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Conduct research into physical phenomena, develop theories on the basis of observation and experiments, and devise methods to apply physical laws and theories.
Undergraduate program resulting in the highest median salary ($105K): Criminal Justice and Fire Protection
Largest undergraduate program (46.0% of workers): Physics
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Responsibilities and activities

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.

Median salary: $129,850 annually
Half of those employed in this career earn between $95,020 and $170,810.
Note: The salaries for physicists have been top-coded by the BLS; in 2019, all annual salaries larger than # are recorded as #.
Context: Median Salary
How do salaries for this career compare to other jobs' salaries?
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Salary growth for astronomers and physicists
Is this job likely to reward you for sticking with it through pay raises and promotions? The higher a job’s “experience quotient,” the more you are likely to get as you stay there.
Experience quotient percentile
Take a minute to look at how much you might expect your salary to increase with each five years' experience, as well as how the numbers working at each age change. Does this seem to be a job for the young or the old, or could it be a career offering steady salary growth for many years?
Salary distribution
Number employed
About Physicists
How do benefits for this career compare to other jobs? The availability of health care, especially employer provided health care, and pension plans can add significantly to the value of compensation you receive in a career. These charts compare how this career compares to other careers with regard to health care and pension plans.
Employee has health insurance
Employer is providing health insurance
Employer-provided pension plan is available
Worker concerns
Some jobs are more stressful than others, and some are just plain dangerous. The following list gives the percentages of physicists who report hazardous or difficult situations typically occurring at least once a week.
  • Responsible for Others' Health (41%)
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Personality and skills
Can you see yourself in the ranks of Physicists? Here are the skills and traits that could lead to success.
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.
Physicists and astronomers need to be motivated, since their work may require them to focus on large datasets for long periods.
Education pathways to this career
Education attained by physicists
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), physicists typically hold a doctoral or professional degree.
Sometimes the typical education identified by the BLS differs a bit from the reality of the how much education current workers actually have. The donut shows the education level held by people currently working as astronomers and physicists as reported in responses to the American Community Survey.
Details: Education and training recommended for physicists

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 physics or a related field is usually 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.

Details: Licensing and certification recommended for physicists

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.

Education level of Astronomers and physicists
About 77% of astronomers and physicists have a graduate-level education, and 100% have at least a bachelor's degree.
Education attained by astronomers and physicists
High School
Some College
Associate's Degree
Bachelor's Degree
Master's Degree
Professional Degree
Top college degrees
Here are the top college degrees held by the 98% of people in this job who have at least a bachelor's degree. Some of degrees may link to multiple programs due to the way Census classifies college majors. Click on a program to learn more about career opportunities for people who major in that field.
  1. Physics
  2. Biology
  3. Chemistry
  4. Electrical Engineering
  5. Astronomy and Astrophysics
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College majors held by astronomers and physicists
This table shows the college majors held by people working as astronomers and physicists. If you see "**" before the name of a degree/program, that means this field is one that the Department of Education believes is preparatory for this career. However, you can see from this list that those recommendations are far from your only path to this job!
Select any title to learn more about that degree
Salary comparison for bachelor's only
Career salary (tail) versus Career/Major salary (dot)
Does the bachelor's-only salary rise or fall with this major?
Salary for bachelor's-only
For people with this career and major
Middle 50%
Middle 80%
Salary for all workers
For people with this career and major
Middle 50%
Middle 80%
Education for Career and Major
Workers with this career/major
Percentage in this career with this major
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The link between degrees and this career
With the following sankey diagram, you can follow the top ten bachelor's degrees held by people working as astronomers and physicists, and then, in turn, you can see the 10 occupations that hire the most of each degree's graduates. We hope this provides ideas for similar jobs and similar fields of study.
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PhysicsBiologyChemistryElectrical Engineeri...Astronomy and Astrop...Multidisciplinary or...MathematicsCriminal Justice and...Nuclear and Industri...Biochemical SciencesAll other degreesThis jobTop 10 majors
Where are the jobs
State-by-state employment numbers
Some careers tend to be centered in specific parts of the country. For example, most jobs in fashion are in New York or California. Let's see if your dream job is easy to find in your dream location! We have a few choices for viewing the data that can help you get a full employment picture.
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Number of Astronomers and physicists per 1,000 workers (ACS)
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Job density versus job count
Which states hire the most physicists? We wonder if that's a fair question since states come in all sizes, so instead let's start with the question of which states have the highest density of people working as physicists. You can choose to view the number of jobs per state if you prefer.
Salaries by state
Let's get a feel for where physicists earn the highest salaries. There are several choices for which data we consider and how we view that data, and each can lead to different conclusions, so please read on...
Median salary versus state ratio
We use two methods to compare salaries across states:
  • In-state comparisons: the ratio of median (middle) salaries for astronomers and physicists compared to the median salary for all people working in each state, or
  • Median salary: the unaltered median salaries for astronomers and physicists.
We hope the ratio allows perspective about how salaries may compare to the regional cost-of-living.
The darkest shading corresponds to states in which astronomers and physicists earn the highest salary when compared to other jobs in the state. We think this figure might be a better indicator than the actual salary for your buying power as a state resident.
Select a state to see local area details
Location-adjusted median salary for Astronomers and physicists (ACS for all specialties)
4% of Astronomers and physicists are working part time.
We’ve found that some jobs have a huge number of part-time workers, and typically that is because they are unable to find full-time work or the job itself can’t provide full-time hours. With 4% part-time workers, this occupation has a lower percentage of part-time workers than 83% of careers.
Employer types
This donut shares the break-down of workers by employer type, giving us a picture of what employers most typically hire for this career.
Employers of undefined (ACS)
Private for-profit
Private not-for-profit
Local government
State government
Federal government
Self-employed incorporated
Self-employed not incorporated
Working without pay
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Distribution: Salaries of astronomers and physicists by type of employer
Here are the salary distributions based on employer type.
$96K$105K$112K$84K$0$50,000$100,000$150,000$200,000Federal governmentPrivate not-for-profitPrivate for-profitAll
Astronomers and physicists and gender
With 19% women, this occupation has a lower percentage of women than 67% of careers.
Gender of Astronomers and physicists
Men (81%)
Women (19%)
Distribution: salaries by gender
Does gender greatly influence your salary in this career? The closer the bars are, the less discrepancy there is.
We only include salary data when the survey error is less than 20%, so you may see only partial information for some categories.
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Context: Women in the workforce
How does this career compare to other careers with regard to the percentage of women in the career.
Context: Salary inequity
The median (middle) salary for all full-time male workers in the US exceeds the full-time median salary for women by 19%, and the difference for astronomers and physicists tops that, with the median salary for men 39% higher than the median salary for women.
Race and origin of Astronomers and physicists
This donut shows the distribution of race and origin among those employed as Astronomers and physicists.
Race/origin of astronomers and physicists
White (80% )
Asian (13% )
Black (4% )
Multiracial (2% )
Other (1% )
American Indian (0% )
Distribution: salaries by race/origin
Some careers might have a pay disparity based on race or origin, the closer the below bars are the less of a discrepancy is present.
We only include salary data when the survey error is less than 20%, so you may see only partial information for some categories.