What Does A Physicist Do (including Their Typical Day at Work)

Stan T.Career, Overview

Salary, Job Description, How To Become One, and Quiz

Physicists

Physicists conduct research into physical phenomena, develop theories on the basis of observation and experiments, and devise methods to apply physical laws and theories.

Salary
$137700
Becoming One
Very Hard
Education
Doctoral degree
Job Satisfaction
Job Growth

Personality
Interest Match





Find a job you love and you will never work a day in your life.Confucius

What they do

Physicists conduct research into physical phenomena, develop theories on the basis of observation and experiments, and devise methods to apply physical laws and theories.

  • Perform complex calculations as part of the analysis and evaluation of data, using computers.
  • Direct testing and monitoring of contamination of radioactive equipment, and recording of personnel and plant area radiation exposure data.
  • Describe and express observations and conclusions in mathematical terms.
  • Analyze data from research conducted to detect and measure physical phenomena.

Typical day

On a daily basis, Physicists direct testing and monitoring of contamination of radioactive equipment, and recording of personnel and plant area radiation exposure data. They develop theories and laws on the basis of observation and experiments and apply these theories and laws to problems in areas such as nuclear energy, optics, and aerospace technology.

  • Develop manufacturing, assembly, and fabrication processes of lasers, masers, infrared, and other light-emitting and light-sensitive devices.
  • Analyze data from research conducted to detect and measure physical phenomena.
  • Perform complex calculations as part of the analysis and evaluation of data, using computers.
  • Conduct research pertaining to potential environmental impacts of atomic energy-related industrial development to determine licensing qualifications.
  • Observe the structure and properties of matter, and the transformation and propagation of energy, using equipment such as masers, lasers, and telescopes to explore and identify the basic principles governing these phenomena.

Other responsibilities

Besides their typical day, Physicists also conduct application evaluations and analyze results to determine commercial, industrial, scientific, medical, military, or other uses for electro-optical devices. They may also collaborate with other scientists in the design, development, and testing of experimental, industrial, or medical equipment, instrumentation, and procedures.

On a weekly to monthly basis, Physicists design computer simulations to model physical data so that it can be better understood. They might also teach physics to students.

In addition, they observe the structure and properties of matter, and the transformation and propagation of energy, using equipment such as masers, lasers, and telescopes to explore and identify the basic principles governing these phenomena.

Although specific duties may vary, many of them develop theories and laws on the basis of observation and experiments and apply these theories and laws to problems in areas such as nuclear energy, optics, and aerospace technology.

To some Physicists, it is also their responsibility to describe and express observations and conclusions in mathematical terms.

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What is the job like

Job satisfaction

Very High

Is this job meaningful

Very High

77% said they were satisfied with their job and 79% said they found their job meaningful.


Jed Macosko, PhD
Wake Forest Univerisity

Being a physicist is surprisingly fun, given how many taxi drivers and people sitting next to me on the airplane have said, “You’re a physics professor? I hated that class!” Yes, I acknowledge that taking a class in physics can be a miserable experience. But actually getting to be a physicist is a whole different ballgame. It’s really interesting and fun!

On a typical day, I have to read what other physicists have done in terms of recent experiments that are similar to the ones my research team and I are trying to do. Then, I have to see what roadblocks stand in the way of our experiments and try to solve them. If I was a theoretical physicist, I would still have roadblocks, but they would be with solving math problems not with solving experimental design problems.

After trying to solve the roadblocks, I have to write some of the grant proposals that I’m working on to get money to do more experiments. Then I need to teach a class, which is my favorite part of being a physicist, and the reason I’m a physics professor instead of a different kind of physicist. Finally, I have to get on a Zoom call and give a 50-minute research talk to physicists at another university so that they can understand the results of the paper my team and are writing but haven’t yet published.

Pros

One of the pros of being a physicist is that you get to figure out things (and sometimes solve problems) that involve the most basic parts of the material universe. I’m a biophysicist, so I get to figure out basic parts of the living universe. Other physicists figure out astronomy, particles, solid materials, etc.

Another pro about my job is that I get to start companies that can more directly help people. For example, I recently worked with a startup company that helps people find the best fitting college using big data. That doesn’t sound like a very physic-y basis for a company, but since analyzing data is one of the things we physicists love to do, it actually was a good fit for my skills.

