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Physicists in academia wear many hats, often at the same time. Most academics spend time doing the following:
Another academic career is to work within teaching and learning centers, which employ faculty or staff. Academics in teaching and learning centers spend their time:
The path begins with a Bachelor's and Master’s or PhD in physics or a closely related discipline like engineering or mathematics, with a major emphasis in physics. For those pursuing careers in education, graduate work in physics education research (PER) within a School of Education, an interdisciplinary science education PhD program, or a physics department is appropriate.
While working on a PhD—which can take between four to ten years—students build the foundation for their careers, including the basic physics knowledge and important technical skills needed to succeed. Students will also publish the research they conducted with their advisors.
After graduation, the next step is usually a postdoctoral position (or two) in a research laboratory (academic, government, or corporate) that lasts two to three years. Here, postdocs take more responsibility for the direction and publication of their research.
Few people remain in the same sub-field, and this is a good time to branch out and seek new knowledge and skills. The postdoctoral phase can last longer in order to accumulate the expertise and publications needed to move on. A postdoctoral position in education research may be appropriate for those seeking a career in education or education research (inside or outside academia). Note that it is not uncommon to take a postdoctoral position in physics education research (PER) after a graduate program in another subfield of physics.
Traditionally, graduate school and postdocs focus almost exclusively on research, but the savvy modern physicist who aspires to an academic career must seek opportunities to teach physics and learn about science education. Examples include teaching assistantships, attending teaching seminars and workshops as a student, and co-teaching as a postdoc. For those expecting to focus primarily on teaching, a sabbatical replacement or other temporary instructional position is an alternative to the research postdoc route.
Physicists in academia typically start as an assistant professor at an academic institution, either at a Doctoral/Research University (which tend to have more of a research focus), or a Baccalaureate-Granting Institution (which tend to have a greater focus on teaching). At research universities, expectations for research, publications, and external funding are higher than at liberal arts colleges. The assistant professorship phase may last five to six years.
Assistant Professors (APs) must demonstrate excellent teaching, research, and service to the institution. The institution will provide the environment necessary for success—space, equipment, physical and administrative infrastructure, mentors—while the AP will focus on generating ideas and bringing them to fruition in their research and in the classroom.
After five to six years and a very rigorous external and internal review, indefinite tenure may be awarded. Tenure carries the prize of freedom to pursue a physics career forever with a degree of independence unattainable in virtually any other setting. It also carries responsibility to work even harder to keep research current and vibrant, and to take on leadership roles. Pay may be much lower for tenure-track physics professors as compared to those working in industry or the government. You will work with young people and with cutting edge science every day.
Physics education research (PER) faculty may follow a similar path, particularly if they are within a physics department, but some PER faculty will be housed in units focused on education or on interdisciplinary research. Those working in teaching and learning centers, usually having studied PER, will likely have studied education or education research at some point in their career and may have served as instructional faculty in higher education.
Faculty positions are also frequently available at universities outside of the United States. Although taking such a position will require eventually learning the local language, the working language for most international research groups is usually English, and support is often provided to help new faculty learn the language. If you are interested in these types of positions, a good first step is to try to connect to international faculty in similar areas of research at conferences and through professional networks.
Interested in teaching and learning centers? Check out this resource: Professional and Organizational Development (POD) network.
APS Webinar: Landing Your First Physics Teaching Job
APS Webinar: Physics Faculty Positions in Colleges
PhD or Master’s in physics or related field
Postdoctoral positions, teaching assistantships, published research
$50,000 - $130,000
Less than 20% of physics graduates will hold permanent tenure-line faculty positions
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