Job Description of a Physicist

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Physicists can follow a number of different tracks for employment. They can become theorists and study the origins of the universe, the fundamentals of molecules and atoms or the nature of time. Physicists working in applied fields might put their training to use by designing new technologies for the military, creating new X-ray machines, monitoring space debris or finding new sources of energy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were about 20,600 physicists in the U.S. in 2012 making a median income of $106,360. Most jobs require a Ph.D., the BLS reports, though those with a master’s degree in physics might find work in applied research and development for manufacturing or healthcare firms. To be successful, you need strong analytical, critical thinking, math and problem solving skills, as well as a natural curiosity about how things work and the self-discipline to remain motivated while working alone.

Write and Manage Grants

  • Before they can begin their research, physicists often are required to write grants to get the funding they need. They must find sources of funding to finance their activities and then write a specific proposal to secure the funding. Once they receive funding, the lead physicist is responsible for reporting to the funders, maintaining records of the project's progress, hiring staff to complete the project and getting research published. The physicist then presents the team's findings at scientific conferences. For example, in 2014 a professor at Harvard won a grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to apply quantum physics and classical physics to find new technologies in nanophotonics and optical technology.

Research at Large Facilities

  • The BLS reports that the United States Department of Defense and National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, are the two biggest employers of physicists in the country. Other big employers that run research labs include the Goddard Institute in Maryland and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois. In these kinds of large labs, physicists use big and expensive scientific equipment such as nuclear reactors, electron microscopes and particle accelerators to perform extensive research in their fields of expertise. One example is the Physics of the Cosmos program run by NASA. It uses a fleet of missions in space that study neutron stars, gravitational waves, dark energy and black holes to better understand the beginnings of the universe and its ultimate destiny.

Collaborate with Medical Doctors

  • Physicists involved in medicine often collaborate with medical doctors to help diagnose and treat a variety of diseases. They might collaborate on new forms of radiation to treat cancer, or perform research on digital methods to diagnose health conditions, process X-rays and store and retrieve medical images. Medical physicists also work in large research labs to create new medical technologies and instruments, usually involving radiation or imaging technologies.

Teaching in University Settings

  • About 19 percent of physicists work for colleges and universities, according to the BLS. While they do have teaching duties, most of their focus is on conducting research on behalf of the schools. To even land a spot in academia, most physicists take jobs as research assistants after they’ve earned their Ph.Ds. Even before landing a university research position, physicists often use the two or three years as a post-doctoral research assistant to hone their skills, build a resume and define a specialty. Some medical physicists teach in medical schools, where they typically train physicians and medical students about different kinds of equipment.

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