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Physics Making Money in Physics

  1. Jan 21, 2013 #1

    I am currently considering going into physics as a career. Even with the little knowledge that I have, I think the field will make an interesting and exciting career.

    However, the honest truth is that I do care about money. Having a lot of money would open up many ways to do great things in my life, my family's life, and the lives of others. I can already predict that most of the answers to my question will read something like "Go into physics because you love it" or "If you want money, be a business major," but here it is anyway:

    I want to work in physics (applied), and I want to make a lot of money ($150,000+). Can these two desires be reconciled? (please, I am more interested in legitimate answers to the question, not life tips about how money doesn't matter, but all answers are appreciated nonetheless).

    Thank You
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 21, 2013 #2
    You're not going to be able to do both unless you become a superstar in physics (Nobel Prize winner / University-Institute professor).

    You could get a physics degree and more than $150k doing something other than physics like finance or consulting but you cant easily get a physics and make more than $150k doing physics (maybe so in a management position that you could have done with just an MBA) except for the case mentioned.

    150k is in a high percentile in income so its going to take justification to pay you that much especially in the current economy.
  4. Jan 21, 2013 #3
  5. Jan 21, 2013 #4
    When you say that you want to "go into physics", I assume that you mean eventually obtain a PhD in physics and become a researcher? My question is, do you really need to go into physics or would you be just as happy using physics? If you want to use physics in your career and make +$150k then there may be some options. The obvious one being engineering, but even most engineers don't make nearly that much unless they are in management in which case you probably wouldn't be using much physics anyway. But if you definitely want to major in physics and don't mind going to graduate school, then you may want to look into geophysics or medical physics. Many geophysics PhD's get swooped up by the oil and gas industry and make around what you'd be looking for. I've also heard that medical physicists make a good salary, but this also depends if you go the clinical or research route.

    Any way you look at it... not many people can make that kind of money doing physics.
  6. Jan 21, 2013 #5


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    No one is going to offer you a huge salary simply to be a physicist, but there are many physicists that make that kind of money.

    Some options include:
    (1) Entreprenuers. The most financially successful physicists I know have started companies, some even based on their PhD work. This is, of course a risky venture as with any entreprenuer, but if money is your goal, this is how to get a lot of it.

    (2) Medical physics. This is a highly competative field, and you won't be starting with a $150k salary, but particularly in the US, that kind of annual salary is not unreasonable for those who become certified. Many medical physicists do some kind of consulting or contract work on the side.

    (3) Consulting work. When deciding on a graduate project think about the applications of what you're learning and maybe find a mentor who does some of this kind of thing on the side.

    (4) Geophysics. I don't know too much about this field, but it apparently pays rather well.
  7. Jan 21, 2013 #6
    We hear on this forum now and then about physicists in private industry reaching managerial levels that pay that amount. Plenty of medical physicists make that amount of money. I have no doubt there are some physicists in industrial/scientific sales positions that manage it.

    But salary is a terrible measure of whether a career is financially rewarding. Many jobs (including a couple in physics) manage high salaries by postponing earnings until later in life, making for net present values that aren't particularly impressive. Some jobs, including many in physics, postpone mediocre earning until later in life, for some spectacularly low net present values.

    I would reconsider your metric if I were you. Then do some more comparisons. It isn't as if physics is the only interesting career out there.
  8. Jan 21, 2013 #7
    Thank you everyone. These are great replies.

    I certainly don't necessarily 'have' to do research in the traditional sense. Being an entrepreneur or being in management could be great careers. My question now then is what kind of company would a physicist start? What kind of consulting work? What kind of management positions and for whom?

    Also, Locrian, I will definitely take that into consideration. I hadn't really thought about how those numbers can be misleading.
  9. Jan 21, 2013 #8
    If you want money (by doing management or finance) dont do physics there are so many easier ways to do that. An MBA takes 2 years post bachelors while a PhD take 5-8.

