Are you naturally curious about the world around you? Do you have the drive to find out why things are a certain way and maybe develop and test new theories and technologies of your own? If so, a career in natural science could be the perfect path for you. While there are dozens of possible careers in the life and physical sciences, some stand out as being especially financially rewarding. Who says you can’t earn a lucrative salary while pursuing answers to the universe’s mysteries? Check out our list of the top 10 highest paying science careers for inspiration to guide your own science career journey.
Physicists investigate the properties of matter, energy and time. Some physicists perform theoretical research to expand our knowledge of how the universe works, while others engage in applied research where they put theoretical knowledge to work in practical processes or devices to change the technology our society uses. Physics aims to answer big questions like how the universe came into existence and what natural laws determine how matter and energy interact. Research in physics can be applied to develop new methods of communication, alternate sources of energy and more advanced medical technology.
Physicists calculate and analyze data. They generate theories to explain phenomena and test those theories through experimentation. Their work requires an understanding of complicated mathematics for doing calculations and of the scientific method for appropriately planning and conducting experiments to get accurate data. They also use complex equipment, including lasers, electron microscopes and particle accelerators. While research itself may be a physicist’s main job duty, it’s not the scientist’s sole responsibility. Physicists must draft proposals, successfully apply for the grant funding to conduct their experiments and present their findings both in written papers for publication and at lectures and conferences.
Median Salary: $106,840
Education: Ph.D. in Physics
Astronomers study the structures in space, including stars, planets, galaxies and black holes. They research the properties, movements and compositions of these objects and carefully record and analyze data. This is another field of science that requires the ability to perform complex mathematical calculations. To accomplish their research, astronomers use telescopes and other ground-based equipment as well as equipment that has already been launched into space, like the Hubble Space Telescope.
Like physicists, astronomers can choose to focus on either basic, theoretical research to inform what we know about the universe or they can conduct applied research, where they put research findings to use in creating new processes and technologies. Astronomers can also focus on different parts of space, including studying how our own solar system works and researching faraway galaxies. Astronomers, like their colleagues in other disciplines of science, must understand the research process, including how to develop theories, design and perform experiments and gather and analyze data accurately. Part of an astronomer’s job responsibilities are to secure funding and present their research findings.
Median Salary: $96,460
Education: Ph.D. in Astronomy
Prefer to study something a little closer to home? Geoscientists study the Earth’s structures, composition, processes and all of its physical properties. By learning more about our planet, these scientists can better understand the past and predict future changes in the Earth. Within the discipline of geosciences, there are many specialties, including: geology, geochemistry, geophysics, petroleum geology, seismology, oceanography, paleontology and engineering geology. Which geosciences career is right for you? It depends what you want to study or what you want to do with your knowledge. The various types of geoscientists study everything from rock formation to earthquakes, and their work ranges from theoretical research that increases our understanding of the Earth to applying their knowledge to locate petroleum deposits for drilling. The different types of geoscientists may have vastly different goals. Some work to preserve an environment or rescue damaged environments, while others are seeking sources of petroleum or other natural resources.
Geoscientists work both in the field and in the laboratory. They design and perform field studies that require them to gather rock samples, well logs and aerial photographs. Then they use laboratory equipment to test and analyze those materials. Geoscientists’ tools vary widely from the simple, like a chisel and hammer, to the sophisticated, like ground-penetrating radar equipment and x-ray and electron microscopes. To gather and evaluate data, geoscientists may also use remote sensing equipment, advanced geographic information systems (GIS) and modeling software. In addition to presenting their findings in written reports and to clients, geoscientists also record their findings in charts and maps.
Median Salary: $90,890
Education: Bachelor’s Degree in Geosciences or Geology
4. Atmospheric Scientists
Do you dream of a career forecasting the weather? What about researching climate change? Atmospheric scientists are researchers who study the atmosphere to help us understand and solve serious problems from severe storms and air pollution to droughts and the consequences of climate change. Atmospheric scientists collect data, including temperature, humidity, pressure and wind speed. They analyze that data with the help of mathematical and computer models. Atmospheric scientists don’t only use their meteorological data to convey current weather conditions, but also – and more importantly – they use that data as the basis for predicting future weather conditions, both in the near future and long-term. If severe weather could cause injuries or damage, atmospheric scientists warn the public about the danger. Atmospheric scientists use a wide variety of tools for their research, including weather balloons, satellites, radar systems and computer software.
Meteorologists and weather forecasters, who are among the most well-known of the atmospheric scientists, use research to predict upcoming weather, including severe storms. There are also many other kinds of atmospheric scientists. Atmospheric chemists study the chemical components, properties and processes of the atmosphere, including clouds, gases and ultraviolet radiation. Atmospheric physicists and dynamists gather and analyze data on physical movement within the atmosphere, including phenomena like lightning, turbulence and solar activity. Climatologists study climates and their historical changes in weather. In addition to researching climate change, they determine possible consequences of changing climates for practical purposes such as how buildings are designed or how agricultural land is put to use. Forensic meteorologists, too, look at historical weather, but they use this data to figure out what weather conditions were in effect in specific circumstances, such as those that contributed to a fire or motor vehicle collision. Research meteorologists generate new means of gathering data and creating weather forecasts in addition to actually studying the weather patterns.
Median Salary: $89,260
Education: Bachelor’s Degree in Meteorology or Atmospheric Science
5. Biochemists and biophysicists
Does the study of living things intrigue you? Perhaps a future in biochemistry or biophysics is right for you. These scientists study the chemical and physical properties of organisms to learn about important biological processes. They research how cells develop and how organisms from the simplest to the most complex grow. Laboratory-based research and experiments are essential to the field of biochemistry and biophysics. Biochemists and biophysicists use a variety of equipment to study living things, from lasers and electron microscopes to computer modeling software. They analyze molecules, isolate DNA and experiment to determine how various medications, nutrients and hormones affect the tissues and processes of an organism. In addition to designing and implementing experiments, biochemists and biophysicists record their findings in research papers, technical reports and presentations.
As with many other sciences, biochemists and biophysicists conduct basic or applied research. Basic research in biochemistry and biophysics may revolve around learning how genes mutate and how evolution works. Applied research builds upon these theoretical understandings to create diagnostic tests, medications and treatments for diseases caused by genetic mutations or to devise ways of genetically altering plant food and fuel sources to be less vulnerable to the elements. Biochemists and biophysicists help society make important innovations in medicine, agriculture and many other fields.
Median Salary: $81,480
Education: Ph.D. in Biochemistry or Biophysics
6. Medical Scientists
If you’re interested in the field of medicine but you don’t want to be a doctor, medical scientist could be the career for you. These researchers develop ways to improve healthcare, including searching for a cure for cancer and creating new medications to treat and prevent a wide range of conditions. Medical scientists conduct experiments and clinical trials test hypotheses and gather data. They oversee research to make sure the process is safe, prevent contamination by potentially dangerous pathogens and gather data that is as accurate as possible. Appropriately conducting research is an important part of medical science, but so is analyzing the data collected to learn more about the causes of medical conditions and the possible ways of treating them.
Medical scientists use their discoveries to create new medical instruments and equipment as well as drugs. It’s also essential for medical scientists to publish their research findings in scientific reports and scholarly journal articles and to get their important information out to the world so that medical providers can use it to improve patients’ health. Medical scientists don’t just seek to cure or treat certain diseases, but also to prevent them.
Research and development laboratories in the physical, life and engineering sciences employ the most medical scientists, but many others find work at colleges and universities, hospitals, physician offices and in the pharmaceutical industry. Medical scientists typically specialize in a particular type of research. There are numerous specialty careers within the field of medical science, including toxicologists, pharmacologists, gerontologists, neuroscientists, serologists, cancer researchers, immunochemists, clinical and medical informaticians and research histologists.
Median Salary: $76,980
Education: Ph.D. in Medical Science
When we talk about the Earth, we often focus on the surface – the ground, the rock formations, the part where most of us spend the majority of our lives. Yet water accounts for about two-thirds of the earth’s surface. Water is required for drinking, bathing, cooking, growing food and so many other necessities that it’s well worth studying. Hydrologists do just that – they study how water moves either beneath and across the ground to predict flood events, the spread of pollution and future supply levels. Groundwater hydrologists typically focus on the water beneath the crust of the Earth and particularly on the water supply and groundwater contamination. Surface hydrologists study lakes and streams and determine when and where floods are likely to occur and how to handle flooding situations to minimize damage. Both types of hydrologists often work to not only understand the movement of water, but to solve problems relating to the quality and supply of water.
