Nuclear Physicist

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Nuclear Physicist


Since the first nuclear power plant opened in the late 1950s, nuclear energy has become a significant source of energy in our high-powered world. Nuclear power serves as an alternative to fossil fuels that burn polluting greenhouse gases and is used as a medical tool for research. Nuclear physicists are responsible for designing and conducting research in experimental and theoretical physics. They study how nuclear energy is created through a study of its makeup or particles.

Nuclear physics is the study of the properties of the atomic nucleus, a very tiny object at the center of every atom. The nucleus is made up protons and neutrons, which are themselves made up of quarks. Therefore, nuclear physicists study the smallest detectable units of matter. They break up atoms and watch how the individual protons, electrons and neutrons behave. When they reach the bottom of the particle chain, they work with these energy points for research purposes.

Nuclear physicists are also responsible for carrying out analysis of research data and for preparing research reports. Research and development in nuclear physics often involves group or team efforts, and nuclear physicists often participate with others in the design and development of experimental, industrial or medical equipment, instrumentation and procedures.

Many nuclear physicists work in particle accelerator facilities. These facilities are often referred to as giant donuts. Inside these facilities, a particle beam is accelerated round and round a loop and then smashed into a tank of other particles. The collision of these particles causes them to spin off in all different directions and then the electronic detectors capture the information. Nuclear physicists study the way these particles react when struck.

Some nuclear physicists compare this process to billiard balls on a pool table. Factors such as the weight and speed of each ball would have varying reactions and thus tell a scientist a lot about the ball's (or atom's) makeup.
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  Average Earnings  
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  Interests and Skills  
Nuclear physicists must have an aptitude for physics and mathematics, and be able to pay close attention to detail. Most are fascinated with the way our physical world works, including the phenomenon of particles and matter. Nuclear physicists must enjoy working with others as members of a team, while at the same time working alone the ability to reflect on and contemplate larger scientific ideas.

They should have excellent writing and computer skills, and patience and curiosity of the physical world. Successful nuclear physicists should enjoy synthesizing information and finding innovative solutions to problems, using sophisticated instruments and equipment to perform tasks requiring precision, and supervising the work of others.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Design and conduct research in experimental, theoretical and applied nuclear physics
  • Carry out analysis of research data and prepare research reports
  • Participate as a member of a research or development team in the design and development of experimental, industrial equipment, instrumentation and procedures
  • Conduct research to understand fundamental processes in particles and molecules and find practical applications from these studies
  • Conduct experiments with radiation, light, sound, heat, electricity and magnetism
  • Use the experiments to test and prove ideas, and to help develop new ideas in nuclear physics
  • Design, build and test experimental equipment and instruments
  • Write reports on study results and present this information at conferences
  • Write papers for scientific journals
  • May work with medical doctors on radiation treatment in cancer patients
  • Nuclear physicists generally work in laboratories, classrooms or offices. They may also work outdoors conducting experiments. Nuclear physicists generally work standard 40-hour workweeks, with occasional longer hours when deadlines or experiments are looming. Travel is often required to conferences and seminars.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Nuclear physicists work for electronic, electrical and aerospace manufacturing companies, telecommunications companies, power plant utilities, university and government research laboratories, hospitals, science museums and by a wide range of other processing, manufacturing, and research and consulting firms.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Employment opportunities for nuclear physicists vary depending upon what type of degree they have. Those with bachelor's and master's degrees are more likely to be employed in design and development, teaching at the high school or college level, and administration or sales. Nuclear physicists with PhDs are more likely to be involved in basic or applied research and teaching at the university level.

Advancement opportunities vary depending on the place of employment and type of work done by each individual nuclear physicist. Nuclear physicists involved in research, or research and development may become project supervisors, directors of research laboratories or managers of research departments. Some may eventually move into purely administrative or management positions. Another option is becoming a scientific writer or working at a science museum.

  Educational Paths  
Most nuclear physicists begin their postsecondary education with a four-year Bachelor of Science degree in nuclear physics, and then go on to earn a master's and a PhD degree in physics or a sub-discipline of physics. Nuclear physicists who wish to do original research generally need to obtain a PhD and spend one to five years in post-doctoral research in a university or government laboratory. Some universities have excellent training facilities for their workers, such as accelerators.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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