Physics as a Career Choice

“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful: he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living.”  ~Jules Henri Poincaré

For many scientists simple delight is the chief motivation, but as with any human endeavor, there are as many reasons for pursuing physics as there are physicists working. This page will help you learn about some of these motivations and begin to develop your own reasons for a career in physics. You might begin by meeting the people who do physics, or by exploring descriptions of physics, museums, histories of science, and physics on the web. Or you may prefer to see what the main branches of physics research are around the country as a way to organize your ideas about the field. As you become more informed you will be interested in the professional organizations that physicists form, the National Laboratories where many of the cooperative research projects get done, and other related organizations. You will also want to start thinking about graduate school and begin developing your taste for applications of physics in industry.

The People:

Many physicists were also Mathematicians.
Nobel laureates, meet those who have been awarded physics highest honor.
The contribution of women has been significant though underpublicized.

Exploring physics:

Perhaps the best hands-on museum in the nation is the Exploratorium in San Francisco.
There is an excellent Physics Museum at Oxford
Develop perspective by following links to the History of Physics.
Or start your own web search from The Internet Pilot TO Physics (TIPTOP)

Branches of physics:

Most graduate programs offer degrees in the following areas.
Each bulleted item links to a representative page at an American university. Similar pages exist at other universities in each topic area, the pages here are chosen for the scope of information provided on that research field. They present one perspective and should not be taken as the definitive description of that research area. For other perspectives you can visit a comprehensive list of graduate programs in the US. At each university you can search for a page on research interests for that department.

In practice most of these branches of physics employ both theorists and experimentalists. Occasionally an individual wears both hats.

Condensed Matter Physics
This is the study of matter when there are large numbers of particles in close proximity. Ordinary solids are the most common example. This research lead to the first transistor and to today’s high capacity storage media. But the field also includes many esoteric forms of matter, from Neutronium (the substance of neutron stars) to matter confined to one or two dimensions. Recent work has produced samples numbering in the tens of thousands of atoms that all behave according to a single wave function (the atoms have lost their individual identities). These collections are called Bose-Einstein Condensates (BEC) and form a new category of matter.
Atomic and Molecular Physics
Individual atoms or small groups of atoms are the focus in this field. Some researches use single trapped atoms to make extremely precise measurements to confirm theories about Quantum Mechanics or Relativity. Others are exploring the interaction between atoms (or molecules) or the interaction between light and atoms. Lasers and laser physics are an important part of this research area.
Nuclear Physics
As the name implies, this field examines the nucleus of the atom. While the composition of the nucleus is understood for all atoms and their isotopes, the arrangements and interactions of the nuclear constituents is still a rich field of study. Nuclear physics includes the fission and fusion reactions that provide nuclear power, as well as the nuclear synthesis process that fuels the sun and other stars.
High Energy Particle Physics
This is where the theories about the fundamental structure of nature are devised. They are then tested at high energy accelerator laboratories and in the study of cosmic rays. Theories about the smallest particles and the largest structures in our universe have become linked by the Big Bang Theory. Many High Energy Physicists also do work in Cosmology.
Mathematical Physics
Historically physics and mathematics grew up together, each field pushing the other into new realms. The mathematical physicist works on the border between math and physics to help us find a rigorous description of nature. Some of the most subtle and profound ideas in physics were created here.
Physics Education Research
This is a relatively new field in physics departments. The practitioners are physicists who observe students learning physics and examine the difficulties encountered. Their work is changing the face of the college physics course nationwide.
Interdisciplinary research
A growing number of departments support degree candidates who want to straddle two disciplines in their research. Here again your best search strategy is to visit the graduate programs, select a particular physics department, and search that site for research topics.

Physics Organizations, Research labs, or closely related links:

These sites have multiple pages with considerable content and many related links:
AAAS American Association for the Advancement of Science
AAS American Astronomical Society
AIP American Institute of Physics
APS American Physical Society
AAPT American Association of Physics Teachers
NAS National Academy of Sciences
NSF National Science Foundation

National Laboratories:
These sites focus on facilities and research problems. They also contain related links and cool pictures:
Brookhaven National Laboratory
Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility
Department of Energy
Fermi National Laboratory
Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Los Alamos National Laboratory
National Institute of Standards and Technology
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Sandia National Laboratory
Stanford Linear Accelerator Center

Related fields or professional societies:
Links and content. Some focused, some broad:
AMS The American Mathematical Society
Optical Society of America
Acoustical Society of America
American Crystallographic Association
American Astronomical Society
American Association of Physicists in Medicine
American Geophysical Union
STSI The Hubbell Space Telescope Science Institute
NASA National Aeronautics and Space Administration
The LIGO Project
American Institute of Physics Affiliated Societies
PSRC Physical Sciences Resource Center

Graduate School:

List of Graduate Programs in the United States
Career planning, or a report on graduate programs from NAS.
Search on departments in other countries

Physics at Work:

This list is not comprehensive. Links are added as we become aware of them.
General Atomics Fusion Group Educational Home Page
Malin Space Science Systems

Some professions that require a strong physics background:

Aeronautics Engineers
Astronautics Engineers
Atmospheric Scientist
Atomic Physicists
Ceramic Engineers
Chemical Engineers
Civil Engineers
Computer Scientists
Condensed Matter Physicists
Electrical Engineers
Environmental Engineers
Forensic scientist
High Energy Physicists
Industrial Physicist
Materials Scientist
Mathematical Physicists
Mechanical Engineers
Medical Ph.D.
Nuclear Physicists
Physician (doctor)
Power Engineers
Reactor operator
Research Scientist
Science Writer
Solar physicist
Solid State Physicists
Space physicist
Teaching Physicists
Theoretical Physicists

Last Updated February 11, 2018