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At a Glance

  • Study matter and energy
  • Have good research and analytical skills
  • Often specialize in a subfield
  • Are heavy computer users
  • Work alone most of the time
  • Have a doctorate (PhD)

Career summary

Physicists study the properties of matter and energy to gain a better understanding of how things work.

#No alternate titles CJ

Physicists study matter as small as subatomic particles and as large as black holes in the universe. Their research is used to develop new theories, technologies, and products.

Physicists do two kinds of research:

The goal of basic research is to expand our scientific knowledge. Physicists try to detect and measure phenomena that have not yet been observed. They develop scientific theories and test them.

Using the results of basic research, applied research physicists develop devices and products. These products are used in the fields of electronics, health care, energy, and communications.

Most research physicists plan and conduct experiments. Sometimes they design equipment to do their research. In most work settings, they direct and advise other staff in test procedures.

There are several subfields in physics:

Physicists write proposals and apply for research grants. In addition, they report their findings in technical papers or journals. They often present research at conferences. Some physicists teach at the college or university level.

Related careers

This career is part of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics cluster of careers.

Related careers include:

Military careers

Job duties

Task list

The following list of tasks is specific to physicists.

Common work activities

Physicists perform the following tasks. These tasks are common to many careers.

Work requirements

Working conditions

In a typical work setting, physicists:

Interpersonal relationships

Physical work conditions

Work performance


Physical demands

Physicists frequently:

It is important for physicists to be able to:

It is not as important, but still necessary, for physicists to be able to:

Skills and abilities

Physicists need to:


Reason and problem solve

Use math and science

Manage oneself, people, time, and things

Work with people

Work with things

Perceive and visualize

Education and training

Educational programs

The programs of study listed below will help you prepare for the occupation or career cluster you are exploring.

Programs of study directly related to this occupation

Other programs of study to consider


To work as a physicist, you typically need to:

Education after high school

Physicists need a doctoral degree (PhD) for most jobs, especially to lead research projects or teach at a college or university. Those with a master's degree in physics may qualify for jobs in applied research and development for manufacturing and health care companies.

In physics, you study optics, thermodynamics, and atomic physics. When working on a doctoral degree you focus on a specific area such as elementary particles or condensed matter.

Many colleges and universities offer bachelor's degree programs in physics. Fewer offer advanced degrees.

Work experience

After completing a doctoral degree, many physicists work as postdoctoral fellows (postdocs). These university positions last for several years. Postdocs get experience working with other physicists. This research can lead to a teaching or research job at a university.

Military training

The military does not provide initial training in this field. However, the military may provide work experience to physicists who have a master's degree or higher.

Helpful high school courses

In high school, take classes that prepare you for college. A college preparatory curriculum (external link) may be different from your state's graduation requirements (external link). Physicists need a strong background in math and science. Try to take math through Trigonometry and science through Physics.

You should also consider taking some advanced courses in high school. This includes Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses if they are available in your school. If you do well in these courses, you may receive college credit for them. Advanced courses can also strengthen your college application.

Helpful electives to take in high school that prepare you for this career include:

The courses listed above are meant to help you create your high school plan. If you have not already done so, talk to a school counselor or parent about the courses you are considering taking.

You should also check with a teacher or counselor to see if work-based learning opportunities are available in your school and community. These might include field trips, job shadowing, internships, and actual work experience. The goal of these activities is to help you connect your school experiences with real-life work.

Join some groups, try some hobbies, or volunteer with an organization that interests you. By participating in activities you can have fun, make new friends, and learn about yourself. Maybe one of them will help direct you to a future career. Here are examples of activities and groups (PDF file) that may be available in your high school or community.

Things to know

Employers in research and development prefer physicists who have a PhD. Physicists may also need specific knowledge of the industry, such as optics or electronics. Employers prefer physicists who are detail-oriented and precise in their work. Physicists should also be patient and self-motivated. They should be flexible enough to work alone or with group research teams.

Many employers, especially in research, prefer to hire applicants with a PhD or at least a master's degree. Universities choose candidates based on their area of research and the quality of their published articles.


