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 of physicists work in inspection, testing, quality control, and other production-related jobs in industry.
Physicists and astronomers held nearly 18,000 jobs in 1998. About 2 in 10 non-faculty 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 National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Departments of Commerce, Health and Human Services, and Energy. Other physicists and astronomers worked in colleges and universities in non-faculty positions, or for State governments, drug companies, and electronic equipment manufacturers.
Besides the jobs described above, many physicists and astronomers held faculty positions in colleges and universities.
Historically, many physicists and astronomers have been employed on research projects—often defense-related. Small or no increases in defense-related research and a continued slowdown in the growth of civilian physics-related basic research will result in little change (i.e., 0 to 9 percent growth) in employment of physicists and astronomers through the year 2008. The need to replace physicists and astronomers who retire will account for almost all expected job openings. Budget tightening in the Federal Government may also affect employment of physicists, especially those dependent on Federal research grants. The Federal Government funds numerous noncommercial research facilities. The Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs) whose missions include a significant physics component are largely funded by the Department of Energy (DOE) or the Department of Defense (DOD), and their R&D budgets have not kept pace with inflation in recent years. Continuing budget tightening may limit funding and, consequently, the scope of physics-related research in these facilities.
In recent years, many persons with a physics background have found employment in private industry in the areas of information technology, semiconductor technology, and other applied sciences. This trend is expected to continue; however, many of these positions will be under job titles such as computer software engineer, computer programmer, engineer, and systems developer, rather than physicist.
According to a 1999 National Association of Colleges and Employers survey, the average annual starting salary offer to physics doctoral degree candidates was $60,300.
The American Institute of Physics reported a median annual salary of $70,000 in 1998 for its members with Ph.D.’s; with master’s degrees, $57,000; and with bachelor’s degrees, $54,000. Those working in temporary postdoctoral positions earned significantly less.
The average annual salary for physicists employed by the Federal Government was $79,400 in early 1999 and for astronomy and space scientists, $81,300. The average annual salary for physicists in Michigan in 2000 was $73,700.