the course of your investigations you will not only
define research problems and develop research models, but also
gather and analyze data.
Many physicists also work for federally funded research and
development centers. You may design equipment and instruments. If
you are working in industry, your duties may include inspecting,
testing, and conducting quality control procedures for products or
other aspects of the particular industry that employs you.
Some physicists are self-employed and work as consultants,
providing their expertise to a number of clients, including government
and industry. If you have your doctorate, you may also specialize in
one of many sub-fields, from elementary particle or nuclear physics to
optics, acoustics, or plasma physics.
The majority of physicists also have non-technical duties, such as
developing and writing research proposals, reviewing scientific
literature, and summarizing research findings. Even if you are not
teaching students, your duties may require you to explain your work to
others in a particular industry. You may have to prepare technical
reports. Some physicists even write for the general public in
newspapers, magazines, and books. For the most part, you can also
expect to work with others in a team environment.
Although the field of physics encompasses too many careers to
outline all of their duties here, the following is a sample of what you
might do in various areas of physics.

Astrophysicist As an astrophysicist, you study the nature and


behavior of the universe. You may conduct studies applying general
relativity to the study of black holes or cosmology. Or you may be
using a computer to control satellites or conduct numerical analysis of
astronomical data. You may also work on building new instruments or
use existing ones to discover new facts about stars, nebulae and
galaxies. Your job will usually include data acquisition and research,
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perhaps concerning the elliptical galaxies that shine brightly in the


x-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum. To study these extremely
hot materials in the galaxy, you may use such instruments as an x-ray
telescope. You may even oversee an entire planetarium and oversee all
the research that goes on there as well as develop budgets and do
other management work.

Biophysicist Biophysicists focus on explaining why the biophysical


environment behaves as it does. You may be required to develop
research methods to better understand the mechanisms of biological
processes by using mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology. Fields
of research include how the brain processes and stores information,
how muscles contract, how the heart pumps blood, and much more.
Biophysicists also study how organisms develop, see, hear, think, and
live. Your duties probably will require extensive computer use for data
collection and analysis. You will also design experiments using lasers,
cyclotrons, mass spectrometers, and other equipment. Research
biophysicists also write scientific articles and present their work at
international conferences.

Computational Physicist
Computational physics is a relatively new branch of physics that lies
between theoretical and experimental physics. As a computational
physicist you would focus on the practical use of computers in the
study of physics questions. You would use the newest technology and
have a hands-on approach to scientific computing. For example, you
could be developing imaging and spectral analysis software for
scientific applications.
You could also become an entrepreneur as a growing number of
computational physicists start up their own companies. These
physicists-entrepreneurs focus primarily on computer code
development, computer systems administration, Web development,
networking, and other means to solve specific problems needed by
private commerce and industry.

Radiation or Health Physicist The primary duties of a radiation


or health physicist are to work with shielding designs, radiological
considerations, and operational aspects of facilities that use radiation
or produce radiation. For example, in the area of hospital radiation
therapy, duties involve the investigation, surveillance, inspection and
registration of x-ray producing machines. In the nuclear industry, the
radiation or health physicist duties include ensuring the protection of
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persons and their environment from the damaging effects of


radiation. Radiation physicists may be employed in nuclear reactor
operations, accelerator programs, hospitals, or state public health
departments. Your duties could include research in radiobiology,
ecology, and radiogeology.
These are only a few possibilities of the jobs and duties that might
be yours as a physicist. Its best to remember that there is no one set
of duties for someone working in physics or a physics-related field.
What you do will depend on where you work, your level of
responsibilities, and your drive to succeed.

14

PHYSICISTS TELL ABOUT THEIR CAREERS


Im a Research Physicist I am a research scientist
who focuses on space travel. The primary reason that I chose
science and a career in physics is because my high school science
teacher made the courses both challenging and fun. He made it so
interesting that I started to read technical books on my own
about physics and math, astronomy, and even quantum theory.
When I got into college, I still wasnt sure that I wanted to be
a physicist. But by the time I got my bachelors degree I was totally
hooked. Going for my masters degree gave me some extra time to
decide exactly what I wanted to specialize in, which ended up
being solar energy at the time. I guess you could say that my
career plan has been constantly evolving throughout my education
and work as a physicist.
One of the smartest things I did while in college was to get
involved in a co-op program. It allowed me to alternate semesters
of standard college courses with semesters where I actually
worked on various projects, such as researching solid-state
electronics.
During the course of my career I have done design work and
taught and conducted research at a university, which I really liked.
But there are so many opportunities, and I guess Im sort of like a
mental nomad who likes to explore a lot of different areas. So I
ended up in industry for a while and then worked in management.
But I found that I liked hands-on science work much better. Im
currently interested in space environment effects, that is, how
spacecraft and humans interact with their environment in orbit or
while on a planet.
I work with a team of about five or six people. This team is
part of a larger team of about 30 people overall in different parts
of the country. Still, much of my work is self-guided and I have
plenty of freedom to explore different directions and aspects of
my studies. I spend a lot of time working at a computer, including
doing computer programming and data analysis.

