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Definition of a physicist?

  1. Jun 29, 2010 #1
    Hello! I was just wondering who can actually be considered a physicist. Is it anyone who thinks about the natural world and its fundamental properties, or is some degree of education/training required to be a physicist? Need someone be actively researching to be considered a physicist? Opinions an input would be appreciated!
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  3. Jun 29, 2010 #2


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    I put the bar pretty high. For example, a physics PhD doing research, I'd call a physicist. Someone who has a physics BS working in industry (e.g., me), not a physicist.

    But that's just my opinion.
  4. Jun 29, 2010 #3
    I set the bar higher than most too I think. I have heard countless undergrads, even freshman call themselves physicists simply because they read some physics books and attended some physics lectures.

    To me being a physicist means you are doing (or have done) original, publishable research. Where you do that research, and what initials you have after your name are not directly relevant.
  5. Jun 29, 2010 #4
    I dunno. For what it's worth I'm a fourth year grad student (starting fourth year anyway), and I call myself a physicist. When I really want to impress people I call myself an astrophysicist. Actually when I started grad school the department chair recited some quote about how no one is ever really a physicist, but rather many are perpetually in the process of trying to become a physicist. Alternatively, some people here say that a physicist is anyone who gets paid to do physics.

    As far as I know there's no official definition. From personal experience I'd say that having a physics PhD is probably a safe place to set the bar. Granted, a nontrivial number of physics PhDs don't actually do physics, so who knows if that definition works?

    I think most would agree, though, that someone who just thinks about physics isn't a physicist.
  6. Jun 29, 2010 #5


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    The Canadian Association of Physicists has a 'professional physicist' designation. In order to obtain this designation, one needs a minimum of a bachelor's degree in physics and 3 years of physics-related work experience which is defined as:
    There are other, somewhat amiguous criteria such as being of good moral character and understanding the social implications of physics, but I think the basic recognition of what a physicist is, is in there.

    With respect to students I think it's important to recognize that graduate students are in fact physicists. When I was a student I remember our Associate Chair made a point of emphasizing this with us.
  7. Jun 29, 2010 #6
    hmm, I think my dept emphasizes the very opposite! :rolleyes:
  8. Jun 29, 2010 #7
    I think when we were child we were truly physicists. Because we were inquiring about things around us with natural curiosity, not with the aim of getting money or a degree. When we grew up, our mind set changed slowly, started accepting things as it is, and the act of reasoning reduced.
    So according to me, whoever inquires nature with natural curiosity without aiming of any benefit out of it, is a physicist.
  9. Jun 30, 2010 #8
    To me, a physicist is someone who has a tenure. After all, this is a visible mark that will safely keep you in business. Anyone who didn't reach that stage is still competting with others, and might end up losing that competition which would ultimately force them to do something else other than physics.
  10. Jun 30, 2010 #9
    Yeah, our department does the same thing. My advisor will usually refer to me as a physicist. Granted it's almost always in the context of telling me why I need to produce better results, but whatever...

    Doesn't that just mean that you'll go from being a physicist to being a former physicist? I know of a computer programmer/imaging scientist who works at a clinic, who refers to himself as a former astrophysicist.
  11. Jun 30, 2010 #10
    Nope. Former physicist means you used to be more than you are now. Well, people who got ph.d. and didn't succeed with the next step, they didn't "lose" their ph.d., so the word "former" doesn't apply to them. They simply were not physicists to begin with, they were trying to become ones but failed.

    But may be that is just my own perspective. When I was 9 I set myself a goal "to become a physicist". So in my language, if I am "a physicist" it means I already reached my goal and have nothing to look forward to. Thats why I won't call myself "a physicist" until I get a tenure, which is my current goal.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jul 1, 2010
  12. Jun 30, 2010 #11
    B.S. in physics = physicist....

    any PhD. are a physicist specialized in a fixed field like [laser,solid state ,...etc]
    you become a physicist at the moment you got a BSc. after that are just a specialized in a field of physics.

  13. Jun 30, 2010 #12
    i dont think there is some thing called a ALL PHYSICS PHD...:)
  14. Jun 30, 2010 #13

    Andy Resnick

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    This is a silly question. There is no definition of a 'physicist'. Call yourself whatever you want; there is no shortage of people who are willing to label you.
  15. Jun 30, 2010 #14
    I think having a physics degree (at any level) doesn't necessarily make you a physicist. This, however, is rather true of any degree; think of how many liberal arts degrees (bachelors level) are awarded where the recipient will go on to do non-related work. In the case of physics degrees, all your degree says is that you passed the classes; it says nothing of your actual understanding.

    There is a distinction between a physicist and a person trained as a physicist (i.e. one with such a degree).

    I think "deep" understanding is what makes one a physicist. I put "deep" in quotations because this is essentially a relative term (my QM professor definitely has a deep understanding of QM --- but as much as say.... Dirac? ).

    Engineers (or maybe better termed, in light of the present discussion, engineering students) will sometimes say they are applied physicist. Sometimes some of them actually are, but sometimes others cannot even recite Newton's three laws nor the Maxwell equations. I think to be a physicists (even an "applied" physicist), you should have a basic understanding of the "fundamental areas" of physics --- I would call this classical/quantum/statistical mechanics and electromagnetism, but then maybe even this could be it's own forum topic.

    I've placed such an emphasis on "understanding" as what makes a physicist, which begs the question (essentially already asked/answered by others), can someone without a physics degree be a physicist? I suppose it's possible.....
  16. Jul 1, 2010 #15
    (edited removing comment to a post that no longer exists)

    Heh, "more than you are now" implies that being a physicist is a high level of distinction. Personally I think that being a physicist is lame (I know, I've been jaded at an especially early age). So I'm hoping to someday be a former physicist. :smile:

    Fair enough. I do wish you good luck with that. You're probably way better at physics than I am, because I gave up on even getting a postdoc after I learned about the low percentage of PhDs who become tenured professors. Maybe I'll take my PhD and teach middle school or something...
    Last edited by a moderator: Jul 1, 2010
  17. Jul 1, 2010 #16


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    Many names are used in many different situations. The problem with this question is that no one rule applies.

    One can call oneself a "physicist" by having a physics degree. There's nothing wrong with that. However, there are also "job titles" which designate such titles. In those cases, the name "physicist" carries a different weight. In fact, one can be a physicist (i.e. has a degree in physics), but can be called something else, such as an "engineer". So if you are on official capacity, such as at a conference or trade show, etc., then typically you introduce yourself, or get introduced, by your job title, not by your educational background. Under personal setting, such as at a party, then you can call yourself with whatever title you are more comfortable with.

  18. Jul 1, 2010 #17
    (edited by moderator, removing comment to a post that no longer exists)

    I think ou should do post doc, at least you will say you tried.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jul 5, 2010
  19. Jul 2, 2010 #18
    good one Zz ... like the logic although mine is better
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