Scientific research and development services firms and the
Federal Government employ 3 out of 5 physicists and astronomers.
Most jobs are in basic research and development, usually requiring
a doctoral degree; masterís degree holders qualify for many
jobs in applied research and development, while bachelorís degree
holders often qualify as technicians, research assistants, or
other types of jobs.
Employment is expected to grow more slowly than average.
Competition for jobs is expected; however, graduates with
a physics or astronomy degree at any level will find their knowledge
of science and mathematics useful for entry to many other occupations.
Nature of the Work
Physicists explore and identify basic principles and laws
governing motion and gravitation, the macroscopic and microscopic
behavior of gases, and the structure and behavior of matter, the
generation and transfer between energy, and the interaction of
matter and energy. Some physicists use these principles in theoretical
areas, such as the nature of time and the origin of the universe;
others apply their knowledge of physics to practical areas, such
as the development of advanced materials, electronic and optical
devices, and medical equipment.
Physicists design and perform experiments with lasers, particle
accelerators, telescopes, mass spectrometers, and other equipment.
On the basis of their observations and analysis, they attempt
to discover and explain laws describing the forces of nature,
such as gravity, electromagnetism, and nuclear interactions. Physicists
also find ways to apply physical laws and theories to problems
in nuclear energy, electronics, optics, materials, communications,
aerospace technology, and medical instrumentation.
Astronomy is sometimes considered a subfield of physics. Astronomers
use the principles of physics and mathematics to learn about the
fundamental nature of the universe, including the sun, moon, planets,
stars, and galaxies. They also apply their knowledge to solve
problems in navigation, space flight, and satellite communications
and to develop the instrumentation and techniques used to observe
and collect astronomical data.
Most physicists work in research and development. Some do basic
research to increase scientific knowledge. Physicists who conduct
applied research build upon the discoveries made through basic
research and work to develop new devices, products, and processes.
For example, basic research in solid-state physics led to the
development of transistors and, then, integrated circuits used
Physicists also design research equipment, which often has additional
unanticipated uses. For example, lasers are used in surgery, microwave
devices function in ovens, and measuring instruments can analyze
blood or the chemical content of foods. A small number of physicists
work in inspection, testing, quality control and other production-related
jobs in industry.
Much physics research is done in small or medium-sized laboratories.
However, experiments in plasma, nuclear, and high-energy physics,
as well as in some other areas of physics, require extremely large,
expensive equipment, such as particle accelerators. Physicists
in these subfields often work in large teams. Although physics
research may require extensive experimentation in laboratories,
research physicists still spend time in offices planning, recording,
analyzing, and reporting on research.
Almost all astronomers do research. Some are theoreticians, working
on the laws governing the structure and evolution of astronomical
objects. Others analyze large quantities of data gathered by observatories
and satellites and write scientific papers or reports on their
findings. Some astronomers actually operate large space- or ground-based
telescopes, usually as part of a team. However, astronomers may
spend only a few weeks each year making observations with optical
telescopes, radio telescopes, and other instruments. For many
years, satellites and other space-based instruments, such as the
Hubble space telescope, have provided prodigious amounts of astronomical
data. New technology resulting in improvements in analytical techniques
and instruments, such as computers and optical telescopes and
mounts, is leading to a resurgence in ground-based research. A
small number of astronomers work in museums housing planetariums.
These astronomers develop and revise programs presented to the
public and may direct planetarium operations.
Physicists generally specialize in one of many subfields: elementary
particle physics, nuclear physics, atomic and molecular physics,
physics of condensed matter (solid-state physics), optics, acoustics,
space physics, plasma physics, or the physics of fluids. Some
specialize in a subdivision of one of these subfields. For example,
within condensed-matter physics, specialties include superconductivity,
crystallography, and semiconductors. However, all physics involves
the same fundamental principles, so specialties may overlap, and
physicists may switch from one subfield to another. Also, growing
numbers of physicists work in interdisciplinary fields, such as
biophysics, chemical physics, and geophysics.
Physicists often work regular hours in laboratories and offices.
At times, however, those who are deeply involved in research may
work long or irregular hours. Most do not encounter unusual hazards
in their work. Some physicists temporarily work away from home
at national or international facilities with unique equipment,
such as particle accelerators. Astronomers who make observations
with ground-based telescopes may spend long periods in observatories;
this work usually involves travel to remote locations and may
require long hours, including night work.
Physicists and astronomers whose work depends on grant money
often are under pressure to write grant proposals to keep their
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
Because most jobs are in basic research and development, a doctoral
degree is the usual educational requirement for physicists and
astronomers. Additional experience and training in a postdoctoral
research appointment, although not required, is important for
physicists and astronomers aspiring to permanent positions in
basic research in universities and government laboratories. Many
physics and astronomy Ph.D. holders ultimately teach at the college
or university level.
Masterís degree holders usually do not qualify for basic research
positions, but do qualify for many kinds of jobs requiring a physics
background, including positions in manufacturing and applied research
and development. Increasingly, many masterís degree programs are
specifically preparing students for physics-related research and
development that does not require a Ph.D. degree. These programs
teach students specific research skills that can be used in private-industry
jobs. In addition, a masterís degree coupled with State certification
usually qualifies one for teaching jobs in high schools or at
Those with bachelorís degrees in physics are rarely qualified
to fill positions in research or in teaching at the college level.
They are, however, usually qualified to work as technicians or
research assistants in engineering-related areas, in software
development and other scientific fields, or in setting up computer
networks and sophisticated laboratory equipment. Increasingly,
some may qualify for applied research jobs in private industry
or take on nontraditional physics roles, often in computer science,
such as a systems analyst or database administrator. Some become
science teachers in secondary schools. Holders of a bachelorís
or masterís degree in astronomy often enter an unrelated field.
In addition, they are qualified to work in planetariums running
science shows, to assist astronomers doing research, and to operate
space-based and ground-based telescopes and other astronomical
About 510 colleges and universities offer a bachelorís degree
in physics. Undergraduate programs provide a broad background
in the natural sciences and mathematics. Typical physics courses
include electromagnetism, optics, thermodynamics, atomic physics,
and quantum mechanics.
Approximately 185 colleges and universities have departments
offering Ph.D. degrees in physics; an additional 68 colleges offer
a masterís as their highest degree in physics. Graduate students
usually concentrate in a subfield of physics, such as elementary
particles or condensed matter. Many begin studying for their doctorate
immediately after receiving their bachelorís degree.
About 80 universities grant degrees in astronomy, either through
an astronomy, physics, or combined physics-astronomy department.
Currently, about 40 departments are combined with the physics
department and the same number are administered separately. With
fewer than 40 doctoral programs in astronomy, applicants face
considerable competition for available slots. Those planning a
career in the subject should have a very strong physics background.
In fact, an undergraduate degree in either physics or astronomy
is excellent preparation, followed by a Ph.D. in astronomy.
Mathematical ability, problem-solving and analytical skills,
an inquisitive mind, imagination, and initiative are important
traits for anyone planning a career in physics or astronomy. Prospective
physicists who hope to work in industrial laboratories applying
physics knowledge to practical problems should broaden their educational
background to include courses outside of physics, such as economics,
information technology, and business management. Good oral and
written communication skills also are important because many physicists
work as part of a team, write research papers or proposals, or
have contact with clients or customers with nonphysics backgrounds.
Many physics and astronomy Ph.D. holders begin their careers
in a postdoctoral research position, in which they may work with
experienced physicists as they continue to learn about their specialty
and develop ideas and results to be used in later work. Initial
work may be under the close supervision of senior scientists.
After some experience, physicists perform increasingly complex
tasks and work more independently. Those who develop new products
or processes sometimes form their own companies or join new firms
to exploit their own ideas. Experience, either in academic laboratories
or through internships, fellowships, or work-study programs in
industry, also is useful. Some employers of research physicists,
particularly in the information technology industry, prefer to
hire individuals with several years of postdoctoral experience.