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Overall, the working conditions are great and very relaxed. I


make a good living and have great benefits. But most of all, I love
what I do.

Im an Industrial Physicist Im a vice president of


research for a major science company and oversee some of the
most creative scientific minds I have known. The people I work
with have been responsible for discoveries leading to more than
1,000 patents and many life-changing inventions.
I joined the company right out of college after receiving my
PhD in physics. My mentor in college thought that I would also go
into academia, but a summer placement program at this company
impressed me so much that I decided thats what I wanted to do. I
knew there was so much that I could accomplish here.
I began my career working on light-scattering experiments on
complex fluids, surfaces and other condensed matter. I wont go
into the details, but it was fascinating. Over the course of the
years, the research I participated in became quite diverse from
plastic superconductors to DNA to dark matter. Although Im now
in management, I still conduct research, which now focuses on
optical systems. It makes up about ten percent of my duties.
I try to maintain an extremely creative atmosphere in the
research labs. And the people who work on product development
tell me that such an atmosphere has dramatically benefitted their
work. Yes, there are pressures because the company I work for
deals with telecommunications and the technology is changing
rapidly. Were expected to produce world-class research, both in
the short and long terms.
Still, Ive learned many ways to balance my life. I play the
piano and do Tae Bo aerobics, both of which help me to relax. As a
woman I have had some tough times advancing up the scientific
or corporate ladder in a traditionally male dominated field. But I
always loved a challenge. In fact, part of the reason I became a
physicist is because my older brother, who was studying
mathematics in college when I was still in high school, told me
that I couldnt handle the course work to become a physicist.

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Today, I think its very easy for women to make a name for
themselves in industry. In the end, most employers only care about
results, not your background. As a result, I wouldnt hesitate to
encourage my daughter to go into physics if thats what she
wanted to do.

Im a Consultant Engineer Im a building services


consulting engineer and provide expertise in the design of
innovative construction projects. Ill never forget what one of my
college professors told me. He said that a good physicist always
makes an excellent engineer but that an engineer seldom makes a
good physicist.
My primary expertise is in areas of heating and lighting and
various other systems that control a buildings internal
environment. I often work with architects and structural engineers
and also advise them on ways to minimize environmental impact
in such areas as acoustics and energy management.
One of the best things I like about the job is that Im not in
the office all of the time. I get to travel to different parts of the
United States, and I am often on-site drawing up specifications.
Its great when you design something and then get to see it up
and running efficiently.
When I tell people what I do and that I majored in physics in
college, they are quite surprised. Most of them never would have
guessed that my job is something someone with a background in
physics would end up doing.
The fact is physicists work in every aspect of the economy and
in every area of technology that you can think of. Its not always
the specific subjects that we were taught in college physics that
make us so valuable. Its the whole way we are trained to think
thats important. Actually, most of the people I graduated with are
not in mainstream physics jobs. Some work in government and
management, and I have one friend who even works in finance.
I guess what Im trying to say is that physics is more of a
discipline than a career. The only thing that I know that all people
in physics have in common is that they have an inquisitive mind.
Well, theyre pretty good at math, too.
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Im a Freelance Science Writer When I started out


