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Physics Salaries

  1. Apr 23, 2008 #1
    I truly want to major in physics in my undergraduate year (I'm currently a high school student who is going to the Georgia Institute of Technology the following fall). The thing is, I'm really interested in the topic (done and got 5's on Physics B, both parts of Physics C, qualified for semifinalist on USAPho, self-studied all physics I've ever learned) but am unsure of its future... I've heard that it is hard to make a six figure job. Is this true? I really want to do something I like, but I also want to do something which will pay well.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 23, 2008 #2
    Frankly, I don't know a single person who was being paid six figures straight out of college, regardless of degree. Making that kind of money requires a lot of hard work and has nothing to do with your degree. Go to college because you are passionate about a particular subject. If you don't, then college becomes nothing more than an over-glorified training center.
  4. Apr 23, 2008 #3


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    How do you define "hard" to make six figures? Do you think that sort of salary comes easily to anyone? Anyone making that sort of salary has to work for it.

    My usual advice to people is that if you're motivated primarily by money, go into business, that's what they do, play with money all day. If money isn't your primary motivator, do what you enjoy...you're more likely to be successful (by any definition of success) in a career you enjoy than in a career you dislike.
  5. Apr 23, 2008 #4
    I understand this, but generally, is getting a PhD in Physics worth it, or will I end up spending a good bit of time paying the debt due to education off?
  6. Apr 23, 2008 #5
    If you do well as an undergrad, you generally do not pay for graduate school. That said, I am a bit puzzled as to how you equate "pays well" with "six figures."
  7. Apr 24, 2008 #6
    Because that's what 21st century American values dictate. Young people nowadays expect rewards near instantaneously. Quite frankly, if I'm not making 100k 2yrs after I get my BSc I'll be quite disappointed. Then again, I'm just typing non-sense. Blame my 10x faster than dial-up digital upbringing.:biggrin:

    Jordan Joab.
  8. Apr 24, 2008 #7
    100k (USD) is what an established engineer in England would be earning...

    Starting salaries here are £20k on average, thaats about $38k usd...

    As some one said, business and finance is where that type of money is, or Dr's of health care...

    What are you doing a BSc in Jordan, think il switch to it if you can get 100k after 2 years...
  9. Apr 24, 2008 #8
    I was just trying to be funny but guess it didn't work. Anyways, going back to the threat topic, I understand Domnu's point of view and I'd have to say I agree with him partly.

    To many people under 30, making good money is arguably just as important as having a good career. We grew up in a period of abundance, easy credit, new accessible technologies, fast information, etc. Now we are young adults that want our own homes and cars, that have credit debt, and in uncertain economic times. So yes, we want high-paying jobs.

    I disagree with him on how soon one should be making this kind of salary. I expect to be making six-figures after 10yrs of smart/hard work. Is it realistic? Perhaps not but I'll be working with that objective in mind.

    One last thing, I believe telling people to "go into X if you want to make money" is not a proper approach to the matter. Stop to consider that there are people that want to make good money and love physics. Perhaps explaining what a person should expect from a particular field is more helpful.

    Jordan Joab.
  10. Apr 24, 2008 #9
    Of course there are people who want to make good money and love physics. You can want many things, but they aren't necessarily realistic.

    I think you can make a decent living in physics, but you can certainly make a better living in other fields with less work. There is a tradeoff here, and I don't think it's a bad thing to point that out.

    (I'm an aspiring physicist, currently in the computer industry. I fully expect to take a 30-50% paycut if I do manage to switch fields.)
  11. Apr 24, 2008 #10
    Hmm... I guess I phrased it a bit incorrectly, heh... I know that I can't probably make a 6 figure job immediately out of college or even immediately after a PhD, but I was just wondering if, eventually, it is common for physicists, after some 15 years, say, to make 6 figures. I just want to make sure that physicists don't make a really low salary. I'm just a bit afraid that if I go into the field, I will end up spending some nine years paying off a large debt from graduate school and the debt that may acquire from getting a PhD. After all, without a PhD, getting a really good job in research physics is literally impossible.
  12. Apr 24, 2008 #11
    I think people work harder for less than that kind of money. People who earn that much don't work themselves, usually. They earn money from the work others do for them. If you own a factory you can easily make 100 people collect that money for you.

    I never heard of people making 6figures without being owners of some company.
  13. Apr 24, 2008 #12


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    Here is the recent AAUP salary survey results: http://chronicle.com/stats/aaup/ (which include all disciplines... not just physics)

    Note that most faculty salaries are 9- or 10-month contracts...[check before making comparisons with non-faculty positions]. So, one can supplement one's salary in the summer by additional teaching or by research or whatever.

    From the AIP http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/phystrends.html
    http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/fall07e.pdf PhD Salaries - 10 years later
    http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/spring07b.pdf Faculty salaries

    see also
  14. Apr 24, 2008 #13

    As another poster has alluded, there's no such thing as accumulating debt from graduate school, at least not typically. Every physics graduate program I know of puts its students on a teaching or research assistantship, which covers all tuition expenses and even pays you beyond that. I don't pay a penny to go to grad school. I even get paid. It's not much, but it takes care of the bills. Now, you may have to worry about paying off your undergraduate debt (since most school loans don't require you to pay anything back if you're enrolled full time). But at every graduate program I know of, you won't be paying.

