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What Do Physicists Do?

Physicists explore and identify basic principles governing the structure and behaviour of matter, the generation and transfer of energy, and the interaction of matter and energy. Some physicists use these principles in theoretical areas, such as the nature of time and the origin of the universe, while others work in practical areas such as the development of advanced materials, electronic and optical devices, and medical equipment.

butterfly effectPhysicists design and perform experiments with lasers, cyclotrons, telescopes, mass spectrometers and other equipment. Based on observations and analysis, they attempt to discover the laws that describe the forces of nature, such as gravity, electromagnetism, and nuclear interactions. They also find ways to apply physical laws and theories to problems in nuclear energy, electronics, optics, materials, communications, aerospace technology, and medical instrumentation.

Most physicists specialize in one of many subfields of elementary particle physics, nuclear physics, atomic and molecular physics, physics of condensed matter (solid-state physics), optics, acoustics, plasma physics, or the physics of fluids. Some specialize in a subdivision of one of these subfields; for example, within condensed matter physics, specialties include superconductivity, crystallography and semiconductors. However, all physics involves the same fundamental principles, specialties may overlap, and physicists may switch from one subfield to another. Also, large numbers of physicists work in interdisciplinary fields such as biophysics, chemical physics, geophysics, meteorology, oceanography, and seismology.

Detector of the Large Hadron ColliderResearch and development work is an integral part of most physicists' jobs. Some physicists work exclusively in research and development. Some do basic research to increase scientific knowledge. For example, they investigate the structure of the atom or the nature of gravity.  Most professional physicists (those with Ph.D.s) will teach at a university or college, with their academic duties having about the same importance as their research.

Physicists who conduct applied research build upon the discoveries made through basic research and work to develop new devices, products and processes. For instance, basic research in solid-state physics led to the development of transistors and then to the integrated circuits used in computers.

Physicists also design research equipment. This equipment often has additional unanticipated uses. For example, lasers are used in surgery; microwave devices are used for ovens; and measuring instruments can analyze blood or the chemical content of foods. A small number of physicists work in inspection, testing, quality control and other production related jobs in industry.

Geophysics is the study of the structure and dynamics of the Earth, with a strong appeal to all who are curious about the planet we live on and its companions in the solar system. Physical and geological insight, combined with mathematical analysis, are used to study the complexity of the Earth, for example the structure of hydrocarbon reservoirs or groundwater aquifers, or the nature of the forces underlying plate tectonics or the magnetic field. Geophysical methods are widely used in searching for hydrocarbon reservoirs, in studying the nature of earthquakes and volcanoes, and increasingly in archaeology, civil engineering and environmental problems such as pollution monitoring.

Astronomers use the principles of physics and mathematics to learn about the fundamental nature of the universe, including the Sun, Moon, planets, stars and galaxies. Astronomers go on to education, research or a diverse variety of jobs requiring skills such as data analysis or software development. Research astronomers analyze large quantities of data gathered by observatories and satellites and write scientific papers or reports on their findings. Most astronomers spend only a few weeks each year making observations with optical telescopes, radio telescopes and other instruments. Contrary to the popular image, professional astronomers almost never make observations by looking directly through a telescope because enhanced photographic and electronic detecting equipment can capture more than the human eye.

How Do You Become a Physicist?

Mathematical ability, computer skills, an inquisitive mind, imagination, and the ability to work independently are important traits for anyone planning a career in physics or astronomy. Prospective physicists who hope to work in industry applying physics knowledge to practical problems should consider courses outside of physics, such as economics, computer technology or current affairs. Good oral and written communication skills are also becoming increasingly important.

Most Ph.D. physics and astronomy graduates are offered and choose to take a post-doctoral position. Such positions have long been part of the rewards and the apprenticeship to research careers in North America and in Europe. Many Canadian Ph.D.s are involved in full time research at North American and European universities, where they are able to gain a variety of experiences and contacts. With modern communications and travel, it matters little where one studies for a Ph.D., only with whom, because research in physics and in astronomy recognizes few international boundaries.

Beginning physicists, especially those without a Ph.D., often do routine work under the close supervision of more senior scientists. After some experience, they are assigned more complex tasks and given more independence. Physicists who develop new products or processes sometimes form their own companies or join new firms to exploit their own ideas.

Physicists with a bachelor's degree in physics have available a wide range of less specialist jobs in engineering, technical and computer related applications. Their problem-solving skills and science background may also be useful in a host of other careers not directly related to physics, such as: medical technicians, meteorologists, financial analyists, and science journalism.

Also, those with degrees in physics will find their skills transferable to many other occupations. A substantial number of B.Sc. graduates take a post-graduate course. Many Departments of Education offer a one year postgraduate course to train as a high school physics teacher and most universities offer a graduate diploma of sciences (Dip.Sc.) and/or a master of science (M.Sc.) in a variety of areas of physics.

Physicists have a good understanding of materials, semiconductors, electronic circuits and electromagnetic waves which enables them to work alongside engineers in many industrial jobs. Some students with first degrees in physics also take an engineering degree to enhance the application of their skills in industry.

* This is taken, with modifications, from the 1994-95 Occupational Outlook Handbook produced by the US Dept. of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

See also Are There Jobs in Physics?

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