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Physicists and Astronomers - What They Do

How to Advance (Advancement)
Advancement among physicists and astronomers usually takes the form of greater independence in their work, larger budgets, or tenure in university positions. Others choose to move into managerial positions and become natural science managers. Those who pursue management careers spend more time preparing budgets and schedules. Those who develop new products or processes sometimes form their own companies or join new firms to develop these ideas.

Physicists and astronomers held about 17,100 jobs in 2008. Physicists accounted for about 15,600 of these, while astronomers accounted for only about 1,500 jobs. In addition, there were about 15,500 physicists employed in faculty positions.

About 39 percent of physicists and astronomers worked for the scientific research and development services industry, which includes employees of the 36 Federally Funded Research and Development Centers. These centers, sometimes referred to as national laboratories, perform a significant amount of basic research in the physical sciences. They are funded by government agencies such as the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense, but are administered by universities or private corporations. The Federal Government directly employed another 22 percent, mostly in the U.S. Department of Defense, but also in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and in the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Health and Human Services, and Energy. Other physicists and astronomers worked in nonfaculty research positions at educational institutions and hospitals.

Although physicists and astronomers are employed in all parts of the country, most work in areas in which universities, large research laboratories, or observatories are located.

Job Outlook
Physicists and astronomers should experience faster than average job growth, but may face competition for basic research positions due to limited funding. However, those with a background in physics or astronomy may have good opportunities in related occupations.

Job Growth
Employment of physicists and astronomers is expected to grow 16 percent, faster than the average for all occupations during the 2008-18 decade.

Federal research expenditures are the major source of physics-related and astronomy-related research funds, especially for basic research. For most of the past decade there has been limited growth in Federal funding for physics and astronomy research as most of the growth in Federal research funding has been devoted to the life sciences. However, the America COMPETES Act, passed by Congress in 2007, sets a goal to double funding for the physical sciences through the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science by the year 2016, and recent budgets for these agencies have seen large increases. If these increases continue, it will result in more opportunities in basic research for Ph.D. physicists and astronomers.

Although research and development expenditures in private industry will continue to grow, many research laboratories in private industry are expected to continue to reduce basic research, which includes much physics research, in favor of applied or manufacturing research and product and software development. Nevertheless, people with a physics background continue to be in demand in information technology, semiconductor technology, and other applied sciences. This trend is expected to continue; however, many of the new workers will have job titles such as computer software engineer, computer programmer, or systems analyst or developer, rather than physicist.

In addition to job growth, the need to replace physicists and astronomers who retire or otherwise leave the occupation permanently will account for many job openings. In recent years the number of doctorates granted in physics has been somewhat greater than the number of job openings for traditional physics research positions in colleges and universities and in research centers. Recent increases in undergraduate physics enrollments may also lead to growth in enrollments in graduate physics programs, so that there may be an increase in the number of doctoral degrees granted that could intensify the competition for basic research positions. However, demand has grown in other related occupations for those with advanced training in physics. Prospects should be favorable for physicists in applied research, development, and related technical fields.

Opportunities should also be numerous for those with a master's degree, particularly graduates from programs preparing students for related work in applied research and development, product design, and manufacturing positions in private industry. Many of these positions, however, will have titles other than physicist, such as engineer or computer scientist.

People with only a bachelor's degree in physics or astronomy are usually not qualified for physics or astronomy research jobs, but they may qualify for a wide range of positions related to engineering, mathematics, computer science, environmental science, and some nonscience fields, such as finance. Those who meet State certification requirements can become high school physics teachers, an occupation in strong demand in many school districts. Some States require new teachers to obtain a master's degree in education within a certain time. Despite competition for traditional physics and astronomy research jobs, graduates with a physics or astronomy degree at any level will find their knowledge of science and mathematics useful for entry into many other occupations.

Despite their small numbers, astronomers can expect good job prospects in government and academia over the projection period. Since astronomers are particularly dependent upon government funding, Federal budgetary decisions will have a sizable influence on job prospects for astronomers.

Median annual wages of physicists were $102,890 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $80,040 and $130,980. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $57,160, and the highest 10 percent earned more than 159,400.

Median annual wages of astronomers were $101,300 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $63,610 and $133,630, the lowest 10 percent less than $45,330, and the highest 10 percent more than $156,720.

The average annual salary for physicists employed by the Federal Government was $118,971 in March 2009; for astronomy and space scientists, it was $130,833.

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