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Physics and Astronomy

How to Become a Physicist or Astronomer

Physicists and astronomers typically need a Ph.D. for jobs in research and academia. However, physicist jobs in the federal government typically require a bachelor’s degree in physics. After receiving a Ph.D. in physics or astronomy, many researchers seeking careers in academia begin in temporary postdoctoral research positions.

Education

A Ph.D. in physics, astronomy, or a related field is needed for jobs in research or academia or for independent research positions in industry.

Graduate students usually concentrate in a subfield of physics or astronomy, such as condensed matter physics or cosmology. In addition to taking courses in physics or astronomy, Ph.D. students need to take courses in math, such as calculus, linear algebra, and statistics. Computer science classes also are essential, because physicists and astronomers often develop specialized computer programs that are used to gather, analyze, and model data.

Those with a master’s degree in physics may qualify for jobs in applied research and development for manufacturing and healthcare companies. Many master’s degree programs specialize in preparing students for physics-related research-and-development positions that do not require a Ph.D.

Most physics and astronomy graduate students have a bachelor’s degree in physics or a related field. A bachelor’s degree in physics is often considered good preparation for Ph.D. programs in astronomy, although an undergraduate degree in astronomy may be preferred by some universities. Undergraduate physics programs provide a broad background in the natural sciences and mathematics. Typical courses include classical and quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, optics, and electromagnetism.

Students may choose to complete an internship during their undergraduate curriculum in order to gain additional hands-on experience. The American Astronomical Society has a directory of internships for astronomy students, and the American Physical Society lists internships for students in physics.

Jobseekers with only a bachelor’s degree in physics usually are qualified to work as technicians and research assistants in related fields, such as engineering and computer science. Those with a bachelor’s degree in astronomy also may qualify to work as an assistant at an observatory. Students who do not want to continue their studies to the doctoral level may want to take courses in instrument building and computer science.

Some master’s degree and bachelor’s degree holders find work in the federal government. Others may become science teachers in middle schools and high schools.

Training

Many physics and astronomy Ph.D. holders who seek employment as full-time researchers begin their careers in a temporary postdoctoral research position, which typically lasts 2 to 3 years. During their postdoctoral appointment, they work with experienced scientists and continue to learn about their specialties or develop a broader understanding of related areas of research. Senior scientists may carefully supervise their initial work, but as these postdoctoral workers gain experience, they usually do more complex tasks and have greater independence in their work.

Important Qualities

Analytical skills. Physicists and astronomers need to think logically in order to carry out scientific experiments and studies. They must be precise and accurate in their analyses because errors could invalidate their research.

Communication skills. Physicists and astronomers present their research at scientific conferences, to the public, or to government and business leaders. Physicists and astronomers write technical reports that may be published in scientific journals. They also write proposals for research funding.

Critical-thinking skills. Physicists and astronomers must carefully evaluate their own work and the work of others. They must determine whether results and conclusions are accurate and based on sound science.

Curiosity. Physicists and astronomers work in fields that are on the cutting edge of technology. They must be very keen to learn continuously throughout their careers in order to keep up with advances in a wide range of technical subjects.

Interpersonal skills. Physicists and astronomers must collaborate extensively with others in both academic and industrial research contexts. They need to work well with others toward a common goal. Interpersonal skills also should help researchers secure funding for their projects.

Math skills. Physicists and astronomers perform complex calculations involving calculus, geometry, algebra, and other areas of math. They must express their research in mathematical terms.

Problem-solving skills. Physicists and astronomers use scientific observation and analysis, as well as creative thinking, to solve complex scientific problems. Physicists and astronomers may need to redesign their approach and find a solution when an experiment or theory fails to produce the needed information or result.

Self-discipline. Physicists and astronomers need to stay motivated, since they spend a lot of time analyzing large datasets to try to discern patterns that will yield information. This work requires the ability to focus for long periods.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Some positions with the federal government, such as those involving nuclear energy and other sensitive research areas, may require applicants to be U.S. citizens and hold a security clearance.

Advancement

With experience, physicists and astronomers may gain greater independence in their work, as well as larger research budgets. Those in university positions may also gain tenure with more experience. Some physicists and astronomers move into managerial positions, typically as a natural sciences manager, and spend a large part of their time preparing budgets and schedules. Physicists and astronomers need a Ph.D. for most management positions.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Physicists and Astronomers, 
on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/physicists-and-astronomers.htm#tab-4 (visited January 3, 2019).

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