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Nature of the Work
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
Sources of Additional Information
D.O.T. 015.021-010; 021.067-010; 023.061-010, -0
14, and .067; 079.021-014)
* A doctoral degree is the usual educational requirement because most jobs are in basic research and development; a master's degree is sufficient for some jobs in applied research and development; a bachelor's degree is adequate for some nonresearch jobs.
* Ph.D.'s face competition for jobs as funding for research declines, and as the large pool of postdoctoral workers add to the supply of new graduates.
Physicists explore and identify 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 theoretical areas, such as the nature of time and the origin of the universe; others apply their physics knowledge to practical areas such as the development of advanced materials, electronic and optical devices, and medical equipment.
Physicists design and perform experiments with lasers, cyclotrons, telescopes, mass spectrometers, and other equipment. Based on observations and analysis, they attempt to discover laws describing the forces of nature, such as gravity, electromagnetism, and nuclear interactions. They also find ways to apply physical laws and theories to problems in nuclear energy, electronics, optics, materials, communications, aerospace technology, navigation equipment, and medical instrumentation.
Astronomy is sometimes considered a subfield of physics. Astronomers use the principles of physics and mathematics to learn about the fundamental nature of the universe, including the sun, moon, planets, stars, and galaxies. They also apply their knowledge to problems in navigation and space flight, and to develop the instrumentation and techniques used to observe and collect astronomical data.
Most physicists work in research and development. Some do basic research to increase scientific knowledge. Physicists who conduct applied research build upon the discoveries made through basic research, and work to develop new devices, products, and processes. For instance, basic research in solid-state physics led to the development of transistors and then to the integrated circuits used in computers.
Physicists also design research equipment. This equipment often has additional unanticipated uses. For example, lasers 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-size laboratories. However, experiments in plasma, nuclear, high energy, and some other areas of physics require extremely large, expensive equipment such as particle accelerators. Physicists in these subfields often work in large teams. Although physics research may require extensive experimentation in laboratories, research physicists still spend time in offices planning, recording, analyzing, and reporting on research.
Almost all astronomers do research. Some are theoreticians, working on the laws governing the structure and evolution of astronomical objects. Others analyze large quantities of data gathered by observatories and satellites, and write scientific papers or reports on their findings. Astronomers may spend only a few weeks each year making observations with optical telescopes, radio telescopes, and other instruments. For many years, satellites and other space-based instruments have provided tremendous amounts of astronomical data. New technology resulting in improvements in analytical techniques and instruments, such as computers and optical telescopes and mounts, is leading to a resurgence in ground-based research. A small number of astronomers work in museums housing planetariums. These astronomers develop and revise the programs presented to the public, and may also direct operations.
Physicists generally specialize in one of many subfieldselementary particle physics; nuclear physics; atomic and molecular physics; physics of condensed matter (solid-state physics); optics; acoustics; space physics; plasma physics; or the physics of fluids. Some specialize in a subdivision of one of these subfields; for example, within condensed matter physics, specialties include superconductivity, crystallography, and semiconductors. However, all physics involves the same fundamental principles, so specialties may overlap, and physicists may switch from one subfield to another. Also, growing numbers of physicists work in combined fields such as biophysics, chemical physics, and geophysics.
Physicists often work regular hours in laboratories and offices. At times, however, those who are deeply involved in research may work long or irregular hours. Most do not encounter unusual hazards in their work. Some physicists temporarily work away from home at national or international facilities with unique equipment such as particle accelerators. Astronomers who make observations may spend long periods of time in observatories; this work usually involves travel to remote locations. Long hours, including routine night work, may create temporarily stressful conditions.
Physicists and astronomers whose work is dependent on grant money are often under pressure to write grant proposals to keep their work funded.
Physicists and astronomers held nearly 18,000 jobs in 1996. About 3 in 10 nonfaculty physicists and astronomers worked for commercial or noncommercial research, development, and testing laboratories. The Federal Government employed almost 2 in 10, mostly in the Department of Defense, but also in the Departments of Commerce, Health and Human Services, and Energy, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Others worked in colleges and universities in nonfaculty positions, and for State governments, drug companies, and electronic equipment manufacturers.
Besides the jobs described above, many physicists held faculty positions in colleges and universities. (See the statement on college and university faculty elsewhere in the Handbook.)
Although physicists and astronomers are employed in all parts of the country, most work in areas in which universities, large research and development laboratories, or observatories are located.
A doctoral degree is the usual educational requirement for physicists and astronomers, because most jobs are in basic research and development. Additional experience and training in a postdoctoral research assignment, although not required, is helpful in preparing physicists and astronomers for permanent research positions. Many physics and astronomy Ph.D. holders ultimately teach at the college or university level.