Physicists and astronomers held about 16,000 jobs in 2004. Jobs
for astronomers accounted for only 5 percent of the total. About
33 percent of physicists and astronomers worked for scientific
research and development services firms. The Federal Government
employed 25 percent, mostly in the U.S. Department of Defense,
but also in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
(NASA) and in the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Health and Human
Services, and Energy. Other physicists and astronomers worked
in colleges and universities in nonfaculty, usually research,
positions, or for State governments, information technology companies,
pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing companies, or electronic
In 2004, many physicists and astronomers held faculty positions
in colleges and universities. (See the statement on teachersópostsecondary
elsewhere in the Handbook.)
Although physicists and astronomers are employed in all parts
of the country, most work in areas in which universities, large
research and development laboratories, or observatories are located.
Employment of physicists and astronomers is expected to grow
more slowly than average for all occupations through 2014. Federal
research expenditures are the major source of physics-related
and astronomy-related research funds, especially for basic research.
Although these expenditures are expected to increase over the
2004Ė14 projection period, resulting in some growth in employment
and opportunities, the limited science research funds available
still will result in competition for basic research jobs among
Ph.D. holders. The need to replace physicists and astronomers
who retire or otherwise leave the occupation permanently will
account for most expected job openings.
Although research and development expenditures in private industry
will continue to grow, many research laboratories in private industry
are expected to continue to reduce basic research, which includes
much physics research, in favor of applied or manufacturing research
and product and software development. Nevertheless, persons with
a physics background continue to be in demand in the areas of
information technology, semiconductor technology, and other applied
sciences. This trend is expected to continue; however, many of
the new workers will have job titles such as computer software
engineer, computer programmer, or systems analyst or developer,
rather than physicist.
Throughout the 1990s, the number of doctorates granted in physics
was much greater than the number of job openings for physicists,
resulting in keen competition, particularly for research positions
in colleges and universities and in research and development centers.
Recent increases in undergraduate physics enrollments, however,
may lead to growth in enrollments in graduate physics programs,
so that toward the end of the projection period, there may be
an increase in the number of doctoral degrees granted that will
intensify the competition for job openings.
Opportunities may be more numerous for those with a masterís
degree, particularly graduates from programs preparing students
for applied research and development, product design, and manufacturing
positions in private industry. Many of these positions, however,
will have titles other than physicist, such as engineer or computer
Persons with only a bachelorís degree in physics or astronomy
are not qualified to enter most physicist or astronomer research
jobs, but may qualify for a wide range of positions related to
engineering, mathematics, computer science, environmental science,
and, for those with the appropriate background, some nonscience
fields, such as finance. Those who meet State certification requirements
can become high school physics teachers, an occupation in strong
demand in many school districts. Most States require new teachers
to obtain a masterís degree in education within a certain time.
(See the statement on teachersópreschool, kindergarten, elementary, middle,
and secondary elsewhere in the Handbook.) Despite competition
for traditional physics and astronomy research jobs, graduates
with a physics or astronomy degree at any level will find their
knowledge of science and mathematics useful for entry into many
Median annual earnings of physicists were $87,450 in May 2004.
The middle 50 percent earned between $66,590 and $109,420. The
lowest 10 percent earned less than $49,450, and the highest 10
percent earned more than $132,780.
Median annual earnings of astronomers were $97,320 in May 2004.
The middle 50 percent earned between $66,190 and $120,350, the
lowest 10 percent less than $43,410, and the highest 10 percent
more than $137,860.
According to a 2005 National Association of Colleges and Employers
survey, the average annual starting salary offer to physics doctoral
degree candidates was $56,070.
The American Institute of Physics reported a median annual salary
of $104,000 in 2004 for its full-time members with Ph.D.ís (excluding
those in postdoctoral positions); the median was $94,000 for those
with masterís degrees and $72,000 for bachelorís degree holders.
Those working in temporary postdoctoral positions earned significantly
The average annual salary for physicists employed by the Federal
Government was $104,917 in 2005; for astronomy and space scientists,
it was $110,195.