What do physicists do?
Are you interested in how the universe began? Does the formation and interaction of atoms fascinate you? Have you always wondered about time, and why it seems to move only in one direction? Then physics might be the field for you.
“Physics is about understanding how nature works - how it does the things that it does - from the smallest scales of subatomic particles to the largest scales of the universe as a whole,” explains Paul Bloom, associate professor of physics at North Central College. Everything we know in physics starts with things we observe and measure.”
If this sounds like a lot to cover, you’re right! The field of physics is massive. That’s why most physicists eventually choose to specialize in a subfield at some point in their educational career… and why they have an enormous range of jobs to choose from after earning their degrees.
What careers can I pursue as a physicist?
Some physics graduates fit the popular image of scientists wearing white lab coats in laboratories … but most do not. You could conduct basic research, working to expand our understanding of physical properties and the natural world. You might take on applied research, using the principles of physics to develop things like medical devices, nano-scale materials or the means for producing sustainable energy.
But you might also find yourself working in a defense company, college or university, legal practice, financial firm, or other area. Through their education and training, physicists develop superpowers in mathematics, analysis and critical thinking. These fundamental skills are in high demand in virtually every field. Physics grads have generally taken enough advanced math classes, for instance, to step into a job in finance or big data.
As a physicist you could pursue a position in a wide variety of sectors, including:
- Data analysis
- Energy (including nuclear energy and solar energy)
- Medicine and health
- … and much more
Depending on your interests and your level of education, more research-oriented physics careers could include:
- Atmospheric physicist
- Atomic spectroscopist
- Biophysics scientist
- Computational physicist
- Experimental physicist
- Fluid dynamicist
- Health physicist
- Laser engineer
- Mass spectroscopist
- Mathematical physicist
- Medical physicist
- Molecular physicist
- Nuclear physicist
- Nuclear spectroscopist
- Particle physicist
- Physics professor or high school physics teacher
- Plasma physicist
- Research physicist
- Rocket scientist
- Space physicist
- Stellar astronomer
- Theoretical astronomer
- Theoretical physicist
- Thermodynamics physicist
See also: What can I do with a physics degree?
What do physicists study?
Physics is essentially the study of everything in the universe. This ranges from the very small (known as high-energy physics) to the very large (cosmology). As a result, most physicists eventually specialize in a field or subfield. These areas of study can be broadly divided into two main categories: experimental physics or applied physics (focused on observation and experimentation) and theoretical physics (focused on the use and creation of models and simulations).
In college, your physics degree coursework will likely cover core theoretical areas like Newtonian mechanics, quantum mechanics, electromagnetic theory and thermal/statistical physics. You'll also complete methods and skills classes such as experimental methods, electronics and computational methods. And as a physics student you may also take supporting coursework in linear algebra, calculus, chemistry and computer science.
Areas of specialized study, either as part of your bachelor’s degree or advanced degree, may include:
- Aerospace dynamics
- Atmospheric, oceanic and planetary physics
- Atomic and laser physics
- Atomic, molecular and optical physics
- Biological physics
- Chemical physics
- Climate science
- Computational physics
- Condensed matter physics
- Fluid dynamics
- Laser science
- Materials physics
- Medical physics
- Nuclear physics
- Particle physics
- Physical science
- Physics of beams
- Plasma physics
- Polymer physics
- Quantum gravity
- Quantum mechanics
It’s important to make sure that that your education is not solely focused on mastering narrowly defined data and skill sets. Your degree should also address the very broadest topics, which you’ll need throughout your life. In the words of North Central’s Bloom: “The content in a physics major is of course very important and interesting. After all, that content puts you in a position to understand how the universe works. But what’s most practical for the vast majority of our students are the skills that go with it, like analytical, computational and instrumentation skills. And don't forget communication! No matter how important the science, if you can't effectively communicate your findings, it is as though you didn't do it at all.”
How to become a physicist
If you have a talent for quantitative problem-solving, an eye for the smallest details, and – above all – a natural curiosity about the world around you, then you may be well-suited to physics. But to succeed in this field, you’ll need to be fully committed to your education.
To become a physicist, you'll need your bachelor’s degree at the very least. This is typically the minimum educational qualification required to obtain an entry level or technician position.
As you start looking at colleges, you’ll likely discover that physics major curricula are pretty similar from school to school. You'll need to dig a little deeper to see what kind of principles guide the development of those curricula. “Is there a focus on collaborative learning? Skill acquisition? Research?” says Bloom. “These are things we emphasize at North Central because we know how valuable they are to the educational experience. We have also intentionally designed our curriculum to leverage local opportunities at places like Argonne National Lab and Fermilab.”
When considering undergraduate programs, look for those where students have plenty of one-on-one time working with their faculty on physics research and coursework. This is a challenging field, and you’ll want to be sure that your professors are available to answer your questions. Though teaching assistants may sometimes be able to help with simple questions, there’s nothing quite like working with a professor who has a vast amount of knowledge and experience at his or her fingertips.
“You don't really learn science until you do science,” says Bloom. "You want to be sure that there will be opportunities to work with physics faculty in their research programs. Look for a program that includes laboratory training in things like analog and digital electronics, computer interfacing and advanced instrumentation fundamentals so you get a firm foundation not only in core theoretical ideas but also the fundamentals of physical measurement.
Also ask if students get placed into external research opportunities, like the National Science Foundation’s summer REUs (Research Experiences for Undergraduates). North Central College students have participated in the U.S. Department of Energy’s extremely prestigious internships, which can be offered at facilities like nearby Argonne and Fermilab. These labs also offer their own internal internships and co-op opportunities. “You want to learn how to do science in real-world situations, not only the artificial and contrived environment of the classroom or lab. And you need the chance to fail, and learn from that failure - that's a real part of science that is hard to teach in a classroom, but is a vital skill for anyone who is going to be successful in anything they do,” says Bloom.
“Education is more than just what happens in the classroom,” he continues. “We want our students to get the most out of their college experience." You should ask if you’ll have the opportunity to gain practical work experience through an internship at a nearby corporate or government research laboratory. You should also have the chance to present your research findings at state and national conferences, since those can be great ways to fill out your resume, whether you’re planning to move on to graduate school or step right into the workforce after college.
If you’re planning on a career in a research environment or in academia, you may also need at least one advanced degree. A master’s degree or doctoral degree in a subspecialty may be required if you’re going to manage a project in an industrial program.
Finally, it’s important to look for a program that won’t block you out of other options if you decide that you need or want to pursue another career path. “Ask what happens if you decide not to be a physics major after all,” advises Bloom. “We want our students to find the educational experience that is best for them. If that means switching from physics to math or theatre, then they should do it. We'll work with them to find the experiences that make the most sense for them.“
After all, college is not only about learning about particular subjects; it’s also about learning about yourself. “It’s completely appropriate for you to find something new and change your plans,” adds Bloom. “We want you to explore. We want you to grow and discover yourself.”
An award-winning writer, Lauren Ford runs her own communications firm, which serves not-for-profit organizations across the United States. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Connecticut College and her master’s from the University of Chicago.