studying physics, I wanted to go into academia, be a college
professor. But by the time I got my masters degree, I no longer
wanted to follow the traditional career path of the Physicist with a
capital P.
One of the turning points was when my college adviser
pointed out that there were many ways for me to go with a
degree in physics. At the time, it was difficult to get an academic
appointment, and I was told I needed to open up my vistas a bit.
Even though I got my PhD, which is pretty much a
requirement for a physics career in a major college or university, I
focused my efforts on getting a job in industry. I had no
experience and a little bit of a tough time finding a job because
the economy was in a slump at the time. Although my primary
work in college focused on infrared sensors, I also worked with my
professors on a variety of other projects doing little odd-job types
of things, including developing software programs for laboratory
experiments.
I ended up working for a software development firm in
product development. It was a small firm so I also was asked to
assist the marketing department to gain a better understanding of
our products. At one point, I started working on the companys
newsletters and marketing brochures to make sure all the
technical material was presented correctly. In the end, I found that
I had a real knack for writing technical and advertising materials,
and it wasnt long before I went into marketing full time,
eventually becoming the companys marketing manager.
I love communicating science to the general public and
eventually decided to strike out on my own as a freelance science
writer. The contacts I had made while I worked as a physicist and
in marketing helped me get a good start. Youd be surprised how
much demand there is for someone who can write about
complicated science in a way thats understandable by almost
anybody.
Im currently writing a physics textbook and have co-authored
a childrens book about physics. I write for several science
magazines and even have an idea for a science fiction novel based
on some really extraordinary theories in physics.
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PERSONAL QUALIFICATIONS
ALTHOUGH PHYSICISTS SHARE MANY COMMON TRAITS, PERHAPS THE MOST

important of all is a fascination with the world around them and an


intense curiosity about why the world works as it does. They also tend
to have good imaginations and the desire to make new discoveries.
On the more practical side, someone who wants to become a
physicist should have a strong interest in science in general. An
aptitude for mathematics is essential since the language of physics is
mathematics. As a result, many physicists, especially theoretical
physicists, like to solve problems. They have the ability to concentrate
on a problem and get deeply involved in it sometimes over months
and years. In other words, good problem-solving skills are essential.
Physicists tend to be analytical, creative, and persistent. They are
also willing to take the initiative, asking questions that no one has
asked before and putting in the effort to answer these questions.
Often, the physicist is able to see relationships among various factors
that are not immediately apparent to others.
It may surprise you to know that physicists should also be good
communicators. Gaining knowledge about something doesnt do
much good for anyone else unless you can communicate your
knowledge to them. You should be able to inform, explain, and
instruct so that you and others can draw meaningful conclusions
about your work. Good spoken and written communication skills are
also handy because physicists often work with other scientists as a
team, not only in the laboratory but also writing research papers and
proposals for funding research.
Many physicists work in industry and business environments,
meaning that while being able to focus is important it is also valuable
to be able to work on many different tasks simultaneously. Good
communication skills come into play so you can communicate with
those around you who may not have your scientific background. Many
physicists also oversee other workers. They should be good people
managers who can build relationships based on trust.
You must be willing to continue studying throughout your career.
Physicists can enter a variety of fields and work on many different
types of problems. As a result, they are willing to broaden their
educational background beyond the realm of physics.

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Few people possess all of the qualities described, especially as


students and early in their careers. But with the right education, a
willingness to learn, and a desire to succeed, you can improve upon
the personal qualities that you already possess.

ATTRACTIVE FEATURES
ONE OF THE MOST REWARDING ASPECTS OF BEING A PHYSICIST IS THAT YOU ARE

building a base of scientific knowledge that ultimately enriches


everyones lives. For example, many of the high-tech medical advances
that have saved countless lives have resulted from the work of
physicists.
Many people choose to study physics because they are fascinated
by the world around them. A career in physics will enable you to get
paid for pursuing this fascination and finding answers to your
questions.
Trained in physics, you can go in a lot of different directions once
you graduate and throughout your career. The problem-solving skills
developed through your education are useful in many professions. As
a result, your career will have an inherent flexibility not often found in
other professions. This flexibility also offers a type of job security in
that your skills will almost always be in demand in some sector of
government, industry, or academia.
In many physics-related careers, you have the best of both worlds
in that you often get to work quite independently while, at the same
time, being part of a team. Working with smart colleagues also
enables you to bounce ideas off them that can put you that much
closer to reaching your goals in research and product development.
For a physicist, no two days are the same. Most physics and
physics-related jobs offer a lot of flexibility and variety. Often physicists
also develop their own consulting businesses or start companies based
on new products or processes that they develop.
In many cases, physicists have the opportunity to do whatever
they think is necessary to achieve their goals. In the process, you are
often on the cutting-edge of science and business.

