If you become a physicist, you will spend your life conducting scientific research into the structures, forces and phenomena that shape the natural world.
Physicists tend to specialise in one niche area, such as particle physics, quantum mechanics, astrophysics, geophysics, biophysics, nanophysics, condensed matter physics or atomic physics.
A career in academia is the most common route for physicists. This allows scientists the greatest flexibility and control over their research, and often is the only way to develop a career which focuses on the fundamental areas of physics.
If you take the academic route, you will spend your professional life conducting research, writing research papers, lecturing students and presenting your research findings at academic conferences around the world.
If academia doesn’t float your boat, however, you can always apply your scientific knowledge and advanced analytical skills to a range of different professional fields, such as research and development, engineering, computer science and electronics.
Indeed, a physicist’s expertise can be harnessed to aid the research, design and development of groundbreaking technology, such as carbon nanotubes, semiconductors, spacecraft, submarines and metamaterials.
Salary & benefits
A physicist in the early stages of their career will usually 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.
Many physicists 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 physicists, however, will also 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. 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 taking very niche academic courses offered by relevant professional bodies.
Opportunities for promotion into senior academic positions (e.g. lecturer or professor) are entirely dependent on the success of your research projects and your academic reputation.
Some professional research organisations 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.
As you progress, you may choose to 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.