What does a physicist do? (Responsibilities and skills)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 6 July 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

A physicist is a term that describes a scientist focused on research and the study of the laws that govern nature. Knowledge of the basic concepts of physics helps us understand our natural environment and propels technological development and advancement. Learning what a physicist does can help you understand the tasks they perform and the subfields you could specialise in when pursuing a career in physics. In this article, we find the answer to 'What does a physicist do?', look at how to become one, explore the average salary and examine the primary responsibilities and key skills for physicists.

Related: What do scientists do? Different types and how to be one

What does a physicist do?

An individual interested in seeking a career path in physics may ask, 'What does a physicist do?'. A physicist performs a range of duties depending on their line of work. As scientists, they study the natural world, perform research, create and test theories through experiments and develop technological devices. Depending on their specialities, they might work in universities, laboratories, research centres, industries, hospitals and other institutions.

Average salary for a physicist

The average salary of a physicist is £38,864 per year. Factors such as the individual's level of education, whether they work for a government or private organisation and their field of specialisation, may influence this amount. For instance, those with PhDs may earn more than those with a bachelor's degree. Typically, a higher educational qualification makes you eligible for a greater number of better-paying positions.

How to become a physicist

To become a physicist, you usually need an educational background in physics, training and skills to perform the primary tasks the role involves. Below is a list of factors to consider when choosing a career as a physicist:

1. Seek the appropriate education

To gain an employment position as a physicist, a bachelor's degree is typically the minimum requirement for candidates. Many physicists continue their studies and obtain a PhD. Entrance to a bachelor's degree programme in physics generally requires basic physics knowledge, and a demonstrated understanding of concepts such as thermodynamics, mathematics, electromagnetism, mechanics and optics. PhD students can choose to specialise in a subfield within the discipline of physics. They may also study physics courses alongside programmes in computer science and advanced mathematics.

2. Pursue relevant training and working experience

Graduates with a bachelor's degree in physics may require additional training to obtain work as a physicist. Applying for an internship as a research assistant or technician can provide graduates with the opportunity to practise what they learned at university and help them to gain some practical working experience. Those with PhDs may work with other physicists on research projects for a few years before starting independent research.

Related: Complete Guide on How To Become a Physicist

3. Prepare a strong CV

A strong CV that highlights your abilities can help you gain employment as a physicist in the organisation of your choice. Consider including your educational qualifications and relevant work experience, including the dates of employment in each organisation, your position and responsibilities to improve the quality of your CV and chances of selection.

4. Apply for employment

After obtaining the appropriate qualifications and drafting a strong CV, you may decide it is time to become a practising physicist. Consider researching to find organisations that are hiring physicists and the roles they are advertising. Ensure you understand the job requirements and qualifications and meet the necessary criteria to qualify before sending your application.

Related: What Does a Physical Scientist Do?

Responsibilities and duties of a physicist

Physicists have a range of responsibilities that they perform daily during the typical course of their work. This may vary depending on the workplace or organisation, but the primary responsibilities of physicists usually share similarities. Typical responsibilities of a physicist include:

Teaching in high schools or universities

Some physicists may decide to pursue a career in education to teach students general physics knowledge. These physicists teach students in high schools and universities. They have other responsibilities unique to educators, such as testing and ranking students. A physics professor or teacher helps to explain complex concepts to students so they can understand and explain that concept when asked.

Developing theories about time, space, matter and energy

The work of physicists can have a significant impact on the understanding of concepts related to time, matter, space and energy. Physicists and astronomers seek to understand the universe, the world and the forces that control it. Their curiosity leads to the learning and formation of scientific theories, which may result in the creation of advanced materials and equipment.

Related: How to become an astronomer (with salary and skills)

Designing and performing experiments to test theories

Performing experiments is typically a physicist's primary task. Experiments help to test or confirm theories and to create new ones. A physicist may conduct repeated experiments to validate what is true rather than accepting what they hear or assume is correct. If you enjoy designing and performing experiments, a career in physics may be a good option.

Conducting research

Physicists undertake research to solve a problem or answer a question. Researchers usually have PhDs focusing on a subspecialty that inspires their choice of research topics. Depending on the topic or aim of the research, it may take anywhere from days to years to complete and usually involves performing a series of experiments to achieve the final goal. Physicists that work as researchers typically spend a significant amount of time in laboratories.

Developing new treatment procedures and medical instruments

Experiments and research conducted by physicists in the medical field may lead to new knowledge, medical procedures, techniques and the design of instruments that benefit humanity. Certain organisations focus on finding methods and procedures or improving existing technologies. These organisations may employ physicists to help them achieve their goals. They may work alongside other specialists or scientists, such as engineers, biochemists, computer scientists and microbiologists.

Analysing theories

Physicists analyse theories to determine their credibility. This may involve brainstorming sessions, studies or experiments and questioning the theories repeatedly to prove them. The organisation, employees or collaborating scientists may suggest a theory, and doing an in-depth analysis helps to determine if it's true or false.

Writing proposals and research papers

A physicist typically spends time on other tasks in addition to conducting laboratory research. They usually write their own research papers, draft research proposals, apply for grants and raise funds for future projects. As you aim to develop the analytical skills typically required to be a physicist, you may consider improving your ability to communicate in writing.

Presenting research at conferences and seminars

Physicists often present their research at conferences and seminars. This involves addressing an audience and explaining research projects and findings. During these presentations, there may be an avenue for questioning, so full knowledge of the research topic and the capacity to communicate effectively with an audience is important.

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

Work environment

Physicists typically have a range of career options in research centres, government organisations and learning institutions. Depending on their field of specialisation, physicists may spend time in the office analysing research, writing proposals and applying for fundraising. Many physicists work in laboratories performing experiments. Employment in an industrial environment may require them to wear heavy protective clothing. Some physicists teach in classrooms or school environments.

Some physicists travel to use specialised equipment only available at specific laboratories. They may also travel to present research at a conference or seminar. Physicists typically work regular, full-time hours, but they may occasionally work during the weekend.

Skills you need as a physicist

Becoming a successful physicist in any field typically requires key skills. Employers may seek the following qualities in potential employees:

  • Curiosity and logic: As a physicist, a curious and logical mind is helpful. Scientists often ask ‘why?' and ‘how?' until they determine the answer to questions posed.

  • Problem-solving: The ability to solve problems and proffer solutions to issues is useful to physicists. They may encounter complications during an experiment or research, so the ability to determine challenges and limitations and manage them is key to making progress.

  • Critical thinking: Physicists usually analyse difficult or abstract concepts, and a critical thinker can usually do so easily. If you want to work as a physicist, prepare to understand and break down complicated concepts.

  • Attention to detail: This enables scientists to perform accurate and valuable experiments. Physicists are typically precise in their work to achieve the best possible result.

  • Verbal and written communication: Physicists usually require strong verbal and written communication skills to write convincing research proposals and present their research at conferences. These skills are helpful for physicists to explain scientific concepts effectively to their audience and readers.

  • Mathematics: A physicist may encounter projects or tasks requiring complex mathematical calculations to complete. Sound knowledge of algebra, calculus and other mathematical concepts is often important to succeed in this line of work.

    Salary figures reflect data listed on the quoted websites at time of writing. Salaries may vary depending on the hiring organisation and a candidate's experience, academic background and location.

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