Physicists and astronomers study the ways in which various forms of matter and energy interact.
What they do
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 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. 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.
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.
How to become a Physicist and/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.
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.
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.
The median annual wage for astronomers was $114,590 in May 2019. 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 $59,420, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $185,780.
Overall employment of physicists and astronomers is projected to grow 7 percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations.
Physicists are projected to have employment growth in the scientific research and development services, educational services, and healthcare and social assistance industries.
Similar Job Titles
Physicist: Biophysics Scientist, Health Physicist, Medical Physicist, Physicist, Research Consultant, Research Physicist, Research Scientist, Scientist
Astronomer: Astronomer, Astrophysicist, Data Scientist, Research Scientist, Scientist
Computer and Information Research Scientist, Biochemist and Biophysicist, Astronomer, Atmospheric/Earth/Marine/Space Sciences Teacher-Postsecondary, Physics Teacher-Postsecondary
Mathematician, Physicist, Remote Sensing Scientist and Technologist, Atmospheric/Earth/Marine/Space Sciences Teacher-Postsecondary
The trade associations listed below represent organizations made up of people (members) who work and promote advancement in the field. Members are very interested in telling others about their work and about careers in those areas. As well, trade associations provide opportunities for organizational networking and learning more about the field’s trends and directions.:
- American Association for the Advancement of Science
- American Chemical Society
- American Institute of Physics
- American Nuclear Society
- American Physical Society
- Health Physics Society
- International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine
- Materials Research Society
- National Registry of Radiation Protection Technologists
Magazines and Publications
- Astronomy Magazine
- Quanta Magazine
- Astronomy Now Magazine
- Astronomy Technology Today Magazine
- Physics World
- Physics Magazine
Physicists and astronomers explore the dimensions of the universe… from the vastness of intergalactic space… to minute subatomic particles. They study the ways different forms of matter and energy interact. Physicists explore the laws that govern space and time. They may focus on theoretical areas like how the universe was formed, or take a more practical direction such as developing laser surgery technology. Astronomers study planets, stars, and other celestial bodies. Using telescopes and space-based equipment, their research may examine our own solar system, or aim at distant galaxies. Most physicists and astronomers work full time, often on teams with engineers and other scientists. They are employed by higher education institutions, scientific research and development organizations, and the federal government— especially NASA and the Department of Defense. Some need to apply for research grants to fund their work. Astronomers and physicists do most of their work in offices. Astronomers visit observatories occasionally as data from observations has become widely available via the Internet. Some physics experiments require particle accelerators or nuclear reactors, but most research is conducted in smaller laboratories. Research and academic positions require a Ph.D. A master’s degree qualifies candidates for most positions in manufacturing and healthcare. The Federal government employs scientists with degrees ranging from a bachelor’s to a Ph.D., depending on the position and agency.
Content retrieved from: US Bureau of Labor Statistics-OOH www.bls.gov/ooh,
CareerOneStop www.careeronestop.org, O*Net Online www.onetonline.org