most jobs are in basic research and development, a doctoral degree is
the usual educational requirement for physicists and astronomers.
Master's degree holders qualify for some jobs in applied research and
development, whereas bachelor's degree holders often qualify as research
assistants or for other occupations related to physics.
Professional Science Master's degrees
in the area of Physics is another option.
A Ph.D. degree in physics or closely related fields is typically
required for basic research positions, independent research in industry,
faculty positions, and advancement to managerial positions. Graduate
study in physics prepares students for a career in research through
rigorous training in theory, methodology, and mathematics. Most
physicists specialize in a subfield during graduate school and continue
working in that area afterwards.
Additional experience and training in a postdoctoral research
appointment, although not required, is important for physicists and
astronomers aspiring to permanent positions in basic research in
universities and government laboratories. Many physics and astronomy
Ph.D. holders ultimately teach at the college or university level.
Master's degree holders usually do not qualify for basic research
positions, but may qualify for many kinds of jobs requiring a physics
background, including positions in manufacturing and applied research
and development. Increasingly, many master's degree programs are
specifically preparing students for physics-related research and
development that does not require a Ph.D. degree. These programs teach
students specific research skills that can be used in private-industry
jobs. In addition, a master's degree coupled with State certification
usually qualifies one for teaching jobs in high schools or at 2-year
Professional Science Master's (PSM) is an reasonably new (about a decade
old) graduate degree
designed to allow students to pursue advanced training in science or
mathematics, while simultaneously developing workplace skills highly
valued by employers. PSM programs in the fields
of physics consist of two years of academic
training in an emerging or interdisciplinary area, along with a
professional component that may include internships and "cross-training"
in workplace skills, such as business, communications, and regulatory
with bachelor's degrees in physics are rarely qualified to fill
positions in research or in teaching at the college level. They are,
however, usually qualified to work as technicians or research assistants
in engineering-related areas, in software development and other
scientific fields, or in setting up computer networks and sophisticated
laboratory equipment. Increasingly, some may qualify for applied
research jobs in private industry or take on nontraditional physics
roles, often in computer science, such as systems analysts or database
administrators. Some become science teachers in secondary schools.
Many colleges and universities offer a bachelor's degree in physics.
Undergraduate programs provide a broad background in the natural
sciences and mathematics. Typical physics courses include
electromagnetism, optics, thermodynamics, atomic physics, and quantum
Approximately 190 universities offer Ph.D. degrees in physics; more than
60 additional colleges offer a master's as their highest degree in
physics. Graduate students usually concentrate in a subfield of physics,
such as elementary particles or condensed matter. Many begin studying
for their doctorate immediately after receiving their bachelor's degree;
a typical Ph.D. program takes about 6 years to complete.
Many physics and
astronomy Ph.D. holders begin their careers in a postdoctoral research
position, in which they may work with experienced physicists as they
continue to learn about their specialties or develop a broader
understanding of related areas of research. Initial work may be under
the close supervision of senior scientists. As they gain experience,
physicists perform increasingly complex tasks and achieve greater
independence in their work. Experience, either in academic laboratories
or through internships, fellowships, or work-study programs in industry,
also is useful. Some employers of research physicists, particularly in
the information technology industry, prefer to hire individuals with
several years of postdoctoral experience.
The American Institute
of Physics offers two resources for selecting physics programs at U.S.
Mathematical ability, problem-solving and analytical skills, an
inquisitive mind, imagination, and initiative are important traits for
anyone planning a career in physics or astronomy. Prospective physicists
who hope to work in industrial laboratories applying physics knowledge
to practical problems should broaden their educational background to
include courses outside of physics, such as economics, information
technology, and business management. Good oral and written communication
skills also are important because many physicists work as part of a
team, write research papers or proposals, or have contact with clients
or customers who do not have a physics background. Certain sensitive
research positions with the Federal Government and in fields such as
nuclear energy may require applicants to be U.S. citizens and to hold a
among physicists and astronomers usually takes the form of greater
independence in their work, larger budgets, or tenure in university
positions. Others choose to move into managerial positions and become
natural science managers. Those who
pursue management careers spend more time preparing budgets and
schedules. Those who develop new products or processes sometimes form
their own companies or join new firms to develop these ideas.
How important is
experience in undergraduate research? Undergraduate research
experiences are very valuable for several reasons. They are an opportunity
for you to assess whether this is a direction that you will find
intellectually challenging and exciting. Undergraduate research provides
you with an opportunity to apply the knowledge that you have learned in
courses to solving real problems. It provides you with the experience of
working in a team environment. Finally, your undergraduate research will
show future employers what you can do.
Note: Some resources in this section are provided by the American
Institute of Physics and the US Department
of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.