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What does a Physicist do?

Asking “what is a physicist?” requires an answer that depends on the focus of the work, but at the core, a physicist is a person who explores the basic principles that govern the behavior and structure or matter, space, time, and energy. By identifying and defining the principles of how these aspects of the universe interact, physicists and astronomers use both theoretical and practical application to plan and conduct scientific experiments. In addition to insights into the origin of the universe and the nature of time, the physicist career results in applied science applications of these discoveries with innovations such as electron microscopes, particle accelerators, laser technology, and microwave ovens.

Who is a Physicist?

A physicist is a person concerned with extending human understanding of how reality works. They look at the structure and behavior of matter and are often at the cutting edge of human scientific discovery. A physicist often uses the most advanced technological equipment available in a laboratory environment and studies or manipulates matter and energy at microscopic levels. A physicist typically works on a research team with other scientists, astronomers, engineers and technicians on grant and research projects.

Physicist Job Description


The Physicist encounter a variety of duties and tasks in their job description. The candidate looking to enter this career field needs an academic education with a focus on mathematical reasoning, statistical calculation, scientific theory and experimentation and an understanding of the structure and properties of matter. Additional physicist job description and education will depend on the student’s chosen focus but will almost always have a heavy STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) component.

Physicist Duties and Tasks

Although a physicist’s duties and tasks may vary most physicists will encounter these requirements in their career:

  • Communicate with a variety of people
  • Use and maintain lab equipment and space
  • Design conduct and publish results of experiments
  • Write proposals and apply for research grants
  • Write scientific papers for publication in academic journals
  • Attend and present at scientific lectures and conferences
  • Perform complex mathematical equations and calculations to analyze data
  • Design computer software to model or analyze data
  • Create charts and maps detailing astronomical features

Skills Required

Being a physicist requires basic jobs skills, as well as additional specialized skills for higher paying positions including laboratory and teaching skills. Most physicists complete two to four years of post-doctorate work in research facilities. Entry level skills include:

  • Computer keyboarding and database proficiency
  • Technical and scientific writing
  • Upper-level math coursework
  • Data modeling and analysis
  • Project management and ability to multitask
  • Familiarity with lab and safety procedures

Work Schedules


Many physicists work full time during traditional office or laboratory hours.  Those specializing in astronomy may visit observatories or need night conditions for studies. However, flexible entry level positions can be found in laboratories that require around the clock monitoring and observation of research.

Physicist Salary


An average physicist salary of $88K per annum in the United States is equal to the mid-career estimations across the board. However, entry level positions can be as low as $49K for academic teaching positions. Those who enter specialized fields such as medicine, engineering, or practical energy applications may command higher salaries, with some as high as $147K if they are the top performers in their specialty or a developer of cutting-edge technology with medical or defense applications.

National hourly rate data from October 2016 shows a range from $19.87 – $93.87 and positions for physicists range from very basic lab technicians who compile data to the major movers and shakers in the field who are designing and implementing technologies that shape, bend and alter the fabric of the universe. Even with this diverse range of hourly wage, most physicists have excellent tenure possibilities if associated with a college, university or private teaching institution as well as health benefits and comfortable working environments which make this an appealing job path for the science minded.

How Much Do Physicists Make?

The salary level for this field is highly dependent on geography so this fact directly influences the answer to the question of how much do physicist make. Although the field is predominantly male, this gives an advantage to females who pursue careers in physics. Often, due to their shortage, various government based programs and grants will be available to research projects that utilize female physicists in their projects and so women may be able to command a higher wage rate than males.

Although many people stop at a Bachelor’s Degree in Physics, the real earning power for a physicist comes at the Ph.D. level. Typically, the average salary one can expect as a physicist with a Ph.D. upon graduation, irrespective of gender is as follows.


Many physicists begin their careers with an eye on a coveted, well-paying position with good benefits at The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or the U.S. Department of Defense. Traditionally, these facilities have been top employers of people who choose this field and offer excellent benefits and wage possibilities for those seeking a lifelong career path within these institutions. Other high paying avenues for the physicist include private and federally funded laboratories such as the Goddard Institute in Maryland and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois. These top employers are also reasons that geography tends to limit physicist salaries.

Physicist Employment


According to the National Occupational Employment Statistics Collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs despite an upwards swing in 2012 and 2013 have remained relatively stable for physicist since 2010. In 2010, jobs held steady with 16,860 positions available and there was a slight decline in 2011 of 440 positions. However, in 2012 those losses were recouped with an additional 1600 jobs in the field of physics. In 2013, the job market trended down slightly again with a loss of about 500 available openings.

