Thoughts on Physics

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Personal Profile

Alan Kelly Physicist and Author
Biography coming soon.


Questions I Get.

How to become a physicist?

A question? How do I become a physicist?

You have come to the right place

I’ve often been asked the question: how do you become a physicist? There was a time when physicists were people interested in nature, they read books about calculus and were known to be a little bit nerdy. This has changed, and physics has become a good career choice for anyone that has the skills to do it. You no longer need to be nerdy, just smart!

Is it true that we are more interested in black holes and the origin of the universe than with making tons of money and driving flashy cars? According to Michio Kaku, yes but in reality no. Physics and a career in physics ranks up the with Medicine and Engineering as professions where you can do cool stuff but also make good money. A professor of mine once told me that physics should be done for the science and not for the money, in fact he refused to answer questions about potential careers. I disagree, here is a link to indeed with the search term Physics, look at all those wonderful careers!

Steps to becoming a Physicist:

1) in high school, read popular books on physics and try to make contact with real physicists, if possible. (Role models are extremely important. If you cannot talk to a real physicist, read biographies of the giants of physics, to understand their motivation, their career path, the milestones in their career.) A role model can help you lay out a career path that is realistic and practical. The wheel has already been invented, so take advantage of a role model. Doing a science fair project is another way to plunge into the wonderful world of physics. Unfortunately, well-meaning teachers and counselors, not understanding physics, will probably give you a lot of useless advice, or may try to discourage you. Sometimes you have to ignore their advice.

Don’t get discouraged about the math, because you will have to wait until you learn calculus to understand most physics. (After all, Newton invented calculus in order to solve a physics problem: the orbit of the moon and planets in the solar system.)

Get good grades in all subjects and good SAT scores (i.e. don’t get too narrowly focused on physics) so you can be admitted to a top school, such as Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Cal Tech. (Going to a top liberal arts college is sometimes an advantage over going to an engineering school, since it’s easier to switch majors if you have a career change.)

2) next, study four years of college. Students usually have to declare their majors in their sophomore (2nd) year in college; physics majors should begin to think about doing (a) experimental physics or (b) theoretical physics and choosing a specific field.

The standard four year curriculum:

a) first year physics, including mechanics and electricity and magnetism (caution: many universities make this course unnecessarily difficult, to weed out weaker engineers and physicists, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t ace this course! Many future physicists do poorly in this first year course because it is made deliberately difficult.).

Also, take first (or second) year calculus.

b) second year physics – intermediate mechanics and EM theory.

Also, second year calculus, including differential equations and surface and volume integrals.

c) third year physics – a selection from: optics, thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, beginning atomic and nuclear theory

d) four year physics – elementary quantum mechanics

Within physics, there are many sub-disciplines you can choose from. For example, there is solid state, condensed matter, low temperature, and laser physics, which have immediate applications in electronics and optics. My own field embraces elementary particle physics as well as general relativity. Other branches include nuclear physics, astrophysics, geophysics, biophysics, etc.

Often you can apply for industrial jobs right after college. But for the higher paying jobs, it’s good to get a higher degree.

3) so then there is graduate school. If your goal is to teach physics at the high school or junior college level, then obtaining a Masters degree usually involves two years of advanced course work but no original research. There is a shortage of physics teachers at the junior college and high school level.

If you want to become a research physicist or professor, you must get a Ph.D., which usually involves 4 to 5 years (sometimes more), and involves publishing original research. (This is not as daunting as it may seem, since usually this means finding a thesis advisor, who will simply assign you a research problem or include you in their experimental work.) Funding a Ph.D. is also not as hard as it seems, since a professor will usually have a grant or funding from the department to support you at a rate of about $12,000 per year or more. Compared to English or history graduate students, physics graduate students have a very cushy life.

After a Ph.D: Three sources of jobs

a) government

b) industry

c) the university

d) Medicine

Government work may involve setting standards at the National Institute for Standards and Technology (the old National Bureau of Standards), which is important for all physics research. Government jobs pay well, but you will never become wealthy being a government physicist. But government work may also involve working in the weapons industry, which I highly discourage. (Not only for ethical reasons, but because that area is being downsized rapidly.)

Industrial work has its ebbs and flows. But lasers and semi-conductor and computer research will be the engines of the 21st century, and there will be jobs in these fields. One rewarding feature of this work is the realization that you are building the scientific architecture that will enrich all our lives. There is no job security at this level, but the pay can be quite good (especially for those in management positions – it’s easier for a scientist to become a business manager than for a business major to learn science.) In fact, some of the wealthiest billionaires in the electronics industry and Silicon Valley came from physics/engineering backgrounds and then switched to management or set up their own corporation.

But I personally think a university position is the best, because then you can work on any problem you want. But jobs at the university are scarce; this may mean taking several two-year “post-doctorate” positions at various colleges before landing a teaching position as an assistant professor without tenure (tenure means you have a permanent position). Then you have 5-7 more years in which to establish a name for yourself as an assistant professor.

If you get tenure, then you have a permanent position and are promoted to associate professor and eventually full professor. The pay may average between $40,000 to $100,000, but there are also severe obstacles to this path.

