The sky is literally the limit in physics. From studying stars to drilling beneath the Earth, physicists apply problem-solving skills to jobs in almost any sector. Physics hasn't traditionally attracted many women: A 2012 report from "Physics Today" found that women earned just 21 percent of bachelor's degrees and 17 percent of Ph.D.s. The American Astronomical Society has found that barriers to entry for women are not intellectual, but cultural, such as societal norms and educational practices.
Physics grads can focus on the stars. As astronomers, they create theories to explain the natural world, such as atom formation, and conduct experiments to test their ideas. Plus, they search for new planets. Some physicists design telescopes and other scientific equipment. Employers include observatories, planetariums, science museums, nonprofit groups and federal agencies such as NASA, the U.S. Naval Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory. Astronomers need writing and speaking skills to convey their ideas. It also helps to get involved in research projects as an undergraduate.
Industries including energy, transportation, telecommunications, computers and space and satellite makers employ physics graduates. Construction materials companies bring on physicists as chemical analysts, while computer-chip manufacturers hire them for jobs such as reliability engineering manager or laboratory technician. Other jobs include physics engineer, software engineering apprentice, entry-level research scientist, systems analyst and programmer analyst. Science-related companies also employ physicists in sales, marketing and customer service. Private industry employed the largest share of physicists as of 2010, at 32 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Physicists develop, monitor and inspect devices that detect disease. They also study how radiation affects biological processes, or analyze how to improve on imaging technologies. With radiation oncologists, physicists plan treatments and doses. In cardiology, they focus on pacemaker functioning and cardiac flow. Physics grads can find work with biotechnology and pharmaceuticals manufacturers, hospitals and government agencies such as the Departments of Defense or Energy. Local agencies also hire physicists as environmental health specialists. To break in, look for summer work as a hospital lab assistant, or volunteer in medical or health research.
Many physics grads choose careers in education. They teach in high schools, or work as instructors and professors at colleges and universities. As science writers and journalists, physics grads inform the public about science-centered topics. Working in education typically requires entry-level jobs as a faculty research assistant, science lab coordinator or postdoctoral research associate. It also helps to volunteer as a physics tutor or work with after-school programs. Plus, graduates who want to teach high school physics need a teacher’s license.
Physics graduates practice in a number of other sectors. Acoustical physicists work for government labs, builders and engineers to study how sound transmits. Geophysicists study the physical properties of the Earth to explore petroleum and mineral resources. Through military and government labs, nuclear physicists develop weapons, nuclear accelerators and reactors. The study of electromagnetic radiation and the development of fiber-optics, lasers, microscopes and holography are the work of optical physicists. Finally, solid-state physicists help invent electronic devices such as automobile and aircraft-navigation equipment.
A bachelor of science degree is the credential for entry-level work as a research assistant, technician or specialist, as well as non-research work writing for science journals or selling products for businesses. For more responsibility, physicists often need a graduate degree, as well as practical experience. A doctoral degree is essential for teaching and research at a college or university, as well as administrative jobs with labs, public agencies and businesses.
- Cornell University: What Can I Do with a Physics Degree?
- University of New Orleans: What Can I Do with a Degree in Physics?
- Portland State University: What Can I Do with a Degree in Physics?
- American Association of Physicists in Medicine: What Do Medical Physicists Do?
- University of New Mexico: Careers in Medical Physics
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: What Physicists and Astronomers Do
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Work Environment
- American Astronomical Society: The Status of Women in Physics - What, Why, and How to Change