What Physicists and Astronomers Do
Physicists and astronomers study the ways in which various forms of matter and energy interact.
Physicists and astronomers spend much of their time working in offices, but they also conduct research in laboratories and observatories. Most physicists and astronomers work full time.
How to Become a Physicist or Astronomer
Physicists and astronomers typically need a Ph.D. for jobs in research and academia. However, physicist jobs in the federal government typically require a bachelor’s degree in physics. After receiving a Ph.D. in physics or astronomy, many researchers seeking careers in academia begin in temporary postdoctoral research positions.
The median annual wage for astronomers was $114,590 in May 2019.
The median annual wage for physicists was $122,850 in May 2019.
Overall employment of physicists and astronomers is projected to grow 7 percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations.
Physicists and astronomers study the ways in which various forms of matter and energy interact. Theoretical physicists and astronomers may study the nature of time or the origin of the universe. Some physicists design and perform experiments with sophisticated equipment such as particle accelerators, electron microscopes, and lasers.
Physicists and astronomers typically do the following:
- Develop scientific theories and models that attempt to explain the properties of the natural world, such as the force of gravity or the formation of sub-atomic particles
- Plan and conduct scientific experiments and studies to test theories and discover properties of matter and energy
- Write proposals and apply for funding to conduct research
- Do complex mathematical calculations to analyze physical and astronomical data, such as data that may indicate the existence of planets in distant solar systems or new properties of materials
- Design new scientific equipment, such as telescopes and lasers
- Develop computer software to analyze and model data
- Write scientific papers that may be published in scholarly journals
- Present research findings at scientific conferences and lectures
Physicists explore the fundamental properties and laws that govern space, time, energy, and matter. Some physicists study theoretical areas, such as the fundamental properties of atoms and molecules and the evolution of the universe. Others design and perform experiments with sophisticated equipment such as particle accelerators, electron microscopes, and lasers. Many apply their knowledge of physics to practical objectives, such as developing advanced materials and medical equipment.
Astronomers study planets, stars, galaxies, and other celestial bodies. They use ground-based equipment, such as radio and optical telescopes, and space-based equipment, such as the Hubble Space Telescope. Some astronomers study distant stars, galaxies, and phenomena such as neutron stars and black holes, and others monitor space debris that could interfere with satellite operations.
Many physicists and astronomers work in basic research with the aim of increasing scientific knowledge. These researchers may attempt to develop theories that better explain what gravity is or how the universe works or was formed. Other physicists and astronomers work in applied research. They use the knowledge gained from basic research to effect new developments in areas such as energy storage, electronics, communications, navigation, and medical technology.
Astronomers and physicists typically work on research teams together with engineers, technicians, and other scientists. Some senior astronomers and physicists may be responsible for assigning tasks to other team members and monitoring their progress. They may also be responsible for finding funding for their projects and therefore may need to write applications for research funding.
Experimental physicists develop new equipment or sensors to study properties of matter, create theories, and test them through experiments. Theoretical and computational physicists develop new theories that can predict properties of materials, or describe unexplained experimental results. Although all of physics involves the same fundamental principles, physicists generally specialize in one of many subfields. The following are examples of types of physicists:
Astrophysicists study the physics of the universe. “Astrophysics” is a term that is often used interchangeably with “astronomy.”
Atomic, molecular, and optical physicists study atoms, simple molecules, electrons, and light, as well as the interactions among them. Some look for ways to control the states of individual atoms, because such control might allow for further miniaturization or might contribute toward the development of new materials or computer technology.
Condensed matter and materials physicists study the physical properties of matter in molecules, nanostructures, or novel compounds. They study a wide range of phenomena, such as superconductivity, liquid crystals, sensors, and nanomachines.
Medical physicists work in healthcare and use their knowledge of physics to develop new medical technologies and radiation-based treatments. For example, some develop better and safer radiation therapies for cancer patients. Others may develop more accurate imaging technologies that use various forms of radiant energy, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound imaging.
Particle and nuclear physicists study the properties of atomic and subatomic particles, such as quarks, electrons, and nuclei, and the forces that cause their interactions.
Plasma physicists study plasmas, which are considered a distinct state of matter and occur naturally in stars and interplanetary space and artificially in neon signs and plasma screen televisions. Many plasma physicists study ways to create fusion reactors that might be a future source of energy.