Cons

One of the cons of being a physicist is that we don’t get to interact with people the way some other jobs do. For example, a doctor gets to see patients all day long and interact with other health care professionals. My typical day has me interacting with my rather small research team and teaching in front of a classroom, but I don’t get to hear people’s stories and interact with people in a deeply personal way.

Jed Macosko
Prof. of Physics
Wake Forest Univerisity


Pros

Suitable for people who like to solve problems mentally.

Suitable for people who want recognition and wants career advancement and a prestigious career.

This career is perfect for people who love to work indoors.

One of the highest-paid careers in the world.

Cons

Not suitable for people who like to help and teach others.

It is very hard to get into this career. Extensive skills, knowledge, and experience are required for this career.

Long working hours (More than 40 hours per week).

How much do they make

Average salary

$137700 per year

Average hourly wage

$66 per hour

Entry-level Physicists with little to no experience can expect to make anywhere between $67,450 to $95,020 per year or $32 to $46 per hour.

Salary by experience Annual Hourly
Highest (Top 10%) $208,000+ $100+
Senior (Top 25%) $170,810 $82
Median $129,850 $62
Junior (Bottom 25%) $95,020 $46
No experience (Bottom 10%) $67,450 $32

This table shows the top 10 highest paying industries for Physicists based on their average annual salary.

Salary by industry Annual Hourly
Computer Systems Design and Related Services $198760 $95.56
Offices of Physicians $192790 $92.69
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals $183820 $88.37
Outpatient Care Centers $170340 $81.89
Scientific Research and Development Services $150310 $72.26
Management of Companies and Enterprises $144680 $69.56
Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services $138820 $66.74
Semiconductor and Other Electronic Component Manufacturing $133420 $64.14
Architectural, Engineering, and Related Services $133340 $64.11
Navigational, Measuring, Electromedical, and Control Instruments Manufacturing $132070 $63.49

View more salary by industries here.

Where can they work

Where can Physicists work? Here is a table showing the top 10 largest employers of Physicists including the average salary in that industry.

Employers Total Employed Annual Salary Hourly Wages
Scientific Research and Development Services 5310 $150310 $72.26
Federal Executive Branch 3130 $125580 $60.38
Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools 2790 $100130 $48.14
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals 1260 $183820 $88.37
Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services 730 $138820 $66.74
Offices of Physicians 480 $192790 $92.69
State Government 370 $78600 $37.79
Architectural, Engineering, and Related Services 330 $133340 $64.11
Navigational, Measuring, Electromedical, and Control Instruments Manufacturing 290 $132070 $63.49
Computer Systems Design and Related Services 190 $198760 $95.56

What is the work day like

Working hours

Less than 40 hours
18%

40 hours
23%

More than 40 hours
59%

Working schedule

76%

24%

0%

Email

How often do you use email in this job?

Once a week
8%

Every day
92%

Telephone

How often do you have telephone conversations in this job?

Once a week
49%

Every day
14%

Group discussions

How often do you have group discussions in this job?

Once a week
29%

Every day
53%

Public speaking

How often does this job require you to do public speaking?

Never
9%

Once a year
29%

Once a month
22%

Once a week
17%

Every day
22%

Level of competition

How much competitive pressure is in this job?

Not competitive at all
23%

Slightly competitive
8%

Moderately competitive
18%

Highly competitive
15%

Extremely competitive
35%

What is the work environment like

Office-style environment

Indoors in an environmentally controlled condition

Never
31%

Once a year or more
1%

Once a month or more
0%

Once a week or more
0%

Every day
68%

Warehouse-style environment

Indoors in a non-controlled environmental condition such as a warehouse

Never
80%

Once a year or more
20%

Once a month or more
0%

Once a week or more
0%

Every day
0%

Outdoors

Outdoors exposed to all weather conditions

Never
89%

Once a year or more
11%

Once a month or more
0%

Once a week or more
0%

Every day
0%

Outdoors – Under Cover

Outdoors but under cover (e.g. structure with roof but no walls)

Never
89%

Once a year or more
9%

Once a month or more
2%

Once a week or more
0%

Every day
0%

How to become one

Difficulty to become one

Very Hard
You will need an extensive amount of skill, knowledge, and experience. Careers in this difficulty category usually require graduate school and more than five years of experience. These careers usually involve coordinating, training, supervising, or managing the activities of others to accomplish goals. Very advanced communication and organizational skills are required. Similar careers include Pharmacists, Lawyers, Astronomers, Neurologists, and Veterinarians.

