Summary

physicists and astronomers image
Some physicists study theoretical areas, while others design and perform experiments.
Quick Facts: Physicists and Astronomers
2016 Median Pay $114,870 per year
$55.23 per hour
Typical Entry-Level Education Doctoral or professional degree
Work Experience in a Related Occupation None
On-the-job Training None
Number of Jobs, 2016 19,900
Job Outlook, 2016-26 14% (Faster than average)
Employment Change, 2016-26 2,800

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

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 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.

Pay

The median annual wage for astronomers was $104,740 in May 2016.

The median annual wage for physicists was $115,870 in May 2016.

Job Outlook

Overall employment of physicists and astronomers is projected to grow 14 percent from 2016 to 2026, faster than the average for all occupations. Federal government spending for physics and astronomy research is not likely to grow as in past years, and this will dampen the need for physicists and astronomers at institutions heavily dependent on such funding.

State & Area Data

Explore resources for employment and wages by state and area for physicists and astronomers.

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 About this section

Physicists and astronomers
Physicists plan and conduct scientific experiments and studies to test theories and to discover properties of matter and energy.

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:

  • 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 sub-atomic particles
  • Plan and conduct scientific experiments and studies to test theories and discover properties of matter and energy
  • Write proposals and apply for funding to conduct research
  • Do complex mathematical calculations to analyze physical and astronomical data, such as data that may indicate the existence of planets in distant solar systems or new properties of materials
  • 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 objectives, 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 or the coming James Webb Space Telescope. Some astronomers study distant stars, galaxies, and phenomena such as neutron stars and black holes, and others 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 effect new developments in areas such as energy storage, electronics, communications, navigation, and medical technology.

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 funding.

Experimental physicists develop new equipment or sensors to study properties of matter, create theories, and test them through experiments. Theoretical and computational physicists develop new theories that can predict properties of materials, or describe unexplained experimental results. 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 and materials physicists study the physical properties of matter in molecules, nanostructures, or novel compounds. They study a wide range of phenomena, such as superconductivity, liquid crystals, sensors, and nanomachines.

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. 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 creation, evolution, and 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 phenomena that take place in the universe at the scale of stars, planets, and solar systems. For example, these astronomers study the sun, stellar evolution, planetary formation, and interactions between stars

Optical and radio astronomers use optical or radio telescopes to study motions and evolution of stars, galaxies, and the larger scale structure of the universe.

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 About this section

Physicists and astronomers
Some astronomers work away from home temporarily at national or international facilities that have unique equipment.

Astronomers held about 2,000 jobs in 2016. The largest employers of astronomers were as follows:

Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 40%
Federal government, excluding postal service 23

Physicists held about 17,900 jobs in 2016. The largest employers of physicists were as follows:

Scientific research and development services 30%
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 22
Federal government, excluding postal service 19
Hospitals; state, local, and private 8
Ambulatory healthcare services 4

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and agencies within 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 Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, 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.

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.

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. 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

Physicists and astronomers
Astronomers study planets, stars, galaxies, and other celestial bodies.

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 math, 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 a bachelor’s degree in physics or a related field. 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.

Students may choose to complete an internship during their undergraduate curriculum in order to gain additional hands-on experience. The American Astronomical Society has a directory of internships for astronomy students, and the American Physical Society lists internships for students in physics.

Jobseekers 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 doctoral 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.

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 think logically in order to carry out scientific experiments and studies. They must be precise and accurate in their analyses because errors could invalidate their research.

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 accurate and based on sound science.

Curiosity. Physicists and astronomers work in fields that are on the cutting edge of technology. They must be very keen to learn continuously throughout their careers in order to keep up with advances in a wide range of technical subjects.

Interpersonal skills. Physicists and astronomers must collaborate extensively with others in both academic and industrial research contexts. They need 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 math. They must 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. Physicists and astronomers may need to redesign their approach and find a solution when an experiment or theory fails to produce the needed information or result.

Self-discipline. Physicists and astronomers need to stay motivated, since they spend a lot of time analyzing large datasets to try to discern patterns that will yield information. This work requires the ability to focus for long periods.

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.

Pay About this section

Physicists and Astronomers

Median annual wages, May 2016

Physicists

$115,870

Physicists and astronomers

$114,870

Astronomers

$104,740

Physical scientists

$77,790

Total, all occupations

$37,040

 

The median annual wage for astronomers was $104,740 in May 2016. 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 $54,960, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $165,140.

The median annual wage for physicists was $115,870 in May 2016. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $57,640, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $189,560.

In May 2016, the median annual wages for astronomers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Federal government, excluding postal service $145,780
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 74,620

In May 2016, the median annual wages for physicists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Hospitals; state, local, and private $166,330
Ambulatory healthcare services 135,740
Scientific research and development services 131,280
Federal government, excluding postal service 116,250
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 66,930

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. Astronomers typically visit observatories only a few times per year and therefore keep normal office hours.

Job Outlook About this section

Physicists and Astronomers

Percent change in employment, projected 2016-26

Physicists

14%

Physicists and astronomers

14%

Astronomers

10%

Physical scientists

10%

Total, all occupations

7%

 

Overall employment of physicists and astronomers is projected to grow 14 percent from 2016 to 2026, faster than the average for all occupations.