Hydrologists gather samples of both water and soil and evaluate properties, like volume and flow, of bodies of water. They use remote sensing equipment, high-tech computer modeling software, global positioning systems (GPS) and geographic information systems (GIS) to gather and analyze data on problems such as pollution and droughts as well as possibilities, such as the viability of creating new irrigation systems and hydroelectric power plants in a given location. They also study the process of precipitation affecting bodies of water and evaporating.
Median Salary: $75,530
Education: Master’s Degree in Hydrology or Hydrologic Sciences
8. Materials Scientist
While the job title itself may be new to many aspiring scientists, the work of a materials scientist isn’t that unfamiliar. In some ways, the job of a materials scientist is similar to that of a chemist. Both pursue a common goal: to learn about the molecular and atomic makeups of substances and research how various substances interact. Unlike chemists, though, materials scientists typically study the structures and properties of a type of material in which they develop specialized knowledge, like metal alloys, glass, semiconductors or ceramics, typically for the purpose of improving them. Materials scientists have a somewhat higher medial annual salary than chemists, though their job outlook is slightly less positive.
Materials scientists design and implement research experiments in which they evaluate the properties and components of a substance. With the use of computers and laboratory equipment, these scientists analyze data and create virtual 3D models and simulations representing the atomic and molecular structure of a substance. They devise and test various ways of strengthening materials or new methods of combining substances for practical uses. Like other science professionals, materials scientists share their findings through written reports, articles and presentations.
Median Salary: $88,990
Education: Bachelor’s Degree in Materials Science, Chemistry, Physics or Engineering
Like materials scientists, chemists study the properties and structures of the molecules and atoms that make up various substances. Chemical research can be either basic, seeking only to understand structure, makeup and properties of a substance, or applied, seeking to build upon this understanding to innovate new products and processes or improve existing ones. Chemists typically work in laboratories, either at research and development departments of science firms, pharmaceutical manufacturing plants, testing laboratories or as part of the government. There, they conduct experiments to mix ingredients, test substances with complex equipment and gather information about the elements, atoms and molecules that compose a substance. With the help of computer software, chemists develop virtual models that show how the components of a substance are structured.
Chemists can specialize in a variety of different fields. Theoretical chemists, use advanced mathematics and computer programming skills, to predict the results of chemical experiments. Organic chemists specifically study substances that made from carbon, while inorganic chemists focus on substances that have no carbon components. Analytical chemists measure and evaluate the elements that make up a substance. Physical chemists devise theories based on chemical properties that seek to explain how chemical structures come into being. Medicinal chemists invent and test new pharmaceutical medications to help prevent or treat medical conditions.
Median Salary: $71,770
Education: Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry
10. Nuclear Technicians
In nuclear power plants, engineering services and research and development laboratories, nuclear technicians play an important and necessary role. They observe the performance of nuclear power equipment to make sure that research and power generation are done safely. Depending on their job responsibilities, nuclear technicians may use equipment such as radiation detectors, spectrometers, dosimeters and particle accelerators. They analyze radiation in the air, soil and water to determine levels of radiation and radioactive communication. When a process or environmental condition exposes personnel to dangerous levels of radiation, nuclear technicians provide safety instructions.
Nuclear technicians find employment in a variety of workplaces, but where they work determines in a large part what their job duties entail. In the nuclear generation and distribution industry, operating technicians oversee the functioning of nuclear power plant systems, while radiation protection technicians focus more closely on identifying radioactive contamination. In laboratories, nuclear technicians are more likely to assist nuclear engineers and physicists with research. These professionals have a hand in innovating new uses for and sources of nuclear energy, including devising medical uses of nuclear power and designing new types of nuclear reactors.
Median Salary: $69,060
Education: Associate’s Degree in Nuclear Science
Editor’s Note: The salary and education information was obtained from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a federal agency that measures and reports on the labor market, the economy and working conditions. Salaries and education requirements vary widely from location to location and employer to employer. This article is simply a guide for students considering a career in the life and natural sciences, not a guarantee of earning potential or job eligibility.