Physicists and Astronomers
Physicists plan and conduct scientific experiments and studies to test theories and to discover properties of matter and energy.
Physicists and astronomers study the interactions of matter and energy. Theoretical physicists and astronomers may study the nature of time or the origin of the universe. Some physicists design and perform experiments with sophisticated equipment such as particle accelerators, electron microscopes, and lasers.
Physicists and astronomers typically do the following:
- Develop scientific theories and models to explain the properties of the natural world, such as the force of gravity or the formation of subatomic particles
- Plan and conduct scientific experiments and studies to test theories and discover properties of matter and energy
- Write proposals and apply for research funding
- Do mathematical calculations to analyze physical and astronomical data, such as for new material properties or the existence of planets in distant solar systems
- Design new scientific equipment, such as telescopes and lasers
- Develop computer software to analyze and model data
- Write scientific papers for publication
- Present research findings at conferences and lectures
Physicists explore the fundamental properties and laws that govern space, time, energy, and matter. They may study theory, design and perform experiments, or apply their knowledge in developing materials or equipment.
Astronomers study planets, stars, and other celestial bodies. They use ground-based equipment, such as optical telescopes, and space-based equipment, such as the Hubble Space Telescope. Some astronomers study distant galaxies and phenomena such as black holes and neutron stars. Others monitor space debris that could interfere with satellite operations.
Many physicists and astronomers work in applied research. They use their knowledge to develop technology or solve problems in areas such as energy storage, electronics, communications, and navigation. Others work in basic research to develop theories that explain concepts such as what gravity is or how the universe was formed.
Astronomers and physicists typically work on research teams with engineers, technicians, and other scientists. Senior astronomers and physicists may assign tasks to other team members and monitor their progress. They also may need to find and apply for research funding.
Experimental physicists develop equipment or sensors to study properties of matter, create theories, and test theories through experiments. Theoretical and computational physicists develop concepts that predict properties of materials or describe unexplained results. Although all of physics involves the same fundamental principles, physicists generally specialize in one of many subfields. The following are examples of physicist job titles:
Atomic, molecular, and optical physicists study atoms, simple molecules, electrons, and light and the interactions among them. Some look for ways to control the states of individual atoms, because such control might allow for further miniaturization or might contribute toward developing new materials or technology.
Computational physicists study the use of algorithms, numerical analysis, and datasets to explore the interaction between theoretical and experimental physics. They explore complex phenomena in atoms, molecules, plasmas, and high-energy particles; problems in astrophysics; and applied phenomena, such as traffic, the behavior of oceans, and biological dynamics.
Condensed matter and materials physicists study the physical properties of matter in molecules, nanostructures, or novel compounds. They study a wide range of phenomena, such as superconductivity, liquid crystals, sensors, and nanomachines.
Health physicists study the effects of radiation on people, communities, and the environment. They manage the beneficial use of radiation while protecting workers and the public from potential hazards posed by radiation.
Medical physicists work in healthcare and use their knowledge of physics to develop new medical technologies and radiation-based treatments. For example, some develop safer radiation therapies for cancer patients. Others develop improved imaging technologies for radiant energy, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound imaging.
Particle and nuclear physicists study the properties of atomic and subatomic particles, such as quarks, electrons, and nuclei and the forces that cause their interactions.
Plasma physicists study plasmas, a distinct state of matter that occur naturally in stars and interplanetary space and artificially in products such as neon signs and fluorescent lights. These physicists may study ways to create fusion reactors as a potential energy source.
Quantum information physicists study ways to use quantum objects, such as atoms and photons, to probe information processing, computing, and cryptography. They focus on ways to use the fundamental nature of quantum mechanics and its associated uncertainties.
Unlike physicists, astronomers cannot experiment on their subjects, which are so far away that they cannot be touched or interacted with. Therefore, astronomers generally make observations or work on theory. Observational astronomers view celestial objects and collect data on them. Theoretical astronomers analyze, model, and speculate about systems and how they work and evolve. The following are examples of astronomer job titles:
Cosmologists and extragalactic/galactic, planetary, and stellar astronomers study the creation, evolution, and possible futures of the universe and its galaxies, stars, planets, and solar systems. These astronomers develop and test concepts, such as string theory and dark-matter and dark-energy theories, and study models of galactic and stellar evolution, planetary formation, and interactions between stars.
Optical and radio astronomers use optical, radio, and gravitational-wave telescopes to study the motions and evolution of stars, galaxies, and the larger scale structure of the universe.
Physicists also may work in interdisciplinary fields, such as biophysics, chemical physics, and geophysics. For more information, see the profiles on biochemists and biophysicists and geoscientists.
People who have a background in physics or astronomy also may become professors or teachers. For more information, see the profiles on high school teachers and postsecondary teachers.
The Salary of a Physicist With a PhD
Physicists seek to explain how motion, energy and molecules come together to form the particles that make up the world. They have a grasp on the universe in ways that most people are never able to understand.
