Ways to gain physics work experience to advance your career

Updated 10 May 2023

Physics is an exciting area of scientific study that offers fascinating career opportunities in diverse areas. Work experience can include shadowing, volunteer work, internship programmes or industrial placements that enhance your knowledge of the field and strengthen your skills. Understanding how to acquire experience may advance your professional growth and improve your future job prospects. In this article we explain the value of gaining physics work experience, provide a list of ways you can find work experience opportunities and discuss the types of experience you can undertake.

Why is it valuable to gain physics work experience?

Physics work experience involves discovering what it's like to work in an actual work setting while learning more about a certain position, organisation and career. Gaining experience is beneficial because you can practically apply your skills, develop your abilities and expand your industry knowledge. Experience also gives you a chance to start building a professional network with people who can help you progress in the future. Getting useful experience while you're still studying may also help you get an entry-level job in the same organisation after you graduate.

Since professional experience may be a requirement when applying for some full-time positions, work experience is a valuable addition to your CV. Physics also offers a variety of career paths. For instance, you can pursue a career as a lab technician, academic researcher, science teacher, data analyst or engineer, among other options. After undertaking experience, you can assess whether you enjoy working in that area or wish to try something else. Acquiring knowledge of different specialisations through practical experience may help you decide what occupation is suitable for you.

Related: Work experience: definition, importance and tips

Ways to find work experience as a physicist

Review the following methods you can use to help you find work experience opportunities:

Contact organisations directly

Take the initiative and contact organisations that operate in your area of interest. Visit websites to check for advertisements for internship or work placement programmes. Organisations may not advertise job openings online, so consider submitting a speculative CV and cover letter outlining your desire to work in the company and how you can contribute to the company's success. You can also follow up with a phone call to ensure that the organisation has your details for future vacancies.

You can also research manufacturing companies, universities, laboratories, pharmaceutical companies or other organisations that hire physicists. Consider expanding your search to include chemical, tech, aerospace and environmental companies. Government institutions may also offer opportunities to develop your skills and expertise. If you look and apply for these programmes early, you can increase your chances of securing a competitive placement.

Related: How to write a speculative internship application (plus example)

Speak to university staff in the physics department

Lecturers, tutors, researchers and other members of the physics department may work in areas that interest you. Consider speaking to them about internship opportunities and get some general advice about the dynamics of working in different sectors and guidance on advancing your career. Universities often recruit undergraduate students to work on research projects and the staff may be aware of such opportunities. Prospective employers and recruiters may also contact university staff about placements who may recommend you for these positions.

Attend campus presentations by employers

Many organisations hold seminars or workshops on career-related subjects for students in the physics department. Some of these events are also open to the public and the presentations are typically free or affordable. These events present a great opportunity to network with industry leaders, learn more about the work of various organisations and explore the avenues available for applying for different forms of experiential learning.

Related: 9 types of networking opportunities and their importance

Check a career service website

Employers frequently advertise opportunities on the career service website or board of universities. Universities often have links to organisations in the physics industry, so you may find work experience on the website that may not be accessible elsewhere. The website may also contain advice on strategies to acquire work experience, including recommendations for different years of study.

Related: 18 jobs to physics to pursue with a degree (with salary info)

Join a professional body

You can begin developing your career prospects by joining a professional body in the area you want to pursue. Professional bodies or societies often host events that enable you to search for work experience by interacting with physicists that work in diverse settings. Doing so can also help you build your professional network early. If you're a student, consider membership in a physics or science-related society in school or on campus.

Related: A step-by-step guide on how to become a physicist

Attend career fairs or events

Schools, universities and professional bodies organise career fairs or industry events that introduce aspiring physicists to several potential employers. At these events, you can meet recruiters that can explain the different work experience opportunities available, the right time to apply and the general application process. You can also talk to them about the daily internship activities and the benefits of undertaking an internship or placement in their organisation. Consider asking them for tips and note what they look for in a candidate so you can tailor your CV and cover letter accordingly.

Related: What are recruitment sources and why are they important?

Engage a recruitment agency

As you seek opportunities for experiential education in physics, you may also engage recruitment agencies that have experience linking students and graduates with firms operating in the science, engineering, research and development industries. Recruitment specialists can help you access relevant openings after reviewing your background. Agencies are a valuable resource because they can find vacancies that are difficult to access online. You can take advantage of the wealth of contacts they possess. They can also help you prepare your CV and cover letter and give you tips about interviews and how to satisfy a prospective employer's standards.

When can you begin searching for work experience?

If you have begun your undergraduate studies, start exploring opportunities early in your first year. Even though many placement and internship programmes target final-year students, contacting the organisations early and building a rapport with them can work to your advantage when applying for these positions later. You can also understand what employers are looking for and do some extra-curricular activities that sharpen those skills.

Most organisations open applications for internship programme placements during the autumn semester. Some vacancies have deadlines for January or February, so this is a good time to look for job posts. Prospective employers may advertise vacancies in the fall and spring, so stay positive if you're yet to secure a placement during the first semester of the year.

Related: Frequently asked questions about studying a physics degree

Types of work experience

Here are some types of work experience you can aim to obtain:

Industrial placement schemes

Industrial placements, also known as a year in industry or placement year, are formal schemes that typically last for a year. University students work full-time for an organisation as paid employees before returning to university to finish their degree. These placements can be optional or included as part of your degree course. They usually take place between the second and final year of university. During placements, you can interact with experts in the physics field, gain practical experience, build your professional contacts and participate in creating innovations.

Related: What is an industrial placement? (With guidelines and tips)

Internship programmes

Many companies organise internship programmes that normally run for two to three months. Internships are available to students and recent graduates and are a great way to gain valuable experience in physics. You can use this short-term option to assess different physics specialisations to identify the area suitable for your future career path. You can learn about the workplace culture of different settings, including product manufacturers and tech and data science companies.

If you're interested in a career as a research scientist or pursuing a PhD, consider applying for bursaries from different organisations. These bursaries usually offer financial assistance for six to eight weeks to students looking to work in research labs as assistants or technicians during holidays. Try meeting your tutor or a department member who's currently undertaking research in your area of interest to learn more about these internship programmes.

Related: What does a physicist do? (Responsibilities and skills)

Volunteer work

Working as a volunteer in the physics industry is another option to gain work experience. Since volunteer positions are unpaid, they're usually less competitive than industrial placement schemes and internships and often have a quick and less intensive recruitment process. Volunteering is also valuable for your CV and future job prospects. Physicists might also offer mentorship and guidance to you as you help them on projects, helping you advance further in your physicist career.

Work shadowing

Work shadowing entails watching a physicist or other physics specialist perform their responsibilities and duties to understand their role. The goal of shadowing is to gain insight into a specific profession rather than get practical experience. It's different from internships, placements and volunteer work as it usually lasts for a few days.

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