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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.

Present and Future

The origins of physics can be traced to Aristotle, who wrote at a time when physics was considered a philosophical science. It wasn’t until 1,000 years later, with the work of Galileo, that physics was acknowledged to be a hard mathematical science. Galileo’s discoveries in physics, the fact that matter of varying weights will always fall at the same speed, for instance, have earned him the label of “first modern scientist.” Since then, physics has progressed rapidly, with many breakthroughs, such as the light bulb and the motion picture, still baffling to many people yet crucial to daily life. Physicists agree that there is plenty of room for the field to grow as new discoveries are made concerning nuclear energy, communications, the ocean, and space. Unfortunately, the growth rate for this career is expected to be slower than average in the near future due to cuts in government funding, which will affect the field substantially. Eighty percent of employed physicists work for universities or the government. But as one prominent physicist consoles himself, if you have a degree in physics, you have something very few people have.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Physicists report very high levels of satisfaction with their chosen profession at all levels. Very few leave the field at this time. Physicists are a dedicated lot, and after having spent upwards of seven years preparing for this career they rarely lose interest so soon.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Those who leave the field at this time sometimes report feeling like failures for the first year or so in the broader job market. They do, however, find their educational backgrounds to be invaluable assets. A doctoral degree in physics can open a number of doors in other fields.

TEN YEARS OUT

Many physicists leave the profession at this time because they feel they have “topped out” in their field. They go on to seek employment that will allow them to use their scientific background in less scientific ventures. A number of physicists report, however, that they miss being physicists.