Do you fancy developing a career in one of the most exciting areas of modern science? Would you like to spend your time at work trying to find answers to some of the great unknown questions? What is dark matter? How many dimensions are there? How will the universe end? Is our universe unique?
Well then, it’s probably about time you found out about the professional life of a particle physicist.
If you become a particle physicist, you will spend your life conducting research into the particles and forces that shape the natural world. Whether you’re lecturing at a higher education institution in the UK or carrying out groundbreaking investigations at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, you will dedicate your career to research and development.
Particle physicists tend to choose one of two main career paths: experimental particle physics, and theoretical particle physics.
Experimental particle physicists design and build the expensive experiments which are used to discover new particles beyond the Standard Model, such as neutrinos and the Higgs boson. They conduct experiments, e.g. particle collisions, and then analyse the enormous quantities of resulting data.
These guys are also responsible for designing and developing the state-of-the-art technology required for modern experiments, such as sensors, detectors and superconducting magnets.
They do this using computer simulation software and laboratory testing methods. Furthermore, they oversee the construction of experimental facilities and the installation of sensors and detectors.
Once the experiments are operational, experimental particle physicists focus their efforts on the complicated day-to-day operation of particle accelerators and other equipment, ensuring that scientific goals are met and safety is maintained.
Theoretical particle physicists are the clever people who develop the advanced mathematical quantum theories which underpin the observed physics. Sometimes, these theories are developed based on the observations made by the experimental physicists and are conceptualised in an attempt to understand the observed data.
These theories are then extended to the point of predicting new phenomena, bringing it back round to the experimentalists, who subsequently design new experiments to test these extended theories.
These guys use computational and ‘pen-on-paper’ mathematics to develop theories, as well as using physical insight. They then attempt to verify these theories using a combination of mathematical proof and experimental data.
Salary & benefits
Particle physicists in the early stages of their career tend to earn between £21,000 and £35,000 per annum. However, as you gain more experience and professional expertise, your salary could increase to anywhere between £35,000 and £75,000.
The earnings of many particle physicists, however, who are engaged in academic research activities are usually dependent on the availability of public and private grants or other sources of funding.
Working hours vary from employer to employer, but usually range between 35 and 40 hours per week. Occasionally, you may be required to put in an extra shift or two during weekends and national holidays in order to meet research deadlines.
Opportunities for travel across the UK and overseas may be extensive. However, this depends on your area of specialisation and your reputation within the research fraternity.
To enter this profession, it’s absolutely essential that you complete an undergraduate degree in a physics or mathematics-related discipline. The majority of particle physicists, however, complete a relevant MSc or PhD before securing a research position.
Training & progression
If you take the academic route, you will probably start your career with a PhD under your belt already. Consequently, in order to improve your skill-set further, you will focus your efforts on gaining as much hands-on research experience as possible, or by taking very niche academic courses offered by relevant professional bodies.
Some research institutes may provide structured training and development programmes, which will usually involve learning ‘on-the-job’ and attending in-house training sessions from time to time. These organisations may also sponsor you to complete relevant professional courses.
Many particle physicists have the opportunity to work abroad at some point in their careers, either permanently or on a short-term basis. Indeed, the world’s major particle accelerators are based outside of the UK.
For example, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is based in Geneva, Switzerland, while the Hadron Elektron Ring Anlage at DESY is based in Hamburg, Germany and the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider is based at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, USA.
As you progress, you may choose to specialise further and work as a senior research scientist in a particularly niche area of particle physics.
Alternatively, you may take a step back from the hands-on, technical side of research projects and become a project manager. Here, the financial rewards will be significant, but it will mean moving further and further away from pure science.
Essentially, academic research scientists are the masters of their own destiny. Promotion into more senior positions (e.g. lecturer or professor) is entirely dependent on the success of your research projects and your academic reputation.