by Donald L. Johnson

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are approximately 20,000 physicists in the U.S. workforce, of which about 2,000 work as astronomers. Workers in this small, but vital STEM occupation explore the fundamental properties and laws that govern space, time, energy, and matter. While a Ph.D. in physics or related field is often needed for jobs in research or academia, a master’s degree in physics may provide a pathway for jobs in applied R&D for manufacturing and healthcare companies. According to the American Institute of Physics, new physics bachelor’s degree recipients entering the workforce receive some of the highest starting salaries of any undergraduate major. They often work in related fields such as engineering or computer science. 

There are several types of physicists including astrophysicists and astronomers, atomic and molecular physicists, condensed matter and materials physicists, medical physicists, particle and nuclear physicists, and plasma physicists. Physicists can also work in interdisciplinary fields such as biophysics and geophysics. For example, medical physicists work in healthcare-related industries to help develop new medical technologies and radiation-based treatments, such as better and safer treatments for cancer patients.  Other medical physicists may develop more accurate imaging technologies that use various forms of radiant energy, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound imaging.

The number of jobs for physicists is projected by BLS to grow twice as fast (14%) than the average for all occupations in general (7%). However, since it is a small occupation, growth in employment is projected to result in only about 2,800 new jobs over the 2016-2026 period. The largest employers of physicists are scientific R&D services, colleges and universities, and the federal government. NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the U.S. Department of Energy and their contractors have traditionally been large employers of physicists at national laboratories and facilities such as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Goddard Space Flight Center. Many physicists and astronomers begin their careers as temporary postdoctoral researchers where they continue to learn specialized knowledge and skills and develop a broader understanding of related areas of research.

According to the BLS, the annual median wage for physicists was $118,830 in May 2017, which is higher than for all physical scientist occupations on average ($78,790) and significantly higher than for all occupations in general ($37,690). The median annual wages for physicists in the top industries where they worked are hospitals ($170,740), ambulatory healthcare services ($163,520), and scientific R&D services ($130,530).  Working as a physicist is related to several other occupations, including computer science, engineering (such as nuclear engineering and health physics), and chemistry, all of which are discussed in separate articles.

Projected Employment Growth, Physicists and Astronomers, 2016-2026

About the author

Donald L. Johnson has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Tennessee and serves as senior researcher and principle investigator for ORISE workforce studies. With more than 20 years of experience in surveying both industry and academia, he has conducted dozens of analyses related to science and engineering labor market trends, and on issues such as workforce skills, adequacy of labor supply, education requirements and employment demand.