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A physicists's paycheck (need some explanations)

  1. May 28, 2010 #1
    So, everyone says physicists are usually poor (unless they are incredibly brilliant or lucky). Yet:


    Those numbers seem incredibly high. I understand they include medical physicists in there (I think?), but for a mean value that includes the lower-income types of physicists, that does not seem "poor" at all. Compare to mechanical engineers (who are, according to hype, supposed to be living richer):


    Can someone explain to me why the salaries in the first link are so high? Does the average physicist really make that much money without finding some groundbreaking discovery? I'd really like to go into physics as a career, but, at this point, not enough to sacrifice the supposed higher-living style of an engineer. And please don't turn this thread into a "Do what you love" discussion. I've heard it enough.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. May 28, 2010 #2
    This is interesting, that is a pretty large gap. I am also looking into a career as either a physicist or a mechanical engineer. I would love both of them, but with those numbers a physicist looks a lot more appealing.
  4. May 28, 2010 #3
    A couple thoughts...

    Many people who get degrees in physics (at any level) dont actually become 'professional physicists'. There is alot of different opinions on who is a 'physicist'. In my opinion most people who have physics degrees are not 'physicists' but are teachers, engineers, business men etc. How you define a 'physicist' will greatly change that mean annual wage.

    Secondly, there is just as much diversity in what people consider 'poor' and what people consider a 'decent wage'. These opinions are far from objective. I find that people usually define poor as anything less than the standard of living they were raised with and people define rich as anything more than the standard of living they were raised with. Personally, I wouldnt consider myself poor if I were making 30-40k. If I made 60k or more, I would consider myself rich. When I finish my PhD in physics I expect to make something in that range, 40-60k.

    In the end, there are no starving physicists.
  5. May 28, 2010 #4
    Everyone is wrong. The basic issue is that when people think physicist, they thing starving post-doc or graduate student, when most people with physics Ph.D.'s eventually end up outside academia. One other misleading part is when people see a graduate student making $25K/year. That sounds bad, but then you realize that the school is paying you, and you get your Ph.D. without any debt. Compare with medical school where you pay the school.

    I don't think that there is such a thing as an average physicist, but no one I know of with a physics Ph.D. is starving or unemployed. If you have a physics background, then you can describe the world with numbers. This turns out to be very lucrative.
  6. May 28, 2010 #5
    Also looking at the numbers, it really looks like a lot of the people that are getting these sorts of jobs are medical physicists (i.e. people that design X-ray and MRI machines). There are also lots of people with physics backgrounds in petroleum (i.e. geophysicist or petrophysicist).

    Speaking of petroleum industries. I knew someone that five years ago predicted that starting in about five years, you'll start seeing oil wells blow up left and right. The reason for this was that the oil industry hired a lot of people in the 1980's, but then stopped hiring people. The trouble is that people that were hired in the 1980's are starting to retire in large numbers so the people running the oil wells really have no idea what they are doing. It's pretty obvious from the BP oil well thing that this is what is happening now.
  7. May 28, 2010 #6


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    When people post on these boards about career decisions, one bit of advice I often try to provide is that they should make their decisions based on data rather than what "friends have told them" or some sort of dogma they've picked up, but have not backed up with evidence.

    Here, the data confronts a generally accepted paradigm - that physicists spend life starving and that engineers are flooded with job offers before they finish their second year of university. And rather than challenge the paradigm, the first instinct is to question the data.

    Not that it's a bad idea to look a little more closely at the numbers. A median salary is not the same as a starting salary. And it's important to also consider the time factors. To earn a PhD, you have 5+ more years of school where you're not earning (much) money, not paying down a mortgage, not investing, not contributing to a retirement plan, etc.
  8. May 28, 2010 #7

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    First, about your numbers:
    The first describes the salaries of 13,630 categorized as physicists while the latter describes 232,660 categorized as mechanical engineers. You are comparing apples to oranges. The former group obviously comprises PhD physicists only while the latter includes people with "only" a bachelors degree. For an apples-to-apples comparison, consider this graphic from the American Physics Society which compares the salaries for people going directly out of school after attaining their baccalaureate,


    So, not nearly as spectacular as the BLS numbers, but still pretty good.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
  9. May 28, 2010 #8


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    Thats the same stats the chem eng people have been using for 40years and we have discussed before.
    The reason it looks so good is that all chem eng graduate with a job, the problem is that most of them are still doing the same job 30years later.
    All those university careers office type stats need to be taken with a pinch of NaCl - they are very good at tracking the people that go and work for large corporations who return salary surveys - but miss people sitting on a beach on Thailand or working in a bar
  10. May 29, 2010 #9
    I wouldn't waste too much money on a degree unless you really want to teach at a fancy school, or do a lot of research. If your going for money like myself, just go into the nuclear industry. I joined the Navy Nuclear program(which I hated, but did get a decent physics education), then I got out and became an operator at a nuclear power plant and make 100K a year(which I love). Some of the people that I work with only have a high school education besides the required initial qualification class that lasts about a year, but pays well as far as getting paid to learn about your job for a year goes. Just pass the preliminary exam, have a clue about nuclear power generation, and do well on the interview. There is excellent opportunity for advancement if desired.
  11. May 31, 2010 #10
    In the case of a Ph.D. in physics, they pay you. They don't pay you much, but it's enough to live on, and there are lots of opportunities.

    One bit of good news is that contrary to what you may have heard, people with science and technology degrees make good money. So much so, that your main concern will be to do something you are interested in.

    When I was an undergraduate, I got a letter (which I wish I kept) in which the Navy was willing to pay me $50K in cash. All I had to do was to switch my major from physics to nuclear engineering. The letter said that there were no formal requirements. All I had to do was to switch my major, get the degree and the cash was mine. Of course, the catch is that with a bachelor in nuclear engineering, the Navy was really the only people that would be hiring you.
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