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Physics Overview - Preparation - Specialty Areas - Day In The Life - Earnings - Employment - Career Path Forecast - Professional Organizations 

Day in the Life
More than most other majors, a physics degree is a passport into a broad range of science, engineering, and education careers. Where you are likely to work will differ by the level of your highest degree.

Where Physicists Work
Where you are likely to work will differ by the level of your highest degree. Thus, the private sector (including large corporations, small companies and the self-employed) employs 60% of physics bachelors and masters compared to 30% of physics PhDs. Within the education system, most physics bachelors and masters teach in high schools, while virtually all academically-employed physics PhDs hold faculty positions in universities or 4-year colleges.  The government sector includes federal agencies, government laboratories, state and local government, and the military.

Common Occupations for Physics Bachelors
The most common occupations differ by where they work, but few physics bachelors have the title, physicist. In large part, this is because most physics bachelors work in the private sector and, unlike chemistry, engineering and geology, there is no "physics" industry.  Among the more common occupations is engineer, including electrical, systems, civil, and mechanical. Many physics bachelors work as computer scientists which reflects the current explosion in the demand for software development, programming, computer-related support, modeling, and computer simulations. Educator, principally at the secondary school level, is also a common career track, although comparatively few teach physics exclusively.  Over time, physics bachelors are often promoted into positions that involve managing projects, people and budgets.

Early Careers of Physics Bachelors
The AIP has produced a report that examines the employment patterns of people with no degrees other than physics bachelor's degrees, five to eight years after graduation. The report includes common job activities and skills used on the job. It also describes these physics bachelors' evaluations of how well physics education prepared them for careers.  The report may be viewed online; highlights include:

  • Five to eight years after graduating, only about one-third of people who earned bachelor's degrees in physics do not have any additional degrees.
  • Three-fourths of these physics bachelors work in science-related jobs, including software, engineering, high school teachers, and managers in technical fields. The largest group -- about one-fourth -- are employed in software jobs.
  • 30% of these physics bachelors are still working in their first career-path job five to eight years after graduation.
  • Those who are employed in software jobs are much less likely to use the parts of their education that are exclusive to physics than those employed in engineering, math, and science jobs.
  • About 70% of those employed in engineering, math, and science rate their physics preparation highly. However, they did not rate their preparation in terms of scientific research experience, lab skills, and scientific software as highly.

Common Occupations for Physics Masters
Physics masters work primarily in science, engineering and education, although their occupations differ sharply by employment setting. Physics masters are, in general, more likely than bachelors to be hired into positions with supervisory responsibility and frequently use advanced knowledge and technical skills to solve complex problems.  A physics bachelor's is a solid foundation for a variety of advanced degrees. Over one-third of physics bachelors earn a masters degree, often after working for several years. About half earn physics master's degrees, many get degrees in engineering, computers, business administration and education, but others pursue such diverse areas as philosophy, religion and social work.

Common Occupations for Physics PhDs
There are about 35,000 physics PhDs in the workforce. While academe is a common career path for physics PhDs, it is NOT where the majority work. About 40% of physics PhDs are employed in universities and 4-year colleges, primarily as professors and secondarily as research faculty. While most work in physics departments, many PhD physicists work in departments of engineering, mathematics, materials science, polymer science, and radiation oncology to name a few.  About 30% of PhD physicists work in the private sector. Some work in corporate labs conducting long range research. Most, however, are involved in product development, short range research, or managing projects and technical staff.  About one-quarter of PhD physicists work in Federally Funded Research & Development Centers (such as Los Alamos), government labs (such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology) or federal agencies with a scientific mission. Most of these physicists are engaged in long range research, but a variety of other activities are also common.

Working Environment
Most physicists work in a team environment, regardless of their highest degree or where they are employed. Even basic research at the PhD level is typically a team effort. As your years of experience and degree level increases, so does the likelihood that you will be supervising a team. In the private sector, most physicists work in cross-disciplinary teams. These commonly include engineers, material scientists, chemists, computer specialists, mathematicians, and administrators to name a few. These individuals are brought together because of their unique perspectives and skills to help solve a specific problem.  Within the autonomous private sector (self-employed, consulting companies and other small companies), many people with physics degrees report that they work independently. However, this largely reflects the fact that the companies in which they work are simply too small for a team environment. In this sector a significant amount of a physicist's time is often devoted to interacting with customers and clients.

Women in Physics
How many women are there in physics? Since the early 1970's, there has been a significant increase in the participation of women in physics. While there are positive trends, it should be noted that women earn proportionately fewer degrees in physics than in most other disciplines. The recent climate for women in physics has improved substantially.

Note: Some resources in this section are provided by the  American Institute of Physics and the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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