Careers in Physics

Where Physicists Work
High School Preparation

College/University Studies
Jobs for Tomorrow
Some Fields of Physics

American Institute of Physics Links
Who's Hiring Physics Bachelors
A state-by-state listing of employers who recently hired new physics graduates to fill technical and professional positions.
Employment Statistics
A source for data on education and employment in physics, astronomy and allied fields.


Physics is the science that describes how the physical world works. It is the most fundamental of all sciences. Other sciences build on physics.

Physicists conduct research into the fundamental laws of nature or make use of what we already know about the physical world to design and develop new practical products. As a career, physics offers an astonishing variety of possibilities.

The world of the physicist stretches from the tiniest particles of subatomic matter to galaxies and beyond. It includes computer circuitry and spacecraft orbits, medical imaging and the search for controlled fusion power. Some of the questions that physicists try to answer are deeply philosophical: How did the universe begin? On a very small scale, does empty space become "granular" or "foamy"? But many of the questions that physicists deal with are highly practical: How can more information be packed into a smaller space? What will be the effect of adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere? Can chemical rockets be replaced by electromagnetic launchers? How can solar cells be made more efficient?

Most modern technology rests on physics. Sometimes new knowledge is put to work quickly. For example, many practical uses were found for the laser soon after its invention. Sometimes new knowledge is slow to be harnessed. In 1905 Albert Einstein explained how light can eject electrons from solid surfaces. It was many years before this "photoelectric effect" found application in television cameras.

Physics provides deep understanding of the laws of nature and will continue to help shape the world of the future. Few careers are more exciting, more rewarding, and more important to society than physics.

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Where Physicists Work

Many physicists work in research laboratories -- in industry, in universities, and in national laboratories -- but that is only a beginning of a catalog of places where physicists can be found. Many teach in high schools, colleges, and universities. Others can be found in hospitals, the military, oil fields, power plants, in the astronaut corps, in museums, in patent law firms, and in management positions in business and government. A young person trained in physics acquires a set of skills that makes him or her a valued employee in many settings.

Even students with career goals outside of science can be well served by taking one or more courses in physics. The knowledge and skills gained in physics can prove to be surprisingly useful in tackling other kinds of problems. A background in physics can help a technical writer or a computer programmer. It is an asset recognized by medical schools, law schools, and business schools.

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High School Preparation

Do you like mathematics? Do you like solving puzzles and other kinds of problems? Are you interested in new discoveries in science? Do you enjoy working with computers, or hope to work with them? If your answer to most of these questions is yes, you may want to consider physics as a career or simply as a field of study on which to base some other career.

Mathematics is the language of physics. If you have a flair for math, very likely you will have a flair for physics. Take as much math as you can --- algebra, trigonometry, and calculus if possible. Take at least one course in physics if your high school offers it.

Some training in computer programming -- either in school or on your own -- can also be valuable. Participation in science fairs is another way to gain useful experience and to size up your own interest in science. Hobbies and clubs can also help prepare you for future work in physics. With luck, you might find an after-school job that will give you some valuable experience.

The biggest myth about physics is that it is too difficult for all but the next Einsteins. This is simply not true. Yes, physics can be challenging, but so is anything that you study seriously. Many successful physicists can tell you that they were not the top students in their schools. What they had was interest and motivation.

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College and University Studies

College courses in physics include both classroom work and laboratory work. Students working toward bachelor's degrees may spend about 25 to 30 percent of their time in physics courses, and the rest in other areas, including mathematics. Some chemistry and biology is usually recommended. Most colleges wisely require students to take courses in other fields as well. Physics students must study English and some other courses outside of science.

In college, the first course in physics usually covers a broad range of topics and uses some calculus. Later courses explore single areas of physics in greater depth, often using more advanced mathematics. In advanced laboratory courses, the physics student may encounter sophisticated electronic equipment and may also have a chance to be part of a research team.

Graduate students pursuing master's and doctoral degrees concentrate fully on physics. The master's program typically takes two years and may require a research project. An additional two to four years may be needed to earn a Ph.D. An essential ingredient of a Ph.D. program is a major piece of research (either theoretical or experimental) that is written up as the doctoral dissertation. It often leads to papers published in physics journals.

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Jobs for Tomorrow

For research positions and for college and university teaching, the Ph.D. degree is generally required. The job market for these positions is currently fair to poor. High-school teachers, who need at least a bachelor's degree, are likely to be in especially strong demand. If you are both science-oriented and people-oriented, high-school physics teaching is a career worth considering.

As might be expected, the starting salaries for physicists are higher at the higher degree levels. At each degree level, the physicist commands a higher salary than the average of his or her peers in other fields.

A physics course in high school or college lays the foundation for a wide variety of fields. As a career, physics offers challenge, excitement, an attractive salary, and a chance to make important contributions to society. As a physicist, you will help shape the world of tomorrow.

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Some Fields of Physics

Acoustics - the study of sound. An acoustical physicist could be involved in the design of a concert hall, stereos, or synthesizers.

Astrophysics - the extension of basic physics into the cosmos. Astrophysicists study the life cycles of stars and the processes that gave rise to our expanding universe at the moment of the "big bang."

Atomic physics - the study of atoms and their dynamical properties. The use of lasers molecular beams, and high precision detectors have made new discoveries possible in this area.

Biophysics - the application of physics to biological problems. Biophysics includes studies of proteins and DNA at the Molecular level as well as studies of the human body as a mechanical system and the design of artificial limbs.

Chemical physics - the interface between physics and chemistry. This area is important for the development of lasers and for the study of surfaces, polymers, and fluids.

Geophysics - the physics of the earth and planets, including seismology (the study of earthquakes), hydrology (the study of water on and below the surface), and volcanology (volcanoes).

Low-temperature physics - the study of phenomena such as super conductivity and superfluidity that occur at temperatures near absolute zero. Cryogenic (extreme low temperature) devices have practical importance in generating magnetic fields and in circuits that will be needed in future commuters.

Medical physics - the application of physics to medical practice, including uses of radiation, ultrasound, and sophisticated imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Nuclear physics - the study of the nucleus of the atom, its radioactivity (including medical applications), and nuclear energy. Tools of the nuclear physicist include accelerators and nuclear reactors.

Optics - the study of light (including the invisible ultraviolet and infrared radiation). Optical physicists often work with lasers and are engaged in the optical transmission of information via thin fibers and in the design of optical "circuits" for future computers.

Particle physics - the study of the smallest, most elemental building blocks of nature and the basic forces of nature. The "microscopes" of the particle physicist are enormous particle accelerators. (Particle physics is also called high-energy physics.)

Physics education - teachers experience the excitement and fulfillment of educating others about all the fields of physics.

Plasma physics - the study of electrically charged (ionized) gases, sometimes called the fourth state of matter beyond solids, liquids, and gases. Plasma physicists are pursuing the possibility of controlled thermonuclear energy on earth. They also contribute to astrophysics.

Rheology - the study of the flow of viscous (thick, sticky) materials and mixtures of materials. The interests of rheologists include the flow of blood in the body, the flow of materials in a food-processing plant, and the flow of Arctic glaciers.

Solid-state physics - the study and application of the electric, magnetic, optical, and acoustic properties of solid matter. Integrated circuits are the product of solid state physics.

Vacuum physics - the study and applications of vacuums, volumes nearly free of matter. Vacuums are important in many manufacturing processes and in experimental devices such as accelerators.

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