Physicist: Educational Requirements for a Career in Physics
Learn how to become a physicist. Research educational requirements and outlook information to make an informed decision about starting a career in physics.
Physicist Educational Requirements
Physicists explore principles of energy, motion and matter, conduct experiments and develop and prove relevant scientific theories. Such positions generally require a Doctor of Philosophy, but other opportunities exist for bachelor's and master's degree holders.
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 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.
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.
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 14% for the years 2010-2020 (www.bls.gov). Physicists in general earned median annual wages of $106,840 in May 2012.
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