    Seems easier to do engineering BS (ideally CS since elite CS BS grads get six digits) and do an MBA program after.
  10. Jan 22, 2013 #9


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    Some examples:
    Hiroyuki Fujita founder of QED

    Max Lagally founder of nPoint and SonoPlot

    Robert Black, founder of CivaTech Oncology
    http://www.civatechoncology.com/index.html [Broken]

    James Vickers, founder of Optonics and tau-Metrix

    Alex Shimkunas, founder of Nanostructures
    http://www.nanostructures.com/founders.html [Broken]

    Rock Mackie, founder of Geometrics and TomoTherapy

    When you start reading up on these guys it's not hard to see the pattern. They develop a new technology as a part of their graduate work or later research, pattent it, and then found a new company to bring that technology to market.

    There's a great article in a recent Physics Today on physics start-ups (obviously where I got a few of the names above):
    http://www.physicstoday.org/resource/1/phtoad/v65/i12/p39_s1?bypassSSO=1 [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  11. Jan 22, 2013 #10
    This might not be the most unbiased view, but you'd be surprised at how much physics gets used in engineering (particularly chemical engineering). I don't know exactly which aspects of physics you're interested in, but I'd argue that applied physics IS engineering.

    And engineers get paid sheet loads, in both technical and management roles.

    Again, I don't know at what stage you are in your career, but you can easily become a chartered engineer with a physics degree if you already have one / are working towards one.

    And the world always needs more (chemical) engineers.
  12. Jan 24, 2013 #11
    Choppy, that's an awesome list!! Thanks for the link to the article!

    I'd like to add my favorite physicist entrepreneur that matches your pattern:

    Frank Levinson, founder of Finisar

    I recommend his advice to entrepreneurs - very down-to-earth and common sense:
    Top 10 Must Have For a Start-up
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  13. Jan 24, 2013 #12
    Of course, for many grad students these days, any IP that comes about is property of the University, so some may not be able to follow quite that plan.
  14. Jan 24, 2013 #13


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    That is not necessarily true of all universities, either in Canada or the US. I know for a fact that in the University of Waterloo in Canada, any IP is the sole property of the developer and not of the university.
  15. Jan 24, 2013 #14


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    This is an important point, but in addition to what Statguy2000 said, many universities establish programs to promote the commercialization of the innovation done on their campuses. And even if the university completely owns the intellectual property, that doesn't prevent the student who developed it from making money with it.
  16. Jan 24, 2013 #15
    Each of the universities I have worked for have a scheme where IP revenue is split something like 70/30 between the university/student. Much of what they own just gets sat on though and not developed into profit.
  17. Jan 24, 2013 #16
    Why do you want to make $150k+ per year? Are you really going to be spending that much money? Chances are, you'll probably be just as happy making half of that (and there's psychology studies that can back this up).
  18. Jan 25, 2013 #17
    The problem is that trying to do physics for a living, you're likely to make ~1/7 of that through your late 20s, and 1/3 of that through your mid 30s/early 40s. Coupled with the tremendous career uncertainty, this means delaying 'adulthood' (supporting a family and all those other non-work responsabilities). Those same psychological studies suggest this is a recipe for unhappiness.

    It can be very hard to watch friends advance through their career, buy homes, drive relatively new cars,etc while you are a physicist who lives in a fairly bad part of town and took a second job on the weekends as a bartender in order to pay for repairs on your twenty year old car.
    Last edited: Jan 25, 2013
  19. Jan 25, 2013 #18
    You did particle theory did you not? Someone who did experimental condensed matter or would not have the same troubles finding employment as you.
  20. Jan 25, 2013 #19
    I was talking about the career path for a physicist who finds a job doing physics- your phd takes most of your 20s (during which you earn about 20k or so), followed by postdocs for a large chunk of your 30s, etc. This is not unique to particle physics. I currently work at consulting company specializing in data mining- we just hired a physics phd whose thesis research was NMR on superconductors and who did a postdoc with a chemistry group and a postdoc with a biophysics group (NMR each time) before landing in the exact same job I hold. Sure, its an anecdote, but condensed matter physics isn't a booming utopia that retains all phds.

