Skip to main content

As a physics or astronomy student, it is likely that almost all the people you have met who have degrees in those fields are professors. But people with PhDs employed in academia constitute a small minority of all the people who have received physics or astronomy degrees! After completing a bachelor’s, almost half of graduates enter the workforce, two-thirds of them in the private sector. Similarly, less than half of PhD graduates take up a postdoctoral position while the rest take potentially permanent positions in the private sector or in government labs. Fewer than 5% of all undergraduate physics majors end up as physics professors! The resources on this page will help you investigate the possibilities for your own career trajectory.

 
You can find more alumni profiles here.
 

What kinds of jobs do people with physics degrees do?

People put their physics background to use in a wide variety of contexts. The links below will give you many examples of the kind of jobs physicists hold in the private sector, government labs, and academia. The examples include graduates of our own department as well as other members of the physics community and people with bachelor’s degrees and with MS and PhD degrees. Maybe you will find someone who has your dream job!

  • This page has profiles of UNC alums, some of whom graduated recently and some who have advanced further in their careers.
     
  • The American Physical Society has a set of profiles of physicists (including Elon Musk!) in academia, public service, the private sector, and national labs:
     
  • This resource from the American Physical Society describes common career paths for physicists (e.g. “Data Science in Industry”). Each page includes information about what work people in such jobs do, what education and background they need, and what their career paths might look like.
     
  • The Careers 2022 guide from the American Physical Society includes interviews with physicists in a wide range of fields. They talk about their career pathways in fields as diverse as digital consultancy and food science. There are also articles about how to get started on your career in the COVID era, and finding community, among other general topics.
     
  • This report from the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics, Common Careers of Physicists in the Private Sector, looks at people who received a PhD in physics 10-15 years ago.
     
  • Radiations, the magazine published by Sigma Pi Sigma, has profiles of hidden physicists who have physics degrees but pursued other careers, including consultant, start-up founder, theologian, and jazz vocalist.

 

What can I earn with a physics degree?

People with a physics background can earn quite high salaries (especially in the private sector). These links take you to statistics about starting salaries for graduates at different degree levels, gathered by the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics.

  • This graph shows starting salaries in various employment sectors for people who received bachelor’s degrees in 2017 and 2018.
     
  • This graph shows how starting salaries for people with physics bachelor’s degrees compare to those for other majors.
     
  • This graph shows starting salaries for people working in the private sector who received bachelor’s, master’s, or PhD degrees in 2017 and 2018.
     
  • Here you can find out the starting salaries of people who received a PhD in 2015 or 2016.
     
  • This page walks you through the economics of a physics degree, comparing salaries and expenses at different degree levels.


 

What companies hire physicists?

Many companies hire physicists, including some that might surprise you. The links below will take you to interactive tools prepared by the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics.

  • Here you can choose a state and get a list of companies there that recently hired people with bachelor’s degrees in physics.
     
  • This tool shows you the employment fields for people who got potentially permanent positions after receiving a PhD in 2013 – 2015. For each field you can see employers, job titles, and the skills these physicists use in their jobs.
     
  • APS Careers 2022 guide

 

How can I prepare myself for a physics career?

Besides what you can learn from workshops and other events sponsored by the department, the professional societies offer additional guidance.

  • Put Your Science to Work: The Take-Charge Career Guide for Scientists by Peter Fiske provides practical career development advice to help you explore all your options and develop dynamite strategies for landing the job of your dreams. The full text is available online via the UNC Libraries. You can also check out his columns on career development in Nature.
     
  • You may find this Individual Development Plan tool from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to be useful. It incorporates many of the items (self-assessment and career exploration) covered in the career workshops offered by the department (though with some emphasis on the life sciences). The “Career Fit” section may be of particular use as you consider how your interests and skills map on to potential career paths. You might want to read this article before using the tool.
     
  • The APS Professional Guidebook focuses on steps you can take to prepare for and find a job in the private sector. It covers everything from career planning, skills inventory, networking, informational interviews, writing a resume, interviewing, and offer negotiation.
     
  • The SPS Careers Toolbox is specifically for undergraduate students, and covers types of jobs, informational interviews, gaining experience, networking, the job search, and more.
     
  • If you aspire to a career in research, this book may prove useful.
    A PhD is Not Enough by Peter J. Fiebelman (full text available online via UNC Libraries)
     
  • See below for the materials from the Spring 2022 Department Career Workshops.

 

How satisfied are physicists with their jobs?

The Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics surveyed physicists who received their PhD about ten years ago, and the links below take you to what they said about their jobs.

  • This report is about the skills the physicists use and how satisfied they are with their jobs.
     
  • This report is about what the physicists say contributed to their success, and the barriers they faced in their careers.
     
  • This report is about what physicists in academic careers say their duties are, and the rewards that they find in their jobs.
     
  • This report is about the what physicists in government positions say their duties are, and the rewards that they find in their jobs.
     
  • You may also want to listen to some of our alums talk about their jobs.
    This link takes you to recordings of panel discussions in which they participated.

 

What knowledge and skills do physicists use in various kinds of jobs?

Physicists use a wide range of technical and managerial skills in their work, regardless of what kind of job they hold. The links below take you to graphs that show how often people report using various skills in their jobs.

  • This chart shows you the interpersonal and management skills used by new PhDs working in academia, whether as postdocs or in potentially permanent positions.
     
  • This chart shows you the scientific and technical knowledge used by new physics PhDs employed in potentially permanent positions.
     
  • This chart shows you the range of skills used by new PhDs in potentially permanent-positions outside of academia.
     
  • This chart shows you the range of skills used by new physics bachelor’s degree holders who work in STEM fields.
     
  • You may also want to listen to some of our alums talk about their jobs.
    This link takes you to recordings of panel discussions in which they participated.
     
  • APS has a wide range of webinars on various career sectors and how to prepare yourself for them.

 

What about a Master’s degree?

  • Some physicists choose to enter the workforce after earning a master’s degree. What about them?
    This report gives information about the employment sectors where Master’s degree recipients found work, the salaries they earn, the knowledge and skills they use, and their satisfaction with their jobs.

 

I’m an astronomer. What about me?

  • This report gives information about initial employment outcomes for people who received bachelor’s, master’s, or PhD degrees in astronomy.
     
  • The American Astronomical Society has profiles of astronomers who have followed various career paths.

 

I’m a postdoc. Are there special resources for me?

 

How do I find a job?

The American Physical Society and the Society of Physics Students have a lot of information about searching for jobs.

Department Career Workshop Materials