What are the Different Physics Careers?

D. Jeffress

Physics is a branch of science which aims to understand the physical properties and processes of matter, energy, heat, light, subatomic particles, space, and time. Some physicists specialize in theoretical physics, which involves predicting and conceptualizing physical phenomena by using mathematical models. Others practice applied physics, where they conduct direct observations and experiments in order to explain nature. The scope of physics is incredibly broad, and qualified professionals pursue very different physics careers.

Giving public seminars on physical research is one type of physics career.
Giving public seminars on physical research is one type of physics career.

People who are creative and mathematically-inclined often pursue theoretical physics careers in astronomy and quantum physics. Theoretical physicists use logic and math to discover the intricacies of natural forces. Physicists perform thought experiments and detailed calculations on a wide range of theories which cannot be directly tested by experimenting. Such work might include research on the big bang theory, string theory, general relativity, and quantum mechanics. Many theoretical physicists maintain the goal of discovering an underlying, unified explanation of the universe.

A doctoral degree from an accredited university is often necessary to become a physicist.
A doctoral degree from an accredited university is often necessary to become a physicist.

Physics careers in applied physics entail working in laboratories and carrying out practical experiments with light, optics, thermodynamics, electricity, and natural forces. Applied physicists attempt to explain or confirm physical laws by demonstrating them in an experimental settings. For example, a physicist may perform a series of tests with a piece of highly specialized machinery, such as a particle accelerator, to gain a better understanding of quantum physics and the nature of matter. Experimental physicists make detailed notes of their observations and write reports based on their findings. They often work with other physicists and to compare and combine experimental results.

A large number of qualified physicists pursue careers with research and development companies or universities. Research firms routinely hire physicists to investigate, create, and improve products. The theoretical and practical work of such physicists has led to many technological breakthroughs in computer technology, medical equipment, and laboratory instruments. Many physicists choose teaching careers at universities, which typically involve providing classroom instruction and designing laboratory courses. Other physics careers may involve writing material for textbooks and examinations or giving public seminars about physical research.

To become a physicist, a person must typically receive a doctoral degree from an accredited university. As in physics careers, degree programs are highly specialized. Upon completion of a degree program, many physicists engage in postdoctoral fellowships, where they work alongside experienced physicists in labs. A fellowship may last as long as three years before a budding physicist becomes fully prepared to conduct independent research.

Some physicists research and design laboratory equipment, and document new processes.
Some physicists research and design laboratory equipment, and document new processes.

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Discussion Comments


@MrMoody - There may be a smaller market for theoretical physicists, but I think that it’s one of the most fascinating careers for physics majors. Just because their work is theoretical doesn’t mean that it’s not grounded in fact. I think yesterday’s theories in science are today’s facts, like the theory of relativity.

I remember watching this program on public television about string theory and the nature of the universe. It was hosted by a theoretical physicist who had written a best-selling book on the subject. It was absolutely fascinating.

He explained technical concepts in an easy to understand manner with everyday illustrations, and the graphics were stunning. He later appeared on talk shows as well.

Of course, I realize that not every theoretical physicist is going to become famous, but we still need them out there to pique our interest into what lies beyond the edges of current scientific realities.


@KaBoom - Yes, I think that if you have a doctorate in physics, you have a wide open market for job possibilities. I believe physics degree careers could span the gamut from molecular biology to engineering to chemistry.

I do, however, think that there is a bigger market for applied physicists than there is for theoretical physicists. I think theoretical physicists would spend most of their time writing books and peer reviewed journal articles, in addition to giving lectures at symposiums and conducting their own experiments in the lab.

They then share their discoveries with the larger community of physicists and their ideas can sometimes be put to use in applied sciences.


@indemnifyme - A degree in science usually seems to be a safe bet because there are careers available in both research and applications. A friend of mine has a degree in chemistry and there are tons of different chemistry careers out there.

My friend chose to teach chemistry and she just loves it! She teaches at a college and also gets to do research. She told me that most of the other science professors really enjoy their work because they get to educate as well as continue learning themselves!


Wow, there are a lot of different physics related careers. I never realized companies might hire physicists to work on products but it makes sense. There are usually a lot of different practical applications for most sciences so why should physics be any different?

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