Becoming a Physicist: Careers, Salary Info & Job Description

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A physicist's mean annual salary is about $117,300, but is the pay worth the lengthy education requirements? Read real job descriptions and discover the truth about the career outlook to determine if becoming a physicist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Physicist

Physicists research the fundamental aspects of energy and matter in order to deepen the greater scientific knowledge of the universe. Read on to learn about the pros and cons of becoming a physicist to determine if it's the right choice for you.

Pros of Becoming a Physicist
High salaries ($117,300 average salary in May 2014)*
Job growth (10% from 2012-2022)*
There are opportunities to specialize in one of several subfields (geophysics, medical physics, astronomy, nuclear physics)*
Work hours are generally regular and stable*

Cons of Becoming a Physicist
Extensive preparation (9+ years of education for research positions)*
The job market is competitive*
Some positions require state certification or federal security clearance*
Some lab work can expose physicists to hazardous conditions (toxic materials, radiation and high-voltage electrical equipment)**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **California Occupational Guide.

Essential Career Information

Job Description

Physicists are highly trained scientists who study matter and the universe. They measure and study phenomena from the subatomic to the cosmic level and then use or develop models and theories to explain their observances. Physicists may use the knowledge they've obtained to develop new technologies, processes, products or materials for defense, medicine or industry. You may take part in direct testing or observe properties of matter.

As a physicist, you can expect to work as part of a team, and as you gain more experience, you might be asked to mentor the junior staff. Physicists communicate their research by giving presentations and writing memos, emails and research papers, as well as designing computer simulations. You'll most likely work in an office or lab during regular business hours; however, you occasionally may need to work longer hours. It might be necessary at times to travel to conduct research or use special equipment.

The majority of physicists work in research, but if that doesn't appeal to you, there are other options. Some physicists get jobs in equipment design, which may include quality control, testing and inspection. For example, a physicist working in a hospital may ensure that equipment, such as a medical linear accelerator, functions properly. Some physicists transfer into management positions, where they manage budgets, project schedules and staff. Others may teach at a college or university.

Career Options and Specializations

A physicist will usually specialize, and your focus area determines the type of work that you do, including whether it's primarily theoretical or applied. For instance, astrophysicists study and research properties and behaviors of celestial bodies and the interstellar medium, while plasma physicists look at the properties of plasmas, which comprise much of the the matter in the known universe. Condensed matter physicists examine properties like superconductivity and magnetism in liquids and solids, which can be used in thin films and semiconductors. Atomic, nuclear and high-energy physicists concentrate on atoms and subatomic particles. Medical physicists use physics to advance healthcare technologies, such as developing safer or more effective radiation therapies or more accurate imaging technologies.

Job Growth and Salary

The employment outlook for physicists in the coming years is about average, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projecting a growth rate of 10% between 2010 and 2020. A recent rise in the number of doctorates earned in physics will probably spark a more competitive job market, especially for research positions in universities.

As of May 2014, most physicists earned from $54,930-$184,650, according to the BLS. Salaries varied depending on the highest degree attained, credentials, years of experience and the type of employer. Those employed by physicians offices and specialty hospitals made considerably more than the average, with a reported mean annual income of around $170,290 and $170,270, respectively, though relatively few physicists are employed in those areas (approximately 1,630).

Education Requirements

You'll probably want to have Ph.D. to work as a physicist, which is generally required to obtain research and development positions, teach at the university level or advance into management. With a master's degree, you might bring physics to bear in manufacturing or teach physics at a junior college. With a bachelor's degree, you'll be able to work as a technician, research assistant or high school teacher. Specific industries, such as medical physics, may require additional certifications. To work for the federal government, you may need to obtain security clearance.

A physicist needs superior skills in problems solving, computer science, math, statistics and laboratory techniques. You'll also want to acquire some research experience as soon as possible; many colleges and universities offer undergraduate research programs that can give you a jumpstart in developing these talents. In addition, strong interpersonal and communication skills are essential.

Job Postings from Real Employers

While most physicists might seek out research or scholarly positions, other areas are in demand for individuals with education and experience in physics. While the jobs below only provide you with a snapshot of the market as a whole, the job postings will provide you some insight into what employers were seeking in April 2012.

  • A healthcare network in Philadelphia, PA, needs a medical physicist to lead radiation staff and services at their new medical center. This includes making sure that all services comply with all clinical guidelines, professional standards and state and federal regulations. Applicants must have a master's in medical physics, 10 or more years of experience and certification in radiation oncology physics.
  • A manufacturer of measurement instruments needs someone to assist with temperature calibration equipment design and development at their Utah location. Job duties include advising on production equipment and processes, assisting with product design and planning manufacturing systems for new products. Candidates must have at least a bachelor's degree and two years of experience. The employer also specifies that the candidate should demonstrate strong communication and project management skills.
  • An applied physics laboratory seeks an experimental physicist to conduct research across disciplines, including optical physics, radar, electromagnetic phenomena and materials physics. The ideal candidate will have a Ph.D. in physics or a related field, but the employer will accept an applicant with a master's degree and five years of relevant experience. Additional qualifications include demonstrated ability to apply physics to solve complex problems, lead or work as a member of a team and prioritize multiple tasks.

How to Get Ahead

As in most science and technology fields, your physicist career has a better chance of prospering if you are well informed about the latest breakthroughs and advances. Not only will you demonstrate to employers that you are passionate and knowledgeable about physics, but you'll also be primed to take advantage of emerging job opportunities. The American Physical Society (APS) and the American Institute of Physics (AIP) provide several physics news outlets through online journals, RSS feeds and email newsletters. Getting to know your fellow physicists is also an effective strategy for learning about new job opportunities and getting your foot in the door, and the APS sponsors several professional societies that can provide networking opportunities. Key to a successful career in science is the ability to articulate your ideas in both oral and written interactions, so you might consider taking courses in writing and communications.

Get Certified

Certification can also boost your resume and impress employers. If you plan on going into the field of medical physics, you can seek certification through several agencies including the American Board of Medical Physics. There are four areas of certification, including therapeutic medical physics, diagnostic medical physics, nuclear medical physics and medical health physics.

Other Careers to Consider

Mathematician

If your love of math is what drives your appreciation of physics, you can opt to become a mathematician. Like physicists, mathematicians conduct both applied and theoretical work in government, industry and academic positions. You'll most likely need a graduate degree; however, there are positions available for those with a bachelor's degree. At around $101,000 according to the BLS, the average salary is slightly less than that of physicists, but the expected employment growth from 2010-2020 is slightly more at 16%.

High School Physics Teacher

If you don't have the time, money or inclination to get a graduate degree, but you want to work in the field of physics, you might consider becoming a high school physics teacher. In this job, you'll create and teach physics lessons, assess student performance and provide extra help to students who need it. You can get a teaching job with just a bachelor's degree and a state license or certification. You'll probably make a lot less than you would as a physicist (in 2011, the BLS found high school teachers averaged about $57,000 annually). The BLS predicts a meager 7% increase in high school teaching jobs between 2010 and 2020 nationwide.

Nuclear Engineer

Nuclear engineers are similar to physicists in that they conduct research, perform experiments and design equipment. An average salary of a nuclear engineer is about $105,000, but your chances of getting a job with a bachelor's or master's degree is better in nuclear engineering than physics. The predicted job growth for nuclear engineers is 10% from 2010-2020, which is slightly less optimistic than the anticipated job growth for physicists.

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