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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 interactions of matter and energy. 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 to explain the properties of the natural world, such as the force of gravity or the formation of subatomic particles
  • Plan and conduct scientific experiments and studies to test theories and discover properties of matter and energy
  • Write proposals and apply for research funding
  • Do mathematical calculations to analyze physical and astronomical data, such as for new material properties or 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 for publication
  • Present research findings at conferences and lectures

Physicists explore the fundamental properties and laws that govern space, time, energy, and matter. They may study theory, design and perform experiments, or apply their knowledge in developing materials or equipment.

Astronomers study planets, stars, and other celestial bodies. They use ground-based equipment, such as optical telescopes, and space-based equipment, such as the Hubble Space Telescope. Some astronomers study distant galaxies and phenomena such as black holes and neutron stars. Others monitor space debris that could interfere with satellite operations.

Many physicists and astronomers work in applied research. They use their knowledge to develop technology or solve problems in areas such as energy storage, electronics, communications, and navigation. Others work in basic research to develop theories that explain concepts such as what gravity is or how the universe was formed.

Astronomers and physicists typically work on research teams with engineers, technicians, and other scientists. Senior astronomers and physicists may assign tasks to other team members and monitor their progress. They also may need to find and apply for research funding.

Experimental physicists develop equipment or sensors to study properties of matter, create theories, and test theories through experiments. Theoretical and computational physicists develop concepts that predict properties of materials or describe unexplained results. Although all of physics involves the same fundamental principles, physicists generally specialize in one of many subfields. The following are examples of physicist job titles:

Atomic, molecular, and optical physicists study atoms, simple molecules, electrons, and light and 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 developing new materials or technology.

Computational physicists study the use of algorithms, numerical analysis, and datasets to explore the interaction between theoretical and experimental physics. They explore complex phenomena in atoms, molecules, plasmas, and high-energy particles; problems in astrophysics; and applied phenomena, such as traffic, the behavior of oceans, and biological dynamics.

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.

Health physicists study the effects of radiation on people, communities, and the environment. They manage the beneficial use of radiation while protecting workers and the public from potential hazards posed by radiation.

Medical physicists work in healthcare and use their knowledge of physics to develop new medical technologies and radiation-based treatments. For example, some develop safer radiation therapies for cancer patients. Others develop improved imaging technologies for 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, a distinct state of matter that occur naturally in stars and interplanetary space and artificially in products such as neon signs and fluorescent lights. These physicists may study ways to create fusion reactors as a potential energy source.

Quantum information physicists study ways to use quantum objects, such as atoms and photons, to probe information processing, computing, and cryptography. They focus on ways to use the fundamental nature of quantum mechanics and its associated uncertainties.

Unlike physicists, astronomers cannot experiment on their subjects, which are so far away that they cannot be touched or interacted with. Therefore, astronomers generally make observations or work on theory. Observational astronomers view celestial objects and collect data on them. Theoretical astronomers analyze, model, and speculate about systems and how they work and evolve. The following are examples of astronomer job titles:

Cosmologists and extragalactic/galactic, planetary, and stellar astronomers study the creation, evolution, and possible futures of the universe and its galaxies, stars, planets, and solar systems. These astronomers develop and test concepts, such as string theory and dark-matter and dark-energy theories, and study models of galactic and stellar evolution, planetary formation, and interactions between stars.

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

Physicists also may work in interdisciplinary fields, such as biophysics, chemical physics, and geophysics. For more information, see the profiles on biochemists and biophysicists and geoscientists.

People who have a background in physics or astronomy also may 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 2,100 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of astronomers were as follows:

Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 37%
Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences 35
Federal government, excluding postal service 24

Physicists held about 17,400 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of physicists were as follows:

Scientific research and development services 31%
Federal government, excluding postal service 20
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 20
Ambulatory healthcare services 4

The scientific research and development services industry includes both private and federally funded national laboratories, such as those overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In addition to NASA, other federal agencies that employ physicists and astronomers include the U.S. Department of Defense.

Although physics research often requires working in laboratories, physicists also spend time outside of the lab to plan, analyze, fundraise, and report on research.

Most astronomers work in offices and occasionally visit observatories, buildings that house ground-based telescopes used to observe natural phenomenon and gather data. Some astronomers work full time in observatories.

