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.
A Ph.D. in physics, astronomy, or a related field is needed for jobs in research or academia or for independent research positions in industry.
Graduate students usually concentrate in a subfield of physics or astronomy, such as condensed matter physics or cosmology. In addition to taking courses in physics or astronomy, Ph.D. students need to take courses in mathematics, such as calculus, linear algebra, and statistics. Computer science classes also are essential, because physicists and astronomers often develop specialized computer programs that are used to gather, analyze, and model data.
Those with a master's degree in physics may qualify for jobs in applied research and development for manufacturing and healthcare companies. Many master's degree programs specialize in preparing students for physics-related research-and-development positions that do not require a Ph.D.
Most physics and astronomy graduate students have bachelor's degrees in physics or a related field. Because astronomers need a strong background in physics, a bachelor's degree in physics is often considered good preparation for Ph.D. programs in astronomy, although an undergraduate degree in astronomy may be preferred by some universities. Undergraduate physics programs provide a broad background in the natural sciences and mathematics. Typical courses include classical and quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, optics, and electromagnetism.
Those with only a bachelor's degree in physics usually are qualified to work as technicians and research assistants in related fields, such as engineering and computer science. Those with a bachelor's degree in astronomy also may qualify to work as an assistant at an observatory. Students who do not want to continue their studies to the doctorate level may want to take courses in instrument building and computer science.
Some master's degree and bachelor's degree holders find work in the federal government. Others may become science teachers in middle schools and high schools. For more information, see the profiles on middle school teachers and high school teachers.
Many physics and astronomy Ph.D. holders who seek employment as full-time researchers begin their careers in a temporary postdoctoral research position, which typically lasts 2 to 3 years. During their postdoctoral appointment, they work with experienced scientists and continue to learn about their specialties or develop a broader understanding of related areas of research. Senior scientists may carefully supervise their initial work, but as these postdoctoral workers gain experience, they usually do more complex tasks and have greater independence in their work.
Analytical skills. Physicists and astronomers need to be able to think logically to carry out scientific experiments and studies. They must be precise and accurate in their analyses because errors could invalidate their research. They must also be able to find and use funding effectively.
Communication skills. Physicists and astronomers present their research at scientific conferences, to the public, or to government and business leaders. Physicists and astronomers write technical reports that may be published in scientific journals. They also write proposals for research funding.
Concentration. Physicists and astronomers analyze large datasets to try to discern patterns that will yield information. This work often requires the ability to focus for hours over the course of many days.
Critical-thinking skills. Physicists and astronomers must carefully evaluate their own work and the work of others. They must determine whether results and conclusions are accurate and based on sound science.
Curiosity. Physicists and astronomers work in fields that are always on the cutting edge of technology. They must be very keen to learn continuously throughout their career. Indepth knowledge must be gained on a wide range of technical subjects, from computer programming to particle colliders.
Interpersonal skills. Physicists and astronomers must collaborate extensively with others in both academic and industrial research contexts. They need to be able to work well with others toward a common goal. Interpersonal skills also should help researchers secure funding for their projects.
Math skills. Physicists and astronomers perform complex calculations involving calculus, geometry, algebra, and other areas of mathematics. They must be able to express their research in mathematical terms.
Problem-solving skills. Physicists and astronomers use scientific observation and analysis, as well as creative thinking, to solve complex scientific problems.
Self-discipline. Physicists and astronomers spend a lot of time working alone and need to be able to stay motivated in their work.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Some positions with the federal government, such as those involving nuclear energy and other sensitive research areas, may require applicants to be U.S. citizens and hold a security clearance.
With experience, physicists and astronomers may gain greater independence in their work, as well as larger research budgets. Those in university positions may also gain tenure with more experience. Some physicists and astronomers move into managerial positions, typically as a natural sciences manager, and spend a large part of their time preparing budgets and schedules. Physicists and astronomers need a Ph.D. for most management positions. For more information, see the profile on natural sciences managers.
Physics as a discipline seeks to describe the physical universe at a deep and detailed level but is not limited to a specific body of knowledge. Rather, it is characterized as a broad set of problem-solving skills and strategies based on scientific principles that can be applied in many contexts. Employers requiring someone who can understand complex, often mathematically sophisticated problems and devise effective solutions to them often hire physicists for other types of jobs.