Required level of education

What level of education do you need to perform the job?

Less than a High School Diploma
0%

High School Diploma or equivalent
0%

Post-Secondary Certificate
0%

Some College Courses
0%

Associate’s Degree or similar
0%

Bachelor’s Degree
4%

Post-Baccalaureate Certificate
0%

Master’s Degree
0%

Post-Master’s Certificate
8%

First Professional Degree
0%

Doctoral Degree
49%

Post-Doctoral Training
39%

Relevant majors

Health/Medical Physics

A program that focuses on the application of physics, nuclear science, and engineering physics to diagnostic, treatment, and therapeutic processes and public health protection. Includes instruction in radiation biophysics, biophysics, health effects of natural and artificially induced radiation, hazard evaluation, environmental radioactivity, nuclear physics, engineering physics, radiobiology, medical radiology, calibration and dosage theory, computer applications and medical informatics, and specific research problems.

Physics and Astronomy

A program that focuses on the scientific study of the theories that explain the fundamental structure of our world and the universe and which draws from physics and astronomy. Includes instruction in astronomy, calculus, cosmology, differential equations, electricity, magnetism, data analysis, physics, quantum mechanics, space science, spectroscopy, and thermal physics.


Theoretical and Mathematical Physics

A program that focuses on the scientific and mathematical formulation and evaluation of the physical laws governing, and models describing, matter-energy phenomena, and the analysis of related experimental designs and results. Includes instruction in classical and quantum theory, relativity theory, field theory, mathematics of infinite series, vector and coordinate analysis, wave and particle theory, advanced applied calculus and geometry, analyses of continuum, cosmology, and statistical theory and analysis.

Acoustics

A program that focuses on the scientific study of sound, and the properties and behavior of acoustic wave phenomena under different conditions. Includes instruction in wave theory, the acoustic wave equation, energy transformation, vibration phenomena, sound reflection and transmission, scattering and surface wave phenomena, singularity expansion theory, ducting, and applications to specific research problems such as underwater acoustics, crystallography, and health diagnostics.

Condensed Matter and Materials Physics

A program that focuses on the scientific study of macroscopic physical phenomena and properties that arise from basic microscopic interactions. Includes instruction in low-temperature and solid-state physics, x-ray physics, liquids and soft materials, including the study of semiconductors, metals, superliquids, magnets, superconductors, glasses, gels, polymers, colloids, neural networks, and macromolecules.


Optics/Optical Sciences

A program that focuses on the scientific study of light energy, including its structure, properties and behavior under different conditions. Includes instruction in wave theory, wave mechanics, electromagnetic theory, physical optics, geometric optics, quantum theory of light, photon detecting, laser theory, wall and beam properties, chaotic light, non-linear optics, harmonic generation, optical systems theory, and applications to engineering problems.

Nuclear Physics

A program that focuses on the scientific study of the properties and behavior of atomic nuclei. Includes instruction in nuclear reaction theory, quantum mechanics, energy conservation, nuclear fission and fusion, strong and weak forces, nuclear modeling, nuclear decay, nucleon scattering, pairing, photon and electron reactions, the physics of nuclear effects, statistical methods, and research equipment operation and maintenance.

Plasma and High-Temperature Physics

A program that focuses on the scientific study of properties and behavior of matter at high temperatures, such that molecular and atomic structures are in a disassociated ionic or electronic state. Includes instruction in magnetohydrodynamics, free electron phenomena, fusion theory, electromagnetic fields and dynamics, plasma and non-linear wave theory, instability theory, plasma shock phenomena, quantitative modeling, and research equipment operation and maintenance.


Elementary Particle Physics

A program that focuses on the scientific study of the basic constituents of sub-atomic matter and energy, and the forces governing fundamental processes. Includes instruction in quantum theory, field theory, single-particle systems, perturbation and scattering theory, matter-radiation interaction, symmetry, quarks, capture, Schroedinger mechanics, methods for detecting particle emission and absorption, and research equipment operation and maintenance.