Some physicists and astronomers work temporarily at national or international facilities that have unique equipment, such as particle accelerators and gamma ray telescopes. They also travel to meetings to present research results and learn about developments in their field.

Work Schedules

Most physicists and astronomers work full time, and some work more than 40 hours per week. Astronomers may need to do observation work at night. However, astronomers typically visit observatories only a few times per year.

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.

Education

A Ph.D. in physics, astronomy, or a related field is typically required for jobs in research or academia.

Graduate students may concentrate in a subfield of physics or astronomy, such as condensed matter physics or cosmology. In addition to coursework in physics or astronomy, Ph.D. students need to take courses in math, such as calculus, linear algebra, and statistics. Computer science also may be useful for developing programs to gather, analyze, and model data.

A bachelor’s degree in physical science or a related field, such as engineering, usually is required to enter a graduate program in physics or astronomy. Undergraduate physics programs typically include courses such as quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and electromagnetism.

Undergraduate students may choose to complete an internship to gain hands-on experience. The American Astronomical Society has a directory of internships for astronomy students, and the American Physical Society lists internships for physics students.

Jobseekers with 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.

Master’s degree and bachelor’s degree holders may be eligible for jobs in the federal government. Others may become science teachers in middle schools or high schools.

Training

Physics and astronomy Ph.D. holders who seek employment as researchers may begin their careers in a postdoctoral research position, typically for 2 to 3 years. Senior scientists supervise these researchers as they gain experience and independence doing increasingly complex tasks.

Important Qualities

Analytical skills.  Physicists and astronomers must evaluate their work and the work of others to avoid errors that could invalidate their research.

Communication skills. Physicists and astronomers present their research at conferences, to the public, and to others. They also write technical reports for publication and write proposals for research funding.

Critical-thinking skills. Physicists and astronomers need to think logically in carrying out scientific experiments and studies. They must determine whether results and conclusions are accurate.

Interpersonal skills. Physicists and astronomers must collaborate with others and therefore need to work well with team members and colleagues.

Math skills. Physicists and astronomers do 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 problems. For example, they may need to redesign their approach and find alternatives when an experiment or theory fails to produce the desired result.

Self-discipline. Physicists and astronomers need to be motivated, since their work may require them to focus on large datasets for long periods.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Some positions with the federal government, such as those involving nuclear energy, 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 and advance to senior positions. Experience also may lead to tenure for those in university positions. Some physicists and astronomers advance to become natural sciences managers.

Pay About this section

Physicists and Astronomers

Median annual wages, May 2021

Physicists

$152,430

Astronomers and physicists

$147,450

Astronomers

$128,160

Physical scientists

$82,090

Total, all occupations

$45,760

 

The median annual wage for astronomers was $128,160 in May 2021. 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 $61,910, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $208,000.

The median annual wage for physicists was $152,430 in May 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $78,870, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $208,000.

In May 2021, the median annual wages for astronomers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Federal government, excluding postal service $153,730
Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences 128,400
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 82,710

In May 2021, the median annual wages for physicists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Ambulatory healthcare services $208,000 or more
Scientific research and development services 164,930
Federal government, excluding postal service 125,220
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 79,830

Most physicists and astronomers work full time, and some work more than 40 hours per week. Astronomers may need to do observation work at night. However, astronomers typically visit observatories only a few times per year.

Job Outlook About this section

Physicists and Astronomers

Percent change in employment, projected 2020-30

Physicists

9%

Astronomers and physicists

8%

Total, all occupations

8%

Physical scientists

7%

Astronomers

5%

 

Overall employment of physicists and astronomers is projected to grow 8 percent from 2020 to 2030, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

About 1,500 openings for physicists and astronomers are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.

Employment

Physicists are projected to have employment growth in scientific research and development services, colleges and universities, and hospitals.

Federal spending is the primary source of physics- and astronomy-related research funds, especially for basic research. Therefore, budgetary concerns may limit researchers’ access to funding for basic research.

Employment projections data for physicists and astronomers, 2020-30
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2020 Projected Employment, 2030 Change, 2020-30 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

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

Astronomers and physicists

19-2010 19,500 21,100 8 1,600 Get data

Astronomers

19-2011 2,100 2,200 5 100 Get data

Physicists

19-2012 17,400 18,900 9 1,500 Get data

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

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