What you need to know
Physicists study the ways in which various forms of matter and energy interact. Theoretical physicists may study the nature of time or the origin of the universe. Some physicists design and perform experiments with sophisticated equipment such as particle accelerators, electron microscopes, and lasers.
Physics research is usually done in small- or medium-sized laboratories. However, experiments in some areas of physics, such as nuclear and high-energy physics, may require extremely large and expensive equipment, such as particle accelerators and nuclear reactors. Although physics research may require extensive experimentation in laboratories, physicists still spend much of their time in offices, planning, analyzing, fundraising, and reporting on research.
Some of the things a physicist might do:
- Develop scientific theories and models that attempt to explain the properties of the natural world, such as the force of gravity or the formation of subatomic particles
- Plan and conduct scientific experiments and studies to test theories and discover properties of matter and energy
- Write proposals and apply for funding to conduct research
- Do complex mathematical calculations to analyze physical and astronomical data, such as data that may indicate the existence of planets in distant solar systems or new properties of materials
- Design new scientific equipment, such as telescopes and lasers
- Develop computer software to analyze and model data
- Write scientific papers that may be published in scholarly journals
- Present research findings at scientific conferences and lectures
- Analytical skills: Physicists need to think logically in order to carry out scientific experiments and studies. They must be precise and accurate in their analyses because errors could invalidate their research.
- Communication skills: Physicists present their research at scientific conferences, to the public, or to government and business leaders. Physicists write technical reports that may be published in scientific journals. They also write proposals for research funding.
- Critical-thinking skills: Physicists must carefully evaluate their own work and the work of others. They must determine whether results and conclusions are accurate and based on sound science.
- Curiosity: Physicists work in fields that are on the cutting edge of technology. They must be very keen to learn continuously throughout their careers in order to keep up with advances in a wide range of technical subjects.
- Interpersonal skills: Physicists must collaborate extensively with others in both academic and industrial research contexts. They need to work well with others toward a common goal. Interpersonal skills also should help researchers secure funding for their projects.
- Math skills: Physicists perform complex calculations involving calculus, geometry, algebra, and other areas of math. They must express their research in mathematical terms.
- Problem-solving skills: Physicists use scientific observation and analysis, as well as creative thinking, to solve complex scientific problems. Physicists may need to redesign their approach and find a solution when an experiment or theory fails to produce the needed information or result.
- Self-discipline: Physicists need to stay motivated since they spend a lot of time analyzing large datasets to try to discern patterns that will yield information. This work requires the ability to focus for long periods.
The average pay for physicists in the United States ranges from $59,300 to $165,770 as of May 2018.
The specific pay depends on factors such as level of experience, education and training, geographic location, and specific industry.
Overall employment of physicists is projected to grow 14 percent from 2016 to 2026, faster than the average for all occupations.
Physicists are projected to have employment growth in scientific research and development services, educational services, and healthcare and social assistance.
A Ph.D. in physics, astronomy, or a related field is needed for jobs in research or academia or for independent research positions in industry.
Those with a master’s degree in physics may qualify for jobs in applied research and development for manufacturing and healthcare companies. Many master’s degree programs specialize in preparing students for physics-related research-and-development positions that do not require a Ph.D.