Unlike physicists, astronomers cannot experiment on their subjects, because they are so far away that they cannot be touched or interacted with. Therefore, astronomers generally make observations or work on theory. Observational astronomers observe celestial objects and collect data on them. Theoretical astronomers analyze, model, and theorize about systems and how they work and evolve. The following are examples of types of astronomers who specialize by the objects and phenomena they study:
Cosmologists and extragalactic astronomers study the entire universe. They study the creation, evolution, and possible futures of the universe and its galaxies. These scientists have recently developed several theories important to the study of physics and astronomy, including string, dark-matter, and dark-energy theories.
Galactic, planetary, solar, and stellar astronomers study phenomena that take place in the universe at the scale of stars, planets, and solar systems. For example, these astronomers study the sun, stellar evolution, planetary formation, and interactions between stars
Optical and radio astronomers use optical or radio telescopes to study motions and evolution of stars, galaxies, and the larger scale structure of the universe.
Growing numbers of physicists work in interdisciplinary fields, such as biophysics, chemical physics, and geophysics. For more information, see the profiles on biochemists and biophysicists and geoscientists.
Many people with a physics or astronomy background become professors or teachers. For more information, see the profiles on high school teachers and postsecondary teachers.
Astronomers held about 2,300 jobs in 2019. The largest employers of astronomers were as follows:
|Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private||38%|
|Federal government, excluding postal service||22|
Physicists held about 18,200 jobs in 2019. The largest employers of physicists were as follows:
|Scientific research and development services||31%|
|Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private||22|
|Federal government, excluding postal service||19|
|Ambulatory healthcare services||4|
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and agencies within the U.S. Department of Defense have traditionally been two of the largest employers of physicists and astronomers in the federal government. The scientific research-and-development industry includes both private and federally funded national laboratories, such as the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and the Goddard Institute in Maryland.
Physics research is usually done in small- or medium-sized laboratories. However, experiments in some areas of physics, such as nuclear and high-energy physics, may require extremely large and expensive equipment, such as particle accelerators and nuclear reactors. Although physics research may require extensive experimentation in laboratories, physicists still spend much of their time in offices, planning, analyzing, fundraising, and reporting on research.
Most astronomers work in offices and may visit observatories a few times a year. An observatory is a building that houses ground-based telescopes used to gather data and make observations. Some astronomers work full time in observatories.
Some physicists and astronomers work away from home temporarily at national or international facilities that have unique equipment, such as particle accelerators and gamma ray telescopes. They also frequently travel to meetings to present research results, discuss ideas with colleagues, and learn more about new developments in their field.
Most physicists and astronomers work full time. Astronomers may need to work at night, because radiation from the sun tends to interfere less with observations made during nighttime hours. Astronomers typically visit observatories only a few times per year and therefore keep normal office hours.
This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of physicists and astronomers.
|Occupation||Job Duties||Entry-Level Education||Median Annual Pay, May 2019|
Biochemists and Biophysicists
Biochemists and biophysicists study the chemical and physical principles of living things and of biological processes.
|Doctoral or professional degree||$94,490|
Chemists and Materials Scientists
Chemists and materials scientists study substances at the atomic and molecular levels and analyze the ways in which the substances interact with one another.
Computer and Information Research Scientists
Computer and information research scientists invent and design new approaches to computing technology and find innovative uses for existing technology.
Computer Hardware Engineers
Computer hardware engineers research, design, develop, and test computer systems and components.
Electrical and Electronics Engineers
Electrical engineers design, develop, test, and supervise the manufacture of electrical equipment.
Geoscientists study the physical aspects of the Earth.
Materials engineers develop, process, and test materials used to create a wide range of products.
Mathematicians and Statisticians
Mathematicians and statisticians analyze data and apply mathematical and statistical techniques to help solve problems.
Nuclear engineers research and develop the processes, instruments, and systems used to derive benefits from nuclear energy and radiation.
Postsecondary teachers instruct students in a wide variety of academic and technical subjects beyond the high school level.
|See How to Become One||$79,540|
For more information about astronomy careers and for a listing of colleges and universities offering astronomy programs, visit
For a listing of colleges and universities offering physics programs, visit
For more information about physics careers and education, visit
For information about internship programs, visit
To find job openings for physicists and astronomers in the federal government, visit
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Physicists and Astronomers,
at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/physicists-and-astronomers.htm (visited ).