Career: Physicist

Studying physics brings benefits that last a lifetime, says Daniel Sanford Smith

We are all born with the urge to understand the world around us. You have probably asked things like "Why is the sky blue?", "how does a mobile phone work?" and "how does the sun keep on shining?" at some point in your life. If you find that the more answers you are given or discover, the more questions you want to ask, then you could well be a physicist in the making and you should certainly consider studying physics at university.

Physics is concerned with observing natural phenomena in the world about us, trying to understand them and predicting what might happen in new and unknown situations. Physics is also a process of observing, understanding and predicting in relation to man-made systems. Physics deals with profound questions about the nature of the universe and with some of the most important practical, environmental and technological issues of our time. It is a very broad subject involving experiment and observations, theory and mathematics, computing technology, materials and information theory. It is also a creative subject. Ideas and techniques from physics drive developments in related subject areas including chemistry, computing, engineering, materials science, mathematics, medicine, meteorology and statistics.

Physics is a subject that is continually developing and evolving, with regard to both theory and practical techniques. One of its main characteristics is that systems can be understood by identifying a few key quantities such as energy and momentum, and the universal principles that govern them. Part of the appeal of the subject is that there are relatively few such principles and that these apply throughout science, not just in physics.

Studying physics at university brings benefits that last a lifetime, including knowledge and skills that are valuable outside physics. Advantages also include the pleasure and satisfaction that come from being able to understand and even - within a few years - contribute to the latest discoveries in science.

The career opportunities available are as vast as the subject itself due, in part, to the transferable skills gained while studying physics. Employers see a physics qualification as an indication of someone who will immediately be an asset to the organisation. There are various reasons for this appeal: physics requires a logical and numerate mind; communication skills are developed through report-writing and presentations; computing and practical skills are second nature to those trained in physics; and teamwork and flexibility are essential in laboratory work and projects.

The fact that physicists have such a broad skill set means that all the usual graduate training schemes love physicists and many can even be found in the City, modelling financial markets. In fact, according to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, physics graduates earn around £187,000 more during their career than someone with A-levels but no degree, whereas history and English graduates increase their earnings by only about half as much. In the UK, graduates in physics earn more than those in most other disciplines.

The prospect of a well-paid career is great, but what about the cost of going to university and the debt you might accumulate, especially if you choose a four-year MPhys degree over a BSc? The Institute of Physics provides bursaries to selected physics undergraduates. These bursaries, administered through participating universities, are worth £3,000 over the duration of an undergraduate degree and £4,000 over the duration of an MPhys/MSci degree. Do your own research on this one too, becuase many universities offer their own schemes.

Physics is relevant to almost every human activity - things such as careers, hobbies, and leisure pursuits - as well as the systems that modern technology offers that can improve our health and wellbeing. Such is the importance of physics, both now and for the future, that we need more young people to study it. That includes you!

Daniel Sanford Smith is manager of schools and colleges at the Institute of Physics

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