    I've heard vague stories of people being admitted to master's programs without assistantships. Can't give any specifics though. But my ignorance on this might be an indication as to how rare it is for graduate students to pay for school.
  15. Apr 25, 2008 #14
    In the UK, its very uncommon to get "Masters" fees paid for.

    A Masters can range from £3000 - £9000 ($6000-$18000) depending on what masters is chosen, its content and school.

    PHD's and EngD are still hard to get funding for, their are loads more ways to find funding, but, most involve finding sponsorship from companies.

    Same applies to Masters, some companies will sponsor the masters, but not that many, and normally for very high calibre students who have secured work with that company.

    So, general rule, we pay for masters over here...

    As for earning $100000 which is £50000, then thats after 10-15 years, and is pretty much the top salary for the sciences and engineers.

    In 10 years time, taking into account inflation, todays $100000 would be around $135.000, so if its possible to earn around $75000 in todays market, then in 10 years time you would be on that $100000.

    At the end of the day, its only money, and a job should be enjoyable...

    Nothing enjoyable in earning loads of cash and looking forward to retirement as you cant wait to get out of the job...

    Another thing to consider, some companies offer lower pay, but offer amazing perks and benefits.
  16. Apr 25, 2008 #15
    Then you need to get out more.
  17. Apr 25, 2008 #16
    If you value what you'll be earning in two/three years over the value of intellectual progression, you shouldn't be doing it at all.

    Where has this 6 figure salary stuff came from? Why do you need 6 figures to live again?
  18. Apr 25, 2008 #17
    Seriously? Both my advisers make 6 figures, and they don't own a company, they're simply senior astrophysicists (one is a professor and the other is a civil servant).
  19. Apr 25, 2008 #18
    Yeah, starting salaries for PhDs in engineering or physics begin at $100,000 where I live. There are big regional differences, though. $100,000 might seem like a lot of money if you live in rural Arkansas, but it doesn't actually go all that far in coastal California.
  20. Apr 25, 2008 #19

    I cannot emphasize strongly enough that if one wants a financial measure of the value of a profession, salary is an incredibly bad measure. You would be very wise to move past it as quickly as possible.

    Consider this obvious example. Is a million dollars a year good money? If you had to spend 50 years in school to get it, would it still be good money? Obviously not, because by the time you're 68 you'd be in tremendous debt and might have very little lifetime left to enjoy it.

    Salary on its own fails every test of financial value. For instance it does not discount properly (money now is worth more than money later) and it does not weight for cost of living.

    A PhD physicist typically spends 8-12 years in school and these days most physicists spend 5-6 years as a postdoc before they really begin their career. It is very easy to show that a typical physics professor earning 110k makes substantially less money in their lifetime than an engineer that caps out at 80k. The point quadraphonics makes about location is very important as well; someone making 85k where I live has significantly more disposable income than a physicist earning 110k in California, where the majority of the private sector jobs for physicists are.

    Obviously financial motivations shouldn't be your only factor in decision making (and you noted this in your post). However they should play a role, and you'll want to come up with a better measure than salary to determine how it plays into your personal goals.
  21. Apr 25, 2008 #20
    All good points, Locrian. In my own case, this stuff really hit home when I ran into some old friends from undergrad right after finishing my PhD. They had both started working with Bachelor's degrees (and considerably worse grades and internship experience than I had when I finished my Bachelor's), and I'd just landed what I assumed was a very high-paying job. As it turned out, both of my friends were already making the same amount I was starting at, and furthermore had been earning substantial money during the 5+ years I spent in grad school on subsistence income. Which is to say that, unless my salary grows a lot quicker than theirs from here on out, I will *never* equal their lifetime earnings. Even my less fortunate friends, who earn less than I do, have such commanding leads in terms of money earned that it will take decades for me to catch up with them. Even though I didn't acquire any debt, there are many expenses I deferred because I couldn't afford them in grad school, and that now suck up my income (new car, dentistry, decent clothing, furniture, etc.) Fortunately, I did not go to grad school for the money...

    That said, there are many important job aspects besides salary, and I win hands-down over my less-educated friends in those categories. This would be stuff like latitude in defining my own work, getting to work on interesting things, expanded career options, potential for advancement, stock options, and, let's not forget, a foot in the door of academia.

    The point of all of this is that you can make decent enough money in most any career path if you apply yourself. The question you have to ask is what area interests you enough that you will actually be motivated to excel. Unless you're simply interested in maximizing your income with no regard for the quality of work, etc. Some people can cope with a career of drudgery if it makes them rich, but they're pretty rare. For the rest of us, I wouldn't base big career decisions on income, beyond ensuring that you stand to make enough to live a reasonable lifestyle (i.e., pretty much any career outside the arts).
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