Difference Between Theoretical & Experimental Physicist

All physicists study the physical properties of the universe. Theoretical physicists develop mathematical models while experimental physicists perform tests on specific physical phenomena. This article explores each profession.

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Comparing Theoretical Physicists to Experimental Physicists

The interactions of matter and energy are studied by all physicists. Experimental physicists test ideas about how these interactions take place at the atomic level and their work has applications to medicine and nuclear technologies. Theoretical physicists use mathematics to create models which explain all the factors governing the interactions of matter and energy.

Job Title Minimum Education Required Median Salary (2017) Job Growth (2014-2024)*
Theoretical Physicists Doctoral degree $71,500** 8% (for all physicists)
Experimental Physicists Doctoral degree $87, 181** 8% (for all physicists)

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **PayScale.com

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Responsibilities of a Theoretical Physicist vs. an Experimental Physicist

The equipment used by each type of physicist is a big difference between these two professions. Theoretical physicists may require large computers for computation and modeling or they may only require the mathematical tools of calculus and trigonometry. On the other hand, an experimental physicist must use powerful tools such as particle accelerators, lasers, telescopes and radiation monitors. Both types of physicists collect and analyze data to draw their conclusions about the interactions of matter and energy.

Theoretical Physicist

The nature of the universe is the primary focus of theoretical physicists. Gravity, the nature of time and the origin of the universe are all topics these scientists explore, but these professionals typically specialize in an area of interest. Their work is published in scientific journals and they are usually employed by universities. Federal agencies such as NASA may also employ theoretical physicists. Most of their work is in an office and involves using mathematics to describe observations about the basic laws and principles of the universe. Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist.

Job responsibilities of a theoretical physicist include:

  • Modeling physical properties of the universe using computers
  • Comparing their mathematical analyses with those made by peers
  • Making predictions about complex natural phenomena
  • Presenting papers at scientific conferences

Experimental Physicist

Atomic structure, properties of light, superconductors and nuclear energy are all topics explored by experimental physicists. They design experiments to test theories about the interactions of matter and energy in specific ways using sophisticated equipment. Applications of their research are important in medicine, manufacturing, alternative energy technologies and in the military. Most of their work is in a laboratory setting although many have to spend time writing proposals to get funding for their work. Experimental physicists are employed by medical research companies, universities and the federal government.

Job responsibilities of an experimental physicist include:

  • Developing ways to use properties of matter and energy in industry
  • Monitoring and assessing radiation levels where nuclear technologies are used
  • Analyzing data on the efficiency of specific instrumentation
  • Establishing physical standards for materials used in aeronautics

Related Careers

A nuclear cardiologist would have skills similar to an experimental physicist because of they both work with radioactive materials and can contribute to the medical field. If you are interested in theoretical physics, you might also be interested in a career as an astronomer who also does basic research on the physical properties of the solar system.

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