In the 1960s, because of Sputnik, a tremendous number of university jobs opened up. The number of professors soared exponentially. But this could not last forever. By the mid 1970s, job expansion began inevitably to slow down, forcing many of my friends out of work. So the number of faculty positions leveled off in the 1980s.

Then, many people predicted that, with the retirement of the Sputnik-generation, new jobs at the universities would open up in the 90s. Exactly the opposite took place. First, Congress passed legislation against age-discrimination, so professors could stay on as long as they like. Many physicists in their seventies decided to stay on, making it difficult to find jobs for young people. Second, after the cancellation of the SSC and the end of the Cold War, universities and government began to slowly downsize the funding for physics. As a result, the average age of a physicist increases 8 months per year, meaning that there is very little new hiring.

As I said, physicists do not become scientists for the money, so I don’t want to downplay the financial problems that you may face. In fact, many superstring theorists who could not get faculty jobs went to Wall Street (where they were incorrectly called “rocket scientists”). This may mean leaving the field. However, for the diehards who wish to do physics in spite of a bad job market, you may plan to have a “fall-back” job to pay the bills (e.g. programming) while you conduct research on your own time.

But this dismal situation cannot last. Within ten years, the Sputnik-generation will finally retire, hopefully opening up new jobs for young, talented physicists. The funding for physics may never rival that of the Cold War, but physics will remain an indispensable part of creating the wealth of the 21st century. There are not many of us (about 30,000 or so are members of the American Physical Society) but we form the vanguard of the future. It also helps to join the APS and receive Physics Today magazine, which has an excellent back page which lists the various job openings around the country.

Medical Physics is also a great option if you are more interested in a salary than actual research, although it should be added that there is large amount of research in the medical physics arena. In reality at the grass roots level, Medical physics is more about routine work than cutting edge research. It is a tough and important job and pays very well.



Medical physicists work in healthcare and use their knowledge of physics to develop new medical technologies and radiation-based treatments. For example, some develop better and safer radiation therapies for cancer patients. Others may develop more accurate imaging technologies that use various forms of radiant energy, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound imaging.


Medical physicists most commonly work in one of three areas: diagnostic radiology, radiotherapy, and nuclear medicine. Other medical physicists focus on research, teaching, or consulting.

Some of the things a medical physicist might do:

  • Study the effects of radiation on the human body

  • Study how radiation interacts with the environment

  • Work with doctors to ensure the safety and effectiveness of radiological procedures

  • Calculate the lowest effective dosage of medical radiation for a patient

  • Test and supervise the maintenance of the equipment used in medical imaging

  • Develop safety procedures for those working around radiation

  • Review data related to radiation levels at a nuclear power plant

What skills are needed?

  • Analytical skills: Medical physicists need to think logically in order to carry out scientific experiments and studies. They must be precise and accurate in their analyses because errors could invalidate their research.

  • Communication skills: Medical physicists must effectively communicate with physicians and other team members. Medical physicists write technical reports that may be published in scientific journals. They also write proposals for research funding.

  • Critical-thinking skills: Medical physicists must carefully evaluate their own work and the work of others. They must determine whether results and conclusions are accurate and based on sound science.

  • Curiosity: Medical physicists work in fields that are on the cutting edge of technology. They must be very keen to learn continuously throughout their careers in order to keep up with advances in a wide range of technical subjects.

  • Interpersonal skills: Medical physicists must collaborate extensively with others in both academic and industrial research contexts. They need to work well with others toward a common goal. Interpersonal skills also should help researchers secure funding for their projects.

  • Math skills: Medical physicists perform complex calculations involving calculus, geometry, algebra, and other areas of math. They must express their research in mathematical terms.

  • Problem-solving skills: Medical physicists use scientific observation and analysis, as well as creative thinking, to solve complex scientific problems. Medical physicists may need to redesign their approach and find a solution when an experiment or theory fails to produce the needed information or result.

  • Self-discipline: Medical physicists need to stay motivated since they spend a lot of time analyzing large datasets to try to discern patterns that will yield information. This work requires the ability to focus for long periods.

  • What is the pay?

  • The average pay for all physicists, including medical physicists, in the United States, ranges from $57,430 to $190,540.

  • The specific pay depends on factors such as level of experience, education and training, geographic location, and specific industry.

  • What is the career outlook?

  • Overall employment of all physicists, including medical physicists, is projected to grow 14 percent from 2016 to 2026, faster than the average for all occupations.

  • Physicists are projected to have employment growth in scientific research and development services, educational services, and healthcare and social assistance.

What education is required?

  • Minimum educational requirements for medical physicist jobs usually include either a master’s degree or doctorate in physics, medical physics, or a related field. This is usually preceded by an undergraduate degree in physics, although some students’ bachelor’s degrees are in other natural sciences or engineering. After obtaining a graduate degree, medical physicists complete a residency traineeship or a postdoctoral program at a hospital for 2 years.

  • Some states require licensing of medical physicists, and all employers require certification. Certification requirements vary by specialty but usually involve some combination of education, experience, and testing. Specific requirements are available from professional medical physicist organizations.

  • Discover some of the courses you will take pursuing a degree in Physics.

What makes a Physicist?

January 2023 - June 2024

Interested in learning more about physics and biology?



What I’ve Learned



What I Do



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