How to become a Physicist

Physicists study the behaviour of the physical world at the most basic level and find practical ways to apply new knowledge gained from their research in areas of science and technology. Physicists are usually identified within three broad roles: • theoretical physicists, who develop theories or models of how particular aspects of the world work • experimental physicists, who test these theories, determining their limits and suggesting new approaches to them • applied physicists, who apply these findings in practical settings, such as within industry and through the introduction of new technology. There is interaction between all three roles and physicists generally have skills in each of these areas.

Personal requirements of a Physicist

  • Aptitude for analysis and problem-solving
  • Enthusiasm for research
  • Aptitude for mathematics and computing
  • Able to visualise and explain ideas clearly
  • Able to work independently or as part of a team

Education & Training for a Physicist

To become a physicist you usually have to complete a degree in science or applied science at university with a major in physics, astrophysics, nanoscience, nanotechnology or photonics. To get into these courses you usually need to gain your Senior Secondary Certificate of Education. Prerequisite subjects, or assumed knowledge, in one or more of English, mathematics, biology, chemistry, earth and environmental science and physics are normally required. Most universities in Australia offer degrees in these areas. Universities have different prerequisites and some have flexible entry requirements or offer external study. Contact the institutions you are interested in for more information. For full details, refer to the entries on the website at www.goodcareersguide.com.au or university handbooks.

Duties & Tasks of a Physicist

Physicists may perform the following tasks:

  • observe and measure phenomena in the physical world, from the smallest subatomic particle through to the universe as a whole
  • propose theories and models to explain phenomena
  • use computers to explore the consequences of theories and models
  • build equipment to make new types of measurements, which in many cases have never been attempted before
  • create new ways of understanding observations that have been made
  • develop new materials, products and processes for use in industry, medicine, defence and other areas of research and development.

Employment Opportunities for a Physicist

Physicists are employed in universities, laboratories and government organisations such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), Australian Antarctic Division and Bureau of Meteorology (BOM). Physicists also work in private industry, hospitals, schools and small high-tech companies. They may work as research scientists, medical and health physicists, meteorologists, technologists, scientific programmers, technical salespeople, geophysicists, technical managers, health scientists and teachers. They may also be employed in areas where they are responsible for sophisticated equipment, such as bioscience and space science, or in areas such as paper manufacturing or minerals exploration, or high-tech equipment sales. Many physicists hold an honours or higher research degree, such as a PhD, and employment and promotional opportunities often depend on the qualification gained. Research positions are highly sought after and a PhD obtained by research in a branch of physics is usually required for these jobs. Much of physicists’ training is concerned with the development of advanced skills in analytical and problem-solving techniques, which are valuable in many other fields of employment, including management and administration, financial modelling, instrumentation, industrial research and development, and modelling in other scientific fields. Demand for physicists is influenced by the level of government and private sector funding for research and development.

Specialisations:


Astrophysicist

An astrophysicist studies the characteristics of the solar system, stars and galaxies, as well as the universe as a whole. See the separate entry for Astronomer for more information.


Atmospheric and Environmental Physicist

An atmospheric and environmental physicist studies how our environment works and how various aspects of the environment interact.


Atomic and Molecular Physicist

An atomic and molecular physicist studies the behaviour and structure of atoms and molecules.


Condensed Matter Physicist

A condensed matter physicist studies the properties and behaviour of condensed matter (solid state) under many conditions, often in the development of new devices for computers and consumer products.


Cosmologist

A cosmologist studies the characteristics and development of the universe as a whole.


Medical Physicist

A medical physicist studies the practical applications of physics in hospitals, and develops and monitors radiation safety limits in workplaces. Medical physicists also develop and operate medical radiation therapy equipment.


Nanotechnologist

A nanotechnologist designs and manipulates structures at the atomic and subatomic level to create materials and devices of increased durability and efficiency. Nanotechnologists use a combination of techniques from across the sciences, including physics, chemistry, biosciences, material science and engineering.


Nuclear/Particle Physicist

A nuclear/particle physicist studies the structure of the nuclei of atoms and the particles that make up those nuclei.


Optical Physicist

An optical physicist investigates the properties and behaviour of light in order to develop or refine devices such as lasers and optical fibre components for applications such as photonic communications. Physicists may also work in many other areas, including acoustics, biophysics, thermal physics, geophysics and teaching.

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