Physicists and Astronomers

Summary

physicists and astronomers image
Physicists and astronomers conduct scientific research with specialized equipment such as lasers.
Quick Facts: Physicists and Astronomers
2012 Median Pay $106,360 per year
$51.14 per hour
Entry-Level Education Doctoral or professional degree
Work Experience in a Related Occupation None
On-the-job Training None
Number of Jobs, 2012 23,300
Job Outlook, 2012-22 10% (As fast as average)
Employment Change, 2012-22 2,400

What Physicists and Astronomers Do

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. Physicists and astronomers in applied fields may develop new military technologies or new sources of energy, or monitor space debris that could endanger satellites.

Work Environment

Physicists and astronomers spend much of their time working in offices, but they also conduct research in laboratories and observatories. Most physicists and astronomers work full time.

How to Become a Physicist or Astronomer

Physicists and astronomers need a Ph.D. for most research jobs. Many physics and astronomy Ph.D. holders typically begin their careers in temporary postdoctoral research positions.

Pay

In May 2012, the median annual wage for physicists was $106,840. The median annual wage for astronomers was $96,460 in May 2012.

Job Outlook

Employment of physicists and astronomers is projected to grow 10 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Expected growth in federal government spending for physics and astronomy research should increase the need for physicists and astronomers, especially at colleges and universities and national laboratories.

Similar Occupations

Compare the job duties, education, job growth, and pay of physicists and astronomers with similar occupations.

More Information, Including Links to O*NET

Learn more about physicists and astronomers by visiting additional resources, including O*NET, a source on key characteristics of workers and occupations.

What Physicists and Astronomers Do

Physicists and astronomers
Physics research has led to advances in many fields, such as the development of magnetic resonance imaging technology used in medicine.

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. Physicists and astronomers in applied fields may develop new military technologies or new sources of energy, or monitor space debris that could endanger satellites.

Duties

Physicists and astronomers typically do the following:

  • Develop scientific theories and models that attempt to explain the properties of the natural world, such as atom formation or the force of gravity
  • 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. Through observation and analysis, they try to discover and formulate laws that explain the forces of nature, such as gravity, electromagnetism, and nuclear interactions. Others apply their knowledge of physics to practical areas, such as the development of 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. With these they make observations and collect data on the motions, compositions, and other properties of the objects they study. Some astronomers focus their research on objects in our own 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 do 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 do applied research. They use the knowledge gained from basic research to develop new devices, processes, and other practical applications. Their work may lead to advances in areas such as energy, electronics, communications, navigation, and medical technology. Because of these workers, lasers can now be used in surgery and microwave ovens are in most kitchens.

Astronomers and physicists typically work on research teams 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:

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.

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

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. 

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.

Atomic, molecular, and optical physicists study atoms, simple molecules, electrons, and light, and their interactions. Some look for ways to control the states of individual atoms, which might allow for further miniaturization, or contribute toward the development of new materials or computer technology.  

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 possible fusion reactors that might be a future source of energy.

Unlike physicists, astronomers cannot do experiments 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 and collect data. Theoretical astronomers analyze, model, and theorize about how systems 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:

Planetary astronomers focus on the birth, evolution, and death of planets. They may try to discover planets outside our galaxy.

Stellar astronomers study stars, black holes, nebulae, white dwarfs, and supernovas.

Solar astronomers study the sun. They study the sun’s many complex systems, such as its atmospheres, magnetic field, and they investigate new ways to study it.

Galactic astronomers study the Milky Way galaxy, the galaxy in which we live.

Cosmologists and extragalactic astronomers study the entire universe. They study the history, 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.

The following are examples of astronomers who specialize by how they study objects and phenomena:

High-energy astrophysicists study objects or phenomena by collecting and analyzing x rays, gamma rays, and other forms of high-energy rays that can help locate and study black holes or neutron stars.

Optical astronomers use optical telescopes, which collect visible light, to study their subjects. Telescopes that collect visible light often have digital cameras that create an image on computer screens.

Radio astronomers analyze the radio spectrum for data about their subjects. These astronomers often study quasars, which are the high-energy nuclei of distant galaxies, and were the first to find compelling evidence for the Big Bang theory.

Theoretical astronomers generally do not collect data through observation, but analyze large data sets that others collect to create new theories or find new anomalies.

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

Physicists and astronomers
Many astronomers work at observatories and use powerful telescopes to study the universe.

Physicists held about 20,600 jobs and astronomers held about 2,700 jobs in 2012. The industries that employed the most physicists in 2012 were as follows: 

Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences29%
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private19
Federal government, excluding postal service16
Management, scientific, and technical consulting services7
Hospitals; state, local, and private5

The industries that employed the most astronomers in 2012 were as follows: 

Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private54%
Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences21
Federal government, excluding postal service19

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Department of Defense are 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 may work full time in observatories.

Increasingly, observations are done remotely via the Internet without the need for travel to an observatory. Observational astronomers rarely look through a telescope with their eyes, but rather 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 temporarily work away from home 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.

Work Schedules

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

How to Become a Physicist or Astronomer

Physicists and astronomers
Physicists and astronomers study the origins of the universe.

Physicists and astronomers need a Ph.D. for most jobs. After receiving a Ph.D. in physics or astronomy, many researchers seeking careers in academia begin in temporary postdoctoral research positions.

Education

A Ph.D. in physics, astronomy, or a related field is needed for most jobs, especially jobs that do basic research 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 are also 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, though 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 or astronomy typically are not qualified to fill research positions. However, they may be 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 may also 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 may become science teachers in middle schools and high schools. For more information, see the profiles on middle school teachers and high school teachers.

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 as they continue to learn about their specialties or develop a broader understanding of related areas of research. Their initial work may be carefully supervised by senior scientists, but as they gain experience, they usually do more complex tasks and have greater independence in their work.

