Physicists are scientists who study the fundamental properties of matter. This ranges from the microscopic world of subatomic and molecular particles, to the macroscopic world of cosmology and astrophysics. Systematic observation and experimentation provide the data from which theories describing the fundamental forces and laws of nature can be developed.

Physics is the science that deals with the structure of matter and the interactions between the fundamental constituents of the observable universe. Its object of study, therefore, ranges from quarks (tiny particles making up the nuclei of atoms) to quasars (apparently star-like objects, but brighter than billions of stars put together), found at the edge of the universe. Nothing is too small or too big for the physicist to investigate - the entire universe is their field of study. Physicists usually specialise in theoretical or experimental physics:

Experimental physicists: supply the fundamental data on which physics is founded. They spend a lot of time in the laboratory where new phenomena are examined through systematic and exact measurements, and experiments are performed to test existing theories.

Theoretical physicists: formulate the laws of nature that determine the properties and transformation of matter and energy. This is done in mathematical terms and electronic computers are often used for the calculations.

Areas of specialisation include:

  • Solid-state physics and material science
  • Nuclear, particle and radiation physics
  • Optics and spectroscopy
  • Environmental physics
  • Medical physics and biophysics
  • Solar-terrestrial physics, astronomy and astrophysics
  • Plasma physics
  • Engineering physics

With some employers, physicists can do original research while with others they apply their knowledge to the solution of specific problems.

Physicists usually work regular hours in offices and/or laboratories, but they may be required to work longer hours if they are intensely involved in their research. In general, the work is not hazardous. Some physicists may spend time working away from home to use national or international facilities that have unique equipment.

Personal Requirements

  • strong aptitude for mathematics and physical science
  • above average intelligence
  • aptitude for abstract reasoning
  • curious and imaginative
  • able to work independently
  • keen observer
  • practical
  • good observation skills
  • adaptability to learn new skills
  • ability to cope with advances in science and technology

How to Enter

Schooling & School Subjects

National Senior Certificate meeting degree requirements for a degree course

Each institution has its own entry requirements.

What to Study

Degree: BSc Physics and Mathematics as majors and complementary courses in such subjects as: Chemistry, Geology, Astronomy, Applied Mathematics, Statistics - e.g. UNISA, UJ, Wits, US, UCT, UWC, NWU, NMMU, UFS, UV.

Post-graduate study: BSc Honours is the minimum requirement to become a physicist. Many employers prefer physicists to be qualified to a doctorate level.

Diploma: N.Dip: Analytical Physics - VUT for those who want to become physical technologists

Postgraduate qualifications in this field are usually required


  • manufacturers of materials
  • manufacturers of equipment
  • hospitals
  • mining companies
  • research organisations
  • universities and universities of technology
  • government departments
  • such organisations as CSIR, NECSA, Mintek, Sasol, SAB
  • self-employment, with appropriate experience may act as a private consultant

Further Information

Any of the above-mentioned tertiary educational institutions or potential employers

The SA Institute of Physics
CSIR Main Campus
Building 33
Meiring Naude Rd
Brummeria, 0184
Tel: (012) 843-6561

Getting Started

  • read books and magazines on science and physics
  • join a science club and take courses that offer laboratory work
  • try to obtain vacation or part-time work in a company that employs physicists
  • arrange to speak to physicists about this type of career and ask to observe them at work

Programmes by Study Institutions

Related Occupations

Study Physics at Stellenbosch University

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