Physics is the study of matter and energy, and it affects almost every aspect of modern life. Modern technology owes much to the understanding and development of the subject, and physicists are involved in many different areas of work, including:
Electronics - working in computer science and communications, developing mobile phone technology and image processing.
Energy - whether from solar, tidal, wind, coal, gas, oil or nuclear sources, physicists work on improving energy efficiency and protecting the environment.
Space - researching other planets, building and launching satellites, and improving weather forecasting.
Transport - physicists study and improve the performance of cars, trains and aeroplanes, researching and developing lighter, stronger and safer vehicles.
Medical - working in areas such as biotherapy, laser surgery and radiotherapy.
Defence - designing and implementing new weapons systems and technology.
Materials - developing new materials for industrial use, such as building aircraft wings with a special aluminium fibre combination to make them nearly immune to metal fatigue.
The work can involve designing and conducting experiments, simulating real-life problems and conditions in laboratories or making a series of observations. Physicists write up their work in reports and scientific papers. They may have to supervise the work of support staff, and usually have administrative or teaching duties. A lot of the work involves the use of computers.
Many physicists work in teams with other scientists, including chemists, materials scientists, geologists, computer systems analysts, engineers and technicians.
Most physicists work 37 hours a week, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They often work additional hours during evenings and weekends. In jobs that provide a 24-hour service, such as in the NHS, physicists may be on call or work shifts, including nights.
Physicists may work in a laboratory, workshop, office or factory, or out in the field collecting and analysing data. They usually spend a lot of time working at computers. In some jobs, they may work with hazardous substances or emissions. They may need to sit or stand at a bench or piece of equipment for long periods of time.
Physicists may sometimes travel to scientific meetings and conferences. They may spend some time working abroad.
Starting salaries may be around £19,000 a year.
There is a wide range of opportunities for physicists, and they work in many different sectors throughout the UK. Job areas include:
Research and development - working for government research establishments, particularly the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and Science and Technology Facilities Council, and other research organisations.
Scientific analysis and investigation - working for hospitals and government laboratories, in industry and the field of meteorology, and with computer technology.
Process and production - being employed by manufacturing and production companies, from aerospace to food and drink businesses.
Education and the media - working for schools, colleges, universities, media companies and museums.
Positions for physicists are advertised in professional journals such as New Scientist and on specialist science recruitment websites.
Most physicists are graduates. A degree, and sometimes a postgraduate qualification, is essential for most jobs. Increasingly, they also need to gain relevant work experience through volunteer work or paid placements before applying for their first job.
Entry requirements for a degree course vary, but applicants usually need at least two A levels, including physics and maths, or the equivalent qualifications. They also need five GCSE's (A-C), including science, English and maths, or equivalent qualifications. Entry requirements may vary, so candidates should check with individual institutions.
It may be possible for school leavers to work as laboratory technicians. This is likely to involve carrying out tests and assisting with experiments. In practice, most technicians have physics A level, or equivalent qualifications. Some have degrees. However, candidates with a minimum of four GCSE's (A-C) may be able to enter this work through an Apprenticeship.
Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.
Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at www.apprenticeships.org.uk.
There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
All physicists and technicians receive regular on-the-job training in order to learn new techniques and keep up to date with advances in their field. Where relevant, they are also likely to receive training to do with their management or supervisory responsibilities.
Physicists may be required or choose to study for postgraduate qualifications, or take exams for membership of a professional body. For example, a medical physicist in the NHS is required to work towards the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine Diploma.
A Diploma will help you make a more informed choice about the type of learning that best suits you and about what kind of work or further study you may want to do afterwards.
Technicians may study for NVQ's at Levels 2 to 4 in Laboratory and Associated Technical Activities, or relevant HNC's/HND's and degrees. They may also study for the examinations of the Institute of Science Technology.
Laboratory technicians carry out routine laboratory tests and perform a variety of technical support functions to help scientists, technologists and others with their work. They can work in research and development, scientific analysis and testing, education and manufacturing.
They are employed in a wide range of scientific fields which affect almost every aspect of our lives.
As physicists progress in their careers they may take on supervisory and management responsibilities. They may have to relocate or change employers in order to progress.
In industry, scientists may become more involved in the commercial aspects of their company's work.
In universities, hospitals and research institutes, senior scientists manage teams of research and technical staff.
There may be opportunities to work overseas.
British National Space Centre,
Kingsgate House, 66-74 Victoria Street,
London SW1E 6SW
Tel: 020 7215 0807
Engineering and Physical Sciences
Research Council (EPSRC)
Tel: 01793 444100
Engineering and Technology Board.
Institute of Physics (IOP),
76 Portland Place, London W1B 1NT
Tel: 020 7470 4800
Institute of Science Technology,
Kingfisher House, 90 Rockingham Street,
Sheffield S1 4EB
0114 276 3197
NHS Careers, PO Box 2311, Bristol BS2 2ZX
Tel: 0845 606 0655
Royal Astronomical Society,
Burlington House, Piccadilly,
London W1J 0BQ
Tel: 020 7734 4582
Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC),
Polaris House, North Star Avenue,
Swindon SN2 1SZ
Tel: 01793 442000
The Science Council,
32-36 Loman Street, Southwark,
London SE1 0EH
Tel: 020 7922 7888
SEMTA (Science, Engineering and
Manufacturing Technologies Alliance),
14 Upton Road, Watford WD18 0JT
Tel: 0800 282167
Women Into Science,
Engineering and Construction (WISE),
2nd Floor, Weston House,
246 High Holborn, London WC1V 7EX
Tel: 020 3206 0408
Additional resources for job seekers and those already in a job.