Physicists conduct research to explore the various ways that energy and matter interact, and physicists use this information to develop scientific theories that explain how things work in the world and universe. They have sophisticated tools such as electron microscopes and particle accelerators to use in their research.
After conducting experiments, physicists write scientific reports that are published in authoritative industry journals. Their findings may be presented at scientific conferences.
Administratively, physicists may be required to prepare proposals and make applications for funds to conduct their research projects.
Jobs for physicists in independent research and universities typically require a Ph.D. Graduate students in doctoral programs will usually concentrate on a sub-field, such as particle physics, condensed matter, molecular physics and astrophysics. They will also take courses in computer science, math, linear algebra and calculus.
Graduates with a bachelor's degree in physics usually find employment as technicians or research assistants in related fields such as computer science. The federal government is a significant employer for graduates who have a bachelor's degree in physics. Those with master's degrees find jobs in applied research with healthcare and manufacturing companies.
Industry and Physicist Salary
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual physicist salary is $123,080. The upper 10 percent earn $190,540, while the lower 10 percent has an income of $57,430.
The highest level of physicists are employed in scientific research and development. Six thousand physicists work in companies and institutions engaged in research, to create new and improved processes and products.
The federal government and colleges are the next two largest employers of physicists, with around 3,000 each. General medical and surgical hospitals employ around 1,200 physicists.
Colleges and universities pay the least, with a mean wage of $78,890. Physicists in scientific research earn an average of $132,930, and those working with the federal government, have an average income of $119,000.
The best-paying jobs for a physics Ph.D. candidate are offered by medical and surgical hospitals, with a mean wage of $177,420.
Years of Experience
California employs the greatest number of physicists, with nearly 3,000 jobs, earning a mean wage of $113,660. New Mexico follows, with 1,700, bringing in an average income of $147,690, and Maryland employs 1,260, with an average wage of $124,470.
Job Growth Trend or Outlook
The BLS projects employment for physicists to grow by 14 percent in the next decade. More jobs are expected in scientific research, development and in related fields.
The federal government is the main source of funds for research in physics, at some colleges and institutions. Spending by the government is not expected to grow, and this will lessen the demand for physicists.
Physicists are on the forefront of advances in technology and improvements in standards of living. It is their work that leads to a better understanding of how things work and of how they can be improved to benefit humanity.
James Woodruff has been a management consultant to more than 1,000 small businesses. As a senior management consultant and owner, he used his technical expertise to conduct an analysis of a company's operational, financial and business management issues. James has been writing business and finance related topics for work.chron, bizfluent.com, smallbusiness.chron.com and e-commerce websites since 2007. He graduated from Georgia Tech with a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering and received an MBA from Columbia University.
Average Physicist Salary
Avg. Base Salary (USD)
The average salary for a Physicist is $97,789
What is the Pay by Experience Level for Physicists?
An entry-level Physicist with less than 1 year experience can expect to earn an average total compensation (includes tips, bonus, and overtime pay) of $60,256 based on 35 salaries. An early career Physicist with 1-4 years of experience earns an average total compensation of $83,560 based on 131 salaries. A mid-career Physicist …Read more
What Do Physicists Do?
Humanity's understanding of the mechanical workings of reality is, relative to our history, in its infancy. Only in the last two centuries have scientists been able to directly observe and manipulate matter and energy at microscopic levels, and new discoveries and applications have skyrocketed in that time-frame, all while our technology continually enhances our ability to understand these things. Physicists are scientists who study the properties of matter and energy and perform experiments, …Read more
- Design, conduct and evaluate the results of experiments, methodologies, and quality control tests.
- Provide technical support and calculations to non-scientists, students, and other groups.
- Maintain and use equipment and lab space.
- Communicate results in writing and in presentations to researchers, students, funders, the public, and other audiences.
Job Satisfaction for Physicist
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This data is based on 146 survey responses. Learn more about the gender pay gap.
Common Health Benefits
Economics of a Physics Degree
|Earnings by Education Level|
|Income for high school graduate over 25||$32,8671|
|Starting salary for a B.S. Physicist||$45,0002|
|Starting salary of a M.S. Physicist||$60,0002|
|Starting salary for a Ph.D. Physicist||$80,0002|
As shown in the figure to the right, "What's a Bachelor's Degree Worth?," a more recent salary survey indicates an increase in average starting salary by over $10,000: two years!
Note that gender, region, employment sector (academia, industry, government) and individual skills and experience are important, but are not considered here.
Job security is another factor. In an era where the national unemployment rate is about 10%, it’s 6.8% for Physicists.3 So a degree can lead to both higher and uninterrupted income.
Earning your Bachelor degree
Many factors affect the net cost of an undergraduate education, such as: the institution you select, scholarship and loan alternatives, and your family financial situation. For example, the average annual college costs4 (tuition, fees, room & board) for the 2009 - 2010 academic year are:
- $35,636 for private four year schools
- $15,213 for a public school for in-state students (resident)
- $26,741 for a public school for out-of-state students.
- $2,544 for local community colleges – a low cost alternative with transition to a 4 year school to complete a bachelor degree.