The initial drop in positions between 2010 and 2011 happened across many STEM-related fields and did not go unnoticed by academic and occupational researchers. In fact, this fluctuation, as well as the awareness of retirement age of many workers in the science fields led to a major awareness campaign and the onset of STEM programs and initiatives targeting youth that began in late 2011.

Physicist’s jobs declined again by the year 2014 and resulted in a loss of 550 available positions. However, looking at the data from 2010 to 2014, the five-year period only had a fluctuation in jobs of 80 positions. A deviation of less than 100 available jobs over a five-year period shows that this field remains stable in the potential for job openings in the long term for people interested in working as physicists.


Experience Affects Physicist Salaries

18% of those working as physicists tend to be in entry-level positions. Only 1% tends to be in their mid-career position with a national average salary of $88K. It is interesting to note that 56% of physicists are late-career employees. A lot of late career physicists means there will be more entry-level openings for those seeking this field are their current career path.

It is also notable that only 31% are ranked as experienced. This may account for the wide disparity in pay range for mid-career workers. Some who find themselves mid-career are still only making $51,169 which some physics graduates make more than at entry-level, while at the high end of the pay scale mid-career workers can anticipate an annual salary of $133,714. Experience as well as geography, choice of specialty, and length of education all factor into the wage a physics graduate can expect and continuing education is often warranted to keep up with the latest advances in technology but is often a perk of the job.

Gender Distribution

The gender distribution in the field of Physics is clearly biased toward male employees with just 5% of the workforce being female. In this male dominated profession, many women can feel unwelcome or as if they are outsiders so only pursue the career path if they have a strong passion for a specialty.


Per the US Department of Commerce fewer than 25% of STEM jobs, such as physics careers, are filled by women. Physics is a traditionally male field, but with programs like the New York Academy of Sciences 1000 Girls – 100 Futures and the global Million Women Mentor’s project, it  may feel more welcoming to women in the future.

How to Become a Physicist?


The easy answer to how to become a physicist is to get the appropriate education. This is either a bachelor’s or a doctorate degree. Although physicists’ jobs with the United States Federal Government will typically only require a bachelor’s degree, many high paying physicist positions, especially those in astronomy, require a Ph.D. Often graduates will begin their careers in two to three-year postdoctoral research positions or as teaching assistants

Physicist Education Requirements

Many positions in academia require a Ph.D. in physics, astronomy or related fields such as engineering, medical or energy conservation depending on the specialty area of physics a student plans to pursue. Some government and independent research positions will accept bachelor degree applications for entry level work but most academic-based positions at the college and university level require a doctorate.

Physicist education requirements always include STEM coursework, proficiency with computers and an understanding of the workings and procedures of a laboratory environment. Certifications in safety procedures, as well as specific tests for security clearances, may also be necessary depending on employment. These may be hands-on training necessary at the time of hiring, but any additional credentials obtained during academia can help make a graduate more marketable.

Physicist Colleges

There are many colleges and institutes across the United States that offer undergraduate degrees in physics, some with specialties in astronomy, engineering or other subfields. These ten physicist colleges offer academic programs that are frequently top-ranked for physics degrees and offer financial programs for students as well as employment opportunities with research and lab facilities.

  1. California Institute of Technology
  2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  3. Stanford University
  4. Harvard University
  5. Princeton University
  6. University of California Berkeley
  7. University of Philadelphia
  8. Columbia University
  9. Cornell University
  10. John Hopkins University

Major Subjects

An undergraduate degree in physics is usually viewed as the prep work for a subfield specialty doctorate. Many physics students pursue subfield specialties including astronomy, computer science, thermodynamics, medicine, mathematics, and engineering and it may be wise to create a minor around a specialized area. Most physics undergraduate programs allow flexibility so that you have the core areas covered but can explore a specialty.

It is important to select a program that offers heavy STEM coursework in the natural sciences, mathematics and fields such as classical and quantum mechanics, electromagnetism and optics. Students should also be skilled at utilizing computers as they will be a cornerstone of most work whether in an office or a laboratory setting for data tracking and modeling as well as the presentation of findings in research studies. Communication skills are also necessary for a physics career path. Although the myth of a mad scientist alone in a room persists when it comes to physicists, the reality is that education has opened up diverse pathways for this field from oil workers to medicine to theoretical scientists who do spend most of the day in the lab but more often than not, the physicist is part of a team effort working in a cooperative environment.

Physicist Specializations


Perhaps the most well-known fields of physics are astronomy and cosmology, and the study of the universe,x as a whole. However, there is an extensive range of field physicist specializations because the study of matter and energy quite literally touch on just about every aspect of what it means to be human. People considering physics are often surprised by just how far reaching this field is in actuality.

