Physicists have been pioneers on the frontlines of the most pivotal discoveries that have shaped our lives. Television, radio, MRI scans, splitting the atom, and unraveling the DNA molecule sequence have all been accomplished thanks to the work of a physicist. From an early age physicists are intrigued by the mysteries of the universe. They feel a certain draw to its wonders and want to understand the nature of physical reality. This does not mean that you need to have intelligence on par with the Einsteins and Oppenheimers in the field. While one does need to have a certain level of proficiency in math the main thing that you need to have is the inquisitiveness and the drive. In fact Einstein once said that behind every great theory is a simple physical picture that anyone can understand. The important thing is the physical picture. Math is just the blueprint. If this field sounds like it may be for you here are all the details you need to know about everything from a physicist salary to the physicist job description.
Overview of a Physicist Salary
The website Payscale has the median annual physicist salary listed at $87,621. These numbers were updated as of September 20th of this year and are representative of 450 individuals that reported their wages.
The Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) has different numbers, but these are from May 2012. They report that the median annual pay for a this salary is currently around $106,840. Either way the pay hovers around the six-figure mark, making it a high paying career choice.
Earning Factors of a Physicist Salary
While the level of education is a main factor another is experience. Payscale reports that physicists with fewer than five years experience have an average salary of $74,000, while those with five to ten years have a median salary of $89,000. Individuals with more than 10 years can expect annual salaries in the six figures, usually toping out around $140,000.
The industry that a physicist works in is also a determining factor. The top three industries for the highest median physicist salary is as follows:
- Federal Government – $139,140
- Research and Development – $93,870
- Education Institutions (State, Local, and Private) – $77,870
Physicist Job Description
Physicists study how different forms of matter and energy interact, and they explore properties that govern space, time, energy, and matter. This is done through research, experimentation, observation, and analysis. While some conduct basic research in order to raise scientific knowledge others conduct applied research (using previously gained knowledge) to develop new devices, processes, and other applications.
As stated earlier the three top industries for this profession are the government, R & D, and education institutions.
Government work may involve setting standards at the National Institute for Standards and Technology. This is important for all research involving physics. Government work may also involve working in the weapons industry (military).
Research & development involves building the scientific structure that will enrich everyone’s lives. This area can be very lucrative, but there is no job security, as quite a number of companies tend to merge or go under. Some of the wealthiest individuals in the electronics industry and Silicon Valley came from physics or engineering backgrounds.
Universities tend to be a very rewarding industry for physicists. There is more flexibility to conduct research of your own choosing. For this reason these positions are hard to come by. One may need to take one (or several) 2 year “post-doctorate” positions at different colleges before landing a teaching position as an assistant professor. You will then have 5-7 years before you can have tenure (meaning you have a permanent position). This means you achieve status as an associate professor and eventually full professor.
A physicist must have these important qualities:
- Analytical skills – Precision and accuracy is crucial. The smallest of errors can invalidate research.
- Communication skills – Research must be presented. Reports and proposals must be clear, concise, and convincing.
- Critical thinking – Must evaluate their own and others work.
- Curiosity – As the work is always on the cutting edge of technology and dealing with unknown variables physicists must always try to be one step ahead of what they already know or accept.
- Interpersonal skills – Collaboration is a must for researching. Interpersonal skills also help in securing funds for projects.
- Math skills – Must be able to express research in a mathematical language.
- Problem-solving skills – Scientific observation and analysis is used to solve complex scientific inquiries.
- Self-discipline – research can take years or even decades. Physicists must be able to keep themselves motivated and maintain accuracy.
Physicist Job Outlook
The BLS projects that the employment of physicists will increase 10% by 2022. This may seem like the physicist outlook is promising but this percentage represents an increase of only 2,100 jobs. This is due to the high level of standards that employers are looking for. We should also note that this is a heavily male driven field. According to Payscale, men hold 9 out of 10 physicist positions.
Let’s look at the physicist training and education requirements that will be needed in order to compete for these coveted positions.
Physicist Education Requirements
A physicist education is the most crucial factor in landing a job. A Ph.D. in physics, astronomy, or related fields is required as most jobs involve research.
Most physicists begin with a bachelor’s degree in physics or other related field. These undergrad programs give students a broad education into the natural sciences and mathematics. They will generally take courses in classical/quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, optics, and electromagnetism. Those with bachelor’s degrees in physics will not be qualified to fill research positions but they may qualify to be research assistants in their related field.
Upon receiving their bachelor’s degree graduate school students tend to concentrate on a particular field of physics, such as:
- Particle physics
- Atomic, molecular, and optical physics
- Condensed matter physics
Grad students will have courses that include advanced mathematics in calculus, linear algebra, and statistics. They will also need to take computer science classes. Once a master’s degree is obtained some jobs in applied research & development may be an option. Many grad programs prepare the student for physics positions in research & development that do not require a Ph.D. Both a master’s and a bachelor’s degree holder may be able to become science teachers in secondary education levels. A teaching certificate is most likely required.
If you are looking to become a research physicist or a professor you will need to have a Ph.D. This involves 4-5 years or more, and you will need to publish original research. This is usually done with a thesis advisor who will assign you a research topic, or include you in his or her work. Ph.D. students can usually get a grant or funding from the physics department as financial aid towards their doctorate, unlike other departments. Physicists who work in the education industry generally do it for the love of the subject, as this is one of the lower paying jobs on the physicist salary scale.
Physicists employed by the federal government may be required to be U.S. citizens and hold a security clearance. This is especially true for those involved in nuclear energy and military sectors.
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