More than half of all physicists and astronomers are employed by the federal government, which is not surprising considering the nature of their work. With the mission of researching and understanding the nature of the universe and everything in it, from the never-ending scope of space to the tiniest scale of subatomic particles, these scientists study the fundamental properties of the natural world in which we live and apply that knowledge to design new technologies.
Physicists study the laws governing motion, energy, structure and interactions of matter. While some study more theoretical ideas, such as the origin of the universe, others apply their knowledge of physics to more concrete ideas to develop electronic and optical devices as well as medical equipment. Physicists can choose to specialize in many subfields including elementary particle physics, nuclear physics, atomic and molecular physics, condensed matter physics, optics, acoustics, space physics or plasma physics; each of these fields can be further broken down into even more detailed subfields.
Through the use of sophisticated equipment like mass spectrometers and particle accelerators, physicists attempt to both discover and explain the laws describing the forces of nature such as gravity, electromagnetism and nuclear interactions. Their experiments and discoveries are used in the study of nuclear energy, electronics, optics, materials, communications, aerospace technology and medical instrumentation.
On the other hand, astronomers implement the principles of physics and mathematics to learn about the nature of the universe and all its components including the earth, sun, moon, planets, stars and galaxies. Their immense knowledge is sometimes used to solve problems in navigation, space flight and satellite communications, and to observe and collect astronomical data.
Physicists work primarily in research and development, while astronomers work almost exclusively in research. Research is conducted to enhance specific scientific knowledge as well as to build upon discoveries already made through basic research. In these cases, new devices and products are often a by-product of the applied research and development.
Laboratories and equipment of varying sizes and complexities are used in this field, and the location of work is determined by what is being studied; in addition to spending time in the lab, these scientists also spend a considerable amount of time in the office writing research reports and analyzing their collected data.
A doctoral degree is the minimum educational requirement for those considering careers as physicists or astronomers, given the amount of research and development required in this field; additionally, a Ph.D. will qualify an individual for a position in either basic or independent research or in a faculty teaching position.
A master’s degree can sometimes qualify an individual for a job as an applied research and development professional. Research assistants must possess at least a bachelor’s degree and will find positions in engineering-related fields such as software development.
Many colleges and universities offer bachelor’s degrees in physics; however, fewer schools offer a Ph.D. or master’s program, and even fewer offer degrees in astronomy at any level. Students who want to obtain a degree in astronomy will find approximately 75 colleges and/or universities granting these degrees, often through a combined astronomy-physics program. Approximately 40 doctoral-level degree programs exist, and competition for the limited spaces in those programs is fierce.
Not surprisingly, the job outlook for physicists and astronomers is expected to be very good, especially since the passing of the America COMPETES Act, which set a goal to double the federal funding allocated to the physical sciences through the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. While growth in the private sector will slow somewhat, new job seekers can expect to find positions in technology, semiconductor technology and applied sciences.
Earnings in this field are very good, ranging from $45,000 to $156,000 depending on the position and the level of degree held.