Physicist in a Government Funded Laboratory
What They DoPhysics masters and PhDs working in national labs often find themselves managing resources and people, in addition to doing research. Activities of these physicists in national labs can include:
- Working to accomplish goals consistent with the laboratory's mission, often through developing a new simulation tool or component of a larger simulation effort, developing faster or more accurate numerical techniques, or developing improved diagnostic tools.
- Seeking clients and funding for research, either alone or with a team of other scientists. Clients are usually government agencies, (e.g. Dept. of Energy, Dept. of Defense).
- Researching issues of interest to clients. Research may be performed experimentally in a laboratory or through computer modeling and simulation. Research areas may be classified or sensitive.
- Traveling to test equipment at facilities which have better experimental capabilities than the home institution, or where the equipment can be developed more quickly, at less expense.
- Traveling to field sites to test equipment developed in a laboratory in an actual working environment.
- Interfacing with clients, laboratory staff, and management to report research progress and challenges.
- Developing designs with optimal program cost and schedule constraints.
- Performing personnel management (as principal investigator/lead scientist). Scientists often work with other professionals such as technicians and engineers to transition a laboratory prototype to field use.
- Representing the laboratory, client or project at conferences or other presentations (either public or client-sponsored meetings).
Education & Background
An MS or PhD in physics is required, generally in an experimental rather than theoretical field of study. The subject of the thesis is less important than a demonstration of a thorough understanding of the subject. A willingness to work on completely different physics is valued.
For experimental physicists, some technical skills are a plus. Hands-on experience with tools and with assembling relevant experimental setups allows scientists to work more efficiently with engineers and technicians, or to perform the engineering or technical work themselves. Many PhDs will find permanent employment in national labs after temporarily working as a postdoctoral researcher in that facility. For more information on these types of postdoc experiences, please see our Postdoctoral Research in National Laboratories page.
Postdoctoral Positions in National Laboratories (Coming Soon!)
Strong computing skills are necessary to perform data analysis and data acquisition. Some familiarity with computer programming is important, which can be gained through self-study or class work. Typically data is analyzed on laptops with commercial software (Excel, IDL, Matlab, etc.) so familiarity with these programs is also helpful.
The ability to interpret experimental results is essential at frequent internal meetings, at international conferences, and in peer-refereed journals. Publications are important for advancement and promotion especially from postdoc to staff level. Work that is classified or sensitive may be discussed in conferences with restricted attendance and in special journals with limited distribution.
Furthermore, having "soft" skills to work cooperatively with a team of project managers, experimentalists, theorists, applied mathematicians, and computer scientists is also important.
Most people begin this career path as a staff scientist at a national laboratory or a federally funded research research and development center. Generally the first year of laboratory employment is considered a probationary period, but there is no notion of tenure at the national laboratories.
To be successful, staff scientists would need to propose experiments and apply for client funding of research projects; promotions in this field are often tied to how much external funding is brought into the laboratory. Staff scientists attempt to bring in enough funding to cover the cost of their time, as well as the cost of several colleagues to assist them in completing the research, and any experimental equipment or technical support needed.
Scientific positions at the national laboratories offer an array of opportunities. The work can be very impactful because it is often used by people in field work, such as first responders and in government applications. Working in a classified environment can expose you to an array of cutting edge technologies. There are significant opportunities for travel and professional development, such as training in leadership skills.
AIP Statistical Research Center Graphs
Physics Doctorates Initial Employment and Salaries
Satisfaction of PhDs in Permanent Employment Across Sectors
MS or PhD in physics or in a related field
PhD - prior research or postdoctoral appointment
PhD starting salary:
$70,000 - $95,000
16% of initially permanently employed PhDs are in Nat'l Labs
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APS Webinar: Launching Your Postdoc Position