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What is a Physicist?

By Carol Francois
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A physicist is someone who studies or completes research into physics. There are many subsets of physics, ranging from very small particle physics to very large cosmology, or study of the universe. There are a wide number of physics courses and majors available. These courses are available at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels.

There are three items required to become a physicist: post-secondary education, graduate studies, and working experiences as a physicist. The extent of education and experience that you require depends on your career plans and path. Physics courses at the high school level focus on rudimentary learning of complex concepts, such as motion, light, sound and waves. It is not uncommon for a physicist to only discover their interest in this field while in university.

At the undergraduate level, the courses highlight the discoveries and insights gained from the great thinkers in science. Theories on light, sound, gravity, and mechanics have had a huge impact on our everyday lives. Some of the other courses available include optics, nuclear and particle physics. Physics students take courses in advanced mathematics and computer science.

Students with an aptitude for physics specialize at the master degree level. There is a wide range of subjects students can select, ranging from nuclear physics to geophysics. Doctoral program focus solely on the area of specialty.

There are a large number of research projects and opportunities in physics. Physics programs provide a rare opportunity for undergraduate students to complete unique research and have their work published in academic journals. The vast majority of fields do not provide this opportunity until the doctoral degree level. Physicists typically find work in one of three different sectors: government agencies, private firms, and universities. Within these three sectors, the work is divided between research and product development.

Government agencies offer many opportunities to work on both the application of existing technology and research projects. Jobs within the space and defense departments are well paid and provide an opportunity to combine research and development across a wide range of areas. The physical location options are somewhat limited, as these positions are usually in university or research focused cities.

The private sector employs physicists in engineering services firms and manufacturing. The opportunities to practice physics in the private sector are somewhat limited, due to the expense of the equipment required for long-term research projects. However, many people with physics training go onto careers in law, medicine, and computer science.

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Discussion Comments

By anon255689 — On Mar 19, 2012

I think that this was very well written and just one more thing needs to be added. My students are asking me what a physicist needs to do research? So I would rate this eight out of ten and my students are very interested!

By seHiro — On Jun 09, 2011

Who hires physicists? I mean, I know they probably work for the government, but I doubt government work is all that they do. Where does one go to seek physicist employment?

I think I would really enjoy this kind of job. I love math, I adore science, and I don't care if that makes me seem like a nerd to anybody -- this kind of stuff is my life. I'm considering going to college to become a physicist, but then I have to decide which kind.

I wonder if different kinds of physics are more fun than other kinds? I mean, I can see myself loving particle physics, but I could just as easily have a ball with studying the way the universe is put together by doing astrophysics, or helping to improve power production and maybe even weapons with nuclear physics.

People assume that everybody will just gravitate toward a particular kind of work automatically, but honestly and truly, I would have trouble picking. Can you be all of them? LOL.

By malmal — On Jun 08, 2011

@drtroubles - Hmm...the problem with reading books written by physicists is that they tend to write them for other physicists to read. That means they're talking on the same scientific level, which sadly would seem like gibberish to me just like it did to you.

For something in layman's terms that still discusses what physics has done for mankind in a fun, readable format, I suggest that you stop looking for a list of physicists that write books in layman's terms and go for books that focus on writing in layman's terms.

My personal favorite series is the "Idiot's Guide" series, which despite the title is meant for people who want to learn things in layman's terms, not just for idiots. This series is similar to the "For Dummies" titles, only the "Idiot's Guide" series feels more reader-friendly and always has great information.

I'll bet "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Physics" would have lots of fascinating information about what physics does for people and how physics has helped to shape our technology, without getting so technical that it's hard to understand.

Last but not least, the "Idiot's Guide" series consults with people in the field the book's subject is talking about -- so if you check the author section and the back, there should be the name of one or more real physicists who helped give information to make sure the book is accurate. Hope this helps!

By aishia — On Jun 07, 2011

@lonelygod - While I'm the first person to advocate use of technology to acquire knowledge, I think if physics interests somebody then the best thing they can do to see if they'll enjoy that job or not is to take a class in it.

Watching somebody else do lectures and looking at their notes can give the false impression that things are easier than they really are, or that it's a flashy profession because the person doing the lecture has so many people in the audience.

Generally science and physics aren't really glamorous fields; researchers are the kind of behind the scenes workers who rarely get credit for what they do unless they make some groundbreaking discovery that secures them a place in history. Of course, going down in history for your work as one of the physicists famous for, say, helping mankind travel into outer space wouldn't be too shabby a life's pursuit!

I still think the best way to experience how getting there would feel is to just take a class. Physics takes a lot of math and number-crunching, and unfortunately that seems to be a subject people hate more often than one that they love. I'll bet the math alone would scare most people away from this kind of job.

By ahain — On Jun 05, 2011

I think out of the physicist jobs available out there, theoretical astrophysicist sounds like the most fun. For this kind of work, you basically use all existing physics knowledge to help you theorize what the most reasonable and scientifically viable next step in physics research would be. You also work on solving puzzles that no physicist has solved yet.

This job sounds so fascinating, and from what I understand, it involves a lot of examining what we consider reality, as well as working with research about outer space and planets.

I took an astronomy class once that was just packed with theoretical astrophysics. It doesn't take long to realize that most of what we "know" about how planets are formed, how bright stars are, how big or how far away various heavenly bodies are outside of our own solar system, are all theoretical astrophysics.

Why? Because we haven't ever traveled there to see for ourselves, at this point all we can do is use what we know of science and math and physics to make educated guesses on things. Theories.

The good news if you're a theoretical astrophysicist is that you'll probably be provided with new information as soon as scientists learn it so that you'll know everything when making your theories on what comes next.

By drtroubles — On Jun 05, 2011

Can anyone recommend a good book written by a physicist that explores some of the technology we have created with modern physics?

I am interested in scientific advances and would like a book that is geared to someone with more of a layman's interest, rather than something written for a physics student.

I picked up one book and for the life of me, couldn't understand half of what was talked about. I am not keen on the intricacies of the formulas they use, but more the results and how those creations affect our world. My interest is purely from curiosity and I don’t want to spend a ton of time learning the mechanics of physics.

By lonelygod — On Jun 05, 2011

If you are interested in physics and the work that physicists do, but are not interested in taking advanced classes (or any real classes for that matter), there are several free online beginner classes in physics. These are offered from many schools in the open-university format.

Some of the most popular classes allow you to watch entire university lectures, and provide all of the notes. Having access to a physicist in your own home is a pretty impressive use of technology if you ask me.

I think that if physics peeks your interest, you should go check out the free online lessons and learn a bit more yourself.

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