1. Not finding help here? Sign up for a free 30min tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Job market for Physicists

  1. May 9, 2015 #1
    I'm an undergrad physics major, and I constantly hear from peers and outside sources that physics majors have eight years of schooling, and get paid like ****, and that it's hard to find a job as a research physicist (that's what I want to do). I'm wondering why people say this though, because I took out a student loan and to take it out, I was required to make a hypothetical payment plan for post-grad, and part of this included me entering my major and degree level to determine my future salary. Well I ended up having been calculated as making $170k/yr (correct me if I'm wrong, but that's clearly not entry level) by my school website. I also looked up my salary and job outlook on www.bls.gov and it said that the job market is growing as fast as average, and that the median salary is $117k/yr. Either way (whether it's 117k or 170k) I'm content.

    The only thing that concerns me is what people are saying. I understand that my sources are more reputable, but not necessarily. Life experience doesn't compare to statistics, so I'm wondering if maybe I should just change my major to engineering like everyone else. I looked up electrical engineering, for example, on www.bls.gov, and it states that they have a slower than average job outlook, and it raises major curiosity in me, because I never hear of engineering majors having problems finding jobs. What is going on here? Also, if I change my major to engineering, I will be happy doing that as well. I really do love physics, but I'm thinking that engineers make more (supposedly) in half the amount of schooling. I'm a single mom, so I'd like some opinions on what people think is smarter for me in my position.

    PLEASE NOTE, either way I would be happy doing what I'm doing. I get very easy A's in math, and I get all A's in physics, but yet I don't feel smart all the time. Is this common for physics majors?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 9, 2015 #2

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    Numbers like $117k and $170k are some kind of average, and not representative of what early career physicists make.

    The unemployment rate among PhD physicists is very low. So there are jobs. The problem is that many PhD's feel that they deserve a faculty job at a RU/VH university, but the numbers just don't support that. If a professor has 10 students over his career, only 1 is needed to replace him.
  4. May 9, 2015 #3
    So do you think that I will have a problem finding a job in research? Because I read a lot that people tend to not go into physics related things even though they may have a PhD in physics. And do electrical engineers really make pretty close to what PhD physicists make?
  5. May 9, 2015 #4

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    Depends on what you mean by "research". There are more jobs in industry - making cell phones better, making airplanes better, making light bulbs better, making paint sprayers better (honest!) than in academia. These are research jobs, but it's more applied, and you have less say in what direction to pursue. If you work for Boeing, you don't get to make cell phones better.
  6. May 9, 2015 #5


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    I think this is a case where you really have to do a little more research and establish a decent back-up plan.

    One potential issue comes with how one defines "physicist." An appropriate definition to use in terms of paying back student loans, is one who graduates with a physics degree. The definition that may have been applied in reference to the numbers you have is one who is working as a physicist at a university, excluding post-docs.

    Realistically what's typical* for someone who makes it to a full professor position:
    • 4 years of undergrad where you paying to be there.
    • 4-7 years of graduate school where you'll receive a stipend/scholarship/bursary/teaching or research assistance ship that will bring in something to the tune of $20 - 30k.
    • 2-6 years as a post-doctoral researcher making something in the $30 - 50k ballpark
    • Sessional lecturers or adjuncts generally make something in this range too.
    • By the time you're in your mid-30s you're in a position to compete for the rare tenure-track positions. My impression is that these can vary considerably in pay, but you're probably be safe assuming something in the $50-70k ballpark.
    • Then you start climbing the ranks: assistant to associate to full professor. The full professors are generally the ones earning north of $90k. But remember, by this time they are well into their 40s.
    As Vanadium indicated most people who start out on this path don't make it.

    The good news is that physics graduates tend to do okay, even if thy don't end up as professors. If you look at the AIP statistics they have a fairly broad range of salaries on initial employment with a median consistent that's about middle of the pack compared to the engineering disciplines. Moving forward, it's a good idea to have a backup plan if your dream doesn't pan out.
  7. May 9, 2015 #6
    It depends.

    Anyways, don't compare salaries; compare the net present value of their career earnings. That way (if you're talking research physicist) you factor in the impact of the additional 4-7 years of PhD and 2-4 years of postdoc. And that impact is huge.

    Last time I did so, I convinced myself the EE career had higher financial value. By a wide margin.

    (As always we point out that financial value isn't the only - or sometimes even primary - reason for choosing a career. However, since it is usually *A* reason, we should value it correctly)
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Similar Discussions: Job market for Physicists
  1. Job as a Physicist (Replies: 2)

  2. A Physicist's Job (Replies: 18)