Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

What is this job like?

Physicists study the natural world, from the tiniest subatomic particles to the largest galaxies. They do experiments to discover the laws of nature. They study what things are made of (matter) and how things behave. They also study energy. They learn how it changes from one form to another.

Some physicists focus on theories. They ask big questions. They might ask what causes gravity, for example, or what the shape and size of the universe is. Then, they use observation and mathematics to find the answers.

Many physicists do experiments. Some, for example, ram atoms into each other in an accelerator to break them apart. They look for clues about what particles come out of atoms when they split.

Other physicists apply theories to practical problems. They might create advanced materials, new electronic and optical devices, or medical equipment.

Physicists also design research equipment. Some of this equipment is used in surprising ways. For example, the first laser was created for research, but people later discovered that lasers could be used in surgery as well.

Most physicists work in research and development. Some do basic research to increase knowledge. Others do applied research. They take what is learned in basic research and use it to create new devices, products, and processes.

Astronomy is sometimes considered a part of physics. Astronomers study the stars, planets, and other parts of the cosmos.

Physicists often work regular hours in labs and offices. At times, they may work long or irregular hours doing research. They may travel to use special equipment in other places.

How do you get ready?

You usually need a doctoral degree (Ph.D.) to work as a physicist. A doctoral degree takes several years of college to complete. People who want permanent jobs in basic research at universities and government labs need even more training. Many Ph.D. holders teach at colleges or universities.

People with a master's degree in physics often get jobs in manufacturing and applied research and development. Some teach in high schools or at 2-year colleges.

Those with a bachelor's degree often work as technicians or research assistants. Some may be able to work in applied research jobs in private industry or in nonresearch positions in the government. Some become science teachers in middle schools or high schools.

If you want to be a physicist, you should study math and science. You must be good at solving problems. And you should be curious.

Physicists are self-starters. Speaking and writing abilities are also important. Sometimes, physicists have to write research papers or proposals. And some physicists share ideas while working in a team.

Source: The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

See also: Notable Physicists.

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