Anyone who wants to become a physicist will need a graduate degree, specialized training and a connection to some kind of research facility. Most physicists will have doctoral degrees in their field, so future physicists should be prepared to spend many years at university. Unlike the stereotypes of the popular television comedy "The Big Bang Theory," most physicists do not actually just work in university programs.
High School and College Class Advice
High school students must take classes in basic calculus and advanced algebra. Calculus classes will teach students about gamma functions and Greene's Theorem. This should include single-variable and multi-variable calculus. Algebra classes will teach students about symmetric groups and isomorphism theorems. While at college, a class in linear algebra will cover homologies, vector spaces and linear maps. Linear algebra may focus on either abstract or computational theories. Understanding high-energy physics requires group and space theories from algebra. General relativity requires an understanding of differential forms and tensors. Quantum mechanics needs a solid basic in linear algebra, variation calculus and partial differential equations. Students of probability should be familiar with real, complex, algebraic, topology, geometric and functional analysis.
Tips for Preparing for Graduate School
First, expand your course schedule outside of math and science. Regardless of the degree, STEM students should always augment their course loads with general business, psychology, education, management, communication and scientific writing classes. Second, take advantage of any and all research opportunities as early as possible. These projects will teach valuable skills, even if the topic is outside of your future specialization. This experience will transform you into a more attractive candidate when applying for jobs and graduate schools. Research projects teach real-world skills related to creativity, improvisation, problem solving and meeting deadlines. Third, establish positive relationships with professors who can not only mentor you, but provide persuasive reference letters. Fourth, join a student club or organization that caters to physics and science students because of the networking benefits.
Complete Graduate School with a Specialization
When you apply to graduate school, always focus on degree programs that offer free or discounted tuition for students who teach and research. It's best to choose a degree specialization to enhance your job prospects. For example, a master's degree in applied and industrial mathematics will emphasize things like financial systems, statistical analysis, numerical computations and mathematical modeling. A master's in physics and astronomy will study everything from light to magnetism to cosmic particles. Alternatively, a master's in education with a focus on math and physical sciences will help students become the next generation of faculty who study relevant literature and teach undergraduates. A masters in quantum physics and materials engineering will focus on recently discovered quantum devices and nano structured materials. A masters in quantum IT will focus on understanding and solving complex problems related to the creation, transmission, processing and storage of data.
Related Resource: What is a Natural Sciences Manager?
Anyone who wants to become a physicist should find a mentor while in high school or college. They will be able to answer questions, provide direction and help with career decisions. The American Physical Society (APS) offers a helpful job center that includes career track profiles and introductions.