Nuclear Physics vs. Nuclear Engineering: What’s the Difference?

Generally, physics and science programs focus on the theory of a branch of physical science such as nuclear physics, while nuclear engineering focuses on applying science and math principles to designing devices, systems and processes involving nuclear energy.

Is a Nuclear Engineering Degree Worth It?

What is a nuclear engineering degree?

An engineering degree in the field of nuclear engineering is one that focuses on the science of nuclear energy and how to use it for human purposes. This multidisciplinary field includes ideas from physics and mathematics, such as thermodynamics, chemical reactions, and the interactions between radiation and materials. Students can major in nuclear engineering at the undergraduate level. Employers frequently favor postsecondary credentials in nuclear engineering, such as a master’s or doctoral degree, similar to how they do with nuclear physics.

A bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering typically requires coursework in subjects like math, physics, chemistry, and computer science. Specific coursework throughout your education may include:

What is a nuclear physics degree?

A degree in nuclear physics is a certification in the subject of nuclear physics, which is the research of atomic nuclei, their constituents, and their interactions. Nuclear physics degrees exist at the undergraduate and graduate levels. A Bachelor of Science in nuclear physics or physics is beneficial for those who want to work in the field of nuclear physics. It may also be appropriate to have a degree in a related field, such as electrical engineering. Any of these credentials could lead to entry-level or mid-level employment, but a master’s or doctoral degree in nuclear physics is frequently needed in the field.

A nuclear physics degree typically has studies in mathematics, engineering, and various sciences as prerequisites. You can study any or all of the following in addition:

Nuclear physics vs. nuclear engineering

If you’re having trouble deciding between nuclear engineering and nuclear physics, take into account the following differences between the two:


Their fields of study are one of the surface-level distinctions between nuclear physics and nuclear engineering. A subfield of physics, which is the study of matter and energy and how they interact in space and time, is nuclear physics. Physics generally focuses on understanding how the universe’s objects function and behave. In this regard, nuclear physics is a branch of pure science.

Contrarily, the field of engineering known as nuclear engineering refers to the application of scientific and mathematical principles to efforts to solve problems. Engineering is more concerned with building things based on physics. So, nuclear engineering could be seen as a closely related branch of nuclear physics’ pure science.


Nuclear physics and nuclear engineering are academic disciplines that concentrate on various facets of nuclear energy. In nuclear physics, theories are developed based on research into the particles and behavior of nuclei. Thus, the field primarily focuses on research funded by grants. Usually, it is the responsibility of other professionals to create the useful applications for the knowledge that nuclear physicists acquire in their field.

Contrarily, nuclear engineering focuses on applications, creating structures, procedures, or systems to address real-world problems using the theories of nuclear physicists. Nuclear engineers harness and use nuclear energy. Their work is more closely related to everyday life’s experiences and resources. For instance, many nuclear engineers create radiation-using medical equipment or work in nuclear power plants. Nuclear engineers use the knowledge that nuclear physicists learn for the benefit of industry, manufacturing, and other industries.

Education requirements

Both nuclear physics and nuclear engineering offer degree options at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels. Courses in physics, the sciences, and advanced mathematics are prerequisites. Masters or doctoral degrees are more likely to be attained by nuclear physicists. Jobs in this field frequently call for specialization, and many of them are academic or research positions that need a Ph. D. Nuclear physics majors may study theorems, research techniques, and particular areas of the field, like superconductivity, in their advanced studies. Statistics, computer science, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, and quantum mechanics may all be covered in the course work.

A bachelor’s degree is frequently sufficient for employment for aspiring nuclear engineers. A master’s degree can lead to specialization in areas like waste management, reactors, or radiation physics, which may increase one’s chances of landing a job in the field or moving up to more senior positions. Those who want to teach nuclear engineering at the university level or work in nuclear engineering research should pursue a doctoral degree in nuclear engineering. Students majoring in nuclear engineering may take more trigonometry, biology, and chemistry classes.

Career paths

Job responsibilities

Because both roles involve research, there is some overlap between the duties of nuclear physicists and engineers. With physicists, though, research takes a primary role. Atomic and subatomic particles are the focus of nuclear physicists’ research, which they publish in scholarly or professional journals. They also impart knowledge and train students to enter the field in academic settings.

In these regions, nuclear engineers are primarily concerned with coming up with and perfecting methods for utilizing nuclear energy. Many contribute to the production of the machinery used in nuclear power plants, such as nuclear reactor cores. Other types of nuclear engineers may be in charge of developing cutting-edge techniques for using radiation to treat diseases or power water- and spacecraft.

Work environments

Nuclear physicists and nuclear engineers may work in various settings on a daily basis. In addition to frequently working in laboratories, nuclear physicists may also travel to other research facilities to access specialized equipment. Additionally, they might instruct nuclear physics students in classrooms or showcase their research at conferences and other gatherings.

Nuclear engineers typically work in offices, though this can vary depending on the particular employer. For example, many nuclear engineers work for nuclear power facilities. They may be exposed to radiation while working, in which case they wear protective equipment like lead vests or aprons, hardhats, and disposable clothing.

Salaries and job outlooks


Is a nuclear physicist a nuclear engineer?

For instance, many nuclear engineers create radiation-using medical equipment or work in nuclear power plants. Nuclear engineers use the knowledge that nuclear physicists learn for the benefit of industry, manufacturing, and other industries.

Do nuclear engineers use physics?

Fundamental concepts in physics and mathematics that describe nuclear interactions and the movement of neutrons and gamma rays serve as the foundation for nuclear engineering. These phenomena in turn depend on radiation-induced material behavior, heat transfer, fluid flow, chemical reactions, and fluid flow.

Are nuclear physicists in demand?

According to the salary and employment outlook website Zippia, job growth for nuclear physics will be 9% through 2028, which is faster than average when compared to other occupations.

What can I do with a nuclear physics degree?

  • Nuclear Physicist. It is the responsibility of a nuclear physicist to research the functioning of various radioactive materials and look for additional nuclear energy sources.
  • Nuclear Missile Silo Operator. …
  • Nuclear Power Plant Operator. …
  • Nuclear Chemist. …
  • Nuclear Engineer.

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