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Are physicists underpaid or is it a misconception?

  1. Jul 12, 2012 #1
    Prior to researching physicist salaries I was under the impression that physicists compared to other occupations e.g. engineers are rather low payed. Though after some browsing I found that physicists, roughly earn ~$85k/year (AUD) and mechanical engineers for instance earn ~$84k/year (AUD).

    So are physicists underpaid or is it simply a misconception?

    Physical Science Salary (AUD) http://joboutlook.gov.au/pages/occupation.aspx?search=alpha&tab=stats&cluster=&code=2349

    Mechanical Engineering Salary (AUD) http://joboutlook.gov.au/pages/occupation.aspx?search=alpha&tab=stats&cluster=&code=2335
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 12, 2012 #2
    I don't feel underpaid. My salary straight after education phase (-> post-doc salary) equals the national (German) average, and is above the median (~2/3 have a lower salary). Globally, that seems more than okay to me, considering my limited job experience. You can of course always find local comparisons and e.g. wonder why a physician gets twice my salary. But do such local comparisons matter at the end of the day? Only if you're currently deciding which career path to take, I guess. The main problem with physics job is the job prospects (at least if you want to stay in academia or at least in physics research - which is usually the idea behind going into physics in the first place) and, for me even more importantly, the working conditions in academia (e.g. the pressure to move positions and ideally even countries every two years).
  4. Jul 12, 2012 #3

    Simon Bridge

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    Welcome to PF;
    Those stats are for physicists and engineers who are paid as physicists and engineers.

    I don't think anyone is actually saying that physicists are underpaid as such, just that pure science is not a path to riches. All my professors drove beat up cars for instance. There is usually a surplus of supply in degrees that do not lead to a specific job.

    The remuneration profiles are so similar - but there are other measures in there. eg. the qualifications distributions are very different. You'll see that you can be employed in the "Industrial, Mechanical and Production Engineering" Industry with an undergrad diploma - and that there are fewer with post-grad qualifications. For "Other Natural and Physical Science Professionals" there is more of an emphasis on higher education. Yet they make about the same amount of money. [edit]Notice that Timo has to get a doctorate to get the German national average pay?

    Suggests that if you are a physicist you are more likely to have a higher qualification than but making the same amount as an engineer.

    The devil is, as always, in the details, though, and the usual anecdotal stuff suffers from "the grass is always greener" syndrome.
    In the end, you don't do physics (especially not in academia) because of the money.
  5. Jul 12, 2012 #4
    Thats says "naturral & Physical Scientists" not physicists.

    See http://www.seek.com.au/JobSearch?DateRange=31&SearchFrom=quick&Keywords=physics&nation=3000

    The jobs seem to be teachers, require Ph.D., or medical physicists (ie creating radiopharecuticals or running machines in hospitals).
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2012
  6. Jul 12, 2012 #5
    yeah, the occupation "physicist" links to "Other Natural and Physical Science Professionals", so it must consider other occupations also, though as a rough estimate it should provide some indication.
  7. Jul 12, 2012 #6
    It is a bad idea to link all physicists, as if we all do the same things. I can't link our professions salary survey conducted by AAPM for legal reasons. As a medical physicists, we make much more than your link would indicate. A couple of gross numbers from the survey that ignore experience, rank, main work focus, etc. The 2011 AAPM salary survey median MS degree with ABR cert = $176,200, median PhD with ABR Cert = $188,000. The 2011 HPS salary survey for Radiological Health Physics is here http://hps.org/documents/2011_chp_salary_survey.pdf and shows a median of $121,250 for a certified health physicist (CHP).

    In summary, "Physicist" is too general a label to assess salaries.
  8. Jul 12, 2012 #7
    Although it may be preferable to have a more advanced degree than a bachelor's to be employed as a medical physicist, what bachelors degree is preferable? e.g. physics or biophysics?
  9. Jul 12, 2012 #8
    Preferable is a relative thing. Preferable money, research, free time, etc.? I do more fulfilling work as a medical physicist, but I had more fun as a health physicist. I make much more money as a medical physicist. I busted my butt as a health physicist during outages, and I sit on my ever growing butt too much as a medical physicist. As a health physicist, I had peers to share the load and responsibility, and as a medical physicist 100% of the load and responsibility rest with me.

    So, preferable how?

    Lastly, unless it's changed HP is the only one you can do without a graduate degree.
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2012
  10. Jul 12, 2012 #9
    Preferable, as in, would you be more likely to be employed as a medical physicist with a physics degree or with a biophysics degree?
  11. Jul 12, 2012 #10
    Medical physics requires a Medical Physics graduate degree. There are a few programs which have lumped medical physics in with biophysics. However, to get certified (which will generally be required for a job in the US) you need to go to a CAMPEP approved program http://www.campep.org/ These are medical physics graduate schools that satisfy the standards required to site for ABR medical physics board examinations. Medical physics also requires a two year residency in a CAMPEP approved residency program.