Atomic/Molecular Physics

A program that focuses on the scientific study of the behavior of matter-energy phenomena at the level of atoms and molecules. Includes instruction in chemical physics, atomic forces and structure, molecular orbital theory, magnetic resonance, molecular bonding, phase equilibria, quantum theory of solids, and applications to the study of specific elements and higher compounds.

Physics

A general program that focuses on the scientific study of matter and energy, and the formulation and testing of the laws governing the behavior of the matter-energy continuum. Includes instruction in classical and modern physics, electricity and magnetism, thermodynamics, mechanics, wave properties, nuclear processes, relativity and quantum theory, quantitative methods, and laboratory methods.


Astrophysics

A program that focuses on the theoretical and observational study of the structure, properties, and behavior of stars, star systems and clusters, stellar life cycles, and related phenomena. Includes instruction in cosmology, plasma kinetics, stellar physics, convolution and non-equilibrium radiation transfer theory, non-Euclidean geometries, mathematical modeling, galactic structure theory, and relativistic astronomy.

Engineering Physics/Applied Physics

A program focusing on the use of physics principles in the analysis and evaluation of engineering problems and other scientific applications. Includes instruction in high- and low-temperature phenomena, computational physics, superconductivity, applied thermodynamics, molecular and particle physics applications, and space science research.

Relevant work experience

How much related work experience do you need to get hired for the job?

None
9%

1 month
0%

1 to 3 months
0%

3 to 6 months
0%

6 months to 1 year
0%

1 to 2 years
7%

2 to 4 years
15%

4 to 6 years
38%

6 to 8 years
18%

8 to 10 years
0%

Over 10 years
13%

On The Job Training

How much on the job training do you need to perform the job?

None or short demonstration
8%

1 month
19%

1 to 3 months
30%

3 to 6 months
2%

6 months to 1 year
0%

1 to 2 years
28%

2 to 4 years
2%

4 to 10 years
1%

Over 10 years
10%

Should you become one

Best personality type for this career

The Thinker

People with this personality likes to work with ideas that require an extensive amount of thinking. They prefer work that requires them to solve problems mentally.

The Builder
57%

People with The Builder personality type likes practical and hands-on work. They prefer working with plants, animals, and real-world materials like wood, tools, and machinery.


The Thinker
100%

People with The Thinker personality likes to work with ideas that require an extensive amount of thinking. They prefer work that requires them to solve problems mentally.


The Artist
48%

People with The Artist personality likes to work with designs and patterns. They prefer activities that require self-expression and prefer work that can be done without following a clear set of rules.


The Helper
14%

People with The Helper personality type likes to work with people and in teams. They prefer work that allows them to build relationships with others.


The Leader
29%

People with The Leader personality likes to start and work on projects. They also like leading people and making many decisions.


The Organizer
43%

People with The Organizer personality type likes to follow set procedures and routines. They prefer working with data and details more than with ideas.


You can read more about these career personality types here.

People who are suitable for this job tend to like working with ideas and require an extensive amount of thinking. They like searching for facts and figuring out problems mentally.

They also like work activities that include practical, hands-on problems and solutions. They like working with plants, animals, and real-world materials like wood, tools, and machinery.

Take this quiz to see if this is the right career for you.

Work Values

Which values are the most important to a person’s satisfaction for this job?

Achievement
86%

You are someone who is results oriented. You prefer work that allows you to utilize your skills and abilities while at the same time giving you a sense of accomplishment.

Working Conditions
88%

You are someone who values job security, steady employment, and good working conditions. You also prefer work that keeps you busy all the time with something different to do every day.

Recognition
90%

You are someone who values job advancement and leadership roles. You prefer work that receives recognition for the work you do and jobs that are looked up to by others in the company and your community.

Relationships
38%

You are someone who likes to provide a service to others. You prefer a work environment where you can work with your co-workers in a friendly non-competitive environment.

Support
52%

You are someone who values a company that stands behind their employees. You prefer a work environment where everyone is treated fairly and is being supported by the company.

Independence
86%

You are someone who likes to work on your own and make your own decisions. You prefer work that requires little supervision and are allowed to try out your own ideas.

FAQ


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