Physicist or Astronomer

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.

Interest Area: 
Thinking
Average Yearly Pay: 
$102095
Education Needed: 
Graduate Degree
Job Prospects: 
Average
Job Growth: 
16%

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Job 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
  • Career Overview: 

    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 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 sciences 29%
    Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 19
    Federal government, excluding postal service 16
    Management, scientific, and technical consulting services 7
    Hospitals; state, local, and private 5

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

    Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 54%
    Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences 21
    Federal government, excluding postal service 19

    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.

    Education and Training: 

    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: 

    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 service 111,020
    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 sciences 93,870
    Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 77,870

    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: 

    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.

    For More Information: 

    For more information about astronomy careers and for a listing of colleges and universities offering astronomy programs, visit

    American Astronomical Society

    For more information about physics careers and education, visit  

    American Institute of Physics

    American Physical Society

    To find job openings for physicists and astronomers in the federal government, visit

    USAJOBS

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