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In addition to a bachelors degree, experience with some experimental aspect of physics research is very important (e.g. summer research programs, REUs, etc). For more information on how to gain these types of experiences, please see our webinar on Finding an REU program below.
For BS level physicists at a national lab, strong technical skills are a must, as scientists at this level often function as the interface with engineering or in an engineering role themselves. Skills in electrical engineering, electronics, machining, and welding are valuable. These skills can usually be acquired in undergraduate physics departments which often have a machine shop which students can use, or in summer or vocational programs (for more information on finding REU programs, please see the webinar below). Strong computing skills are also very important in order to perform data analysis and data acquisition. Familiarity with computer programming can be gained through self-study or coursework.
Bachelors who have done research at a particular lab will be especially well prepared for permanent employment at that facility, since they will already have familiarity with its staff and resources, so interested students should seek opportunities to do research at a national research facility whenever possible. Furthermore, being an author or contributor to published research will make job seekers stand out from other applicants.
For a listing of research opportunities for physics bachelors at national labs, please visit our internships page.
Undergraduate Internships Page
There are typically two types of positions at national laboratories which are filled by physics bachelors. The first is a scientist role, the second is an technician/engineering type role.
Bachelors in Scientist Role
For bachelors who join the national lab in a scientist role, activities are actually very similar to that of an incoming PhD graduate. For example, bachelors in this role could be a principle investigator on projects with outside users, though these projects tend to be more focused on construction than on pure physics research than are common for their PhD holding counterparts. Advancement may come from authoring or contributing to scientific publications, bringing in research funding to the institution, and by gaining a reputation for being a good scientist among collaborators.
Bachelors who are employed in a technician/engineer type role will spend time working with investigators to ensure that equipment is working correctly, troubleshooting technical problems, training users on the proper use of equipment, and running simulations. Physics bachelors in these positions may remain in those position for quite some time. Advancement can be slow, because there is generally a limited number of people who can be promoted each year. For this track, the path to promotion is usually built on receiving positive work reviews from supervisors.
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 bring exposure to an array of cutting edge technologies. There are significant opportunities for travel and professional development, such as training in leadership skills.
APS Webinar: Finding Research Opportunities for Undergraduates
A bachelor's degree in physics or in a related field
BS level - prior research, e.g. REUs
Bachelor's Level Starting:
$35,000 - $57,000
About 10% of BS graduates find work in Nat'l Labs and Govt. Facilities.
Working as an electronics technician and an undergraduate researcher put Anthony on the path to a national lab.