Physical Scientist Careers: Job Description & Salary Information

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What are the pros and cons of a physical scientist career? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a physical scientist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Physical Scientist Careers

As a physical scientist, companies in the private sector and government agencies will rely on you to conduct research that can help the environment or positively impact medicine. Following is a list of pros and cons that can help you decide if a career in physical science is right for you.

Pros of Being a Physical Scientist
High earning potential (e.g., 2014 median salary for chemists was about $73,000; about $90,000 for geoscientists, and about $88,000 for atmospheric and space scientists)*
Many professional certifications available to help you stand out*
Can use research to benefit society*
Teaching positions can be rewarding*

Cons of Being a Physical Scientist
May work long hours and late evenings*
May work outdoors during bad weather*
May be exposed to hazardous materials*
Most research jobs require an advanced degree*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Essential Career Information

The broad field of physical science encompasses professions such as atmospheric scientist, chemist, environmental scientist, geoscientist and physicist. Job duties vary, but virtually all physical scientists work with non-living materials. Using the scientific method, they perform experiments and draw conclusions. Atmospheric scientists (often called meteorologists) study climate and weather to develop forecasts. Chemists study materials at the molecular level. Environmental scientists devise ways to clean and preserve the environment. Geoscientists study the earth to find sources of energy, minerals and water. Physicists study the physical properties of matter that includes everything in the earth and universe.

Job Description

In general, physical scientists investigate and study the composition and structure of matter, from the smallest atom to the planets of the universe. All physical scientists may teach, plan, test, research and develop scientific studies to test physical properties. Physical scientists usually work for colleges or universities, the government, hospitals and research companies.

Employment Outlook

According to the BLS, the job growth for chemists was projected have a 6% increase from 2012-2022, which is slower than average. Although employment of chemists was expected to decline in the chemical and drug manufacturing industry, the BLS expected increasing opportunities for chemists in the environmental industry. During this same period, job growth was projected to be about average for atmospheric scientists (projected to increase 10%), environmental scientists (15% increase) and physicists (10% increase).

Some favorable factors contributing to the job growth for these professionals are due to the demand for more accurate weather forecasts, concern for the environment as the population grows and the expected increase in government spending for energy. The BLS also noted that jobs for meteorologists were expected to be very competitive because there are usually more candidates than there are jobs. As for geoscientists, jobs were projected to increase 16% between 2012 and 2022, which is faster than average. This growth projection was based on the anticipated demand for energy sources and more efficient ways to protect the environment. For all of these positions, job prospects were expected to be favorable for those with advanced degrees, especially for those with a Ph.D.

Salary Information

Salaries for physical scientist careers vary by field. As of May 2014, the median salaries reported by the BLS for some physical scientist occupations were:

  • Environmental scientists: $66,250
  • Chemists: $73,480
  • Geoscientists: $89,910
  • Physicists: $109,600
  • Atmospheric scientists: $87,980

What Are the Requirements?

According to the BLS, you can gain employment for most of these jobs with a bachelor's degree in a science-related discipline. You can also major in computer science, engineering or mathematics and supplement these programs with science courses. For research, administration or faculty positions, a Ph.D. is often required. To work as a geoscientist, most states require that you become licensed, according to the BLS.

To work as a physical scientist, you should be able to make conclusions and decisions based on facts, have the ability to visualize objects from descriptions and pictures, and be able to apply scientific hypotheses. You should also have an inquisitive mind, technical aptitude, good communication skills, interpersonal and presentation skills. You should be detail-oriented and analytical.

Job Postings from Real Employers

Actual job postings reflect that most employers are looking for physical scientists to do research and analysis. A bachelor's degree is requested as the minimum education requirement, but most employers prefer an advanced degree. Candidates with a bachelor's degree are usually required to have more years of experience. Following is a list of real job postings for physical scientist positions in various specialties to give you an idea of what skills employers were looking for during April 2012:

