So You Want to be a Physicist?
So you want to be a physicist? That’s a brave choice! But is it actually a good one? In this post we take a deep look at the field of physics as a career choice and try to answer all the “what” “when” and “how” questions that are usually asked by young students. For useful links and other good stuff, check out the bottom of the post.
Why Be a Physicist?
Since you already found this page there’s a good change that you already have a good reason to be interested in physics, but just in case you need some extra motivation, here are some amazing reasons to study physics. First and foremost, science is breath-taking. Some of the most wonderful achievements of our society were done by scientists. Take the moon landings or the measurements of the age and the size of the universe as a few examples. It also doesn’t take a genius to notice that one of the cornerstones of modern society is technological advancement, which of course is not possible without the hard work of scientists.
Having said that, there are more practical reasons to choose a career in physics. Physicists obtain a wide technical education, which is well appreciated in the academia and many industries. Just as an example, a person with a BsC in physics will most likely know at least a few programming languages and will be exceptionally educated in mathematics as well as knowing the basics of engineering and electronics . All of this is, of course, even more true for a person with a PhD. Finally, believe it or not, science is one of those fields that are expected to grow exponentially in popularity and employability in the near future due to the rapid growth of science and IT industries.
How to Become a Physicist?
If you haven’t lost all your interest with all that romanticised version of what science is all about, let’s talk all about the “how”. If you want to work in the academia and fancy being a lecturer and a researcher, a PhD is a must. The reason for this is that in order to do research, a vast knowledge base is needed.
Of course, the first steps towards a career in science begin with a bachelor’s degree. A degree in physics usually requires great grades in physics and mathematics. If you plan on studying in a foreign institution, which these days is a very popular choice, a great knowledge of English is a great advantages as well. In addition, the earlier you start programming the better.
A general advice for those, who are still in high school would be to study as much math as possible and, of course, read a lot. The first few years of university will be all about calculus so be sure to get a good grasp on that. In addition, reading some classics of physics, such as anything by Feynman is a good start as well. Some often recommended books for pre-college students are these:
- The Principles of Physics by Halliday and Resnick: this is one of the most popular college textbooks. If you can get your hands on it, it’s a good chance to get a head start. Requires a good knowledge of calculus.
- Feynman Lectures on Physics: another classic book focusing on the basics of college physics. Easy to read, however, a bit weak in the problem solving department.
- Understanding Physics by Isaac Asimov: not very mathematical, more like a novel telling the story of physics and exploring the mindset of a scientist.
- Surely You Are Joking Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman: it’s probably not possible to be a physicist and not to like Mr. Feynman. This book is not really about physics, but rather about the great scientist himself.
- Great Physicists by William H. Cropper: in order to be a great physicist one day a student firstly has to study the works of the great physicists themselves.
- How to Become a Good Theoretical Physicist: an extra link for more advanced resources collected by the Nobel prize laureate Gerard’t Hooft.
For everything else, check out our free book list.
So, say you finish high school, celebrate prom in all its glory, and get that diploma. What’s next? Getting into a good university would be a good idea. There are a few yearly university ranking lists that are worth to check out (Times Higher Education, Shanghai Rankings, QS World Rankings). Just by looking at these lists it becomes clear that most of the top universities happen to be in the US and UK, while Germany, Asutralia and Netherlands are not far behind. In fact, here’s a graph summing up the whole situation quite nicely:
Obviously this doesn’t mean that there aren’t good universities in other countries. Simply, if you plan studying abroad, this information can be of use.
Another important thing to note is that many universities these days offer a choice of studying a certain sub-field of physics, say, astrophysics, mathematical physics etc. Thus, it is a good idea to know in advance, which part of physics interests you mostly.
The last step towards the start of a career in the academia is, of course, obtaining a PhD. This usually takes 3.5 – 4 years, depending on the country, and focuses on research. Getting a funded PhD position requires good grades, however, having experience in research (a summer project for example) or certain technical skills are also a great advantage.
After obtaining a degree in physics one can then continue his career in academia and find a postdoc position or find a job in a variety of industries.
What Can You Do With a Degree in Physics?
So given that we’ve already more or less covered the academia path, let’s look at some other careers where you could put your physics knowledge to good use. The chart below shows the typical career paths taken by physics graduates (see the full study by the IOP here). As we can see the majority of graduates are employed outside the academia, however, the number of those doing PhD’s are not far off.
Typical career paths of physics graduates (BsC) (image from a study by the IOP)
But what are the most popular jobs among physics graduates? The chart below shows typical career choices for those with a masters degree in physics.
Industries chosen by physics graduates (IOP)
As we can see, those a degree in physics offers a wide variety of careers, most of which are rather well paid. Additionally, the growing IT, electronics and science industries offer great career prospects for scientists. Last, but not least, what about the money matters? How much does a typical physicist gets paid? The same report by the IOP offers the numbers for the most popular sectors for both male and female graduates.
Salaries of physics graduates one year after graduation (IOP)
Hopefully these answers will help you out when choosing a career. For more information and guidance visit these useful links: