In lists of science careers, physicist and astronomer are often lumped together. They have different aims, but in general, both are heavily involved in research about the nature of the universe. Physicists investigate the basic principles of the universe and the laws about energy, motion, and the structure of matter. Some physicists apply knowledge to practical fields, such as advanced materials and electronic and optical devices. Astronomers study the universe, including stars, planets, galaxies, and planetary objects, such as comets. They often operate telescopes and explore the information obtained from them. A subset of astronomer is space scientists, usually working for the federal government.
Only a few positions as research assistants can be found with a bachelor’s degree, and a few jobs in applied research and development require a master’s degree. Most jobs for physicists and astronomers are research jobs, and a doctoral degree is necessary.
Most physicists and astronomers are involved in research. Physicists may design and use lasers, particle accelerators, and mass spectrometers in their research. They may specialize in the physics of subatomic particles, or superconductivity, or many other subsections. Astronomers might work to apply astronomy principles in the field of spaceflight or navigation, but they also usually work in research positions. Much of their research can come from images from telescopes. They may spend a few nights a year at a telescope and then spend months analyzing the data they gathered.
Physicists divide their time between offices and laboratories. Astronomers may spend some time at an observatory and then work on the information collected at their offices. Much of the time of both specialties will be taken up with writing grant proposals to fund research. Many physicists work as teachers, both at the high school and university levels.
The growth of physicist/astronomer jobs is predicted to be good for the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). It is estimated at 16 percent, which is higher than the average for all other jobs. Some jobs will be restricted due to limited funds for research. In 2008, 15,600 people were working as physicists, while 1,500 were astronomers. Another 15,500 were in faculty positions.
Physicists earned an average annual wage of $102,890 in 2008. Astronomers had an average of $101,300. For federal government positions, the salary was $118,971 for physicists and $130,833 for astronomers and space scientists.
Last Updated: 06/04/2014