What is the role of a physicist?
Physicists explore how matter and energy interact in space and time. Their work enables the development of innovative technologies and solutions that can improve our lives and make it more comfortable.
From conducting research at a university or in the private sector to teaching at higher education institutions, physicists fulfil a variety of roles. They may produce reports for the organisation they work for or write articles and papers for academic journals.
Qualifying as a physicist
Your journey to becoming a physicist starts at secondary school. You’ll typically need to study science subjects like physics and chemistry at school, as well as maths.
As you would expect, you would need to pick physics as part of your post-16 options (be they A-levels, Scottish highers or an equivalent international qualification) if you want to pursue a career as a physicist. However, your other subject choices will depend on what aspect of physics you are interested in.
For instance, if you want to specialise in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning, you should consider computer science as one of your post-16 choices. On the other hand, you may want to pick geology alongside physics if you have an interest in physics.
A vocational qualification is also a great opportunity for you to learn more about the world of physics. Vocational courses like the BTEC in Applied Science aim to prepare students for science careers, by providing you with the practical skills that employers value. You'll also be assessed via coursework assignments, giving you one less exam to worry about.
The University pathway
On your undergraduate course you will gain a theoretical foundation of the subject through lectures. These will be accompanied by practical classes and lab sessions where you have the chance to apply the theories that you have learnt to solve problems and carry out experiments.
Having completed your undergraduate studies, you may wish to do a master's degree. This is a great way to specialise in an area of physics that you are particularly interested in.
Universities also offer Master of Physics (or MPhys for short) degrees that are more research-based. This option allows you to develop the skills you need to do a PhD.
If you choose to complete a PhD, you will pick a specific area of physics that you are passionate about. Then, you’ll carry out research by reviewing literature and doing your own experiments.
During your studies you may also want to apply to internship and work placement opportunities. This is a great way to add work experience onto your CV and gain an insight into what it is like working as a physicist in a real-life setting.
Obtaining your PhD will allow you to look for high-paying physicist positions in both the private and public sector. You may also choose to weigh up the possibility of staying at your university as a professor and continue doing academic research and teaching.
An alternative pathway
Doing a degree is not the only way to become a physicist. You could find an entry-level position in the field of your choice, and work your way up the ladder.
Or, you could complete a physics apprenticeship. Apprenticeships have a number of advantages, such as not having to pay for training, earning an income while studying, and gaining relevant work experience. One example of a physics apprenticeship is a research scientist degree apprenticeship.
This is a Level 7 qualification which takes around 30 months to finish. You complete it with a company or government agency and it permits you to study and work at the same time. Level 7 qualifications are equivalent to completing a master’s degree, so you’ll finish the course with a highly regarded qualification.
Acquiring the necessary skill-set
In addition to completing all the steps necessary to qualify as a physicist, you also need to develop a range of traits throughout your education that will help you succeed in your career.
In many respects, physics is closely linked to mathematics, meaning your numerical and statistical skills need to be up to scratch. The ability to be an effective problem-solver enables physicists to find solutions to the issues that arise in their work.
As you will be doing a lot of research, you will also need to be able to carry out experiments and investigate different theories independently.
The route to qualifying as a physicist will fly by if you are passionate about physics and you enjoy doing research.