Particle physics concerns matter. It investigates the smallest elements, the subatomic constituents, of matter and radiation that make up the universe. A particle physicist researches these elements, the basic building blocks of everything, to understand how they interact to make the universe look and behave as it does. She may investigate particles that exist today or seek to understand those that were last seen only billionths of a second after the Big Bang. She will be laboratory-based, but some particle physics laboratories are huge accelerators that smash particles together to understand the forces they contain. Her salary is comparable with other physicists, variable according to her employment situation.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics produced its latest occupational employment and wages data in May 2009. In that survey it listed the mean annual salary of physicists of all specialisms, including particle physics, as $111,250, the equivalent of an hourly pay rate of $53.49. It reported that the practitioners at the top end of the earning scale, the highest 10 percent, earned an average wage of $165,750. The corresponding physicists at the opposite end of the scale achieved an average of $56,210. The median 50 percent gained $106,390 per year.
Salaries by Employer
Particle physicists are research scientists, but they can be employed by several different sectors of industry to carry out that research. These sectors can offer qualified professionals differing salary levels. The Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that private industry offers greater compensation levels than public agencies. The average salary within oil and gas extraction businesses was listed at $130,420 and that for other professional, scientific and technical services at $128,670. The federal executive branch, by contrast, was listed at an average wage of $112,480. A physicist working in academia -- colleges, universities and professional schools -- could expect to achieve a mean salary of $82,790.
Salaries by Location
Different geographical areas in the United States can also offer differing levels of pay to particle physicists. The Bureau of Labor Statistics survey conducted in May 2009 lists Kentucky as the most lucrative state for a physicist to be employed in, offering an average salary of $139,810. Florida and Indiana offer similar levels of pay -- $136,380 and $136,200, respectively -- while Minnesota is a little further back at $130,840. In contrast, Maryland is listed at an average salary of $116,680, while Virginia offers a physicist an average annual salary of $109,620.
While the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the general rate of growth across all occupations to be between 7 and 13 percent during the decade between 2008 and 2018, it predicts the employment market for physicists of all specialisms, including particle physics, will increase by around 16 percent. A 2007 bill by Congress to double funding for the physical sciences by 2016 will be a major factor in this growth. As a result, salaries for particle physicists should remain very competitive.