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How to Become a Physicist or Astronomer

Physicists and astronomers need a Ph.D. for most jobs. After receiving a Ph.D. in physics or astronomy, many begin their careers in a temporary postdoctoral research position, which typically lasts 2 to 3 years.


A Ph.D. in physics, astronomy, or a related field is needed for most jobs, especially those in basic research or in independent research in industry.

A typical Ph.D. program takes about 5 to 7 years to complete.  

Approximately 190 universities have doctoral programs in physics; about 40 schools have doctoral programs in astronomy. Graduate students usually concentrate in a subfield of physics or astronomy, such as condensed matter physics or optics. In addition to taking courses in physics or astronomy, Ph.D. students need to take courses in mathematics, such as calculus, linear algebra, and statistics. Computer science classes are also 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 bachelor’s degrees in physics or a related field. Because astronomers need a strong background in physics, a bachelor’s degree in physics is often considered the best preparation for Ph.D. programs in astronomy. Undergraduate physics programs provide a broad background in the natural sciences and mathematics. Typical courses are classical and quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, optics, and electromagnetism.

Those with only a bachelor’s degree in physics or astronomy typically are not qualified to fill research positions. However, they may be qualified to work as technicians and research assistants in related fields, such as engineering and computer science.  

Some master’s degree and bachelor’s degree holders may become science teachers in middle schools and high schools. For more information, see the profiles on middle and high school teachers.


Many physics and astronomy Ph.D. holders 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 as they continue to learn about their specialties or develop a broader understanding of related areas of research. Their initial work may be carefully supervised by senior scientists, but as they gain experience, they do more complex tasks and have greater independence in their work.

Important Qualities

Advanced mathematical skills. Physicists and astronomers perform complex calculations involving calculus, geometry, algebra, and other areas of mathematics. They must be able to express their research in mathematical terms.  

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

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 based on sound science.

Interpersonal skills. Physicists and astronomers must collaborate extensively with others—in both academic and industrial research contexts. They need to be able to work well with others towards a common goal.

Problem-solving skills. Physicists and astronomers use scientific observation and analysis to solve complex scientific questions.

Speaking skills. Physicists and astronomers present their research at scientific conferences, to the public, or to company management and other employees.

Writing skills. Physicists and astronomers write reports that may be published in scientific journals. They also write proposals for research funding.


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.


With experience, physicists and astronomers may gain greater independence in their work, larger research budgets, or tenure in university positions. Some physicists and astronomers move into managerial positions, typically as a natural science manager, and spend a large part of their time preparing budgets and schedules. Physicists and astronomers need a Ph.D. for most management positions. For more information, see the profile on natural sciences managers.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition