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Difference Between Physicist & Astronomer

This article looks at both physicists and astronomers to better understand the similarities and differences between their degree requirements, job outlooks, salaries, and typical responsibilities.

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Comparing Physicists to Astronomers

The way we understand our world and universe is due, in large part, to the work of both physicists and astronomers. Physicists research and analyze elements of the physical world using mathematics and experimentation. These experiments help humanity understand the forces at work in the world. Similarly, by peering into the near and distant cosmos, astronomers can establish theories on the creation of our solar system, universe, and other cosmic phenomena. These careers are both interested in scientific discovery; however, the scope of their research differs. We outline the similarities and differences below.

Job Title Educational Requirements Median Salary (2016)* Job Growth (2014-2024)*
Physicist Doctoral Degree $115,870 8%
Astronomer Doctoral Degree $104,740 3%

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Responsibilities of Physicists vs. Astronomers

Importantly, both physicists and astronomers seek to apply vague theories to actual, observable phenomena. However, while a physicist might spend their days putting different types of atoms together to see what kind of reaction occurs, an astronomer uses difficult calculations to measure distances between stars and planets. Additionally, physicists must often use microscopes to see the tiny elements they are observing, but astronomers use telescopes, which aid in examining celestial bodies billions of miles away. Once they are finished, however, both physicists and astronomers present their findings in papers and at academic conferences.

Physicists

Physicists wonder about how the universe, and the seemingly invisible elements that govern it, works. They use complex equipment, like particle accelerators and electron microscopes to study atoms and molecules. Not only do they observe space, time, energy, and matter, they also manipulate these things by way of experimentation in a laboratory setting and, on occasion, in the field. By applying established properties and laws, such as gravity, physicists attempt to discover new ways to utilize matter and energy. Given the complexity of their work, physicists must possess critical thinking skills along with extensive knowledge in mathematics, science, and engineering.

Job responsibilities of a physicist include:

  • Performing controlled experiments testing hypotheses on movement of matter and energy
  • Recording data from experiments using complex algorithms and analysis
  • Utilizing simulation programs to model data discovered during testing
  • Maintaining, and even develop, lab equipment

Astronomers

Astronomers work on teams to study the locations, movements, and behaviors of celestial bodies such as asteroids, stars, solar systems and galaxies. By using imagining telescopes and the Hubble Space Telescope, among other instruments, they are able to study phenomena such as black holes and neutron stars that are light-years away. After making observations, astronomers create hypotheses and computer models for the ways our galaxy might behave similarly to those far away. Because telescopes and other sophisticated instruments are necessary to complete tasks, astronomers should be proficient in various computer technologies and software such as Visual Numerics PV-WAVE or Starcal.

Job responsibilities of an astronomer include:

  • Building an understanding of universe using applied physics and established mathematical formulas
  • Researching existing theories about universe and using observation to prove or disprove them
  • Protecting our atmosphere and satellites from harmful space debris
  • Writing essays on findings and publishing them in scientific journals to further the field of research

Related Careers

If you find a career as a physicist interesting, you may also like a career as a biophysicist, as this job also attempts to find patterns in natural phenomena and manipulate them in helpful ways. Similarly, if you have looked into a career as an astronomer, you may consider a position in aerospace engineering, as both of these jobs require knowledge of space and a desire to explore it.

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