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Working As A Physicist

  • Thinking Creatively
  • Interacting With Computers
  • Interpreting the Meaning of Information for Others
  • Processing Information
  • Making Decisions and Solving Problems
  • Mostly Sitting

  • Make Decisions

  • $96,000

    Average Salary

What Does A Physicist 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. Some physicists design and perform experiments with sophisticated equipment such as particle accelerators, electron microscopes, and lasers.


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.

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How To Become A Physicist

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.


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.


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.


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.

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Average Yearly Salary
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Median 50%
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Max 90%
Best Paying Company
Aurora Medical Group
Highest Paying City
Albuquerque, NM
Highest Paying State
Avg Experience Level
5.1 years
How much does a Physicist make at top companies?
The national average salary for a Physicist in the United States is $96,376 per year or $46 per hour. Those in the bottom 10 percent make under $52,000 a year, and the top 10 percent make over $176,000.

The largest raises come from changing jobs.

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Real Physicist Salaries

Job Title Company Location Start Date Salary
Physicist III Montefiore Medical Center Jan 12, 2016 $196,000
Physicist-Continuing Brookhaven National Laboratory Nov 04, 2016 $184,000
Physicist Brookhaven National Laboratory Apr 15, 2015 $183,100
Physicist Lahey Clinic Hospital, Inc. Nov 26, 2016 $182,000 -
Physicist Lahey Clinic Hospital, Inc. May 08, 2016 $182,000
Physicist Lahey Clinic Hospital, Inc. Sep 14, 2015 $182,000 -
Physicist Brookhaven National Laboratory Jun 09, 2016 $180,588
Physicist Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC Aug 03, 2015 $180,000
Physicist Brookhaven National Laboratory Jun 09, 2016 $180,000
Physicist Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC Jun 01, 2015 $180,000
Radiation Physicist Mayo Clinic Nov 16, 2016 $175,250
Physicist MS 2 Loma Linda University Medical Center Apr 14, 2016 $174,324
Radiation Physicist Dignity Health Nov 01, 2015 $174,000
Physicist Brookhaven National Laboratory Oct 01, 2015 $127,100
MRI Physicist II The Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital Dec 19, 2016 $125,000
Radiation Physicist University of Kansas Hospital Authority Oct 01, 2015 $125,000
Senior Physicist Michigan State University Nov 02, 2016 $125,000
Physicist II St. Jude Children's Research Hospital Apr 08, 2016 $124,398 -
Physicist II St. Jude Children's Research Hospital Jan 08, 2016 $124,398 -
Physicist Euclid Techlabs, LLC Jan 01, 2015 $120,399
Physicist Brookhaven National Laboratory Jun 22, 2015 $120,399
Physicist-Engineering SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory Jul 01, 2015 $102,438
Engineering Physicist SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory Jul 01, 2015 $102,438
Physicist Schlumberger Technology Corporation Feb 04, 2015 $102,050
Physicist-Engineering Stanford University/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory Jan 10, 2016 $100,048 -
Product Physicist Sun Nuclear Corporation Nov 29, 2016 $100,040
Assistant Physicist Brookhaven National Laboratory Jan 15, 2015 $99,133
Optics Physicist Schlumberger Technology Corporation Sep 02, 2015 $98,488

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Top Skills for A Physicist

  1. Treatment Planning System
  2. Radiation Safety
  3. Laser
You can check out examples of real life uses of top skills on resumes here:
  • Managed numerous patient critical radiation treatment planning systems.
  • Conducted radiation safety analysis and wrote safety procedures.
  • Pulsed Tm fiber laser/amplifier specification, characterization, and implementation as a driver for non-linear converters.
  • Commissioned of ArcCheck (SunNuclear) for patient-specific QA of IMRT, RapidArc, and SBRT as medical physics resident.
  • Purchased an HDR GammaMed 12it system.


Average Salary:

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Top 10 Best States for Physicists

  1. New Mexico
  2. Maine
  3. Rhode Island
  4. Massachusetts
  5. Maryland
  6. New Hampshire
  7. Connecticut
  8. Pennsylvania
  9. Mississippi
  10. Arkansas
  • (10 jobs)
  • (5 jobs)
  • (3 jobs)
  • (27 jobs)
  • (32 jobs)
  • (3 jobs)
  • (10 jobs)
  • (37 jobs)
  • (8 jobs)
  • (0 jobs)

Physicist Demographics












Hispanic or Latino


Black or African American



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Physicist Education


University of Pennsylvania


University of Washington


Georgia Institute of Technology -


University of Massachusetts - Lowell


University of New Mexico


University of Colorado at Boulder


Johns Hopkins University


University of California - Berkeley


Stanford University


Columbia University


Michigan State University


Yale University


University of Kansas


Syracuse University


Rice University


University of Florida


University of California - Los Angeles


Ohio State University


University of Minnesota - Twin Cities


Texas A&M University

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Public Health


Electrical Engineering


Medical Technician


Computer Science




Nuclear Engineering


Engineering Physics






Biomedical Engineering


Chemical Engineering


Legal Research And Advanced Professional Studies


Mechanical Engineering


Biochemistry, Biophysics, Molecular Biology


Astronomy And Astrophysics


Electrical Engineering Technology


Nuclear And Industrial Radiologic Technologies





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