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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
Physicists and astronomers typically do the following:
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.
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.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.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
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
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.
Average Length of Employment
Top Careers Before Physicist
Top Careers After Physicist
Hispanic or Latino6.3%
Black or African American0.6%
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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute8.3%
Wayne State University7.3%
University of Utah7.3%
University of Virginia6.3%
University of Pennsylvania6.3%
University of Alabama5.2%
Georgia Institute of Technology -5.2%
Michigan State University5.2%
University of New Mexico5.2%
College of William and Mary4.2%
Johns Hopkins University4.2%
University of Massachusetts - Lowell4.2%
University of Wisconsin - Madison4.2%
University of Texas at Austin4.2%
University of Illinois University Administration4.2%
Michigan Technological University3.1%
Texas A&M University3.1%
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|Job Title||Company||Location||Start Date||Salary|
|Physicist III||Montefiore Medical Center||New York, NY||Jan 12, 2016||$196,000|
|Physicist-Continuing||Brookhaven National Laboratory||NY||Nov 04, 2016||$184,000|
|Physicist||Brookhaven National Laboratory||NY||Apr 15, 2015||$183,100|
|Physicist||Lahey Clinic Hospital, Inc.||Burlington, MA||Sep 14, 2015||$182,000 -
|Physicist||Lahey Clinic Hospital, Inc.||Burlington, MA||May 08, 2016||$182,000|
|Physicist||Lahey Clinic Hospital, Inc.||Burlington, MA||Nov 26, 2016||$182,000 -
|Physicist||Brookhaven National Laboratory||NY||Jun 09, 2016||$180,588|
|Physicist||Brookhaven National Laboratory||NY||Jun 09, 2016||$180,000|
|Physicist||Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC||Livermore, CA||Aug 03, 2015||$180,000|
|Physicist||Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC||Livermore, CA||Jun 01, 2015||$180,000|
|Radiation Physicist||Mayo Clinic||Rochester, MN||Nov 16, 2016||$175,250|
|Radiation Physicist||Dignity Health||Phoenix, AZ||Nov 01, 2015||$174,000|
|Proton Lead Physicist||William Beaumont Hospital||Royal Oak, MI||Jun 01, 2015||$170,144|
|Clinical Physicist||Medstar-Georgetown Medical Center, Inc.||Washington, DC||Sep 21, 2015||$140,005|
|Engineering Physicist||SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory||Menlo Park, CA||Apr 01, 2016||$140,000|
|Engineering Physicist||SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory||Menlo Park, CA||Jan 04, 2016||$140,000|
|Treatment Planning Physicist||Florida Proton Therapy Institute||Jacksonville, FL||Sep 09, 2016||$139,800|
|Radiotherapy Physicist||Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center||New York, NY||Aug 22, 2016||$139,000|
|Radiotherapy Physicist||Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center||Harrison, NY||Aug 22, 2016||$139,000|
|Staff Physicist||JHU Applied Physics Laboratory||Laurel, MD||Jan 09, 2016||$128,000|
|Physicist||Brookhaven National Laboratory||NY||Oct 01, 2015||$127,516|
|Engineering Physicist||SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory||Menlo Park, CA||Sep 21, 2015||$111,000|
|Clinical Physicist||Johns Hopkins University||Baltimore, MD||Dec 01, 2015||$110,000|
|Staff Physicist||Michigan State University||East Lansing, MI||Jan 07, 2016||$110,000|
|Clinical Physicist||Johns Hopkins University||Baltimore, MD||Jan 12, 2015||$110,000|
|Physicist||MX Imaging Inc.||Torrance, CA||Jun 29, 2015||$108,846|
|Physicist||MX Imaging Inc.||Torrance, CA||Aug 28, 2015||$108,846|
|Assoc. Physicist||Brookhaven National Laboratory||NY||Jan 10, 2016||$104,538|
|Assoc. Physicist||Brookhaven National Laboratory||NY||Jan 10, 2016||$104,200|
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So You Want a Degree in Physics
What can you do with a physics degree? Take 2
career in physics: life after college