Physics Career Advice
If you are wondering how to become a physicist, below are tips and advice on training for and beginning careers in physics, as well as science and research job prospects in the UK.
The Job Description
Physicists study the world around us and try to uncover the laws which govern how and why objects exist and behave as they do. As well as helping us to answer some of these fundamental questions, their findings act as the basis for developments in technology, which can be applied to every area of modern day living from mobile phones to computers.
As a physicist, you would normally work in one of two areas:
theoretical analysis – developing ideas, using computer simulations
and mathematical modelling techniques to explain and predict phenomena
experimental research – devising controlled experiments and recording observations to test how well theories stand up to results.
Your work would vary depending on your particular area of expertise, but could include:
developing new medical instruments and treatments
working in satellite technology and space exploration
investigating new ways to generate power
exploring robotics and artificial intelligence
teaching in schools, colleges or universities
using your knowledge to work in publishing, broadcasting or journalism.
When working on a project, you would write up reports, detailing results and findings for project managers, scientific journals and funding organisations. You may also present your work at scientific meetings and conferences.
The key personal attributes of good physicists include:
a keen interest and ability in maths and science
an enquiring mind, and the ability to think clearly and logically
good problem solving skills
a methodical approach to work
the ability to work to a high degree of accuracy
good teamworking skills and the ability to lead a project team
good communication and presentation skills
the ability to write reports, scientific papers and research funding bids
a good understanding of statistics and relevant computer packages
a commitment to follow and contribute to the latest developments
a willingness to work flexibly and adapt to change.
How to become a physicist
You will usually need a degree in physics or a related engineering or science subject to work in this field. You may be able to start on a company's graduate training scheme after completing your degree.
It will also be an advantage if you have some relevant work experience, which you could gain by taking up placements during your course and through vacation work. There are a number of schemes offering placements to students, including the Year in Industry programme. For details about these, see physics.org.
If you want to apply for a research post at university or with a company, you are likely to need (or be willing to work towards) a postgraduate qualification, usually a Master's or PhD.
The entry requirements for a degree course in physics usually include five GCSEs (A-C) plus two or three A levels, including physics and maths. Please check with colleges or universities for exact entry requirements.
Training and Development
When you start work, your company would train you in IT developments, health and safety regulations, personal development and supervisory skills.
If you do not already hold a relevant postgraduate qualification, you may be encouraged to do a higher degree or take exams for membership of a professional body. To become a medical physicist, for example, you must complete an Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine (IPEM) accredited two-year programme, which combines studying for an MSc with on-the-job training. See the separate job profile for Medical Physicist.
As a physicist, it is important to keep up-to-date with developments in your specialist area throughout your career. You can do this by taking Continuing Professional Development (CPD), offered by professional organisations linked to your field. Professional bodies such as the Institute of Physics (IOP) provide advice, information and learning opportunities which can help towards CPD.
If you are an experienced physicist, you may be able to work towards Chartered Physicist (CPhys) or Chartered Scientist (CSci) status. Check the IOP and Science Council websites for more details.
The Pay (a rough guide)
Starting salaries can be between £21,000 and £25,000 a year.
Research physicists who have recently completed a PhD can earn between £24,000 and £35,000.
Average salaries for full-time higher education lecturers is around £40,000.
Senior physicists with project management duties can earn upwards of £45,000.
You would find employment opportunities in a wide range of industries including transport, aerospace, electronics, robotics, semiconductors, computing and power generation. You can also find work with government research establishments, the NHS, the National Radiological Protection Board, the Health and Safety Executive, and the Meteorological Office.
You will also find opportunities overseas as a qualified physicist, particularly in Europe and the United States.
The skills you use as a physicist are very transferable and would allow you to specialise in particular sectors, move into other fields of scientific investigation, such as nuclear medicine, or work as a consultant in industry, for instance in engineering.
You may be able to diversify your work into technical sales and marketing, the media, information science, patent work and education.
Useful research and science resources:
Institute of Physics
76 Portland Place
This page is for advice on physicist careers and training opportunities.