Physicists explore and identify basic principles and laws governing the motion, energy, structure, and interactions of matter



Some physicists study theoretical areas, such as the nature of time and the origin of the universe; others apply their knowledge of physics to practical areas, such as the development of advanced materials, electronic and optical devices, and medical equipment.

Physicists design and perform experiments with high-tech equipment, such as lasers, particle accelerators, electron microscopes, and mass spectrometers. On the basis of their observations and analysis, they attempt to discover and explain laws describing the forces of nature, such as gravity, electromagnetism, and nuclear interactions. Experiments also help physicists find ways to apply physical laws and theories to problems in nuclear energy, electronics, optics, materials, communications, aerospace technology, and medical instrumentation.

Most physicists work in research and development (R&D). While some do basic research to increase scientific knowledge, others conduct applied research to build upon the discoveries made through basic research, and work to develop new devices, products, and processes. For example, basic research in solid-state physics led to the development of transistors and, then, to integrated circuits used in computers.

Physicists also design research equipment, which can often even lead to additional, unexpected uses. For example, lasers are used in surgery, microwave devices function in ovens, and measuring instruments can analyze blood or the chemical content of foods.

A small number of physicists work in inspection, testing, quality control, and other production-related industrial jobs.

Much physics research is done in small or medium-sized laboratories. However, experiments in plasma, nuclear, and high-energy physics, as well as in some other areas of physics, require extremely large, expensive equipment, such as particle accelerators. Physicists in these sub-fields often work in large teams. Although physics research may require extensive experimentation in laboratories, research physicists still spend a lot of time in offices, planning, recording, analyzing, and reporting on research.


Physicists generally specialize in one of many sub-fields:

  • Elementary particle physics
  • Nuclear physics
  • Atomic and molecular physics
  • Condensed matter physics (solid-state physics)
  • Optics
  • Acoustics
  • Space physics
  • Plasma physics
  • Physics of fluids


Companies that Hire Physicists

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Northrop Grumman



Educational Requirements

Because most jobs are in basic research and development, a doctoral degree is the usual educational requirement for physicists. Those with master’s degrees qualify for some jobs in applied research and development; whereas those with bachelor’s degrees often qualify as research assistants or for other occupations related to physics.


Median Salary 2012



Want to know more?


Bureau of Labor Statistics-Physicists and Astronomers

Science Buddies-Physicists


Get Connected

Belonging to professional organizations & LinkedIn groups can provide you with networking, informational interviewing, & job shadowing opportunities, as well as assist you with finding internships and jobs.

American Institute of Physics

American Physical Society

List of Professional Organizations

The Career Connector for Purdue College of Science Students & Alumni


Get Experience

Research & Internship Listings


Find a Job

Job Search Sites Related to Your Major      


Information retrieved from,,

Purdue University College of Science, 150 N. University St, West Lafayette, IN 47907 • Phone: (765) 494-1729, Fax: (765) 494-1736

Student Advising Office: (765) 494-1771, Fax: (765) 496-3015 • Science IT, (765) 494-4488

© 2015 Purdue University | An equal access/equal opportunity university | Copyright Complaints

Trouble with this page? Disability-related accessibility issue? Please contact the College of Science Webmaster.