Chaos theory, astrophysics, and atomic physics are popular avenues of study, but just as many physicists if not more, specialize in acoustics, or the study of sound and sound waves. Biophysics, chemical physics, and geophysics have led to some of the top technological advances in industry and electronics are a huge area of growth for physics employment in today’s digital world.

Mathematical physics, electromagnetism and computation physics help us quantify and analyze global issues and laser physics have applications from medicine to travel and weapons. Meteorology is another name for weather physics and the study of nuclear physics, nanotechnology, and optics or light physics are also large growth industries. Thermodynamics is also another specialty area that offers huge growth potential.

Many students come to this academic path due to String Theory or particle physics. However, others enjoy exploring the diverse world of Quantum physics that includes a wide array of subfields. For example, you can study Quantum Electrodynamics, Quantum Mechanics, Quantum Optics or Quantum Gravity and that’s just the beginning.

Statistics play a huge role in this science area, and there is an entire subspecialty dedicated to Statistical Physics. If you think about just about any profession out there that involves a hands-on application of technology, you will likely find a physicist somewhere in the design or development of that product. Medicine is a large growth area where several subspecialties of physics meet including biophysics, chemical, thermodynamics and engineering to create yet another specialization in Medical Physics.

Many students find they love the academia of physics and stay in it for life. Positions as university researchers, teachers, and support staff claim many who pursue bachelor and doctorate degrees in these fields. Others go on to teach at the middle or high school level to encourage youth to pursue a career in these areas of study. Physics has wide ranging applications and as more solution-driven research impacts our world on a global level, the job prospects are promising and stable.

Professional Association of Physicists

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) is the predominant association of physicists in the USA. With more than a dozen AIP member societies and an additional two dozen affiliated and allied societies, the American Institute of Physics provides members with a wealth of networking and up to the minute knowledge from a diverse set of specialty physics organizations. The 501(c)(3) membership corporation of physical science societies has a membership of about 120,000 composed of students, scientists, and engineers.

Inside Science, Physics Today and a variety of Journals and FYI: Science Policy News is put out by AIP Publishing LLC which is a subsidiary of the association. Additional projects include The Center for the History of Physics, the Niels Bohr Library & Archives as well as a variety of student programs including scholarship and outreach. AIP also hosts a variety of diversity initiates to get more people involved in physics and related careers. Their website has an extensive career section with connections to employment resources and opportunities for members and non-members alike including positions within the American Institute of Physics.

Famous Physicists

Galileo Galilei is one of many famous physicists and is arguably one of the most well-known physicists in history. He was born in Pisa February 15, 1564, and left the world on January 8, 1642, in Arcetri. He spent much of his life in Italy teaching, studying and developing devices such as the perspicillum for ship navigation. He is best known for his telescopes and advances in optical physics that allowed for commercial and military applications as well as identifying a variety of celestial bodies. It is due to Galileo that we know about sunspots and he developed the Archimedes Method which is a way to find specific gravity, still used in many scientific and medical practices to this day.

Albert Einstein is another revered physicist. Born March 14, 1879, at Ulm, in Württemberg, Germany he continued to travel and study until his death in Princeton, New Jersey on April 18, 1955. He is known for the Theory of Relativity as well as his shock of white hair that indeed made him appear a mad scientist despite his very calculated approach to the problems of physics. Many know the equation E=MC2 but Einstein actually received his Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for his services in theoretical physics, specifically the law of photoelectric effect and not his theories of relativity.

Physicists FAQ

 What are the growth and benefit opportunity for physicists?

Physicists who choose to remain in academia have relatively limited growth in terms of title. However, they can achieve tenure and have a stable income growth over time with a secure benefits package that typically includes health coverage and may include housing. These professionals often have the added benefit of reduced educational costs for their children at the institution where they teach. Physicists in government positions have opportunities for growth within project management and private sector jobs may have opportunities for travel or moving up within the corporation. Stability is the primary benefit for a physicist position as highly trained individuals once hired can remain in their position for a lengthy career.

 What is the job outlook for the physicist?

In the ten-year period leading up to 2024, employment of physicists and astronomers is expected to see a 7% increase. Federal spending is not indicating an increase but employment in academia, national laboratories and basic research in energy, including at the federal level is expected to be a growth industry. Physics will continue to be in high demand for advancing technology in medicine, communications and applied research and development fields. New graduates may expect to cycle through multiple post doctorate positions before securing a permanent long-term position and those with database management skills will be in high demand. It has been a trend for research proposals to exceed grant dollars in recent years, so those with a special skill set of writing physics specific grant proposals effectively will also be in demand as competition is expected to increase.

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