Master's degree holders usually do not qualify for basic research positions, but do qualify for many kinds of jobs requiring a physics background, including positions in applied research and development, and manufacturing. Physics departments in some colleges and universities are creating professional master's degree programs to specifically prepare students for physics-related research which does not require a Ph.D. degree in private industry. A master's degree may suffice for teaching jobs in 2-year colleges. Those having bachelor's degrees in physics are rarely qualified to fill positions as research or teaching physicists. They are, however, usually qualified to work in an engineering-related area or other scientific fields, to work as technicians, or to assist in setting up laboratories. Some may qualify for applied research jobs in private industry or nonresearch positions in the Federal Government. Some become science teachers in secondary schools. Astronomy bachelor's or master's degree holders often enter a field unrelated to astronomy, but they are also qualified to work in planetariums running science shows or to assist astronomers doing research. (See the statements on engineers, geologists and geophysicists, computer programmers, and computer scientists and systems analysts elsewhere in the Handbook.)
Over 500 colleges and universities offer a bachelor's degree in physics. The undergraduate program provides a broad background in the natural sciences and mathematics. Typical physics courses include mechanics, electromagnetism, optics, thermodynamics, atomic physics, and quantum mechanics.
About 180 colleges and universities have departments offering Ph.D. degrees in physics. Graduate students usually concentrate in a subfield of physics, such as elementary particles or condensed matter. Many begin studying for their doctorate immediately after receiving their bachelor's degree.
About 80 universities offer the master's or Ph.D. degree in astronomy, either through an astronomy, a physics, or combined physics/astronomy department. Applicants to astronomy doctoral programs face keen competition for available slots. Those planning a career in astronomy should have a very strong physics background. In fact, an undergraduate degree in either physics or astronomy is excellent preparation, followed by a Ph.D. in astronomy.
Mathematical ability, computer skills, an inquisitive mind, imagination, and the ability to work independently are important traits for anyone planning a career in physics or astronomy. Prospective physicists who hope to work in industrial laboratories applying physics knowledge to practical problems should broaden their educational background to include courses outside of physics, such as economics, computer technology, and business management. Good oral and written communication skills are also important because many physicists work as part of a team or have contact with clients or customers with non-physics backgrounds.
Most physics and astronomy Ph.D.'s begin their careers in a postdoctoral research position, where they may work with experienced physicists as they continue to learn about their specialty and develop ideas and results to be used in later work. The initial work may be under the close supervision of senior scientists. After some experience, they perform increasingly complex tasks and work more independently. Physicists who develop new products or processes sometimes form their own companies or join new firms to exploit their own ideas.
Historically, many physicists and astronomers have been employed on research projectsoften defense-related. Further reductions in defense-related research and a continued slowdown in the growth of civilian physics-related research will result in a small decline in employment of physicists and astronomers through the year 2006. The need to replace physicists and astronomers who retire will account for almost all expected job openings. Proposed employment cutbacks and overall budget tightening in the Federal Government will also affect employment of physicists, especially those dependent on Federal research grants. The Federal Government funds numerous noncommercial research and development facilities; the Government's plan to balance the Federal budget may limit funding and, consequently, the scope of research in these facilities.
The number of doctorates granted in physics has been much greater than the number of openings for physicists for several years, resulting in keen competition, particularly for research positions in colleges and universities and research and development centers. Competitive conditions may ease slightly when the number of degrees awarded begins to drop midway between 1996 and 2006, following recent declines in enrollment. However, job applicants should still expect to face competition from the large pool of postdoctoral workers who will add to the supply of new graduates. Also, more prospective researchers will likely compete for less grant money.
Although research and development budgets in private industry will continue to grow, many research laboratories in private industry are expected to reduce basic research, which includes much physics research, in favor of applied or manufacturing research and product and software development. Although many physicists and astronomers will be eligible for retirement over the next decade, it is possible not all of them will be replaced when they retire.
Opportunities may be more numerous for those with a master's degree, particularly graduates from programs preparing students for applied research and development, product design, and manufacturing positions in industry. Many of these positions, however, will have titles other than physicist, such as engineer or computer scientist.
Persons with only a bachelor's degree in physics or astronomy are not qualified to enter most physicist or astronomer jobs, but may qualify for a wide range of positions in engineering, technician, mathematics, and computer- and environment-related occupations. Those who meet State certification requirements may become high school physics teachers, an occupation reportedly in strong demand in many school districts. (See the statements on these occupations elsewhere in the Handbook.) Despite strong competition for traditional physics and astronomy research jobs, individuals with a physics degree at any level will find their skills useful for entry to many other occupations.
According to a 1997 National Association of Colleges and Employers survey, the average starting salary offer to physics doctoral degree candidates was $34,700.
The American Institute of Physics reported a median salary of $65,000 in 1996 for its members with Ph.D.'s; with master's degrees, $55,000; and with bachelor's degrees, $50,000. Those working in temporary postdoctoral positions earned significantly less.
Average earnings for physicists in nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions in the Federal Government in 1997 were about $71,800 a year, and for astronomy and space scientists, $77,400.
General information on career opportunities in physics is available from:
American Institute of Physics, Career Planning and Placement, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740-3843. Homepage: http://www.aip.org
The American Physical Society, Education Department, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740-3844. Homepage: http://www.aps.org
For a pamphlet containing information on careers in astronomy, send your request to:
American Astronomical Society, Education Office, Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, 1300 S. Lake Shore Dr., Chicago IL 60605. Homepage: http://www.aas.org
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