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UNATTRACTIVE FEATURES
ALTHOUGH PHYSICISTS GET PAID RELATIVELY WELL, THE PAY IS NOT AS HIGH AS IN

many other equivalent professional careers, such as medicine,


accounting, and law. You may also face stiff competition at times for a
specific job. For example, job availability at government funded
research and development centers is highly dependent on budgets
allotted to these centers. These budgets are developed and approved
by politicians and bureaucrats and often depend on the current
economy as well as many political factors.
You may also face considerable pressure on the job, especially in
the industrial and commercial sectors. For example, you may have to
bear major responsibility for developing a new product or process that
will impact the future of your company and fellow workers. As a
result, you may also work long hours and have to put up with
organizational politics.
Sometimes you may have difficulty in finding a niche that is
suitable for you. Being prepared for different types of work is a good
thing. However, unless you are committed to a specific area of physics,
it could take you several years to find what you really want to do with
your career and where you fit in. This is especially true for physicists
with only a bachelors degree.
Finally, although your peers and employers will respect you, many
people may never quite understand what it is you do. In fact, in many
cases, including both government and private sector jobs, you wont
be able to tell them what youre working on because it has to be kept
a secret.

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EDUCATION AND TRAINING


MANY OPTIONS ARE AVAILABLE IN HIGHER EDUCATION FOR GETTING A DEGREE IN

physics and the training to work in a physics-related field. Often you


can apply for physics related jobs in industry right after obtaining your
bachelors degree. But better paying jobs, especially those in basic
research and academia, usually require at least a masters degree and
often a doctorate.
The level of education you should seek depends a lot on your
career goals. Many colleges and universities are beginning to offer
professional masters degree programs that prepare students for a
specific physics-related job in private industry. Even with a bachelors
degree you can work in many engineering-related areas, software, and
other computer-related positions. However, for the high-level research
jobs in almost any field, a doctorate is required.
Part of your decision in pursuing an education will also depend on
your willingness to make a long-term commitment. For example, you
can get a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in physics in four years. It
usually takes another two years to get a masters degree (MS). It can
require another two to four years to get a doctoral degree (PhD).
Degree programs will often vary from college to college but the
following will give you a general idea of the requirements you will
have to fulfill for each degree level.

Bachelors Degree
The standard four-year curriculum in physics will involve many
science-based classes, starting with first-year physics courses. Even
though these courses cover the fundamentals of physics in such areas
as mechanics, electricity, and magnetism, they are often very difficult
and are designed to weed-out physics candidates. Even if you dont
excel early on in your physics courses, you should persevere. Many
successful physicists did not start out by doing well in these courses.
Your physics courses will progress into such areas as intermediate
mechanics and theories of energy and mass. You may also take courses
in optics, thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and eventually
elementary quantum mechanics. Some undergraduate programs may
offer an opportunity to specialize somewhat in such areas as
astrophysics, geophysics, and biophysics. But specialization usually
begins during masters and doctoral programs.

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You can also expect to take a lot of math courses, including


calculus. Of course, the idea of an undergraduate education is to
produce a well-rounded graduate, so you will have to take courses in
social studies, English, and composition. Some of these courses will be
electives that you can choose from.

Masters Degree
Most masters degree programs require two years following an
undergraduate degree in physics or a related field, such as chemistry.
Many will offer you a choice of a thesis-based program or a non-thesis
program. In the thesis-based program you will have to pick a topic or
research area and write extensively about it in addition to your
classroom work. A non-thesis program requires additional classroom
work and will usually include completing some type of project and a
final examination.
A masters degree can prepare you for many fields in industry and
research and teaching at the community college level. You will most
likely take courses in classical mechanics, electrodynamics, and
quantum mechanics. Research is also an important part of any
masters degree program in physics, and nearly all programs offer
hands-on research as part of the masters education.
If you enter a professional masters degree program, it will
prepare you for a non-academic career in the field. This type of
education provides not only fundamental training that all physicists
receive but also specialized skills targeting specific industries and
government research positions.

Doctoral Degree
Most people working in colleges and universities and in the higher
levels of government and industry have a PhD in physics. Earning a
doctorate requires a high level of commitment and devotion since it
can take three to six years to complete.
Most doctoral programs require students to have demonstrated a
high-level of ability during their undergraduate and masters
education. To be admitted, you probably will have to take both a
written exam focusing on your knowledge of undergraduate physics
and a preliminary oral exam on graduate-level physics.
Doctoral students usually specialize in one area of physics, such as
astrophysics, atmospheric physics, mathematical physics, general
relativity, and so on. In addition to about 50 or so credit hours of
graduate and upper-division course work in physics, math, and other
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areas approved by committee, you will be required to choose an area


of research and then write a comprehensive dissertation about your
findings. You will get help with this research through your advisor. If
you cannot come up with your own idea for a research project, your
advisor will often assign you a research problem or include you in his
or her own ongoing research.

Financial Aid College can be expensive, and going on to graduate


school could put a serious dent in almost anybodys budget. You
should start talking early with your high school guidance counselor
and colleges of your choice about financial aid programs, using the
federal and state government, grants, and scholarships. Search the
Web, including the US Department of Education and specific college
Web sites. Youll find a wealth of information about getting aid for
your undergraduate education.
Almost all graduate physics students can receive financial
assistance in one form or the other. Fellowships, teaching
assistantships, and research assistantships are common ways that
graduate students help to finance their graduate education. Teaching
assistantships are the most common form of support offered to new
graduate students. This is because research work can take up a lot of
time and colleges want to make sure that students have plenty of time
for their classroom work and to adapt to their new level of study. As
you progress in your graduate education, research assistantships
become much more common and offer you not only financial
assistance but also real-world experience in the laboratory.

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EARNINGS
THE AMOUNT OF MONEY YOU CAN EARN AS A PHYSICIST DEPENDS ON MANY

factors. For example, people with a doctoral degree generally earn


more than someone with a masters degree, who generally earns more
than someone with only a bachelors degree.
According to a recent survey by the American Institute of Physics
(AIP), the overall median annual salary for AIP-member physicists (ages
35 to 44) is:
Doctoral (PhD or equivalent) $100,000
Masters degree $90,000
Bachelors degree $80,000
Experience is also another important factor. Doctoral physicists
who have worked for less than five years typically earn around
$85,000 a year in an industry setting. By the time they have gained
more experience, the average median salary increases to around
$100,000 a year.
Salaries also depend on where you work. Typically, doctoral
physicists who work in federally funded research and development
(R&D) centers make more than those who work for the federal
government or a university. This is particularly true early on in the
physicists career. Doctoral physicists entering the industrial and the
federally funded R&D center work forces earn around $65,000 to
$80,000 a year, compared to government employed physicists, whose
earnings start at around $50,000 to $70,000 a year. On the other end
of the scale, physicists with bachelors degrees typically earn starting
salaries from $25,000 a year to $40,000.
The top three median salaries per year earned by doctoral
physicists according to work sector are:
$110,000 hospitals and medical services sectors
$105,000 federally funded research and development sectors
$100,000 industry sectors
Starting salaries in the university setting typically range from
$40,000 a year in a 10-month position to $60,000 a year in a
12-month position. The salary of those who attain a doctoral degree
and pursue a full-time career in academia also depends on their level
of academic appointments. Typical salaries are:
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Full professor $100,000 to $150,000 a year


Associate professor $70,000 to $95,000
Assistant professor $55,000 to $75,000.
Physicists salaries typically fare well in terms of keeping up with
inflation. For example the annual salary of around $100,000 a year
earned by the typical experienced industrial physicist is a significant
increase from the $80,000 a year reported only a few years earlier. An
AIP study found that salaries for physicists have increased over 10
percent since 1998, far higher than the approximate six percent
inflationary increases overall. And those who worked for federally
funded R&D centers have netted about a 15 percent pay increase since
1998.
Salaries and future earning potential vary widely according to
education level attained, work sector, experience and even geographic
location. Many physicists also make much more money than the
reported averages through supplemental sources such as consulting,
summer research projects, or summer teaching positions, each of
which can add an average of $15,000 a year to the incomes described.

OPPORTUNITIES
PHYSICS IS THE BASIS OF MANY ENDEAVORS IN ENGINEERING AND NATURAL

science. As a result, studying physics opens up numerous


opportunities for employment in private companies, universities,
schools, research centers, and governmental agencies.
Like most careers, opportunities and job outlook for physics
majors have fluctuated over the years, largely depending on economic
downturns and upswings. Nevertheless, the employment rate for
physicists has remained among the highest for any science majors and
has been consistently above the national average.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, many
physicists work on defense-related projects for the government.
Because spending on defense is expected to increase over the next
decade, the outlook for physicists in this field is good.

