Physicists study a wide range of physical phenomena spanning all length scales: from the subatomic particles of which all ordinary matter is made to the behavior of the material universe as a whole. Physicists may specialize in areas such as particle physics, atomic and molecular physics, condensed-matter physics, optics, or astrophysics. And there are likely even more specialized areas not even mentioned in this list! Although the number of jobs for physicists is decreasing, physicists may choose from a wide variety of subfields or related fields, they may have varying degrees of education, and they usually work in a comfortable environment.
A physicist's work is dependent upon his or her degree. Most physicists with a bachelor's degree work as science teachers in secondary schools, as research assistants, or as software developers. Many bachelors work in the private sector and therefore rarely have the job title of "physicist." Supervisory positions, teaching at a two0year collge, and research positions that require knowledge specific to an industry are usually held by those with a master's degree. A doctorate degree brings with it the title of physicist. A PhD often begins by doing post-doctoral research under the supervision of an experienced physicist. Senior PhD holders work as university professors, long-term researchers in governmnent or corporate laboratories, or in management and policy formation.
A few key skills are needed no matter what degree a physicist holds. The knowledge of science and mathematics and the ability to analyze complex technical information are essential skills. It is also necessary to enjoy solving problems, to have an inquisitive mind, and to have a good imagination. Because they work with a team, physicists need good interpersonal and communcation skills. Writing skills are necessary for reports, articles for scientific journals, and grant requests. "Besides the sciences, I think that writing, speaking, and language skills have been most important to me," states one of the winners of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics named William D. Phillips. Knowledge in economics, information technology, and business management is also useful.
Bachelors, Masters, and PhD's generally enjoy a good work environment. Most work as part of a team in a laboratory. They collaborate with engineers, cemists, computer specialists, and mathematicians. If the physicist is self-employed, in a small business or as a teacher, he or she may work independently. About one-third of physicists work for research and development service firms, one-fourth work for the government, and many of the remaining physicists work in academia. Physicists typically work regular hours, however, some may work long hours while in the midst of research. Temporarily, physicists may work away from home so that they may use their own equipment. A physicist rarely encounters hazards in his or her work environment.
The greatest hazard for a physicist may well be obtaining a job. In the year 2000, physicists and astronomers held about 10,000 jobs in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 35,000 PhDs in the workforce, but only 16,000 people held jobs in this field in 2004 and employment is expected to grow more slowly than average in the next ten years. So, although the number of people employed as physicists grew by about sixty percent from 2000 to 2004, that trend is not expected to continue. This statistic also points to the fact that the majority of PhD's do not work as physicists. Hidden physicists are people with a physics background, but without a typical physics job. Nearly ninety percent of all physicists are hidden physicists. Physicists work in engineering, mathematics, chemistry, business, computer science, education, philosophy, social work, and even religious studies. If a job can be found as a physicist, the annual pay averages around $87,450 dollars. Salaries typically vary according to the degree attained. The American Institute of Physics reported a median annual salary of #104,000 in 2004 for its full-time members with PhD's (excluding those in post-doctoral positions). The media was $94,000 for those with Master's degrees and finally $72,000 for an individual with a BA degree. Those working in temporary post-doctoral positions earned significantly less.
The reward of a large salary brings a few irritations. To fund their research, physicists are continuously pressured to write grant proposals. One research physicist reports, "Facing funding problems; working long hours with little time for family," are his greatest frustrations. When asked about the worst part of his job, Professor Phillips responds, "dealing with administrative matters." These complaints are repeated in many interviews with physicists.
Grant writing and dealing with other administrative matters are the necessary evils encountered on the road to discovery. Physicists were major contributors to the development of the transistor, the laser, the World Wide Web, the global positioning system, and digital computers.
If your interested in physics and the jobs physicists have to do, check out the sitcom The Big Bang Theory to view this strange world in a comical way. The main characters are shown in the image above!