Theoretical Physicist: Definition, Skills and Benefits

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published April 26, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Theoretical physicists are important to the advancement of society and our scientific communities through their pursuit of understanding the intricacies of our universe. A career as a theoretical physicist can be a thrilling and deeply rewarding career for individuals interested in advanced scientific theories, mathematics, technology and serving their communities. In this article, we discuss the duties, work environment, benefits and skills of theoretical physicists and provide salary and job outlook information for this profession.

Related: How To Become a Physicist

What is a theoretical physicist?

A theoretical physicist is a scientist who uses mathematics, calculations, chemistry, biology and a series of theories to understand the complex workings of the universe and the interactions between matter and energy. They often attempt to understand areas that scientists are not currently capable of traveling to for exploration and data collection, such as the deep reaches of outer space and the ocean floor. Some of the most common theories studied by theoretical physicists include:

  • String theory

  • Dark matter

  • Quantum mechanics

  • Electrodynamics

  • Thermodynamics

  • Relativity

Related: 35 Top Paying Science Degree Jobs (With Salaries)

What does a theoretical physicist do?

The responsibilities of theoretical physicists vary greatly. However, they often conduct research and develop calculations for a wide variety of theories and concepts. Unlike other fields of physics, theoretical physicists spend little or no time conducting physical experiments. Instead, they devote most of their efforts toward developing theories through mathematical calculation and field research in an attempt to expand knowledge in the scientific community and contribute to the advancement of society.

Common duties of theoretical physicists may be to:

  • Conduct research on physical phenomena using computers and data analysis

  • Develop theories based on observations and calculations

  • Create methods to apply physical laws and theories

  • Develop and refine existing theories using calculations

  • Discuss equations, formulas, problems and ideas with colleagues and other scientists

  • Contribute to academic studies and published peer-reviewed articles

  • Write computer software to assist in the development of theories and aid in research

  • Study currently accepted theories in the field

  • Perform mathematical calculations in an attempt to prove abstract theories

  • Teach advanced theories and practices to physics students

  • Design scientific equipment for advancement of research

  • Conduct research related to potential environmental impacts of nuclear and atomic activity

  • Develop manufacturing and assembly procedures using lasers, infrared and light-sensitive devices

  • Advise government bodies and officials on best practices during an atomic or nuclear event

  • Collaborate with space exploration teams during the development and deployment of missions

  • Observe the structure and properties of matter

  • Assist in civil defense planning in the event of chemical hazards

Theoretical physicist work environment

Typically, theoretical physicists work in office, laboratory or academic settings. These individuals may work at universities, laboratories, development facilities or government agencies. Work weeks for theoretical physicists are typically 40 hours and take place during regular business hours, though some overtime is possible depending on workload. Sometimes travel may be necessary for events such as conferences, meetings, seminars and expeditions.

Related: What Is a Scientist? Definition and Types of Scientists

Benefits of being a theoretical physicist

There are several benefits and rewarding aspects of being a theoretical physicist, including:

Contributing to the scientific community

Theoretical physicists make important contributions to the advancement of our communities by furthering our understanding of nature and the complex relationship between matter and energy. The individuals working in this field have the opportunity to provide valuable knowledge and advancement to several types of industries, including:

  • Technology and engineering

  • Medicine and healthcare technologies

  • Space exploration

  • Public safety

  • Manufacturing

  • Renewable energy

  • Education

Exploring the mysteries of the universe

Those working in theoretical physics are pioneers in understanding the mysteries and intricacies of our universe. A career as a theoretical physicist is an exciting opportunity to make groundbreaking discoveries and answer questions yet to be addressed by the scientific community. A career in this field could bring daily discoveries about our existence and the world around us.

Lack of fund-seeking

Because theoretical physicists conduct most of their research through calculations, study and discussion, there is rarely a need to seek funding for physical experiments. Seeking this type of funding can be a long, complex task for scientists and researchers in other fields and lack of funding can result in costly delays. A career as a theoretical physicist requires little effort in this area, allowing individuals in this profession to spend more of their time and resources on pursuing their important objectives.

Requirements for becoming a theoretical physicist

The requirements for theoretical physicists vary depending on the position and scale of work. Common requirements include:

  • Many teaching and research positions often require a doctorate's degree in theoretical physics.

  • Often, recent graduates receive 2-3 years of post-doctorate experience assisting leading professionals in the field before seeking more advanced employment.

  • Aspiring theoretical physicists with an undergraduate degree may work as lab technicians or research assistants while pursuing further education.

Theoretical physics degree programs of all levels typically include courses on complex physics principles such as quantum mechanics, optics, thermodynamics, calculus, statistics, linear algebra and computer science.

Related: 10 Popular Astronomy Jobs That Pay Well

Theoretical physicist skills

Successful theoretical physicists often have a combination of the following skills and expertise:

  • Advanced mathematical skills

  • Advanced research and analysis skills

  • Extensive knowledge of science and engineering

  • Strong critical thinking skills

  • Advanced reading comprehension

  • Complex problem-solving abilities

  • Detailed knowledge of learning strategies and how to apply them

  • Advanced knowledge in biology and natural sciences

  • Systems analysis skills

  • Time management and organizational skills

  • Strong oral and written communication skills

  • Working knowledge of chemistry and related theories

  • Highly advanced computer skills

  • Broad understanding of scientific theory and lab protocols

  • Attention to detail

  • Innovation and creativity

  • Independence and ability to work with little to no supervision

Theoretical physicist salary

There is not exact salary information for theoretical physicists available. However, the national average salary for scientists is $94,234 per year. It's important to remember salary often varies based on factors like educational background, geographic location and what the job requires.

Theoretical physicist job outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects employment for theoretical physicists to grow 7% from 2019 to 2029. This rise in demand is likely due to the continued advancement of science and technology.

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