Career Detail

“Mastering Matter”
Conduct research to understand the nature of the universe and everything in it.
The Job
Physicists explore and identify basic principles and laws governing the motion, energy, structure, and interactions of matter. From the vastness of space to the infinitesimal scale of subatomic particles, they study the fundamental properties of the natural world and apply the knowledge gained to design new technologies. Physicists design and perform experiments with lasers, particle accelerators, electron microscopes, mass spectrometers, and other equipment. On the basis of their observations and analysis, they attempt to discover and explain laws describing the forces of nature, such as gravity, electromagnetism, and nuclear interactions. Experiments also help physicists find ways to apply physical laws and theories to problems in nuclear energy, electronics, optics, materials, communications, aerospace technology, and medical instrumentation. Physicists generally specialize in one of many subfields: elementary particle physics, nuclear physics, atomic and molecular physics, condensed matter physics (solid-state physics), optics, acoustics, space physics, plasma physics, or the physics of fluids.
Work Environment
Much physics research is done in small or medium-sized laboratories. However, some experiments require working in extremely large rooms that hold big equipment.
College Majors
Physics, engineering
Minimum Qualifications
A doctoral degree is the usual educational requirement for physicists and astronomers. Master's degree holders qualify for some jobs in applied research and development, whereas bachelor's degree holders often qualify as research assistants or for other occupations related to physics.
Personality traits helpful for this career
Mathematical ability, problem-solving and analytical skills, an inquisitive mind, imagination
Quick Facts
  • Scientific research and development services firms and the Federal Government employ over half of all physicists.
  • According to a 2007 National Association of Colleges and Employers survey, the average annual starting salary offer to physics doctoral degree candidates was $52,469
  • American Institute of Physics, Internet:
Compensation and Outlook
Median annual wages of physicists were $102,890 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $80,040 and $130,980. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $57,160, and the highest 10 percent earned more than 159,400.
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