Important Qualities

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 analysis 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.

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 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 for their career. In-depth 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 should also 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 to solve complex scientific questions. Creative thinking may be needed to solve these complex scientific problems.

Self-discipline. Physicists and astronomers spend a lot of time working alone and need to be able to stay motivated as well as accurate 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

With experience, physicists and astronomers may gain greater independence in their work, larger research budgets, or tenure in university positions. 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.

Pay

Physicists and Astronomers

Median annual wages, May 2012

Physicists

$106,840

Physicists and astronomers

$106,360

Astronomers

$96,460

Total, all occupations

$34,750

 

The median annual wage for physicists was $106,840 in May 2012. 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 $57,640, and the top 10 percent earned at least $176,630.

In May 2012, the median annual wages for physicists in the top five industries in which these scientists worked were as follows:

Hospitals; state, local, and private$152,280
Management, scientific, and technical consulting
services
130,980
Federal government, excluding postal service111,020
Research and development in the physical, engineering,
and life sciences
104,650
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state,
local, and private
81,180

The median annual wage for astronomers was $96,460 in May 2012. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $51,270, and the top 10 percent earned more than $165,300.

In May 2012, the median annual wages for astronomers in the top three industries in which these scientists worked were as follows:

Federal government, excluding postal service$139,140
Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences93,870
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private77,870

Pay for physicists or astronomers in postdoctoral positions is typically near the lower 10 percent values shown above.

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

Job Outlook

Physicists and Astronomers

Percent change in employment, projected 2012-22

Total, all occupations

11%

Physicists and astronomers

10%

Physicists

10%

Astronomers

10%

 

Employment of physicists and astronomers is expected to increase by 14 percent from 2010 to 2020, as fast as the average for all occupations.

Expected growth in federal government spending for physics and astronomy research should increase the need for physicists and astronomers, especially at colleges and 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 increase the need for physicists. Funding growth for astronomy research is expected to be smaller because of the limited applications of work in astronomy.

Declines in basic research are expected to be offset by growth in applied research in private industry. 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.

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. 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 bachelor’s degree to doctorate, will find their knowledge of science and mathematics useful for entry into many other occupations.

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

Employment projections data for Physicists and Astronomers, 2012-22
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2012 Projected Employment, 2022 Change, 2012-22 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Astronomers and physicists

23,300 25,700 10 2,400

Astronomers

19-2011 2,700 2,900 10 300 [XLS]

Physicists

19-2012 20,600 22,700 10 2,100 [XLS]

Similar Occupations

This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of physicists and astronomers.

Occupation Job Duties ENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION 2012 MEDIAN PAY
Aerospace engineers

Aerospace Engineers

Aerospace engineers design aircraft, spacecraft, satellites, and missiles. In addition, they test prototypes to make sure that they function according to design.

Bachelor’s degree $103,720
Biochemists and biophysicists

Biochemists and Biophysicists

Biochemists and biophysicists study the chemical and physical principles of living things and of biological processes, such as cell development, growth, and heredity.

Doctoral or professional degree $81,480
Chemists and materials scientists

Chemists and Materials Scientists

Chemists and materials scientists study substances at the atomic and molecular levels and the ways in which substances react with each other. They use their knowledge to develop new and improved products and to test the quality of manufactured goods.

Bachelor’s degree $73,060
Civil engineers

Civil Engineers

Civil engineers design, construct, supervise, operate, and maintain large construction projects and systems, including roads, buildings, airports, tunnels, dams, bridges, and systems for water supply and sewage treatment.

Bachelor’s degree $79,340
Computer and information research scientists

Computer and Information Research Scientists

Computer and information research scientists invent and design new approaches to computing technology and find innovative uses for existing technology. They study and solve complex problems in computing for business, medicine, science, and other fields.

Doctoral or professional degree $102,190
Computer hardware engineers

Computer Hardware Engineers

Computer hardware engineers research, design, develop, and test computer systems and components such as processors, circuit boards, memory devices, networks, and routers. By creating new directions in computer hardware, these engineers create rapid advances in computer technology.

Bachelor’s degree $100,920
Electrical and electronics engineers

Electrical and Electronics Engineers

Electrical engineers design, develop, test, and supervise the manufacturing of electrical equipment, such as electric motors, radar and navigation systems, communications systems, and power generation equipment. Electronics engineers design and develop electronic equipment, such as broadcast and communications systems—from portable music players to global positioning systems (GPS).

Bachelor’s degree $89,630
Geoscientists

Geoscientists

Geoscientists study the physical aspects of the Earth, such as its composition, structure, and processes, to learn about its past, present, and future.

Bachelor’s degree $90,890
Mathematicians

Mathematicians

Mathematicians use advanced mathematics to develop and understand mathematical principles, analyze data, and solve real-world problems.

Master’s degree $101,360
Mechanical engineers

Mechanical Engineers

Mechanical engineering is one of the broadest engineering disciplines. Mechanical engineers design, develop, build, and test mechanical and thermal devices, including tools, engines, and machines.

Bachelor’s degree $80,580
Nuclear engineers

Nuclear Engineers

Nuclear engineers research and develop the processes, instruments, and systems used to derive benefits from nuclear energy and radiation. Many of these engineers find industrial and medical uses for radioactive materials—for example, in equipment used in medical diagnosis and treatment.

Bachelor’s degree $104,270
Postsecondary teachers

Postsecondary Teachers

Postsecondary teachers instruct students in a wide variety of academic and vocational subjects beyond the high school level. They also conduct research and publish scholarly papers and books.

See How to Become One $68,970
Suggested citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Physicists and Astronomers,
on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/physicists-and-astronomers.htm (visited April 23, 2014).

Publish Date: Wednesday, January 8, 2014