1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal 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!

Making money as a physicist?

  1. Jan 29, 2012 #1
    I've been seeing a lot about people not making much as physicists, but it seems to mainly be centered around academia. Don't get me wrong, I love physics in enough ways to be perfectly happy entering a wide variety of fields. I'm a first year undergrad studying physics, which leaves me open to a wide range of possibilities.

    My main interest is physics, but other interests of mine span far and wide. So, I'd like to find a career outside of academia, since I've heard stories about postdoc research being sort of like slave labor.

    Which doesn't really matter since for a long time I've not been thinking so much about going into academia as much either. I feel like this is especially the case when I walk through the halls and I hear professors on the phone and sitting in offices trying to get grant money. Beyond that, my main interest is in technology, which in turn means industry and government, which seems to be where more of the money is at.

    So, there seems to be a theme that goes something like "you can do what you love and be poor, or you can sell your soul for money." Personally I'd rather strike a balance and try to optimize both...

    Anyways, my main interest within techology comes down (still broadly) to being able to help solve energy problems. So, fire away, but please be soft on any naivetés that I'm yet unaware of - not that you shouldn't be as realistic as possible...

    Oh, I should add since I saw this on other threads that I scanned through: I'm not looking to make money immediately. I just would like to eventually have it after years of working painstakingly hard.

  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 29, 2012 #2


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Hey Who Am I.

    In terms of doing science, its helpful to know where the funding goes. I don't know the specifics of funding in the context of energy research but I do know that big energy companies don't actually allocate much of there expenditures on it relative to their other expenditures (If you want me to find the piece that stated this I would have to find it again, but yeah you still should do your own research regardless of what some guy on a forum says).

    Continuing on that line, it should be no surprise that engineers get paid more and in some instances have a lot better job security.

    I think you might like engineering and you should note that you can just pigeonhole all of engineering as being a 'desk job pushing papers and signing off things' as opposed to 'being in the lab all day'. There are many different roles and I suggest that you read some of these forum posts to gauge an idea of these roles and the variety involved (there is even a 'So I want to be an engineer' thread which might interest you).

    It might help if you also visit the department of energy website and find affiliations like universities. This will give you an idea of some things to investigate.

    Also you should realize the nature of the beast that is energy. Energy is something that affects everyone and any breakthrough of cheap energy is a very big game changer. Tread softly my friend.
  4. Jan 30, 2012 #3
    Thank you for the reply.

    This is kind of what drives me to it. I've considered engineering, and I still kind of am considering engineering.

    I'm a bit more interested in understanding new(-ish?) physics that will lead to new engineering, rather than being an engineer who applies existing physics.

    But I will look over the other posts in the engineering section.
  5. Feb 4, 2012 #4
    Hi I

    If you consider finanically just to support your family and future,then engineering is always a better choice. However if you are sufficiently rich enough then science would be the best option to go with. This is a new generation learing world. So after engineering even one can switch to pure science field once they are tired doing with engineering for 10-15 years.
  6. Feb 4, 2012 #5


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    Not always.

    If you look at the data median salaries for physics graduates they tend to fall in about the middle of the pool for engineers. The distribution for physicists tends to be a significantly more broad though.

    It makes sense to do engineering if that's really what you want to do. If you see yourself doing that, but have a general interest in physics, you can always take some of the more interesting physics courses as electives, or take engineering physics as a means of straddling the gap between the wolds. But if you're not happy to be a engineer, then chances are you won't be successful pursuing that.

    But if you do study physics you're not necessarily doomed to a life of subsidized rent and Kraft Dinner. I took physics and so far it has worked out quite well for me.
  7. Feb 4, 2012 #6
    Well, my decision is also very difficult because I have a very wide range of interests and abilities.

    As I said, I'm not absolutely shut off to the engineering world, so long as I can work on something sufficiently interesting. I was thinking about aerospace for some time, due to my interest in space exploration. But I feel like jobs in that kind of industry are hard to come by.

    I feel like I end up in all sorts of frustrating ultimatums where really my end goal ends up being a choice between money and something that is more interesting.
  8. Feb 4, 2012 #7
    Most physics majors don't become physicists. So "how much money do physicists make?" is surprisingly irrelevant to "how much money people with physics degrees make?"

    I've never had to make that sort of trade-off. It so happens that I've been able to make a ton of money out of doing something that I like doing. On the other hand, I don't know if I would have been able to make that much money if my passion was Armenian literature rather than C++ programming.

    I've also found it good to be flexible. I'm curious about a lot of things, and it's rather easy to get me interested in a topic. And if you attach green bits of paper with pictures of dead presidents to a topic, then suddenly it gets a lot more interesting to me.
  9. Feb 5, 2012 #8


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Who Am I, if you really are concerned about money, I suggest you find an area which you can help improve other peoples lives: the more people, the better off you will be.

    Also I have to clarify when I say 'improve'. Some people will interpret that to be something like a motivational guru or a personal coach, but thats not what I mean. Also I am not referring to spiritual enlightenment or any kind of bastardization thereof (think televangelism).

    What I mean is to find something that people will make use of that improves their life 'in some way'. Google makes it easy for people to find stuff. Computers make our life easier and enhance it in many ways that are not in a 'productive capacity' like entertainment, forums and the gargantuan amount of content available.

    We need people from all walks of life to keep the wheels going and in our modern society we now have become so dependent on things like energy, computers, telecommunications, mass produced agriculture and other things that this actually makes it possible for people to become good at a specific thing that affects many people and thus gives them an opportunity to make money in many many different ways.

    If you are engaged in something that only a few people will benefit from then chances are you won't get a lot of money (unless the people you are dealing with have very big pockets and the thing you have is beneficial enough to warrant it to be expensive enough to keep you in business). If you do/create/produce/whatever something that lots and lots of people use, then chances are you will be rewarded as such in one way or another.

    Also you don't necessarily have to be a typical 'business person' with your own store, staff and standard infrastructure like cooking equipment (restaurant), or otherwise (depending on the nature of the business).

    Lots of people are consultants who use their experience to provide benefits to their customers. Doing this kind of work may not require the kinds of things that you would need in what most people think a business is (equipment, factory, etc). You will however need the staples like a track record, and a good reputation.

    If you don't want to be your own boss, then the above advice still applies but in a different way: go to the heart of where the benefits are to the other side. People in banking make more when they in the front office because they are 'closer to the money'.

    There is no reason why you can't take a science education and turn that investment into something that is more profitable than what you hear of, but you need to think a bit differently about how you go about it.

    Science does benefit other people, but not in the form that most scientists deal with. If you can take something and turn it into a form that other people can use, that is highly accessible (can use right away), and that gives them a benefit that they can recognize (extremely important), then you will definitely be on the right track.

    Getting from start to finish is the hardest part. If you do that you will realize that you will end up learning all the stuff that you may have despised ('soft' skills) and realized that most people are not scientists, don't understand science, and even if they benefited from a scientific discovery of some sort wouldn't understand why (even if you had to explain it to them in 15-30 minutes with a lot of pain and cursing).
  10. Feb 5, 2012 #9
    One thing that will make it easier is that a lot of the important decisions are outside of your control, and you won't have to decide because someone else will. My first job outside graduate school was with an oil/gas company. They hired me.

    I've known lots of people that studied X, but had to do Y, because jobs in X weren't available. Don't think that you have to plan out your life right now, since it may turn out that your choices don't really make much of a difference in the long run.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook