Physicists and Astronomers

Career, Salary and Education Information

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What Physicists and Astronomers Do[About this section] [To Top]

Physicists and astronomers study the ways in which various forms of matter and energy interact. 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.

Duties of Physicists and Astronomers

Physicists and astronomers typically do the following:

  • Develop scientific theories and models that attempt to explain the properties of the natural world, such as the force of gravity or the formation of atoms
  • Plan and conduct scientific experiments and studies to test theories and discover properties of matter and energy
  • Write proposals and apply for research grants
  • Do complex mathematical calculations to analyze physical and astronomical data, such as data that may indicate 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 that may be published in scholarly journals
  • Present research findings at scientific conferences and lectures

Physicists explore the fundamental properties and laws that govern space, time, energy, and matter. Some physicists study theoretical areas, such as the fundamental properties of atoms and molecules and the evolution of the universe. Others design and perform experiments with sophisticated equipment such as particle accelerators, electron microscopes, and lasers. Many apply their knowledge of physics to practical areas, such as developing advanced materials and medical equipment.

Astronomers study planets, stars, galaxies, and other celestial bodies. They use ground-based equipment, such as radio and optical telescopes, and space-based equipment, such as the Hubble Space Telescope. Some astronomers focus their research on objects in our solar system, such as the sun or planets. Others study distant stars, galaxies, and phenomena such as neutron stars and black holes, and some monitor space debris that could interfere with satellite operations.

Many physicists and astronomers work in basic research with the aim of increasing scientific knowledge. These researchers may attempt to develop theories that better explain what gravity is or how the universe works or was formed. Other physicists and astronomers work in applied research. They use the knowledge gained from basic research to affect new developments in areas such as energy, electronics, communications, navigation, and medical technology. For example, because of the work of physicists, lasers are used in surgery and microwave ovens are used in most kitchens.

Astronomers and physicists typically work on research teams together with engineers, technicians, and other scientists. Some senior astronomers and physicists may be responsible for assigning tasks to other team members and monitoring their progress. They may also be responsible for finding funding for their projects and therefore may need to write applications for research grants.

Although all of physics involves the same fundamental principles, physicists generally specialize in one of many subfields. The following are examples of types of physicists:

Astrophysicists study the physics of the universe. “Astrophysics” is a term that is often used interchangeably with “astronomy.”

Atomic, molecular, and optical physicists study atoms, simple molecules, electrons, and light, as well as 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 the development of new materials or computer technology.

Condensed matter physicists study the physical properties of condensed phases of matter, such as liquids and solids. They study phenomena ranging from superconductivity to liquid crystals.

Medical physicists work in healthcare and use their knowledge of physics to develop new medical technologies and radiation-based treatments. For example, some develop better and safer radiation therapies for cancer patients. Others may develop more accurate imaging technologies that use various forms of 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, which are considered a distinct state of matter and occur naturally in stars and interplanetary space and artificially in neon signs and plasma screen televisions. Many plasma physicists study ways to create fusion reactors that might be a future source of energy.

Unlike physicists, astronomers cannot experiment on their subjects, because they are so far away that they cannot be touched or interacted with. Therefore, astronomers generally make observations or work on theory. Observational astronomers observe celestial objects and collect data on them. Theoretical astronomers analyze, model, and theorize about systems and how they work and evolve. Some astronomers specialize further into other subfields. The following are examples of types of astronomers who specialize by the objects and phenomena they study:

Cosmologists and extragalactic astronomers study the entire universe. They study the history, the creation and evolution, and the possible futures of the universe and its galaxies. These scientists have recently developed several theories important to the study of physics and astronomy, including string, dark-matter, and dark-energy theories.

Galactic, planetary, solar, and stellar astronomers study different phenomena that take place in the universe, specializing in certain parts of it. For example, solar astronomers study the sun, while stellar astronomers study other stars and associated phenomena.

High-energy astrophysicists collect and analyze x rays, gamma rays, and other forms of high-energy rays that can help locate and study black holes or neutron stars.

Observational astronomers and optical astronomers use optical telescopes to study their subjects.

Radio astronomers use radio telescopes to analyze the radio spectrum for data about their subjects.

Growing numbers of physicists work in interdisciplinary fields, such as biophysics, chemical physics, and geophysics. For more information, see the profiles on biochemists and biophysicists and geoscientists.

Many people with a physics or astronomy background become professors or teachers. For more information, see the profiles on high school teachers and postsecondary teachers.

Work Environment for Physicists and Astronomers[About this section] [To Top]

Physicists held about 18,100 jobs, and astronomers held about 1,900 jobs, in 2014. The industries that employed the most physicists in 2014 were as follows:

Scientific research and development services 27%
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 21
Federal government, excluding postal service 18
Hospitals; state, local, and private 7
Management, scientific, and technical consulting services 6

The industries that employed the most astronomers in 2014 were as follows:

Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 39%
Scientific research and development services 30
Federal government, excluding postal service 26

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Department of Defense have traditionally been two of the largest employers of physicists and astronomers in the federal government. The scientific research-and-development industry includes both private and federally funded national laboratories, such as the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois and the Goddard Institute in Maryland.

Physics research is usually done in small- or medium-sized laboratories. However, experiments in some areas of physics, such as nuclear and high-energy physics, may require extremely large and expensive equipment, such as particle accelerators and nuclear reactors. Although physics research may require extensive experimentation in laboratories, physicists still spend much of their time in offices, planning, analyzing, fundraising, and reporting on research.

Most astronomers work in offices and may visit observatories a few times a year. An observatory is a building that houses ground-based telescopes used to gather data and make observations. Some astronomers work full time in observatories.

Increasingly, observations are being done remotely via the Internet without the need for travel to an observatory. Observational astronomers rarely look through a telescope with their eyes, but instead use computers and sophisticated telescopes that can detect radiation other than visible light, such as gamma rays or radio waves. Rather than making direct observations, theoretical astronomers typically use the data from observational astronomers to develop their theories.

Some physicists and astronomers work away from home temporarily at national or international facilities that have unique equipment, such as particle accelerators and gamma ray telescopes. They also frequently travel to meetings to present research results, discuss ideas with colleagues, and learn more about new developments in their field.

Physicist and Astronomer Work Schedules

Most physicists and astronomers work full time. Astronomers may need to work at night, because radiation from the sun tends to interfere less with observations made during nighttime hours. Most astronomers typically visit observatories only a few times per year and therefore keep normal office hours.

How to Become a Physicist or Astronomer[About this section] [To Top]

Get the education you need: Find schools for Physicists and Astronomers near you!

Physicists and astronomers typically need a Ph.D. for jobs in research and academia. However, physicist jobs in the federal government typically require a bachelor’s degree in physics. After receiving a Ph.D. in physics or astronomy, many researchers seeking careers in academia begin in temporary postdoctoral research positions.

Physicist and Astronomer Education

A Ph.D. in physics, astronomy, or a related field is needed for jobs in research or academia or for independent research positions in industry.

Graduate students usually concentrate in a subfield of physics or astronomy, such as condensed matter physics or cosmology. In addition to taking courses in physics or astronomy, Ph.D. students need to take courses in mathematics, such as calculus, linear algebra, and statistics. Computer science classes also are essential, because physicists and astronomers often develop specialized computer programs that are used to gather, analyze, and model data.

Those with a master’s degree in physics may qualify for jobs in applied research and development for manufacturing and healthcare companies. Many master’s degree programs specialize in preparing students for physics-related research-and-development positions that do not require a Ph.D.

Most physics and astronomy graduate students have bachelor’s degrees in physics or a related field. Because astronomers need a strong background in physics, a bachelor’s degree in physics is often considered good preparation for Ph.D. programs in astronomy, although an undergraduate degree in astronomy may be preferred by some universities. Undergraduate physics programs provide a broad background in the natural sciences and mathematics. Typical courses include classical and quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, optics, and electromagnetism.

Those with only a bachelor’s degree in physics usually are qualified to work as technicians and research assistants in related fields, such as engineering and computer science. Those with a bachelor’s degree in astronomy also may qualify to work as an assistant at an observatory. Students who do not want to continue their studies to the doctorate level may want to take courses in instrument building and computer science.

Some master’s degree and bachelor’s degree holders find work in the federal government. Others may become science teachers in middle schools and high schools. For more information, see the profiles on middle school teachers and high school teachers.

Physicist and Astronomer Training

Many physics and astronomy Ph.D. holders who seek employment as full-time researchers begin their careers in a temporary postdoctoral research position, which typically lasts 2 to 3 years. During their postdoctoral appointment, they work with experienced scientists and continue to learn about their specialties or develop a broader understanding of related areas of research. Senior scientists may carefully supervise their initial work, but as these postdoctoral workers gain experience, they usually do more complex tasks and have greater independence in their work.

Important Qualities for Physicists and Astronomers

Analytical skills. Physicists and astronomers need to be able to think logically to carry out scientific experiments and studies. They must be precise and accurate in their analyses because errors could invalidate their research. They must also be able to find and use funding effectively.

Communication skills. Physicists and astronomers present their research at scientific conferences, to the public, or to government and business leaders. Physicists and astronomers write technical reports that may be published in scientific journals. They also write proposals for research funding.

