Calculating Your Next Move: Mathematician vs. Physicist Careers

For millennia, humanity’s brightest minds have contemplated the nature of the universe. Over time, the concept of scientific thought came into being, with societies all over the world making major contributions to the fields of biology, chemistry, economics, anatomy, astronomy, history, and beyond. Those major areas of study have multiplied into countless subfields, each with scientists dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and advancement of humankind.

Physicist draws an equation on a chalkboard.

But none of it –– those scientific fields, the great thinkers, or history itself –– would exist without the fundamental laws of the universe, the physics that drive interactions between every molecule, quark, atom, and planet. People attempt to understand the complex nature of physics through the study of mathematics, the language of nature.

Mathematicians and physicists are still linked, with new specialties and subdivisions popping up with every new major discovery. While both mathematicians and physicists need similar qualities to be successful in their fields and can often work with each other in professional capacities, there are distinct differences between mathematicians and physicists. Read on to discover the nuances of mathematicians vs. physicists, and how you can develop the skills to succeed in either field.

Mathematician Overview

Mathematicians analyze data and apply theories and modeling techniques, such as mathematical or statistical modeling, to help solve real-world problems in business, engineering, healthcare, and other fields.

While earning a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Mathematics, students access tools for understanding the world through the language of mathematics. The program’s curriculum addresses the foundations of mathematics, as well as algebra, modeling, and data science. The application of these skills creates a jumping-off point for professional work or advanced degrees. Those who earn an undergraduate degree in mathematics could continue to study mathematical theory or explore applied mathematics ― the integration of mathematical concepts into the real world. Applied mathematics opportunities exist throughout the job market, including work as a statistician, data and market analyst, or even elementary or a secondary education mathematics teacher.

Theoretical mathematicians, who typically hold a doctorate in the field, spend their time working with numbers and applying them to create theories for solving existing problems, proving old theorems, and even influencing other problem-solvers in related fields. They can take their knowledge and apply it to work in businesses or governments or use their skills as mathematics professors at the college level.

Mathematician Salaries and Job Outlook

There were 40,300 mathematicians and statisticians in the country in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In 2018, the median annual pay for mathematicians was $88,190, and the median annual pay for statisticians was $87,780.

The BLS reports that the highest-paying industry for mathematicians was management, scientific, and technical consulting services ($116,210), followed by finance and insurance ($114,030); federal government ($113,230); and physical, engineering, and life sciences R&D ($110,510). Statisticians made the most money by working with the federal government ($106,670). The BLS projects that the overall job market for mathematicians and statisticians will grow by 33% between 2016 and 2026, significantly faster than the projected national average (7%) for all occupations during the same period.

Physicist Overview

The physicist’s job is to take complicated mathematics and apply it to the real world to gain a greater understanding of the universe. Physicists’ work can be based purely on theory or empirical, relying on experiments with equipment to prove theories or study various interactions between matter. A key difference between a mathematician and a physicist is that physicists look at the organizational structure of the universe itself. Opportunities for those in this field include developing new medical equipment or sustainable building materials, or working at research institutions studying properties of the natural world like atom formation.

Physicist Salaries and Job Outlook

If you’re interested in a future as a physicist, you’ll step into a growing field. The BLS says there were 19,900 physicists and astronomers in the country in 2016. The BLS projects that number to grow by 2,800 jobs between 2016 and 2026, a 14% growth in the market. This is double the projected national average.

The median annual pay for physicists, reflecting the high degree of education needed, was $120,950 in 2018. The highest-paying industry for physicists was state, local, and private hospitals, where medical physicists –– research professionals who can develop and utilize radiation and MRI technologies to aid medical doctors, among other roles –– earned $177,770. Other top industries were scientific research and development services ($133,440) and the federal government ($120,300), while colleges, universities, and private schools ($70,990) paid significantly less.

Similarities Between Mathematicians and Physicists

Many who study either mathematics or physics teach or research in their respective fields at academic institutions or research think tanks, where they most likely will work in offices or laboratories, researching with the help of fellows or graduate students. The research may be published in scientific journals or books, further spurring research in the broader field. Another similarity between mathematicians and physicians is that they aren’t limited purely to conducting research; both can work in various business markets, including healthcare, science, and information technology.

Differences Between Mathematicians and Physicists

While the two professions have much in common, there are many differences between mathematicians and physicians.

Whose Business Is It?

Mathematicians can aid financial corporations and other businesses in statistical and market analysis, helping look into the numbers to detect spending and investing activities. Or they may work with programming teams, helping develop algorithms to use the massive amounts of data most companies now have to process.

Physicists typically work in academia rather than business. Growing numbers of physicists work in interdisciplinary fields, such as biophysics, chemical physics, and geophysics. They may design new scientific equipment, such as telescopes and lasers, or develop computer software to analyze and model data.

Degree Necessity

One key difference between a mathematician and a physicist revolves around degrees. After obtaining an undergraduate degree in mathematics, graduates have the skills and background to gain entry-level careers as mathematicians and statisticians. Coursework in programming languages and machine learning, in addition to differential equations, probability, mathematical statistics, and more, prepares graduates to apply their skills in professional settings.

To become a physicist, on the other hand, an advanced degree is a necessity. Those who receive only an undergraduate degree (approximately half of all physics graduates) most often don’t practice physics directly. Instead, they tend to enter careers in teaching, the military, or other STEM fields like engineering.

Fields of Impact

Both mathematicians and physicists work on the cutting edge of understanding the world, and their discoveries can have a substantial impact. Different scientific discoveries take different amounts of time to have a real-world impact. Mathematics breakthroughs can either have a relatively short incubation period, for example, when a new digital graphics algorithm results in improvements within a few years, or take generations, such as a new unsolved theorem that can take centuries to unlock.

Physics tends to lie somewhere in the middle; a physicist who makes a new discovery about the way matter interacts needs to wait for chemists, biologists, or engineers to turn that discovery into a practical invention, like a new polymer or energy source, which can take years, even decades.

Mathematician vs. Physicist: Which Is Right for You?

There are overlaps as well as many differences between mathematicians and physicists and the work they do. If you have an analytical mind and enjoy working with numbers and formulas, then a career as a mathematician or physicist could be for you. Start down this rewarding path through Maryville University’s online BS in Mathematics and see how it can launch your career.

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