Much of our understanding of the world around us comes from physicists. Many of the principles that underlie the technology that keeps the modern world going and allows for continued technological advancement comes from physicists or from scientists that apply physical principles to their inventions. Physicists of today are involved in varied realms as researchers, as teachers, and often in technological fields, using their knowledge to allow advancement to continue. The physicist salary is just as varied as the work they do but reflects their importance in today’s world.
In fact, many people have an image of the physicist that probably has more to do with television and movies than with the reality. Indeed, most careers in science, including medicine and other fields requiring an advanced professional degree, require basic training in physics. This is indicative of the importance of physics as a grounding for understanding the natural world as a field that serves as the underpinning for all scientific endeavors. Although the job growth in this field in the United States is expected to be about average, there is plenty of work for physicists, and the physicist salary is often quite high.
JOB DESCRIPTION AND OUTLOOK
Many physicists work for colleges and universities as teachers or for the government as researchers though many may be surprised to learn that many of the highest paying jobs for physicists are in the private sector. In fact, a perusal of many of the physicist job listings reveal a large number of jobs in the private sector, often involved in research and development, or in other areas related to technological advancement.
Many physicists, or scientists in the related field of astronomy, work in academia, where competition for positions at colleges and universities is often very fierce. These positions are often lucrative research appointments, tied to large grants received from the federal government, which explains why the competition for these positions is often so cut throat. In reality, job growth in this sector is expected to be modest, and much of the new jobs in this field will be in the areas of applied research and development, where the pay is good, and competition may be less fierce.
But first, it is important to get an idea of the areas in which physicists receive training and in the sort of duties they should expect to perform as professionals. Understanding these roles is necessarily an important part of the decision-making process for anyone considering entry into the fields of physics and astronomy, just as important as physicist salary for most people. As one might expect, many of the duties and roles of the physics are tied to basic training in mathematics and science, though, in reality, the physicist’s role is manifold.
First off, what is physics and what is it that physicists do precisely. Physics is the study of matter and energy in our environment and the interaction between the two. Physicists develop principles designed to better understand the twin forces of matter and energy, and these principles build on each other like building blocks to allow other physicists, often living many decades later, to develop further principles and understand our world even more.
As one might expect, since the work of physicists involves knowledge and expanding knowledge, it is only natural that many positions for physicists will be in the area of research and education, that is, working at universities. But it is also important that physicists are able to apply those theories and principles to the real world, and this is where the private industry side of this profession comes into play, one that continues to grow.
For the purposes of understanding the profession and making predictions, the physicist profession is often grouped in with the much smaller profession of astronomy, sometimes called astrophysics. Astronomers used physical principles to understand the stars, planets, and other elements of our universe, as these objects are also based on the twin realities of matter and energy, much like in physics. Some may even consider astronomers to be a subset of or little brother to physicists. In terms of place of employment and the physicist salary, there are commonalities between physicists and astronomers.
Perhaps one way to understand the industry that future physicists will be entering is to get a sense of the different types of physicists there are. It should not be surprising that many physical disciplines are multidisciplinary, overlapping with other fields of science. This merely reflects the importance of physical principles not only in understanding the world but in understanding other sciences. Physics is often divided into theoretical physics, and experimental or computational physics and some physicists specialize in one of these two general areas.
What follows is a list of the different types of physicists that find work in the industry, leaving aside the experimental physicists, computational physicists, and theoretical physicists mentioned above:
An important part of understanding a profession is getting a sense of where they work, and this will also allow potential students in this area to get an idea of where job growth will be and why. As stated previously, physicists and astronomers (or astrophysicists) often work at educational institutions or for the government. The physicist salary can vary greatly depending on who their employer is, with physicists who work for the government or hospitals tending to earn more than those in other fields, especially in education.
The following is a list of the most common employers of physicists and astronomers:
What is important to note is that the area of scientific research and development, which employs about 30% of physicists, includes both private endeavors and federally funded laboratories like Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Recent projections on job growth from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects it to be about 14% for the period of 2016 to 2026, which is a sharp increase from the previous projection of about 7% a few years prior. This may reflect both the small numbers of professionals in these areas as well as an increased demand for their work.
EDUCATION AND CERTIFICATIONS
Like most fields in the realm of the sciences, the basic requirement for work in this field is the master’s degree, though many roles in education and research may require a doctorate (Ph.D.). Degrees in physics are available at colleges and universities nationwide, with degree levels ranging from bachelor’s to master’s degrees. This field is highly specialized, and the knowledge tied to it requires many years of study. Some physicists plan to earn a Ph.D., allowing more doors to be open to them, and reflecting the higher level of knowledge they have attained.
Most students that go on to graduate training in physics possess an undergraduate degree in physics. Once students enter a graduate program, they typically select a field within physics for more advanced study, like computational physics, material physics, or astrophysics. Again, this reflects the highly specialized nature of this industry, though it also allows students to select an area of interest and tailor their career pursuits to their skills, talents, or desires.
It is common in this industry that physicists that have obtained a doctoral degree go on to several years of research and training in postdoctoral programs. This allows them to hone their training further and establish connections in industry and academia and is expected by many employers. At this stage, the work of physicists is supervised by more experienced physicists, possessing more years of training in the field, though postdoctoral students gain more responsibility as they progress in their training programs.
PHYSICIST SALARY INFORMATION
The physicist salary is rather high for scientists with similar levels of training, perhaps reflecting a shortage of professionals in this industry or high demand. The median physicist salary is about $115,000 according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and wages vary based on employer. The median wage for physicists working for the federal government mirrors the industry average while physicists working at hospitals average $166,330. The highest-earning 10% of physicists earned more than $189,560 according to the BLS.
The picture for astronomers, or astrophysicists, is a little different. Their median wage, according to the BLS, is about $104,000, and the highest workers in this area work for the federal government, averaging about $145,000. The top 10% of astronomers earned more than $165,140.
Few fields can provide the excitement and the wages that the study of physics can. Although many positions in this industry require a doctoral degree and postdoctoral training, some workers earn a physicist salary over $189,000, which is much higher than equivalent professionals in many other fields within science. Many factors play into this salary through the highly specialized training that is the norm in this field, and the key importance of physical knowledge certainly play a role.