Become a Nuclear Scientist: Education and Career Roadmap

Should I Become a Nuclear Scientist?

Nuclear scientists might test materials to see how they behave together, investigate catalytic behavior, identify materials that would work well in nuclear reactors or discover how materials act under pressure or in different environments. These scientists, who often work for private nuclear labs or the federal government, also manage the machinery and technical tools used to perform nuclear tests, establish budgets for projects and oversee project progression. These positions pay well and are generally considered to be prestigious. However, they are also stressful and require many years of education and training, which can in itself be expensive.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Degree Field Nuclear science, nuclear engineering, chemistry, physics with emphasis in nuclear analysis, engineering, mathematics or physical science
Experience Employers may seek a candidate with five years' experience working as a nuclear scientist and ten years working in an operating lab
Key Skills Able to allocate resources and establish budgets; decision-making and problem-solving skills; able to meet deadlines, analyze and interpret data, and present results both orally and in writing; capable of using and managing lab management information systems; able to use alpha, beta, gamma and mass spectrometry measurement systems; able to use mechanical, electrical and vacuum technologies; familiarity with nuclear lab quality control processes and procedures; understanding of how base materials operate under pressure or in different environments
Salary $104,630 (Average annual salary for nuclear engineers, May 2014)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*Net Online

Step 1: Graduate from a Bachelor's Degree Program

Bachelor degree programs in nuclear engineering and technology, engineering, chemistry or applied physics with a concentration in nuclear science can prepare students to continue their studies in a graduate program and work toward a career as a nuclear scientist. These programs typically require four years of full-time study.

Classes in nuclear engineering and technology programs usually cover topics such as nuclear radiation measurement, physics, differential equations, radiation biophysics and materials for nuclear adaptations. The curriculum of an applied physics bachelor's degree program might include classes in human factors in engineering design, nuclear and radiation instrumentation, corrosion evaluation of materials and risk assessment. Bachelor's degree programs in chemistry often offer students the opportunity to complete classes related to nuclear science, such as modern nuclear chemistry, but also include classes in subjects such as physical chemistry and instrumental analysis.

The curriculum of all three types of programs is delivered through both labs and lectures. Some programs offer internship or research opportunities to undergraduate students, while others require that students conduct research and write a thesis prior to graduation.

Success Tips:

  • Participate in an internship. Interns gain hands-on work experience, allowing them to hone the skills they learned in the classroom. This could better prepare them to work as nuclear scientists.
  • Complete a research project. Some undergraduate programs allow students to participate in research. Since nuclear scientists regularly conduct research, this experience can prepare students to perform job tasks that they'll be responsible for when working as nuclear scientists.

Step 2: Earn a Master's Degree

Master's degree programs in nuclear science and engineering or physics prepare individuals to work as nuclear scientists. These programs typically require students to write a thesis or complete a practicum in addition to taking 30-66 credit hours of classes. Courses in nuclear science and engineering programs typically cover topics such as materials for nuclear applications, nuclear reactor engineering, electromagnetic interactions, plasma physics and neutron interactions. Classes in physics programs might include statistical and quantum mechanics, solid state physics and theoretical mechanics.

Step 3: Graduate from a Ph.D. Program

A Doctor of Philosophy program in nuclear science and engineering or physics can prepare individuals to work as nuclear scientists. In addition to completing coursework, Ph.D. candidates must pass examinations and write a dissertation. Classes in a physics program might cover topics including electromagnetic theory and classical mechanics, while those in a nuclear science and engineering program might focus on clinical physics in radiotherapy, the nuclear fuel cycle or superconductivity.

Success Tips:

  • Complete a research assistantship. Doctoral candidates might be able to participate in research opportunities alongside professors. This type of experience not only introduces aspiring nuclear scientists to the type of tasks they'll perform in their future careers, it also might impress prospective employers.
  • Consider completing a postdoctoral fellowship. Graduates of Ph.D. programs in physics or nuclear science and engineering might be able to participate in fellowships after graduation. These programs, which usually last several years, pay individuals to conduct research in a topic of their choice. Completing a fellowship might provide the work experience needed for a job as a nuclear scientist.
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