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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
Claudia wrote science fiction and rode horses when she wasn't studying comets and moons.
Collin loves to cook when he's not too busy in the biophysics lab.
Ellen once considered an education in music, but instead, she became the first Hispanic woman in space.
Who says only kids dream of space exploration? Ginger chased her dreams in spite of many setbacks.
APS Webinar: Launching Your Postdoc Position