Courses in computer science, chemistry, electronics, or engineering will improve employment opportunities. Experience gained through internships or in related summer employment is beneficial. If possible, work during summer months at one of the national laboratories. Experience with applied research that is related to computer technology is helpful. Develop good written and oral communication skills as these are important for advancement in the field.

Costs to workers

Expenses may include reference books and travel costs to conferences. In addition, most physicists join one or more professional associations and pay annual dues.

Job listings

Listed below are links to job categories from the National Labor Exchange that relate to this career. Once you get a list of jobs, you can view information about individual jobs and find out how to apply. If your job search finds too many openings, or if you wish to search for jobs outside of Washington, you will need to refine your search.

To get a listing of current jobs from the WorkSource system, go to the WorkSource website (external link).


Physicists (SOC 19-2012)

Pay Period
Washington Hourly $29.76 $40.52 $49.95 $61.66 $80.54
Monthly $5,157 $7,022 $8,656 $10,686 $13,958
Yearly $61,890 $84,270 $103,900 $128,240 $167,520
    Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue Hourly $28.35 $34.42 $51.48 $61.21 $80.98
Monthly $4,913 $5,965 $8,921 $10,608 $14,034
Yearly $58,956 $71,582 $107,075 $127,303 $168,422
    Vancouver Hourly $31.78 $35.52 $44.07 $60.47 (1)
Monthly $5,507 $6,156 $7,637 $10,479 (1)
Yearly $66,113 $73,870 $91,676 $125,783 (1)
United States Hourly $28.51 $40.91 $58.15 $76.13 $92.92
Monthly $4,941 $7,090 $10,077 $13,193 $16,103
Yearly $59,300 $85,090 $120,950 $158,350 $193,280

(1) Wage estimate is not available.

Wages vary by employer and area of the country. The level of education also makes a difference. Those who have a doctoral degree (PhD) earn the highest wages, followed by those who have a master's degree. Physicists who have only a bachelor's degree have the lowest wages.

Most physicists can expect benefits such as paid vacation, sick leave, health insurance, and a retirement plan.

Employment and outlook

Washington outlook

The table below provides information about the number of workers in this career in various regions. It also provides information about the expected growth rate and future job openings.

Physicists (SOC 19-2012)

Location Current employment Growth over 10 years Annual openings
Washington 550 16.2% 16.1% 63
    Benton and Franklin Counties 220 14.5% 15.0% 24
    Clallam, Jefferson, and Kitsap Counties 88 5.7% 11.9% 8
    Grays Harbor, Lewis, Mason, Pacific, and Thurston Counties 10 90.0% 14.1% 3
    King County 191 17.8% 19.6% 22
United States 19,200 9.4% 5.2% 1,800

National employment

Major employers:

People trained to be physicists often have different job titles. Some physicists work in the information technology industry and are called computer software engineer or systems developer.

National outlook

Demand for this occupation will be strong. Job growth will depend on the amount of money the government spends on physics-related research. It is expected that this spending will be flat in the next few years. Thus, only a few new jobs will be created and there will be a lot of competition for these jobs.

Competition for research jobs in colleges and universities is very strong. These jobs usually require several advanced degrees. More opportunities are available for high school science teachers.

Other resources

American Association for the Advancement of Science (external link)
1200 New York Ave, NW
American Chemical Society (external link)
1155 Sixteenth Street NW
Washington, DC 20036
American Geophysical Union (external link)
2000 Florida Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20009
American Institute of Physics (external link)
One Physics Ellipse
College Park, MD 20740
American Nuclear Society (external link)
555 North Kensington Avenue
La Grange Park, IL 60526
American Physical Society (external link)
1 Physics Ellipse
College Park, MD 20740
Careers in Physics (external link)
Careers in Space: A Universe of Options (external link)
Engineer Girl! (external link)
National Academy of Engineering


Career cluster

Career path

O*Net (external link) occupation

O*Net job zone (external link)

DOT occupations

Strong Interest Inventory

Holland occupational cluster