Concentration. Physicists and astronomers analyze large datasets to try to discern patterns that will yield information. This work often requires the ability to focus for hours over the course of many days.

Critical-thinking skills. Physicists and astronomers must carefully evaluate their own work and the work of others. They must determine whether results and conclusions are accurate and based on sound science.

Curiosity. Physicists and astronomers work in fields that are always on the cutting edge of technology. They must be very keen to learn continuously throughout their career. Indepth knowledge must be gained on a wide range of technical subjects, from computer programming to particle colliders.

Interpersonal skills. Physicists and astronomers must collaborate extensively with others in both academic and industrial research contexts. They need to be able to work well with others toward a common goal. Interpersonal skills also should help researchers secure funding for their projects.

Math skills. Physicists and astronomers perform complex calculations involving calculus, geometry, algebra, and other areas of mathematics. They must be able to express their research in mathematical terms.

Problem-solving skills. Physicists and astronomers use scientific observation and analysis, as well as creative thinking, to solve complex scientific problems.

Self-discipline. Physicists and astronomers spend a lot of time working alone and need to be able to stay motivated in their work.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Some positions with the federal government, such as those involving nuclear energy and other sensitive research areas, may require applicants to be U.S. citizens and hold a security clearance.

Advancement for Physicists and Astronomers

With experience, physicists and astronomers may gain greater independence in their work, as well as larger research budgets. Those in university positions may also gain tenure with more experience. Some physicists and astronomers move into managerial positions, typically as a natural sciences manager, and spend a large part of their time preparing budgets and schedules. Physicists and astronomers need a Ph.D. for most management positions. For more information, see the profile on natural sciences managers.

Physics as a discipline seeks to describe the physical universe at a deep and detailed level but is not limited to a specific body of knowledge. Rather, it is characterized as a broad set of problem-solving skills and strategies based on scientific principles that can be applied in many contexts. Employers requiring someone who can understand complex, often mathematically sophisticated problems and devise effective solutions to them often hire physicists for other types of jobs.

Physicist and Astronomer Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

The median annual wage for astronomers was $104,100 in May 2015. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $52,460, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $166,320.

The median annual wage for physicists was $111,580 in May 2015. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $55,610, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $185,230.

In May 2015, the median annual wages for physicists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Hospitals; state, local, and private $163,210
Scientific research and development services 126,080
Management, scientific, and technical consulting services 113,980
Federal government, excluding postal service 113,310
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 63,840

In May 2015, the median annual wages for astronomers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Federal government, excluding postal service $144,220
Scientific research and development services 114,760
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 73,010

Most physicists and astronomers work full time. Astronomers may need to work at night, because radiation from the sun tends to interfere less with observations made during nighttime hours. Most astronomers typically visit observatories only a few times per year and therefore keep normal office hours.

Job Outlook for Physicists and Astronomers[About this section] [To Top]

Employment of physicists and astronomers is projected to grow 7 percent from 2014 to 2024, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

Growth in the federal government’s spending for research in physics and astronomy is expected to be more or less flat, but it should continue to drive the need for physicists and astronomers, especially at colleges, universities, and national laboratories.

Federal spending is the primary source of physics- and astronomy-related research funds, especially for basic research. Additional federal funding for energy and for advanced manufacturing research is expected to continue to drive the need for physicists.

People with a physics background will continue to be in demand in medicine, information technology, communications technology, semiconductor technology, and other applied research-and-development fields.

Physicists and Astronomers Job Prospects

Competition for permanent research appointments, such as those at colleges and universities, is expected to be strong. Increasingly, those with a Ph.D. may need to work through multiple postdoctoral appointments before finding a permanent position. In addition, the number of research proposals submitted for funding has been growing faster than the amount of funds available, causing more competition for research grants.

Despite competition for traditional research jobs, prospects should be good for physicists in applied research, development, and related technical fields. Graduates with any academic degree in physics or astronomy, from a bachelor’s degree to a doctorate, will find their knowledge of science and mathematics useful for entry into many other occupations. Database management skills also are beneficial, because of the large datasets these professionals work with.

A large part of physics and astronomy research depends on federal funds, so federal budgets have a substantial impact on job prospects from year to year, especially for astronomers, who are more likely than physicists to depend on federal funding for their work.

Employment projections data for Physicists and Astronomers, 2014-24
Occupational Title Employment, 2014 Projected Employment, 2024 Change, 2014-24
Percent Numeric
Astronomers and physicists 20,000 21,400 7 1,500
  Astronomers 1,900 1,900 3 100
  Physicists 18,100 19,500 8 1,400

*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Used by permission.

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