Careers in Physical Sciences
The physical sciences concern the study of inanimate natural objects, such as the Earth, rocks and stones, volcanoes, chemicals and the forces that apply to them all. Physical sciences therefore include physics, chemistry, geology and geography. The most obvious careers in this field may lie in research, but there are many other options open to those with qualifications in this area.
Like the life sciences sector, companies working in the physical sciences sector employ a wide range of ‘business’ professionals, including sales executives, marketing teams and human resources professionals. However, this page focuses on the sector-specific jobs, most of which require specialist qualifications of some kind. You can find out more about general business-related work in our page on Careers in Business.
Roles and Organisations in Physical Sciences
Like the life sciences sector, there is a wide variety of organisations operating in physical sciences. They range from universities doing basic physical sciences research, and field stations (either governmental, university-run, or private) undertaking research in the field, to companies developing new plastics, weather forecasting organisations and space programmes.
You will also find physical scientists working as laboratory technicians in companies, academic institutions and schools, or as teachers (and there is more about this in our page on Careers in Education).
Examples of careers in physical sciences include:
Geoscientists study aspects of the earth at a broad level.
They include geologists, mining and petroleum experts, and various sub-specialities of geoscience. For example, environmental geoscientists apply their knowledge to help solve environmental issues such as waste disposal, or to support construction projects. Related careers include hydrologists, seismologists and meteorologists, all of whom study the earth in some way.
Many geoscientists and those working in related fields work in academia or in research labs in the field. For example, the research stations in Antarctica are staffed by geoscientists, examining global warming, climate change and meteorology. There are also geoscientists, and particularly seismologists, working in earthquake monitoring projects around the world. Other physical scientists work for big engineering and construction companies, or as consultants to these companies. They are therefore often required to work in the field or travel to sites around the world.
All geoscientists require expertise in their own subject, gained both through study and experience, and including field experience and expertise. However, beyond that the requirements are likely to vary.
For example, those working in research will need stronger research skills, including the ability to understand and use the right research methods, or analyse their results. They also need excellent communication and presentation skills to be able to communicate their results in writing or at conferences and meetings.
Those working as consultants or in large commercial companies require other skills, including:
Good project management skills, for example, to manage the environmental input into big construction jobs, or to manage big environmental projects such as flood relief schemes;
Excellent team-working skills, because they tend to be part of big teams, including both contractors and employees of their own and other companies; and
Materials scientists study the composition of matter at a molecular or microscopic level.
Materials scientists are, as the name suggests, interested in what makes up materials. They study the composition of matter at a microscopic level, and may then be involved in creating new materials, such as new plastics, biodegradable resources, or chips for computers and nanotechnology. They are needed in a whole range of industries, from construction through to consumer goods via computing and environmental consultancy.
However, about 40% of all materials scientists are employed in manufacturing companies.
Like geoscientists, most materials scientists will have at least an undergraduate degree in a relevant subject, often chemistry. They may also have a postgraduate qualification, although this is not necessarily required. Also like geoscientists, one of the most important skill areas is project management. They also need excellent team-working skills and ability to collaborate effectively, because they tend to work in teams. They may also need strong problem-solving skills, as well as good analytical skills to convert data into decisions.
Space scientists study either space itself, or its effects on the natural world.
Astronomers, for example, study the universe, using either ground-based telescopes or spacecraft. They may be involved in developing and designing experiments for astronauts to carry out in space. This is a highly specialist field, and serious postgraduate qualifications are required: usually a doctoral degree, and considerable expertise in a specialist subject area. Beyond that, the skills required are similar to those of any other research scientist: team-working skills, communication skills and research and analysis skills.
There are also a range of what we might term supporting roles in the physical sciences field.
These include careers like patent agents, who help scientists to develop and file patents for their inventions or discoveries. These too need strong expertise in the subject, but not necessarily a postgraduate degree.
Qualifications Required in Physical Sciences
Most of the roles described on this page require at least an undergraduate degree in a specialist physical science subject, and many require an advanced degree. For example, to work as a hydrologist in an engineering company, you would need at least a master’s degree.
TOP TIP! Check out your chosen field and make no assumptions.
It is worth checking out the ‘official’ requirements for your chosen field before making decisions about which degree and/or advanced study to undertake. However, it is also worth making contact with your ideal employers to talk about their precise requirements. You may find that they would like you to undertake a specific project as part of your studies, or that they prefer certain undergraduate or advanced degrees over others.
A little bit of prior preparation and planning—sometimes several years ahead—can make a lot of difference when you apply for jobs.
Some organisations may be prepared to sponsor employees to undertake advanced degrees while working. Some may also offer degree apprenticeships in the UK.
Basic Requirements for Careers in Physical Sciences
It is worth mentioning that beyond their specialist subject, physical scientists tend to be very numerate.
Studying subjects like chemistry or physics to degree level or beyond requires a high level of numeracy, so this is something of a core requirement. That said, if numeracy is not your area, then you are unlikely to want to study physical sciences either.
Physical scientists are also often required to work with complex algorithms and computer programmes and models, for example, to predict earthquake locations and strength, or to forecast the weather. Good IT skills are therefore important, if only to understand when the algorithm or model has stopped working effectively.
A Specialist Field
The interesting thing about physical science is that people tend to study a subject in the field because it interests them, and then look for a career that will help them to use that subject. This is quite the reverse of working in (say) healthcare, where people tend to aim to ‘become a doctor’ or ‘become a nurse’ from quite an early stage, and then study qualifications that will support that.
Perhaps the most important qualification for a career in physical sciences, then, is an interest in the field and a wish to first know more and then use your knowledge.