BlogCareersWhat Does a Physicist Do?

What Does a Physicist Do?

So you love maths and think becoming a Physicist might be the right path for you?

This article will break down what a career as a physicist involves through the eyes of a professional in the field. It will include what a day in a physicist’s life looks like, the study path most recommended to get there, the work culture, and much more. 

Let’s dive into it!

Meet Tim Bedding
What is a Physicist?
Steps to Becoming a Physicist
Future Outlook
Best Thing & Worst Thing
Advice for Aspiring Physicists

Meet Tim Bedding

Tim is an astrophysics professor at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy (SIfA), in the School of Physics at the University of Sydney, where he has worked since 1995.

He’s played a leading role in establishing the field of asteroseismology, the study of stellar oscillations, discovering regular pulsations in delta Scuti stars using NASA’s TESS Mission, published in Nature, and the measuring using NASA’s Kepler Mission rotation inside red giant stars, published as a Letter to Nature.

How did you end up in this role? 

Tim ended up in this role via quite a ‘straight path’, he tells us. After completing his PhD, he managed to secure a job back at his university (the University of Sydney) as a lecturer.

He says that many people end up working in other parts of Australia or other countries due to the transferable nature of this career. Tim was also the Head of the School of Physics from 2012 to 2018. 

Studies and Experience 

Tim studied physics at the University of Sydney, where he completed his Bachelor’s degree and PhD. Following this, he travelled to Germany to complete a ‘post-op’ position, “a temporary position where you do research… it’s a very common thing to do,” he says. 

What made you want to work in this industry?

Originally from the UK, Tim says he was inspired as a teenager by Carl Sagan’s astronomy shows (such as Cosmos: A personal Voyage, 1980), and books he read.

Although Tim enrolled in a physics degree at university, he had no idea of the breadth of possibilities within the field until he began studying. He says he changed his area of specialisation within physics several times before settling on astrophysics, and that it’s important to keep your options open! 

What is a Physicist?

A physicist is a scientist specialising in physics, which involves, at a basic level, the study of interactions between matter, energy, forces, time, and fields in order to understand laws governing the behaviour of the universe.

Physicists work in a range of different industries to apply these laws, discover new information, and solve practical problems. They also often work at universities teaching alongside their research. 

Roles and Responsibilities 

The roles and responsibilities of a physicist are incredibly varied. Most physicists are required to problem-solve as a part of their career.

Often, this involves mathematical inquiry to develop techniques investigating physical things, such as matter and energy. You will also be required to experiment and test these methodologies through experiments in your role as a physicist, be it via satellites or lab tests.

Physicists must also be good communicators, as they will often collaborate with researchers all over the world; “science is done everywhere,” says Tim. Finally, all physicists should be good writers, as writing emails and reports is a key part of their research.

An average day in the life of a physicist will differ due to the diversity of fields their skills are useful in. Tim’s day is not clearly structured, he says, but usually involves university-level responsibilities.

He says he seldom gets a whole day to do research; a lot of it involves using computers, sitting with students working on projects, and staff meetings; “there is a stereotype [of a physicist] of Albert Einstein sitting with his theories,” he says, which is untrue. Parts of his research involve collaboration with people around the world, and writing research papers. 

Which industries can this career be found in?

Physicists can be found in many industries including Public Admin and Safety, Health Care and Social Assistance, Education and Training, and professional, scientific and technical services.

They may work as teachers or professors at academic institutions, in IT, government agencies, science organisations like the CSIRO, business and computing, and in finance, calculating hedge funds. “Physicists are clever and good at solving problems,” so their skills are often well in demand, suggests Tim. 

What jobs do people sometimes confuse this with? 

    • Physician: A physician, though similar-sounding to ‘physicist’, has quite a different job. Physician is a broad term for professionals who practice medicine. They may also be called medical practitioners or doctors
    • Physiologist: A physiologist, or physio, is someone who specialises in using exercise to benefit patients, usually in order to remedy muscle strain or other physical damage recovery. 

Characteristics and Qualities 

What Does a Physicist Do? - Characteristics

Being a physicist requires strong mathematics skills in order to solve important equations and problem-solve, no matter the area of physics you choose to enter.

Nonetheless, literacy and communication skills are almost equally as important, as physicists are required to write reports on their findings and often collaborate with other physicists. Similarly, many physicists who work in institutions like universities, or else teach at schools, will likely be required to communicate with students!

Below are just a few of the main skills and qualities recommended if you’re thinking of entering this career field. 

CharacteristicsTypes Required
SkillsMathematics, Science, Reading Comprehension, Active learning, Writing
AbilitiesOral Comprehension, Mathematics, Written comprehension, Oral expression, Working with numbers 
ActivitiesThinking creatively, Collecting and organising information, Making decisions and solving problems, Researching and investigating, Making sense of information and ideas

Steps to Becoming a Physicist

What should you study?

Anyone interested in becoming a physicist should study physics at University. Many unis will offer a Bachelor of Science undergraduate degree with Physics as a possible major (astrophysics, nanoscience, nanotechnology or photonics are also possible majors you could take to become a physicist).

A broad physics major allows you to keep your options open, and take subjects that tailor your degree to a certain area of physics e.g. astrophysics. 

Most physicists have a doctoral degree in physics; however, master’s degrees might qualify individuals for some positions with research and development firms, usually in the area of applied research for a health care or manufacturing firm. 

Finally, many aspiring physicists apply for post-doctoral fellowships, which enable fellows to conduct personal research with professional faculty guidance, after completing their PhDs, prior to beginning full-time careers as independent researchers.  