    Everyone who has gone to grad school is familiar with watching their friends who didn't enroll progress through life at a faster pace, its not unique to science.
    Last edited: Jan 25, 2013
  21. Jan 25, 2013 #20
    I think this is a moot point. If we must choose our specializations purely for the sake of finding employment, then the problem doesn't lie with the specialization (particle theory) that we wanted to pick, but rather the field as a whole (physics).

    This is like saying that you trained up as veterinarian physician because you loved animals - then now we're sorry, the only paying jobs are available for you are at the slaughterhouse. Either you go kill some animals or it's your fault for specializing in something else. Oh, you don't want to kill animals? Well too bad, there are many talented practitioners who will love to cull animals, maybe you lacked the "passion" to compete in veterinarian science... (Well, then who should be taking care of animals?)
  22. Jan 25, 2013 #21
    It is a moot point because where do you draw the line. If you should do condensed matter to get a job instead of particle despite being interested in particle then why draw the line there. Why dont you do electrical engineering or CS instead or medical physics. Why bother doing theory, instead of getting a phD just get a masters in financial engineering.
  23. Jan 26, 2013 #22
    It is like that and it is the problem with the specialization not physics. The subject was making money in physics was it not? It should be obvious to theoreticians in abstract and currently non-practical areas that they would struggle getting employment using the skills they learned in grad school. If you want to make money and actually use your physics materials and condensed matter with high crossover in engineering is probably your safest bet. ParticleGirl is painting with too broad a brush and her experience is most assuredly not the experience of the physicists I know (all experimental with practical research skills that transfer to engineering = not as much problems finding jobs, other than red tape of hiring managers wanting the name of their degree to have engineering in it).

    I merely find it fallacious that people go into non-practical, abstract theoretical areas and then blame the field as a whole because they can't get employment.
  24. Jan 26, 2013 #23
    Of course the obvious better answer is to just do engineering to begin with and get the same job that a Physics PhD might get with your MSEE. That is a safer bet for high money. Regardless, the notion that somebody is going to make 150k with physics degrees is very far out there. Sure, its possible. Its also possible to make millions with no degree at all.
  25. Jan 26, 2013 #24
    My post wasn't about finding work- it was about salary levels in graduate school, read it again. While in graduate school most phd students I know had some side-income in order to help pay the bills.

    Did your physicist friends get phds? Then they spent much of their 20s making ~20k a year (about 1/7 of the 150k number posted in the original post). Did they do postdocs? (more than half of physics phds do)- then they spent a fair portion of their 30s making ~50k.

    I was responding to a post suggesting that making ~80k is enough to afford all of life's necessities and then some. Unfortunately, the physics career path doesn't get you to 80k until your late thirties or early forties! THIS ASSUMES YOU STAY ON THE PHYSICS CAREER PATH, which most do not. The gradschool/postdoc salaries are substantially lower than the average bachelors degree holder, which is a recipe for unhappiness as you compare yourself to friends from highschool or college.

    Personally, I make substantially more money right now than the median physicist BECAUSE I LEFT THE FIELD. Even when I was bartending, I made more money than the median postdoc. My post wasn't about the inability to find work in physics (which is a very real problem even for experimentalists). My post was saying that, assuming everything goes well as far as career goes, physics is exceptionally low paying for many of your prime earning years (20s and 30s).
    Last edited: Jan 26, 2013
  26. Jan 26, 2013 #25
    I'm aware of the low salary as a grad student and post docs, hell I'll be a grad student while I'm in my thirties and if I stay in florida I'll need supplemental income. Alot of graduate students like law and medical don't get stipends to go unlike science and engineering (granted they and engineers make way more money afterward). The people I know work at national labs and are not necessarily academics and they have skills that transfer to engineering which make them actually employable versus theorists and experimentalists in obscure areas. I know more than most about unhappiness when comparing to high school and college friends. I'm not denying what you're saying is true (it is for lots of physicists), people should be made more aware before they sign their lives away to one all too specific and obscure research area
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