Most physicists are employed by educational institutions, industrial firms, government laboratories, or federally funded research and development centers. Vocations in physics fall into four major categories:
Basic research has as its goal the understanding of physical phenomena without a specific application in mind. Applied research leads to the solution of problems of national importance or of significant commercial value.
To become a professional in the field, physics, like all the sciences and mathematics, medicine, dentistry, etc., requires education and training beyond the bachelor's degree; that is, it requires the PhD degree. In general, this means another five or six years of schooling -- but it is not costly. Almost all qualified students receive financial aid in the form of assistantships or fellowships. In the graduate program at Kent State University, graduate assistants who qualify receive a full tuition waiver and are paid nine-month stipends ($13,500 during the 2000-2001) academic year). Usually some support is also available during the summer. In return, the student must render service to the Physics Department as a TA (teaching assistant) or an RA (research assistant). Both responsibilities provide good experience for the student, and, as an RA, the student often works in his/her research area.
The flowchart above outlines some of the career paths that are possible for someone with a bachelor's degree in physics. For new graduates at the bachelor level, there are fewer jobs in physics than, for example, in chemistry or engineering; however, there are also fewer applicants competing for those jobs.
In 1997, the median starting salary for someone with a BS in physics was $34,800 (as reported in AIP Pub. No. R-211.29). Some of the industries that hire graduates with a bachelor's degree in physics include: electrical/electronics; semiconductor; automotive; communications; aerospace; instrumentation; and materials. Some of these industries (e.g., automotive) don't specifically advertise for physics graduates, but they do hire. Industries such as these are often interested in hiring graduates that can demonstrate a breadth of knowledge, and who have the ability to analyze and solve problems. These abilities are well-known to characterize graduates with training in physics. A list of the largest industrial employers of PhD physicists was obtained in 1998 by the Education and Employment Statistics Division of the American Institute of Physics (AIP).
In 1998, the median annual salary for PhD physicists was $70,000 and the unemployment rate (0.7%) was the lowest in the past decade, based on results of a survey reported in Physics Today (August 1999). The median salary in 1998 for physicists with master's degrees was $57,000. Salary differences among physicists reflect their work sector, education, years of experience, and locale. Physicists employed in hospitals or medical services are paid the highest median salaries--$87,500 for those with PhDs. Industry / Self-Employed pays PhDs a median salary of $84,000, federally funded R&D centers pays $83,200 for those with PhDs, and the government pays $80,000. University employees with PhDs on nine- to ten-month contracts earn about $63,000 a year, while those at four-year colleges earn $49,000.
The Employment and Industry Homepage of the AIP is a good starting point for further exploration of career options for physicists. Another good source of information is the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is a searchable resource with job descriptions and outlooks for specific occupations. It contains an entry for Physicists and Astronomers, as well as entries for many related occupations. Another recommended site is Science Next Wave, a weekly on-line publication that covers scientific training, career development, and the science job market. It is geared towards preparing young scientists to be competitive in today's employment market. Each week the site publishes articles and features on a range of topics ranging from basic career advice to first-person perspectives from scientists pursuing a variety of careers. Finally, check out monster.com for an up-to-date listing of jobs requiring a physics degree. (Do a job search using Keyword ``Physics''.)
Finnish translation (by Marie Stefanova)
Norwegian translation (by Lars Olden)