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Career: Physicist

A Day in the life of a Physicist

The physicist deals with all aspects of matter and energy. His or her work ranges from basic research into the most fundamental laws of nature to the practical development of devices and instruments. The study of physics falls into many categories. These include studies of the motion and properties of physical objects both large and small (classical and quantum mechanics, astrophysics), the properties of waves (optics, acoustics, electromagnetics), the properties of states of matter (solid state, plasma physics), and the fundamental properties of matter and energy (atomic, nuclear, and particle physics). Because of the vast range of subject matter, at the graduate level physicists tend to specialize in one of these categories. Across most categories, physicists also tend to specialize in theoretical and experimental work. Theoretical physicists use mathematical concepts to analyze and predict the behavior of the physical world. Experimental physicists use laboratory experiments to verify these theoretical predictions or develop devices and instruments. Physicists tend to be curious, creative, and dedicated. The majority of physicists are employed by universities and divide their time between research, teaching, and writing scientific articles. Many physicists work independently on problems, while others work in laboratories as part of teams for the duration of particular projects. Physicists working in industry are a varied lot. Many work in traditional areas just like the university physicists, but many branch out into engineering fields and other scientific fields, working with engineers and other scientists in overlapping areas. Because of their broad scientific background, physicists in industry are known for their ability to work in many areas and have helped create many non-traditional fields. Physics is not for the faint-hearted, but for those with good mathematical skills who want a broad scientific education and the ability to branch out later into other fields, physics may be just the thing. Like those in many other scientific fields, a physicist’s career progresses from being a team member doing hands-on work to being a team leader, responsible for developing new projects, running existing ones, and raising money to fund the project. One Ivy League physicist complains that fundraising is a necessary evil in his line of work. In both universities and industry, there have been recent cutbacks in research funding that have affected almost everyone in the field.

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Paying Your Dues

Excellent mathematical skills and statistical knowledge are required of the physicist, who will spend a large part of his academic life studying these subjects. The physicist must be as competent in these areas as any mathematician or statistician. Computer knowledge is also key. The most successful physicists go beyond a bachelor’s degree to get a master’s and then a doctorate, which entails a significant piece of original research. Without postgraduate degrees, it’s generally difficult to find work as a physicist. Those who do land a job in this field with only a B.S. will find that they need to further their studies if they want to progress beyond rudimentary lab duties.

Associated Careers

A large number of nonpracticing physicists end up teaching. Depending on the degree she has, a physicist can teach science in high school or at the college level. A background in physics along with some writing talent can also help you procure a job in scientific journalism. The field most closely related to physics is engineering. Engineers need to have a sophisticated knowledge of physics, but the course of study is often not as long. There are also fields that unite physics with other sciences. Biophysicists, for example, study the processes of life by bringing together physics, chemistry, and biology. Astrophysicists are involved in developing theories about the origin of the universe and the physical mechanisms which have generated the objects seen by astronomers. Astronomy is one of the laboratories for testing fundamental theories about the nature of matter and energy from relativity to particle physics.

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