  • A staffing firm in California is recruiting for a research chemist to develop experiments and assist in research plans. The incumbent must have a bachelor's degree in chemistry with 5-8 years of experience or a master's degree with 3-5 years of experience.
  • A consulting company in Virginia seeks an environmental scientist with five years of experience to provide consulting services to academic, biotechnology, government and other businesses. The employer requests a bachelor's degree in a related field, but prefers a master's degree.
  • A Houston oil and gas consulting firm is looking for a geoscientist to perform analysis, complete performance reviews and write reports. The job requires a bachelor's degree in a related study with four years of experience, a master's degree with two years of experience or a Ph.D. with no experience.
  • A television broadcast company in Missouri wants to hire a meteorologist to deliver live news weather forecasts. This candidate must have a 4-year degree in meteorology or experience in a broadcast weather department. Other qualifications include knowledge of weather software and non-linear editing.
  • A university in Maryland seeks an experimental physicist to work in its applied physics laboratory. The candidate will conduct research in optical physics, electromagnetic and quantum phenomena. This job requires a master's degree or Ph.D. with five years of experience. A security clearance is also required.

How to Stand Out

As with most scientific positions that involve research and development, a Ph.D. is the best way to validate your competency in your area of specialty. You can further stand out by becoming certified with a national certification organization. Following are certifications available for various physical science professions.

Certification for Chemists

The American Institute of Chemists (AIC) offers the Certified Professional Chemist (CPC) and the Certified Chemical Engineer (CChE) credentials. You need a bachelor's degree and 300 contact hours of chemistry-related experience to sit for these exams. If you're a recent graduate with a bachelor's degree, you can obtain the Certifiees-In-Training (CIT) status. If you have a master's degree or don't fully qualify for certification, you may be given an Annual Enrollees status.

Certification for Environmental Scientists

The National Registry of Environmental Professionals (NREP) offers several professional credentials, including the Certified Environmental Scientist (CES) and the Certified Industrial Environmental Toxicologist (CIET). To qualify for these certification exams, you must have a 4-year degree in an environmental related field, plus three years of experience.

Certification for Geoscientists

For a career in geology, you can obtain the Certified Professional Geologist (CPG) designation from the American Institute of Professional Geologists (AIPG). A bachelor's degree with 36 credits in geology coursework and eight years of experience is required for this exam.

Certification for Meteorologists

The American Meteorological Society (AMS) offers the Certified Broadcast Meteorologist (CBM) and the Certified Consulting Meteorologist (CCM) program. To earn a CBM designation, you must have a degree in meteorology or a closely related discipline, pass a written exam and have your work reviewed. The AMS doesn't list any specific eligibility requirements for the CCM program. However, applicants are tested to determine if they meet the standards of the AMS.

Certification for Physicists

Certifications for physicists are usually in the medical fields of nuclear medicine and radiology. The American Board of Science in Nuclear Medicine (ABSNM) offers a certification program in nuclear medicine physics and instrumentation. You need a master's or doctorate degree in a related discipline and 2-3 years of relevant experience to qualify. You may also obtain the Certified Health Physicist (CHP) credential offered by the American Board of Health Physics (ABHP). You would need a bachelor's or graduate degree in biology, physical science or engineering, plus six years of experience to qualify for CHP exam.

Other Career Paths

Epidemiologist

If you prefer a scientific job that entails working living things rather than non-living matter, then becoming an epidemiologist may suit you. In this role, you would perform studies to investigate causes of diseases and develop methods of preventing outbreaks among the population. Typically, the majority of your work would deal with infectious diseases. Many professionals in this occupation work for the government as applied epidemiologists or for universities as research epidemiologists.

To work in this field, you would need a related master's degree. Those who work for universities usually have a Ph.D. According to the BLS, employment for this occupation is projected to increase at a faster than average rate from 2010 to 2020. The BLS also reported that epidemiologists earned a median salary of $64,000, as of May 2011.

Microbiologists

You can also help with public and environmental health concerns as a microbiologist. In this job, you would study the development of microscopic organisms like bacteria that can affect humans, animals, plants and the environment both positively and negatively. You can use your research in microbiology for many purposes, such as developing new pharmaceuticals to treat diseases or creating genetically modified crops that are resistant to pests.

You would need a degree in microbiology or another related discipline to work in this field. A 4-year degree is suitable for entry-level positions, but you would need a Ph.D. to conduct independent research. As of May 2011, the median salary for microbiologists was around $65,000.

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