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Federal budgets have also increased for physics research at


federally funded research and development (R&D) centers and at
agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
(NASA). Although short-term budget government issues often cause
fluctuations in funding, continued increases in research and
development funding are expected over the long haul and should
mean increased job opportunities for physicists.
Employment opportunities have also been good in the college and
university settings. The number of full-time physics faculty employed
in academia has increased in the last few years, and the number of
faculty members which physics departments are recruiting remains
high. This outlook is further bolstered by the fact that more physics
faculty members are over the age of 60 than under the age of 40,
meaning that there should be a higher rate of retirement and more
opportunities within academia in the years to come.
A survey by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) found that only
three percent of students who earn a masters degree in physics are
not working within six months. Within that time, over 70 percent find
full-time employment, and almost all the rest begin pursuing another
graduate degree and working part time. In fact, opportunities actually
may be better for masters degree physicists in areas of applied
research and development, product design, and other manufacturing
industry jobs. The job market for physicists in the earth and space
sciences also remains good.
Physics graduates are in demand in a wide variety of industries,
including information technology, semiconductor technology, and
computer software and engineering companies. Those with a
bachelors degree seldom work in high-level research jobs.
Nevertheless, they do qualify for openings in jobs related to
engineering, mathematics, and computers. They also can become high
school teachers if they meet a states certification requirements, and
recent reports indicate a high demand in many school districts.
The bottom line is that a degree in physics at any level prepares
the student for many different job opportunities and diverse careers,
which translates into a variety of opportunities.

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GETTING STARTED
IF YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT A CAREER IN PHYSICS, FIRST AND FOREMOST, THINK

math, math, math. Start tailoring your education now so you can
reach your goal. Take all the math-related classes that you possibly
can, from simple algebra to geometry to calculus courses. A strong
background in math and other high school sciences, especially
chemistry, will prepare you for the far more advanced studies in
college.
Physicists also work with many types of advanced equipment. As a
result, you should gain as much familiarity with electronics and
machinery as you can. Your high school industrial arts or shop classes
can provide you with valuable experience in how to build and repair
equipment. Of course, youll also want to be experienced in the use of
computers.
Although science courses should be your emphasis, it is also
important to be well rounded. Remember, you want to be able to
communicate your ideas, goals, and solutions to others. So take all
your courses seriously, including English and those in the social
sciences.
If you are already in college, now is the time to start seriously
planning your future in physics and physics-related careers. Start as a
freshman to investigate the many opportunities open to you. Talk to
your guidance counselor. Talk to the staff in your colleges career
center. They can give you a lot of information and other sources where
you can gain information. Ask them if there is some way you can talk
to a working physicist outside the academic center or if there is a
company nearby that employs physics majors. Call the company up
and ask if you can talk with someone or shadow a physicist on the job.
If possible, attend physics education seminars if any are offered in
your area. Look into summer internships and fellowships in physics
and physics-related areas. Your schools career center will probably be
able to help you. If not, search the Web for companies and
organizations that do research in those areas that youre interested in.
Contact them and tell them you are eager to learn and have a lot to
offer. If you show enough enthusiasm and energy, you may be able to
create your own opportunities. But be patient and persistent, it may
take contacting a dozen people before you get any positive responses.

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Since your school probably has a physics department, talk to as


many instructors in the department as you can, from masters degree
students to full professors who have been in the field for years. Find
out about the difference between experimental and theoretical physics
so you can decide which area you would like to concentrate on. Or
perhaps you are thinking about other physics-related fields or teaching
physics in high school. Start investigating these possibilities with your
guidance counselor and college career center. Do it now; dont wait.
Contrary to popular belief, you dont have to be an Einstein to be
a successful physicist. What you do have to do is work harder on the
areas that you need to work on, including math. Develop good study
habits and think about joining or starting a study group with members
of your class. Physicists often work in teams so this will not only help
you with your studies but also prepare you to work with others in the
future.
Remember, the field of physics is wide open with a variety of
different opportunities in many fields. How far you go depends partly
on how far you progress in your education, from a bachelors degree
to a masters or to a doctorate. But you can have a career in a
physics-related field with any degree level in physics. It is ultimately up
to you.

ASSOCIATIONS
n American Center for Physics
n American Institute of Physics
n American Physical Society
n Institute of Physics
n International Association of Mathematical Physics
n Geophysical Union

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PERIODICALS
n Computers in Physics
n Computing in Science and Engineering
n Industrial Physics
n Journal of Applied Physics
n Journal of Chemical Physics
n Journal of Mathematical Physics
n Physics Today

WEBSITES
n American Institute of Physics
http://www.aip.org
n Careers with Physics (Institute of Physics)
http://careers.iop.org/
n National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
http://www.nasa.gov/NASA_homepage.html
n Physics Central
http://www.physicscentral.com
n Physics Web
http://physicsweb.org/

COYRIGHT 2007 Institute For Career Research CHICAGO


CAREERS INTERNET DATABASE www.careers-internet.org

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