You should also plan to have a miscellaneous expense budget of at least $5,000. The College Board estimates the average cost for books and supplies to be $1,122, average personal expenses of $1,974, and $1,079 for travel. Entertainment, clothing, auto expenses are excluded from this discussion, as are income from summer and part time jobs.
Let’s take a cost effective approach — again as a model that you can adapt to your situation — attending a community college for two years and completing a B.S. as an in-state student at a public university. If you can live with parents, there would be no room and board expense, so the cost for the first two years would be:
|2 Years at Community College|
|Tuition, fees||$ 5,088|
The final two years at a resident student at a State University would be more expensive:
|2 Years Living at State Supported School|
|Tuition, fees, room & board||$ 30,426|
|Subtotal for 2 years||$ 40,426|
|Total for 4 years||$ 55,514|
We also need to consider the so-called “opportunity cost” — how much you would have earned if you were to enter the workforce right out of high school.
Being a bright and eager person, you might command as much as $10 per hour — in a climate where the U.S. minimum wage is $7.25/hr, and the highest state minimum is $8.55 in Washington.
Assuming a 40 hour work week, your gross income would be $20,800 in the first year. With a 5% raise each year, your total gross income would be $89,650 for the four years you would — and should — have been studying physics.
Against this, there would be taxes (we’ll estimate 20% of income for federal, state & local) and living expenses. To maintain equivalence with the student living at home at no cost for two years, we’ll assume you will live at home for two years at no cost, but then have to pay the equivalent of the room and board expense - $8,193 per year according to “Trends in College Pricing.” This reduces the earned income to $55,334. The real total cost of your four year education would be $110,848.
Neglecting for the moment the fact that you will be working in a field you find interesting and challenging, you have attained a threshold that offers upward mobility, with an average annual starting income of $51,000. This is at a time when your annual income would have been about $24,000 as a high school graduate.
The question then becomes how long it would take you to “break even?” Neglecting income taxes and raises the $27,000 per year differential means your “Return On Investment” (ROI) would be about four years — quite possibly less because
- Raises are likely to be larger and more frequent as a graduate physicist,
- We haven’t considered income from summer or part-time jobs, possibly at higher pay than a high school graduate, nor
- Financial assistance in the form of scholarships and assistantships.
It is appropriate to comment that this low cost approach to a physics education does not mean that it is inferior. One can argue that a good student will succeed at any school and that any differences in resources between this and an Ivy League school could easily be offset by your learning to be self reliant, focused and dedicated.
A survey of physicists five years after earning their B.S. shows that size or type of the physics department has no effect on obtaining a career path job; their working in a Science, Technology, Engineering or Math job; the number of interviews, time spent looking for or number of offers for a first job; their perception that a physics degree helped them get a first career path job; the number of college or university resources used to find their first career path job; and the first salary offer when controlled for type of job, experience, degree, and gender.
Once you have a B.S. degree, the doors to many professions are open; your undergraduate training is good preparation to advanced training in many fields. Physicists often have productive careers in engineering, medicine, the law, business, finance, or related sciences such as math or chemistry for example. In fact, most Physics bachelors go on to graduate or professional school. So there are many options, including continued graduate training in Physics. Let’s consider some of them briefly.
- Graduate school in Physics, leading to a M.S. or Ph.D. can qualify you for a career in academia, government or industry.
As your career and interests develop you can work in pure and applied research, policy development (government), management (government and industry), and education processes for example.
It is often surprising to learn that advanced degrees in Physics can be earned at almost no cost, thanks to a variety of teaching and/or research assistantships. They reimburse tuition and fees, provide a stipend to offset modest living expenses, and are a valuable part of a graduate learning experience.
Alternatively, if you work in government or industrial research, the costs of graduate school can be underwritten by your employer’s tuition reimbursement benefits program.
- If you are interested in furthering your education — and value — for an industrial career, new Professional Master in Physics degree programs are being offered at many Universities7.
This, perhaps combined with a MBA would provide a powerful educational background for an industrial career. You should know that many companies have tuition reimbursement programs, so this portion of your graduate education can cost you nothing.
- You can pursue a medical career by earning a M.D. and be involved in patient care and/or research. In addition, training in physics is valuable in medical radiology. More information can be obtained from the American Association of Physicists in Medicine.
Return of Investment
An investment in a physics education can be one of those rare instances where the financial return is fast — about four years for a bachelor’s degree — and will continue to pay off at an increasing rate throughout your professional career. The only limitation to a financially secure and fulfilling career is the energy and time you are willing to devote to it — and that is a lot easier if you really enjoy what you are doing.
1US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2006
2 American Institute of Physics, Salary Class of 2006
3 Students Review, 2009
4 "Trends in College Pricing"
5 American Institute of Physics
6 “Does it Matter Where I Go To College” by R.Ivie and K.Nies, AIP Pub. Number R-433.03
7 "Mastering Physics for Non-Academic Careers”, by S.P.Morton, P.W.Hammer and R.Czujko
8 AAPM Website
Researcher salary physics
.Physicist Answers Your Most Asked Questions on Google
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