The study of physics has been the focus of scientists for generations, striving to understand the universe and the ways in which it works. Those that study physics commonly work with concepts involving motion, matter, energy, nature and time. There are also many areas of specialization in physics, such as space, geology, nuclear physics, medicine and many others, each of which can lead to a variety of career paths. With so many options available to those with a physics degree, salaries range across a wide spectrum.
Naturally, many with a degree in physics will become working physicists, conducting research and using findings to develop theories. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 16,860 physicists earned an annual mean wage of $112,020 a year as of May 2010. However, a physics degree can also lead to a career in astronomy, considered a subfield of physics. Astronomers earned $93,340 a year on average the same year.
Those specializing in nuclear physics may have worked as nuclear engineers, averaging $101,500 a year, or as nuclear technicians, making an annual mean wage of $61,970. Physics is also a very important aspect of medical research, determining physical principals of living things, foods and drugs. In May of 2010, biophysicists earned $86,580 a year on average. For those that wish to continue physics education for the next generation, a career teaching physics at the post secondary level paid $86,560 a year on average.
Physicists made much more in Minnesota in 2010, averaging $152,450 a year, than in a state like Texas, only making $83,010 a year on average. Biochemists also saw a wide range of wages around the country, making $82,690 a year on average in New York, but averaging $102,900 a year just one state away in Pennsylvania. Nuclear engineers experienced the same effect, reporting an annual mean wage of $88,090 in Virginia, but just next door in Washington D.C., they made more than in any other state, averaging $142,930 annually.
Most physicists worked for scientific research companies, averaging $112,180 a year, but those doing research at colleges and universities only received $87,080 a year. Jobs in medical facilities paid the most, averaging $175,180 a year in the offices of physicians and $180,210 a year at specialty hospitals. Nuclear engineers commonly employed at electric power companies, averaged $99,700 a year, but when working for a scientific and technical consulting company they were paid $113,980 a year on average according to the bureau’s report. Even astronomers, who have a much more limited range of employers, saw large differences in salaries. Astronomers working for the federal government made $132,010 a year, but only $73,130 a year at colleges and universities.
Many with a bachelor's degree in physics use it as a base to obtain more specialized master's and doctoral degrees. Most research-based careers, such as physicist and biophysicists, require a doctoral degree. Physics teachers at the college level will also typically possess a minimum of a master's degree. Those with only a bachelor's degree can still find work as nuclear technicians and in jobs where physics research is used in manufacturing, specifically in the private sector.