Learn more about the different unis that offer a Bachelor of Science:

 

How long does it take to become a physicist?

A Bachelor’s degree in Physics will take around 3 years, followed by 2 years of a master’s degree.

However, completing a PhD and broadening your job prospects significantly takes around 4 years more to complete. Finally, post-doctoral study usually takes 2-3 years. 

Industry Knowledge 

Much of a physicist’s equipment depends on their area of specialisation. Often, specific programs or equipment will be located in specialised labs.

For example, the new nano-science building at USYD has highly sophisticated equipment used for physics research, while other equipment may be more straight-forward, such as the use of telescopes to view space. Physicists often use computer languages like Python to analyse data, plot graphs, etc. 

What will this career look like in the future?

How in-demand is this career?

Physicists are in fairly high demand, with JobOutlook reporting moderate future growth. Despite the fact that the number of people working as Physicists (including Astronomers) in their main job fell over 5 years from 2011-2016, the looming prospect of climate change and need to find new sustainable solutions for energy demand the problem-solving expertise of physicists. 

Are there opportunities to grow or specialise? 

Prof. Tim Bedding says that most people studying physics specialise as they move forward in their degree and career. He recommends knowing more about a wider range of things whilst specialising in one of two things. 

In particular, it’s important to consider the work environment you desire as well; whether you’re someone who prefers to sit in a lab, or in front of a computer, or who prefers interacting more with people/alone. Some examples of specialisation include: 

    • Astrophysics 
    • Biotechnology 
    • Meteorology 
    • Nanotechnology 
    • Quantum dynamics 
    • Medical Physics 
    • Atomic and laser physics 
    • Aerospace dynamics 
    • Oceanic and planetary physics 
    • Climate science 

Salary

SalaryFuture GrowthSkill Level Rating
$108,000+Moderate over the next 5 yearsVery high skill

Influential Trends 

Tim says that areas of physics, particularly astrophysics, rely heavily on technology through the development of new telescopes, in which Australia plays a big part in the world.

Moreover, the climate crisis is also highly influential in the field of physics, particularly for physicists specialising in climate science, renewable energy, which will only continue to rise in coming years as new technological solutions are demanded. 

The Future of this Industry

It will always be there because physics is a fundamental science… There will always be a need to teach physics,” says Tim.

He adds that technological developments are constantly raising the bar of data that astrophysicists in particular have available to analyse and understand. “I think the future is very bright… we [Australia] punch well above our weight in it.” 

In addition, research into renewable energy in the field of physics is at the core of improving our production of energy, transmission, and use of energy. For example, Professor Anita Ho-Baillie at the University of Sydney has worked on improving the energy-capture efficiency of solar panels, so that more sunlight that hits them is converted into electricity (of which only a small amount is currently used).

Physics also aids society in our understanding of how climate change works — for example, the process of heat transfer to our globe’s oceans and polar ice caps. 

Finally, medical physics provides much room for growth in the future in the field of radiology as people live longer and longer, says Tim. “You need techniques to find tumours, to isolate them, and to target them with some sort of radiation… that’s physics.”  

Best Thing & Worst Thing

What do you enjoy most about this job?

I’m a people person, so I love the collaboration and the interaction with students at all levels and my colleagues… When you work in a university you’re with a lot of dedicated people who are smart, engaged and really keen. If you can find a workplace where people really care… and aren’t just turning up to get a paycheck, that’s what’s rewarding. I see my work not as work.” 

What do you feel is the worst part of this job?

“One of the things is the general bureaucracy working in an institution like a university… the other part is getting frustrated by things out of your control… and COVID is a massive one.” 

“It can often be frustrating [research] because you don’t know the answer and you can go down dead-ends. The main thing is everything takes longer and I’m an impatient person. I wish I could live for two-hundred years and see what happens next.” 

Advice for Aspiring Physicists

What do you wish you had known before you started working in this career?

Tim says that, more than anything, he wishes he knew everything about his career would “turn out alright”. Moreover, he says he wishes he’d known just how rewarding the teaching experience could be. 

“It also would’ve been good to know how important communication skills are. I enjoyed English at school… but most Science students don’t. It would’ve been good to know how important it would be to write well, and that I wasn’t wasting my time writing English essays.”

Why should people consider taking on this career?

What Does a Physicist Do? - Quote

He adds that it’s always important to keep your options open within the field of physics (or science). “Always learn as much as you can by reading outside of what you do at school.”

He recommends more accessible learning options, like the popular YouTube Channel ‘Veritasium’ created by Dr Derek Muller who actually studied Science at the University of Sydney, for students interested in the field.

Job Flexibility 

Most physicists have fairly flexible hours in terms of conducting independent research. Oftentimes, researching, data collection, and report-writing can be completed from anywhere, and is self-motivated.

Flexibility is also dependent on what position one holds; for example, as a University Professor Tim’s hours are less flexible due to class time and student guidance hours. 

What is the workplace culture like?

Although it is varied, Tim says the workplace culture of being a physicist is very positive. Because physics is not an easy field to enter into, those within it are extremely hardworking, passionate and dedicated.

In addition, physics requires a high level of collaboration both between colleagues in a single institution, such as a university, and between different institutions across the world, making communication and work relationships a very important part of the job!


Zara Zadro is a Content Writer for Art of Smart and a current undergraduate student at the University of Sydney. She studies a Bachelor of Arts/Advanced Studies majoring in Media & Communications and English. In her free time, she enjoys reading, listening to music and discovering new parts of Sydney. She has also written for the student publications Honi Soit and Vertigo. After she graduates, Zara hopes to do a Masters in creative writing and live overseas, which she cannot wait for!

 

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