Careers in Nuclear Science: Options and Requirements

Jun 07, 2021

Nuclear engineers, nuclear physicists and nuclear medicine physicians all work in the field of nuclear science. Nuclear engineers are required to have a bachelor's degree; nuclear physicists need a doctoral degree, and nuclear medicine physicians are required to have a Ph.D. and may need to complete medical school training as well. Nuclear medicine physicians and nuclear engineers may also need to fulfill state licensing and certification requirements.

Essential Information

Individuals working in this field will need a bachelor's or a graduate degree. An education in nuclear science involves a great deal of training in research and laboratory practices. Coursework covers topics such as nuclear fission, thermodynamics, heat transfer, and reactor analysis. After acquiring a bachelor's degree, students often opt to continue their studies to gain more experience and improve their job prospects, as most advanced positions require a Ph.D. or doctoral degree.

Career Nuclear Engineer Nuclear Physicist Nuclear Medicine Physicians
Required Education Bachelor's degree Doctoral degree Ph.D. and may also need a medical degree
Median Annual Salary (May 2020)* $116,140 $129,850 for all physicists $208,000 or more for all physicians and surgeons
Projected Job Outlook (2019-2029)* 13% decline 7% growth for all physicists 4% growth for all physicians and surgeons

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Career Options

Nuclear science is found in a variety of career fields, such as healthcare, research, energy and nuclear power. The most prominent careers in this field include nuclear engineer, nuclear physicist, and nuclear medicine technologist.

Nuclear Engineer

Nuclear engineers work in laboratories, plants, universities and government agencies. Often working in teams with other scientists, engineers may focus on a variety of nuclear-related projects, such as energy and power source development, environmental policy design or investigations into new ways of using radiological elements in industry and healthcare. Engineers in this field can often be found working in nuclear power plants, the aerospace industry, manufacturing or in the military.

Job Requirements

Nuclear engineering positions typically have a variety of requirements, including a degree in nuclear engineering and an engineer's license. Additional requirements typically vary according to profession, but specialization training, certification or industry-specific licensing may be included.


An education in nuclear engineering typically begins with a bachelor's degree in an engineering concentration, such as physics, and ends with a graduate degree or graduate certificate in nuclear engineering. Graduate programs in this field typically require undergraduate coursework in advanced physics, mathematics and chemistry.

Master's degree programs often allow students to concentrate in areas such as fission reactors, radiation protection, radiation waste management, medical physics and applied radiation physics. Doctorate programs are usually designed for students interested in entering nuclear engineering research or academia.


Like other engineering professions, nuclear engineers may need to be licensed by the state in which they work. Most states follow the engineering licensing guidelines set forth by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). Licensing requirements vary by the type of license being sought, but almost all licensing agencies require graduation from a degree program accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).

Additional licensing may also be required depending on the profession. For example, nuclear engineers who work in the design, operation and maintenance of nuclear reactors generally need to be licensed by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Nuclear Physicist

Basically, nuclear physicists use physical laws and theorems to study how the particles in an atom's nucleus move and operate spatially. They typically work in research and can be found in fields such as electronics, energy, aerospace, communications or healthcare equipment. They spend most of their time in laboratories designing practical applications using nuclear physics.

Job Requirements

Nuclear physicists typically work in the private sector, government agencies, national research laboratories or universities, which can lead to a wide range of job requirements. Unlike nuclear engineers, physicists often rely on government, public or private grants to fund their research. Understanding funding procedures and experience working with funding sources may be a requirement for employment.


Most nuclear physicists earn an advanced degree in nuclear science, nuclear chemistry, particle physics, nuclear structure or mathematics. Most careers in this field require a Ph.D. in a nuclear physics specialization, such as atomic, molecular or superconductivity, and may also require additional post-graduate study. Doctorate programs typically focus on the research methodology and theorems used in nuclear physics.

Nuclear Medicine Physician

Nuclear technologists treat a variety of illnesses, such as cancer and thyroid disease, using radiographic imagery and medicine that often contains radionuclides, as well as radiation treatment. They often work as consultants for other physicians, interpreting imagery and patient data to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of various diseases. In order to specialize in nuclear medicine, physicians need to obtain an additional five to seven years in training.

Job Requirements

Requirements to work as a nuclear medicine physician typically include a medical degree and advanced training in radiology. Working in nuclear medicine research usually requires a Ph.D. in an area such as physics or mathematics and may also require a medical degree.


Generally a physician begins training in nuclear medicine after finishing medical school in a residency training program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). Following one year of general residency, the resident begins two years of specialty training in areas such as tomography, nuclear research, radio-immunoassay practices, radiopharmaceutical chemistry and single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT).

Licensing & Certification

In addition to a general medical license, nuclear medicine physicians also need to obtain certification from the American Board of Nuclear Medicine (ABNM) and the American Board of Radiology (ABR). Certification typically requires completion of an ACGME-accredited residency program and passage of a skills assessment exam. The examination given by the ABNM is a written test on the practices and applications of radioactive materials in medicine. The ABR's oral exam focuses on the diagnostic uses, applications and procedures of nuclear radiology.

A career as a nuclear engineer requires at least four years of study. The training requirements for nuclear medicine physicians and nuclear physicists are more extensive and require graduation from graduate studies programs with a Ph.D. or doctoral degree. From 2019 to 2029 the job prospects are expected to be above average for nuclear physicists and average for physicians, while jobs for nuclear engineers are expected to decline.

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