Physicist: Educational Requirements for a Career in Physics

Physicists require significant formal education. Learn about the education, job duties and additional requirements to see if this is the right career for you.

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Degrees in physics exist at the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral level, though most professionals in the field of physics hold doctorate degrees. The physics career field is broad, and in addition to choosing a particular discipline to pursue, physicists have the option of working in private industry, academia, or for a government agency.

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Essential Information

Physicists explore principles of energy, motion and matter, and they apply those principles as they conduct experiments and test relevant scientific theories. The majority of physicists work in research and development, and they may conduct their work at either privately owned laboratories, universities, or at government facilities. Most physicist positions require individuals to hold doctorate degrees in fields related to astronomy or physics, and postdoctoral experience may also be required for some positions. Although licensure is not typically required for professionals in this field, some government positions may require physicists to submit to background checks in order to gain security clearances.

Required Education Ph.D. is typical; a master's degree may be suitable for some positions
Other Requirements Postdoctoral experience recommended; security clearances may be required for some positions
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) 7% for physicists and astronomers*
Median Salary (2015) $111,580*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Undergraduate Degree

Bachelor's degree programs in physics focus on foundational science and math and can prepare aspiring physicists for graduate school. Core courses may include engineering physics, electricity and magnetism, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics. While physicists typically hold graduate degrees, those with bachelor's degrees in physics may find positions as technicians or research assistants. These professionals may work in software and network development and other engineering fields.

Master's Degree

Master of Science in Physics programs typically last two years. Coursework often focuses on various topics in the field, such as quantum, classical and statistical mechanics, and may incorporate thesis projects. A growing number of master's degree programs prepare students for research careers in physics that do not require doctoral degrees. Master's degree holders, like baccalaureate holders, are usually not qualified for university research positions; however, they may fill teaching, manufacturing and industry research positions.

Doctoral Degree

Ph.D. students may focus on a specialization of the field, such as general, optical or condensed matter physics, and pursue that specialty throughout their careers. Coursework is designed according to specialty. After passing a candidacy exam and submitting a proposal, students are typically required to complete a dissertation project. Physicist positions in independent research, management and university-level teaching generally require doctoral degrees.

Postdoctoral Experience

Before launching their careers, many Ph.D. physicists continue their education in postdoctoral research positions. They conduct research in their specialty under the supervision of experienced physicists. While not mandatory, postdoctoral positions may help physicists obtain permanent research positions at the university level.

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), physicists and astronomers are expected to have an average job growth of 7% for the years 2014-2024. Physicists in general earned median annual wages of $111,580 in May 2015.

Physicists are often highly educated, and are involved with the study or application of principles involving energy, motion, and matter. Both the average salary and expected job growth are considered good, and physicists are employed in a wide variety of industries.

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