How to Become a Physicist in 5 Steps

Becoming a physicist usually starts with earning a bachelor's degree, and a Ph.D. is required for research positions. Explore the step-by-step process to becoming a physicist. Learn about degree programs, internships, the job outlook, typical earnings and career advancement. Schools offering Environmental Science degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Physicist?

A physicist is a scientist who studies the fundamental particles and forces of nature and the interactions between them in an effort to understand the universe. Your duties might include developing mathematical models to make predictions about the behavior of matter and energy or conducting experiments to observe their properties and confirm or refute a model. Electron microscopes, particle accelerators and lasers are among the tools of your profession. You would document your findings in research reports that you would submit to physics journals for publication and present at physics seminars. Often you would carry out your research in collaboration with other physicists. You may also have a role teaching undergraduate and graduate students.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Bachelor's degree programs in physics use a combination of classroom instruction and labs to teach classic Newtonian mechanics and a survey of more advanced topics. Some programs are divided into one or more concentrations, such as theoretical physics, engineering physics, chemical physics or astrophysics. You may have to carry out a research project in your senior year, especially if you're part of an honors program. A bachelor's-level degree can qualify you for applied research positions in industry or as a database administrator and systems analyst.

Step 2: Complete an Internship

Internships provide you the opportunity to participate in research assignments that advance your education, the sponsoring institution's objectives and the frontiers of science. Your sponsor may also assign a mentor who can help you develop professionally and serve as a contact after you graduate. You could potentially arrange one through your school or through the Society of Physics Students, which offers 9.5-week internships for undergraduate students (www.spsnational.org). NASA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories and the American Physical Society are among the prominent organizations that participate in internship programs.

Step 3: Earn a Doctorate Degree

Doctorate programs in physics are research-oriented. In the first year you would complete a set of core courses in such topics as electrodynamics, classical mechanics and quantum mechanics, and elective courses that explore areas of specialization. In the second year you're expected to choose a specialization, conduct research in that area and develop a dissertation. Possible specializations include complex systems, cosmology, molecular physics and particle physics. A doctorate degree may take 5-6 years to complete.

Step 4: Obtain a Job

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, most of your employment opportunities will be with industrial research labs, semiconductor and information technology firms, federal research agencies and postsecondary institutions (www.bls.gov). You could also find a smaller number of positions with scientific consulting firms and hospitals. Employment for physicists was projected to rise 16% to around 18,100 from 2008-2018. Estimates from 2010 showed about 16,860 physicists held jobs, not including the self-employed. As of May 2010, physicists earned a median salary of $106,370.

Step 5: Advance Your Career

Advancement will mean having more autonomy in your choice of projects and security in the form of steadier funding or tenure at a university. If your research results in the development of a new product or manufacturing process, you could consider starting a company or joining an existing company to market them. Alternatively, you could pursue a managerial and administrative career path.

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