Physicists are projected to have employment growth in scientific research and development services, educational services, and healthcare and social assistance. The fast growth will result in only about 2,600 new jobs over the 10-year period.

Astronomers is a small occupation, and the fast growth will result in only about 200 new jobs over the 10-year period.

Federal spending is the primary source of physics- and astronomy-related research funds, especially for basic research. Growth in the federal government’s spending for research in physics and astronomy is expected to be more or less flat, and this will dampen the need for physicists and astronomers at institutions heavily dependent on such funding.

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 math 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.

Employment projections data for physicists and astronomers, 2016-26
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2016 Projected Employment, 2026 Change, 2016-26 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

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

Astronomers and physicists

19-2010 19,900 22,700 14 2,800 employment projections excel document xlsx

Physicists

19-2012 17,900 20,500 14 2,600 employment projections excel document xlsx

Astronomers

19-2011 2,000 2,200 10 200 employment projections excel document xlsx

State & Area Data About this section

Occupational Employment Statistics (OES)

The Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) program produces employment and wage estimates annually for over 800 occupations. These estimates are available for the nation as a whole, for individual states, and for metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas. The link(s) below go to OES data maps for employment and wages by state and area.

Projections Central

Occupational employment projections are developed for all states by Labor Market Information (LMI) or individual state Employment Projections offices. All state projections data are available at www.projectionscentral.com. Information on this site allows projected employment growth for an occupation to be compared among states or to be compared within one state. In addition, states may produce projections for areas; there are links to each state’s websites where these data may be retrieved.

CareerOneStop

CareerOneStop includes hundreds of occupational profiles with data available by state and metro area. There are links in the left-hand side menu to compare occupational employment by state and occupational wages by local area or metro area. There is also a salary info tool to search for wages by zip code.

Similar Occupations About this section

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 Help 2016 MEDIAN PAY Help
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, heredity, and disease.

Doctoral or professional degree $82,180
Chemists and materials scientists

Chemists and Materials Scientists

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

Bachelor's degree $75,420
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.

Master's degree $111,840
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.

Bachelor's degree $115,080
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, including broadcast and communications systems, such as portable music players and Global Positioning System (GPS) devices.

Bachelor's degree $96,270
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 $89,780
Materials engineers

Materials Engineers

Materials engineers develop, process, and test materials used to create a wide range of products, from computer chips and aircraft wings to golf clubs and biomedical devices. They study the properties and structures of metals, ceramics, plastics, composites, nanomaterials (extremely small substances), and other substances in order to create new materials that meet certain mechanical, electrical, and chemical requirements.

Bachelor's degree $93,310
Mathematicians

Mathematicians and Statisticians

Mathematicians and statisticians analyze data and apply mathematical and statistical techniques to help solve real-world problems in business, engineering, healthcare, or other fields.

Master's degree $81,950
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 $102,220
Postsecondary teachers

Postsecondary Teachers

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

See How to Become One $75,430

Contacts for More Information About this section

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

American Astronomical Society

For a listing of colleges and universities offering physics programs, visit

Physics Careers Resource

For more information about physics careers and education, visit

American Institute of Physics

American Physical Society

For information about internship programs, visit

American Astronomical Society

American Physical Society

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

USAJOBS

O*NET

Astronomers

Physicists

Suggested citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Physicists and Astronomers,
on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/physicists-and-astronomers.htm (visited November 15, 2017).

Last Modified Date: Tuesday, October 24, 2017

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State & Area Data

The State and Area Data tab provides links to state and area occupational data from the Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) program, state projections data from Projections Central, and occupational information from the Department of Labor's CareerOneStop.

Job Outlook

The Job Outlook tab describes the factors that affect employment growth or decline in the occupation, and in some instances, describes the relationship between the number of job seekers and the number of job openings.

Similar Occupations

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Contacts for More Information

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2016 Median Pay

The wage at which half of the workers in the occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. Median wage data are from the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics survey. In May 2016, the median annual wage for all workers was $37,040.

On-the-job Training

Additional training needed (postemployment) to attain competency in the skills needed in this occupation.

Entry-level Education

Typical level of education that most workers need to enter this occupation.

Work experience in a related occupation

Work experience that is commonly considered necessary by employers, or is a commonly accepted substitute for more formal types of training or education.

Number of Jobs, 2016

The employment, or size, of this occupation in 2016, which is the base year of the 2016-26 employment projections.

Job Outlook, 2016-26

The projected percent change in employment from 2016 to 2026. The average growth rate for all occupations is 7 percent.

Employment Change, 2016-26

The projected numeric change in employment from 2016 to 2026.

Entry-level Education

Typical level of education that most workers need to enter this occupation.

On-the-job Training

Additional training needed (postemployment) to attain competency in the skills needed in this occupation.

Employment Change, projected 2016-26

The projected numeric change in employment from 2016 to 2026.

Growth Rate (Projected)

The percent change of employment for each occupation from 2016 to 2026.

Projected Number of New Jobs

The projected numeric change in employment from 2016 to 2026.

Projected Growth Rate

The projected percent change in employment from 2016 to 2026.

2016 Median Pay

The wage at which half of the workers in the occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. Median wage data are from the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics survey. In May 2016, the median annual wage for all workers was $37,040.