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Physicists and Astronomers

Physicists attempt to discover the most basic principles governing the structure and behavior of matter, the generation and transfer of energy, and the interaction of matter and energy. Some physicists use these principles in very theoretical areas, such as the nature of time and the origin of the universe, while others work in practical areas such as the development of advanced materials, electronic devices, and medical equipment.

They design and perform experiments with laser, cyclotrons, telescopes, mass spectrometers, and other equipment. Based on observations and analysis, they formulate theories and laws to describe the forces of nature, such as gravity, electromagnetism, and nuclear interactions. They also devise ways to apply the laws and theories to problems in nuclear energy, electronics, materials, communications, aerospace technology, and medical instrumentation.

Astronomy is sometimes considered a subfield of physics. Astronomers use the principles of physics and mathematics to answer questions about the fundamental nature of the universe, and about celestial bodies such as the sun, moon, plants, and stars. They may apply their knowledge to problems in navigation and space flight.

Most physicists work in research and development. Some do basic research to increase scientific knowledge. For example, they investigate the structure of the atom or the nature of gravity.

Some physicists, conduct applied research and develop new devices, products, and processes. For instance, research in solid-state physics led to the development of transistors and then to integrated circuits used in calculators and computers. They also design research equipment. This equipment often has additional unanticipated uses. For example, lasers (devices that amplify light and emit it in a highly directional, intense beam) are used in surgery; microwave devices are used for ovens; and measuring instruments can analyze blood or the chemical content of foods. A small number work in inspection, testing, quality control, and other production-related jobs in industry.

Much physics research is done in small or medium-sized laboratories, where physicists work alone or in small groups. However, some experiments in nuclear, particle, and some other areas of physics require extremely large, expensive equipment such as atomic accelerators. Physicists in these subfields often work in large teams. Although physics research may require extensive experimentation, most research physicists spend much of their time in offices planning, recording, analyzing, and reporting on research. Physicists in theoretical research generally do not use research facilities.

Almost all astronomers do research. They analyze large quantities of data and write scientific papers on their findings. Most astronomers spend only a few weeks each year making observations with telescopes, radio telescopes, and other instruments. Contrary to the popular image, astronomers almost never make observations by looking through a telescope because photographic and electronic radiation detecting equipment is more effective than the human eye.

Most physicists specialize in one subfield--elementary particle physics; nuclear physics; atomic and molecular physics; physics on condensed matter (solid-state physics); optics; acoustics; health physics; plasma physics; or the physics of fluids. Some specialize in a subdivision of one of these subfields; for example, superconductivity, crystallography, or semiconductors within solid-state physics. However, since all physics involves the same fundamental principles, specialties may overlap, and physicists may switch from one subfield to another.

Growing numbers of physicists work in combined fields such as biophysics, chemical physics, and geophysics. Furthermore, the practical applications of physicists; work increasingly have merged with engineering.

Working Conditions

Physicists generally work regular hours in laboratories and offices. Most physicists do not encounter unusual hazards in their work. Some physicists work away from home temporarily at national or international facilities with unique equipment such as particle accelerators; astronomers who make observations may travel to observatories, which are usually in remote locations, and frequently work at night.


Physicists held over 20,000 jobs in 1990. In addition, about 16,000 persons held physics faculty positions in colleges and universities. About one-third of all physicists worked for independent research and development laboratories. The Federal Government, mostly the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Commerce, employed about one-fifth. Others worked in colleges and universities in nonfaculty positions and for electrical equipment manufacturers, noncommercial research laboratories, engineering services firms, and the aircraft and automobile industries.

Although physicists are employed in all parts of the country, most are in areas that have heavy industrial concentrations and large research and development laboratories.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Graduate training in physics or a closely related field is almost essential for most entry level jobs in physics. The doctorate usually is required for full faculty status at colleges and universities and for industrial or government jobs directing research and development programs. A doctorate is also the usual requirement for a job in astronomy.

Those having master's degrees may qualify for some research jobs in private industry and in the Federal Government as well as for teaching jobs in 2-year colleges. Those having bachelor's degrees may qualify for a few applied research and development jobs in private industry and in the Federal Government. Many become engineers or go into other scientific fields.

About 750 colleges and universities offer a bachelor's degree in physics. The undergraduate program provides a broad background in the sciences and mathematics. Some typical physics courses are mechanics, electromagnetism, electronics, optics, thermodynamics, and atomic and molecular physics.

About 250 colleges and universities offer advanced degrees in physics. Graduate students usually concentrate in a subfield of physics. Many begin studying for their doctorates immediately after their bachelor's degree without obtaining a master's degree.

About 40 universities offer the Ph.D. degree in astronomy. Students take courses in astronomy, physics, and mathematics and, in some schools, work at an observatory. Students planning a career in physics should have an inquisitive mind, mathematical ability, imagination, and the ability to work on their own.

Beginning physicists, especially without a Ph.D., often do routine work under the close supervision of more senior workers. After some experience, they are assigned more complex tasks and given more independence. Some advance to project leaders, research directors, or top managers. Physicists who develop new products or processes sometimes form their own companies or join new firms to exploit their own ideas.

Job Outlook

Physicists with the Ph.D. should experience good employment opportunities by the late 1990's. The employment of physicists is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2000. Employment opportunities are expected to improve as retirements increase. Many physicists and college and university physics faculty were hired during the 1960's. They will begin retiring in the late 1990's. Furthermore, the number of Ph.D.'s granted to U.S. citizens has been declining and is not expected to increase much by the year 2000.

A large proportion of physicists are employed on defense-related projects. Changes in defense expenditures, especially for research--on the Strategic Defense Initiative, for example--could have a major impact on the growth of jobs.

Persons with only a bachelor's degree in physics are not qualified to enter most physicist jobs. However, many find jobs as engineers, technicians, computer specialists, or high school physics teachers.


Starting salaries for physicists in private industry averaged about $44,200 a year in 1990 for those with a master's degree according to an American Institute of Physics survey.

Related Occupations

Physics is closely related to other scientific occupations such as chemistry, geology, and geophysics. Engineers nd engineering and science technicians also use the principles of physics in their work.

Sources of Additional Information

General information on career opportunities in physics is available from:

American Institute of Physics, 335 East 45th St., New York, NY 10017.

American Physical Society, 335 East 45th St., New York, NY 10017.

For a pamphlet containing information on careers in astronomy and on schools offering training in the field, send 35 cents to:

Dr. Charles R. Tolbert, Educational Officer, American Astronomical Society, Box 3818 University Station, Charlottesville, VA 22903.


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