Werner Israel

Astronomy, Astrophysics and Space Science

Physicist and cosmologist: Wrote the first logically precise theory for the simplicity of black holes (1967)

"If you really enjoy your work you never need a holiday."

So You Want to Be a Cosmologist

“There is no great demand for cosmological eggheads in industry and commerce,” says Israel, but the analytical and computing skills of such physicists are highly valued and properly rewarded by big business. He explains, “In the 1980s and ’90s, when university jobs were particularly hard to find, many cosmology graduates became financial analysts for banks or took jobs in the chemical industry.” The banks in particular were happy to pay salaries of US$150,000 plus housing and other benefits to attract smart physicists. At the other end of the scale, Israel was making about $5,000 per course per term as a part-time university lecturer in the 1990s. For many years, a cartoon hung on the wall of his office showing a man and a woman talking at a cocktail party. The man is saying, “My biggest mistake was going into cosmology for the money.”

According to the 2001 Occupational Employment Statistics Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, physicists rank as the 15th-highest-paid profession in the United States, with annual average salaries of $83,750 a year.

Typical physics careers include specialties in electronics, communications, aerospace, remote sensing, biophysics, nuclear physics, optical physics, plasma physics, solid state physics, astrophysics, cosmology or experimental physics.

To become a research-level physicist or astrophysicist takes four years (bachelor of science degree, honours) plus one to two years for a master of science (MSc) degree and two more years for a doctorate (PhD), then two more as a post-doctoral fellow for a total of ten years before applying for a permanent teaching position. The very lucky ones may get a pure research position. Says Israel, “It is a long, hard road, and none but the very dedicated should attempt it.”

To prepare for a career as a cosmologist, he suggests reading popular books on science. “One can never know too much mathematics,” he says. “Of course, it is not enough just to read passively. One must actually work at it — fight the text!”

Asked what it feels like to be a cosmologist, Israel says, “When you have caught this bug, it is impossible to shake off.” There is a lot of hard slogging, many disappointments when the result of several weeks’ work goes into the wastebasket, and disputes with seemingly uncomprehending colleagues who, however, sometimes turn out to be right. But the moments of insight more than make up for all of that. And if one happens to be lucky enough to stumble upon a major discovery, “Well, I imagine that can only be compared to getting high on a mind-altering drug, but without the downside.”

Career ideas:

  • research scientist, physics
  • research scientist, electronics
  • research scientist, communications
  • research scientist, aerospace
  • research scientist, remote sensing
  • nuclear physicist
  • optics physicist
  • plasma physicist
  • solid state physicist
  • astrophysicist
  • cosmologist
  • experimental physicist

Other scientists who may be of interest:

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