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Career Profile: Working in Research and Development in the Private Sector

Working in private sector research & development at a glance

  • Education: A PhD in physics or a related field
  • Additional training: No additional, formal training needed
  • Salary: Starting salaries range from $80K - $100K, and mid-career salaries range from $160K - $180K.
  • Outlook: The private sector employs about half of PhDs and is the largest employment base.

What they do

A physicist in industry would spend most of their time working on a project in a team where they would be responsible for achieving specific goals of the project. Typical activities include:

  • Conducting research, either experimental or theoretical
  • Performing literature and patent searches
  • Discussing the research results with team members to ensure that their work is well aligned with the overall goals of the project
  • Writing patent disclosures and papers
  • Presenting research at conferences
  • Mentoring new employees or interns

Education & background

A PhD in physics or related fields is important in this career path. Programming skills and a basic understanding of things like cost benefit analysis, intellectual property laws, and ethics can also be helpful.

Unlike many academic positions, experience in postdoctoral appointments is not considered a prerequisite for jobs in most private sector companies.

Additional training

Internship and thesis advisors having contacts with the industry are very helpful in getting a research and development (R&D) job in a company. Making presentations at scientific conferences is also important; these presentations provide an opportunity to highlight communication skills and the quality of work of the prospective job seeker.

To be successful in this job track, one has to a good problem solver, be able to collaboratively work in multi- disciplinary teams and be a good communicator. Also, one has to be flexible in changing projects and be willing to learn about other fields. One defining characteristic of jobs in industry is that things move quickly; being able to work efficiently on projects and meet deadlines is key.

Also, understanding the difference between a CV and a resume, and being able to write a good resume, is very important for jobs in the private sector. For a good tutorial on the difference between CVs and resumes, and for advice on how to write a skills based resume suitable for private sector jobs, please watch our video tutorial.

Career path

There are two broad options for the career path in a big company. Some private sector physicists, after working for about five years or so as an individual contributor, will become more focused on the management path. As a manager, they would most of their time on project, resource and personnel management. High level management positions in companies carry among the highest salaries for physicists in the private sector.

Another path is to continue work as a researcher, thereby enhancing one’s skills in solving complex technical problems and establish oneself as an expert both within and outside the company. Physicists in this track would spend more time traveling to conferences and presenting their research than physicists working in managerial roles.


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