Become a Theoretical Physicist: Education and Career Roadmap

Mar 05, 2020

Learn how to become a theoretical physicist by researching the education requirements, graduate exams, and postdoctoral experience you will need to start a career in the field of theoretical physics.

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Should I Become a Theoretical Physicist?

Physicists study the ways in which matter and energy interact. The nature of time, space, matter, and the origin of the universe are topics that a theoretical physicist might investigate. These researchers spend some time working in offices, but also conduct research in laboratories. A Ph.D. is needed for most of these research jobs. Many theoretical physicists begin their careers in temporary postdoctoral research positions.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Most likely a Ph.D. and postgraduate study required
Degree Field Physics
Key Skills Ability to comprehend abstract subjects such as time and space; a high degree of mathematical competence; ability to design experiments and to 'think outside the box', considering completely new ideas
Salary (2018)* $120,950 per year (Median salary for physicists in general)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2018)

Steps to be a Theoretical Physicist

There are several required steps to attain a job as a theoretical physicist.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Physics

Bachelor's degree programs in physics provide students with a strong foundation in general physics and related mathematics. These programs teach students the fundamentals of running physics experiments. Potential undergraduate courses could include calculus, Newtonian mechanics, electricity, analytic geometry, magnetism, electronics, and thermodynamics.

Step 2: Get Research Experience

Professionals with bachelor's degrees in physics can often acquire jobs as research assistants or laboratory technicians. These entry-level positions provide real-world training while working in physics laboratories. Individuals may also gain some first-hand knowledge with preparing reports or working with applied physics research. Gaining laboratory experience may also help individuals get accepted into graduate degree programs.

Step 3: Pass Additional Tests

Students may be required to pass regulated graduate-level tests, such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). The physics GRE covers nine categories, including electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, laboratory methodology, and atomic physics.

Step 4: Earn a Doctoral Degree

The majority of employers require theoretical physicists to hold a doctoral degree. Ph.D. programs in theoretical physics can be completed in 4-6 years. Most programs require students to work as either physics teaching assistants or teachers for several semesters during residency.

Students often collaborate with faculty in research projects, leading to the writing of a thesis or dissertation. Possible coursework could include quantum mechanics, biophysics, general relativity, and condensed matter physics.

Step 5: Advance Your Career by Joining Postdoctoral Research Projects

After earning a Ph.D., the majority of graduates join postdoctoral research projects. This postdoctoral experience helps to find better job opportunities. Some universities run research fellowships, and graduates can apply to these programs. Non-university research facilities may also host postdoctoral fellowship or internship programs.

Theoretical physicists generally earn a Ph.D. after graduating with a bachelor's degree in physics and gaining some work experience in research or as lab techs. Post graduate participation in postdoctoral research projects or fellowships is common.

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