What is a Physicist?

Physics is the study of the forces and laws of nature, from the largest galaxies to the tiniest subatomic particles. It's the most fundamental science, since the laws of nature determine everything else, forming the basis of chemistry, and ultimately of biology, organisms, and ecosystems. It also encompasses electricity and magnetism. Advances in these and other areas of physics have made electric power, industry, electronic devices, and our modern standard of living possible.

A physicist is an inquisitive person who spends his or her life trying to advance our knowledge of how things work. Theoretical physicists study things like the relationships between matter and energy and the nature of the universe, usually through advanced mathematical equations. Applied physicists try to put that knowledge to practical use by inventing new products and processes.

What Does a Physicist Do?

Physicists study the forces, laws, and behavior of nature to understand how things work, or to develop new materials, electronics, processes, or energy sources. Physics is a broad field with many areas of specialization, including environmental physics.

Environmental physicists apply physical principles to environmental problems. They work on creating new materials, photovoltaic systems, and products that are better for the environment. They also work on remote sensing equipment, energy conservation measures, atmospheric models, and other issues related to the environment. Environmental physicists may find careers in remote sensing, atmospheric climate modeling, pollution control, energy conservation, renewable energy development, nuclear waste disposal, and site remediation. Condensed matter physicists who study the condensed states of matter (liquids and solids) are involved in materials research, and are especially important to the development of photovoltaic systems. Some plasma physicists study ways to create fusion reactors to power our society.

Geophysicists use seismic waves to find out what's underground. While they often do this for oil companies, they also investigate potential or existing landfill sites, and provide seismological data to governments. Geophysicists also work on geothermal energy systems, converting the earth's heat energy to clean, renewable electric power. Geothermal energy is a rapidly expanding field in many countries.

Regardless of specialty, most physicists do many of the same things, like use complex calculations and computer models to analyze data. They use math to describe theories and processes. They may observe, identify and measure physical phenomena with lasers, telescopes, and other advanced equipment. They share their research results by writing papers and presenting at conferences.

Many people with advanced physics degrees teach and do research as faculty members at colleges and universities. Those with undergraduate degrees may become high school science teachers.

Where Does a Physicist Work?

As of 2012, most (29%) physicists worked in research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences. Colleges and universities were the next highest employers of physicists (19%). 16% worked for the federal government, and 7% were employed in management, scientific, and technical consulting services. 5% were medical physicists employed by hospitals.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Department of Defense are two of the largest employers of physicists and astronomers in the federal government. However, aspiring geophysicists interested in geothermal energy should note that Canada, Iceland, Italy, Japan and New Zealand are the leaders in geothermal development. The industry is also rapidly growing in the U.S. and Scandinavia.

Physicists spend most of their time in laboratories and offices. Most physicists and astronomers work full time.

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What Is the Average Physicist Salary?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for physicists was $128,950 as of May 2020. Those working for the federal government earned the highest median salary of $152,230, followed by those in R&D, with a median salary of $128,550.*

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The study of physics is what helps us understand objects in motion and at rest - all the way from subatomic particles to ocean freighters. There are many branches of physics depending on the length scale that a physicist wants to study. As such, jobs do vary significantly, but most physicist careers include the following task components:

  • Review research and literature relating to current discoveries in the field
  • Identify and solve problems that arise in the design, development, and performance of physics based solutions to client problems
  • Design, test, and analyze quantum information processors
  • Design and implement innovative experiments to debug and develop hardware
  • Use computer modeling to predict and gather data about potential solutions
  • Develop a code base for calibrating and operating processors
  • Document experimental results in a clear manner
  • Review peer data and experiments in an objective and helpful manner
  • Communicate with internal stakeholders regarding marketing, intellectual property, and engineering
  • Develop experimental methodology
  • Conduct experiments and perform measurements
  • Analyze experimental data for publications and internal reports
  • Participating in the preparation of figures and material for grants and publications
  • Develop scientific theories and models to explain the properties of the natural world
  • Plan and conduct scientific experiments and studies to test theories
  • Write proposals and apply for research grants
  • Do complex mathematical calculations to analyze physical data then apply calculations to hypotheses about the world and other planets
  • Design new scientific equipment
  • 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
  • Use knowledge to develop new devices, processes, and other practical applications

Senior or lead physicists often have a broader scope of responsibilities that include management of a lab as well as personnel and projects. Such responsibilities often include:

  • Develop a positive work environment
  • Inform project scopes, schedules, and budgets
  • Develop, test and calibrate equipment and instruments
  • Take measurements and recording data
  • Create grant proposals for funding purposes
  • Foster a positive and safe work environment
  • Develop and inform project scopes, schedules, and budgets
  • Navigate federal and international protocols, regulations, and best practices
  • Test and calibrate equipment and instruments
  • Creating grant proposals for funding purposes
  • Ensure quality assurance, organization, and appropriate tracking of field data
  • Oversee the preservation of site integrity
  • Engage in office-based tasks including technical report preparation and submittal, as well as liaising with site stakeholders
  • Supervise fieldwork (survey, site recording, testing, monitoring, and data integrity) of multiple field crews
  • Communicate with funding agencies through grant applications
  • Communicate with stakeholders through field status reports and presentation of team findings

What Is the Job Demand for Physicists?

Employment of physicists and astronomers is projected to grow 8 percent between 2020 and 2030.* While growth in physics research dependent on government funding is expected to be flat, grants for energy and advanced manufacturing research will continue the need for physicists. Physicists will also be needed in a wide range of industries in the private sector. Nuclear energy, renewable energy, and environmental jobs are areas of job growth.

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How Do I Get a Physics Degree?

Doctoral degrees are required for most jobs, though master's degrees (M.S.) are sufficient for many applied research and development positions in industry. Graduates with bachelor's degrees in physics (B.S.) who don't want to earn an advanced degree may be qualified for jobs as technicians and assistants in related fields like engineering or computer science.

Undergraduate programs focus on the natural sciences and math. Core courses in physics include quantum mechanics (the study of the very small, i.e., subatomic level), electromagnetism, thermodynamics, and optics. Chemistry and calculus are also covered. Computer science is also very important, since computer modeling is an integral part of physics. Aspiring environmental physicists may also study condensed matter physics, electronics, ecology, environmental assessment, and biology.
Some sensitive federal government positions may only accept as candidates U.S. citizens with security clearances.

Related Degree Options for Physicists

What Kind of Societies and Professional Organizations Do Physicists Have?

  • The American Institute of Physics is a federation of physical science societies. Its members include the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, the Geological Society of America, the Materials Research Society, and many others. AIP organizes a networking community for physics undergraduates and hosts job postings and other career resources.
  • The American Physical Society represents over 50,000 physicists throughout the world. It publishes research journals, arranges annual meetings, and hosts a forum for graduate student affairs. It also organizes groups for Energy Research and Applications and Physics of Climate, as well as divisions for Condensed Matter Physics and Materials Physics.

*2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures and job growth projections for physicists and astronomers reflect national data not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed September 2021.