    BTW, I corrected my earlier post. Health Physics is the only one you can do WITHOUT a graduate degree. http://www.hps.org/
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2012
  12. Jul 12, 2012 #11
    physicists are overpaid if you take in consideration the hard work in Mechanical Engineering
  13. Jul 13, 2012 #12
    It's a misconception, but one that is based on some fact. Permanent physics positions pay well, but Ph.D.'s that go the academic route end up spending a lot of time in "temporary" positions (i.e. post-docs) that pay poorly. The problem isn't the salary but the lack of positions.

    Then you have to deal with the fact that most people with physics degrees don't get jobs with "physicist" in the job title. Some physics Ph.D.'s go into investment banking, which has quite high salaries.
  14. Jul 13, 2012 #13


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    I think what Phys0101 is asking is if someone is considering medical physics as a final career, which undergraduate program would be prepare the candidate the best for entry into an accredited medical physics graduate program.

    To that I would answer it really depends. There is no standard undergraduate biophysics program (or standard undergraduate medical physics program for that matter). Generally when we assess candidates who apply to our graduate program, we look at the courses that they've taken. We look for core physics and mathematics courses. One of the risks of more specialized programs is that they can have watered down versions of a more typical physics undergraduate degree as these students end up struggling with our comprehensive exam. I generally advise students not to specialize too much at the undergraduate level.

    And now back to your regularly schedualled thread.
  15. Jul 13, 2012 #14


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    Something else (back on topic) to consider is that when you look at the data on employment of people who've gone through an undergraduate physics programs the median salaries tend to be quite similar to the various branches of engineering - finishing about middle of the pack. When you look a little more closely, the standard deviation for physics grads is considerably wider and this is because, in my opinion, engineering is a more tightly regulated profession. Physics is just an academic subject.

    Another factor to consider is that engineers typically begin work after their undergraduate degree. People who become "physicists" - which has a fairly broad definition - go through graduate programs and spend time in temporary post-doctoral positions. So when you look at something like career-integrated earnings, engineers will come out on top because they start earning the salaries associated with their profession so much earlier.
  16. Jul 13, 2012 #15
    Under the prospects tab it is stated:

    How many workers are employed in this occupation? 9800
    How many work full-time (% share)? 85
    What are the weekly earnings for full-time workers ($ before tax)? 1630/week
    How does unemployment compare with other occupations? low
    What is the long-term employment growth - 10 years (%)? 94.7
    What is the medium-term employment growth - 5 years (%)? 172.3
    What is the short-term employment growth - 2 years (%)? 63.9
    Is the mix of industries favourable for employment growth? very favourable
    Gross replacement rate – how many (%) leave the occupation each year? 5.9
    What is the vacancy level for this occupation? very high
    What is the likely future employment growth for the next five years? strong growth

    So these statistics suggest physics graduates will enter a field with favourable employment growth, high vacancy and relatively high pay. (Although other occupations are considered in the above statistics)(these suggest somewhat similarly http://www.graduatecareers.com.au/category/education-field/physical-sciences/ [Broken])

    Regarding Simon Bridge's post, although one should not enter physics for the money, my concern was that someone with an interest in physics may avoid physics due to lack of money, even though it may not be the case.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  17. Jul 13, 2012 #16
    Didn't know you are Aussie. I'm assuming you are since the job statistics site you linked is there. I have no idea what the market or requirements are there. However, you keep linking "physicists" as if we are all the same. Global statistics like those are, IMO, useless. Pick a physics career field to discuss for better answers.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  18. Jul 13, 2012 #17
    I was referring to physics generally as I have been led to believe it can be difficult to be employed in a specific field of physics, not really sure if that's the case. If you could provide some insight into the employability of physics graduates from your knowledge/experience (presumably in the US) it would be appreciated.

    (not sure which fields are easiest to be employed in, maybe someone could shed some light.)
    Last edited: Jul 13, 2012
  19. Jul 13, 2012 #18
    I can only speak for my field, medical physics, as I have been out of research and radiological health physics for many years.

    If you take the time to go to college (4yrs), a CAMPEP graduate program (2yrs), and a CAMPEP residency (2yrs), pass the ABR board exams, and can work as a team member in a clinical environment, employment is good and pay is at the upper end of most physics careers.

    Above is assuming US base.

    I'll leave it to others to chime in on their areas of expertise.
  20. Jul 13, 2012 #19
    Physicists are only employed in a specific field of physics.

    Employment in physics is very specialized. University positions are often specific down to the line of research. Private employers can be even more specific in their job listings (though in my limited personal experience there was some latitude once you actually spoke directly with them). The difference between an astrophysics PhD and a condensed matter/materials science PhD doing computational work in thin films might as well be the sun and the moon to almost all employers. Just ask someone who recently got their PhD in HEP theory if vacancy is high and they’ll either laugh or cry, depending on whether they think you’re joking or not.

