MadSci Network: Physics

Re: Physics as a career?

Area: Physics
Posted By: Suzanne Willis, professor,Northern Illinois University
Date: Wed May 14 16:48:14 1997
Area of science: Physics
ID: 862266898.Ph

Hello, Holli!

You have asked a very good question. The number of jobs for physicists in the field of physics itself does indeed seem to be decreasing at the moment, although it is hard to predict what the future will hold. However, if you look at total unemployment among people with degrees in physics, it is very low, much lower than the national average unemployment. The higher your degree (bachelors, masters, doctorate), the more likely you are to be employed in physics. Among people with doctoral degrees in physics, the total unemployment rate is currently about 1.6% - this is relatively high for this category of people, but is certainly low on any absolute scale.

So, what is happening? One thing is that some people with physics degrees are finding jobs - and sometimes very lucrative jobs - outside the field of physics. Also, there is an expectation that everyone with a degree in physics ought to be able to find a job in physics, and when this is not possible, people are very disappointed. After all, even a 1.6% unemployment rate means that out of 1000 people 16 will be unemployed, and those 16 people will be very unhappy! Also, some of the employed people will not have been able to find jobs in physics, and will be unhappy about that even if they have found well-paying jobs in other fields.

However, no one can really tell you what the job market for physicists will be seven years from now (or seventeen, or twenty-seven....remember your working life is likely to be fifty years long, or longer!) Some data on employment in various sciences, and average salaries, can be found at A discussion of employment trends in the sciences is at (original link,, defunct as of 8/22/2006) In general, the National Science Foundation is a good source of information about current and past employment trends in various sciences.

As to how much one makes in the field of physics, it will depend on what your final degree is, and where you work (government, higher education, private industry, and so on). Physics tends to be one of the higher-paid sciences, but not the highest. Industry tends to pay more than academia.

Now, I will tell you my own personal experience (which should of course not be generalized) and tell you what I would do in your position (which is essentially what I did do). I finished my undergraduate degree in 1972, which was a time of relatively high unemployment in physics, especially in high energy physics, which was the field I was interested in. I seriously considered doing graduate study in solid-state physics instead, but decided to stay with high energy. It took me seven years to finish my Ph.D. (this is not an unusual length of time), and by the time I had finished the employment situation had completely changed. It was very easy to find a postdoctoral position, and it was not even terribly difficult to find a faculty position.

So, will this happen again? Maybe. Maybe not. But what I would suggest, assuming you are not in desperate need of a job right away, is to decide what you really love, and study that. At some point you may find that you are not able to continue in your chosen field; then you can look around for what to do next. But no one can tell you what the job market will be seven or more years from now, so why make decisions based on that? An education in physics will give you an excellent preparation to work in many different fields, other than basic research. Physics students get jobs in different industries, frequently doing applied research. Recently, physicists have been getting jobs at financial firms (on Wall Street) - these are quite well-paid, but of course are not directly related to physics. However, the techniques and independent thinking one learns when studying physics, especially at the graduate level, can be applied to many fields.

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