    I’m with ThinkToday – you’re either discussing an area of physics, or you aren’t really discussing anything at all.
  21. Jul 15, 2012 #20
    I'm not familiar with Australia's market, but in the US I would say the prospects listed in that tab are overly rosy for most physicists. Most of the physics students with only an undergraduate degree I know were not able to find employment as 'physicists' and instead work in finance,consulting,insurance,programming,etc. Most of the phds I know are doing similar work.

    So the issue shouldn't be 'can I make money', because you probably can find a decent income as a physics major or a physics phd. The issue is- can this degree get me the sort of job I want? Personally, I would very much prefer engineering type work to what I'm doing now. If your utility looks like science job > engineering job> other work, then getting a physics degree is probably a bad move. You have a small chance of the science job, but you remove the path to engineering jobs all together.
  22. Jul 15, 2012 #21
    think that's more for some fields than others.

    lots of jobs in semiconductors and optics. Well, no. Jobs are scarce nowadays in all fields. But more jobs than other places and pays better than flipping burgers and uses science.

    but then again, most people on here apparently want to do string theory or black hole astro... so... that's basically pre-finance.
  23. Jul 16, 2012 #22
    Also the OP needs to make sure that he or she is asking the right question. There are lots of employers that hire physics Ph.D.'s that really don't care what you did your Ph.D. in.
  24. Jul 16, 2012 #23


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    ParticleGrl, would you say that your statement in your first paragraph about not finding employment as a "physicist" may be more applicable to those (like yourself) whose background is in a theoretical area, as opposed to someone specializing in an experimental area (e.g. experimental condensed matter physics, optics)? After all, I can imagine that someone with an experimental background will have skills that a potential employer in a high-tech firm may well recognize as being valuable (although I could be mistaken about this).

    That being said, I have another question. Suppose your utility is science job > engineering job > other work. Which degree, in your opinion, will most likely (given the current economic climate) lead to satisfying the above utility criteria?
    Last edited: Jul 16, 2012
  25. Jul 16, 2012 #24
    It might be more applicable to theorists, but even most experimentalists I know were unable to find permanent industry employment as physicists. They do a bit better, but not so much better that the phd makes sense. If you work on something directly related to silicon (and maybe optics, I see lots of job postings for optics specialists), you'll probably do ok, but there are lots and lots of experimental techniques that haven't made their way to industry yet. Where do the people who work on ultra-cold atoms find work? I recently worked with an IT consultant hired by the company I work for who had a physics phd specializing in NMR and superconductors.

    He lamented that no one had wanted the experimental skills in which he had become an expert, and suggested his transition to the working world was probably harder, because he didn't have the same math background. But it is maybe a grass-is-always-greener phenomenon.

    I would argue that no degree makes the highest utility (science) likely, so your best bet is to focus on engineering. I taught several dozen engineers over the years while I was in grad school, and nearly all of them eventually landed a job in their chosen field (it took awhile for some, but the market is very weak right now). To my knowledge, the ones who left their fields did so by choice and not lack-of-opportunity .

    The reverse is true among science phds I know- Nearly all of them left the field because of a lack-of-opportunity.
  26. Jul 16, 2012 #25
    Apoligies to StatGuy and ParticleGrl for answering a question not directed at me, but my experience was absolutely that experimental and computational physics studies allowed for a much wider variety of employment opportunities, though some of it might not be physics as most of us would define it. Furthermore, if you were graduating with a PhD in a topic that was currently hot, your odds of getting a university job were much higher. In the experimental area I studied in you met with industry professionals with great regularity, and you routinely found out that so-and-so at GenericStateU had left for work in the private sector.

    This isn't something I have good statistical data for though, and I don't trust most of the data others have acquired. This feeling comes largely from impressions I got working in a materials science lab and watching every last person who worked with me* go on to enter into what appear to be successful careers while at the same time being a roomate of 3 HEP theory PhD's (two string theory, one non-comm geometry) and watching their lives derail in an epic way as they reached graduation date. (I also worked for a few years in industry and got a similar feel there; chalk-board physicsts were not highly thought of among those in my admittedly small circle).

    At one point one of my grad school roommates asked for help from me looking for work, so we sat down and went over his employable skills. As far as I could tell, he had none, and to this day (over four years later) he is still making sub-poverty wages doing crappy undergrad class lab work for the university.

    This blanket success and failure difference at my U could be due to the U itself. Almost a decade of trolling this forum combined with regular readings of other blogs suggests otherwise.

    *My University keeps a list of PhD grads and where they are now. Just last month I accounted for the last person I worked with in the lab (and knew by name). The two of my three roommates are still not on the list, the thrid being mentioned above.
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