Physics is the study of matter, motion, space, and time. Obviously, that encompasses quite a lot! Physics can be as simple as learning how a ball rolls downhill or as complex as trying to uncover the unifying theory of the universe. A physics degree can prepare you for a gratifying career as a science teacher at your local high school, or it can take you to the far reaches of space with NASA. To say the sky’s the limit would be an understatement!
A physics degree focuses on the nature and properties of energy and matter, covering topics like mechanics, heat, light, radiation, sound, electricity, magnetism, and more, preparing graduates for physics degree jobs in fields like science, engineering, healthcare, education, and more. If you’re wondering what to do with a physics degree, the options are plenty and this guide offers information about the different degrees available, as well as insight into the jobs you can get with a physics degree.
Physics is the entryway into a wide range of intersecting sciences and subdisciplines. You’ll study the elementary building blocks of the universe in subfields such as particle physics, quantum mechanics, quantum optics, and quantum electrodynamics. You’ll also study the universe in enormous terms through subdisciplines like astronomy, cosmology, and string theory. Still other branches apply physics to subjects like biology, chemistry, mechanics, energy, geology, and a host of other life sciences. You’ll also spend plenty of time in math class.
Your degree could prepare you for an enormous range of careers in the sciences and beyond, from mechanical engineering, climatology, and meteorology to aeronautics, military development, and public research. When paired with a secondary degree, a degree in physics could also help prepare you for a career in business, healthcare administration, information technology or another field in which your background in operational and analytical thinking will be of value.
If you’re up to the challenge, a degree in physics could be the pathway to an extremely rewarding career.
If you already know what you’re looking for, go ahead and jump to our ranking of The Best Physics Programs in the World Today.
What Kind of Accreditation Should My Degree Program Have?
Accreditation is the process by which colleges and universities are evaluated and validated. Colleges and universities that have earned accreditation have met the standards set by accrediting organizations. These organizations are comprised of faculty from various accredited colleges and universities. Legitimate regional and national accrediting organizations are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Typically, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) recognizes the same institutions, although CHEA recognition isn’t mandatory. A college or university must be accredited by a Department of Education-recognized accreditor in order for its students to receive federal financial aid.
For a detailed look at the differences between regional and national accreditation, check out What Do I Need to Know About College Accreditation?
- What is Regional Accreditation?
- Regional accreditation is the signifier of quality education; this includes the currency of curriculum, credentials of educators, and credibility of degrees. Regional accrediting agencies only accredit institutions in their geographical area.
- The Six Regional Accrediting Agencies
- Middle States Commission of Higher Education (MSCHE)
- New England Commission on Higher Education (NECHE)
- The Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
- WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
To find out if a college or university on your list is regionally accredited, check the Department of Education’s Database of Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.
- What Is National Accreditation?
- National accreditation is often perceived as a less rigorous standard than regional accreditation and is governed by educational accreditors agencies that are not restricted by region or geography. This means that one such agency can provide accreditation to any college or university in the U.S. that meets its criteria. National accreditation is commonplace among trade schools, religious schools, and for–profit colleges.
Most regionally–accredited colleges do not accept or recognize credits or degrees earned from colleges that lack regional accreditation. However, national accreditation may be a useful indicator of quality for students pursuing vocational training, competency-based education, or other education models that operate under a for-profit model.
To learn more about National Accreditation, check out Understanding National Accreditation.
For help safely navigating the For–Profit Sector, check out our Guide to For–Profit Colleges: What You Need to Know.
- What is Programmatic Accreditation?
- Programmatic accreditation certifies that an institution’s program, department, or college has met the standards of the programmatic accrediting agency. While programmatic accreditation agencies often have national jurisdiction, programmatic accreditation is not institutional national accreditation. In fact, programmatic accreditation often coexists with regional accreditation. In some disciplines, a degree with programmatic accreditation may even be required to earn a license or enter professional practice.
You don’t necessarily need to earn a physics degree with program–specific accreditation. Your physics degree can still carry plenty of practical value if it was conferred by a regionally accredited institution. That said, if you’re hoping to use that degree to become a licensed Professional Engineer (PE), you will likely require a degree with program–specific accreditation.
ABET is a nonprofit accrediting agency for programs in applied and natural science, computing, engineering and engineering technology, providing quality assurance for 3,800 programs at more than 770 colleges and universities in 31 countries. One of the first steps in your path to becoming a PE should be to seek out a program that is ABET–accredited. This will be an important credential as you work toward your license and as you compete on the job market.
The easiest way to determine accreditation status is to contact your school of choice, or visit the website for any of the above accreditation agencies. Each provides a searchable database of accredited institutions and degree programs. You can also look at the Department of Education’s database of all recognized accreditors within its purview.
Or, to learn a little more about navigating the tricky accreditation landscape, check out Accreditation of Colleges and Universities: Who’s Accrediting the Accreditors?
Now that you get the idea, let’s look at some of your degree options.
What Kinds of Physics Degrees Are There?
Associate Degree in Physics
Careers in physics often require advanced training. Thus, an associate physics degree will usually be a steppingstone into more advanced study. This 60–credit, two–year program will provide you with introductory level instruction in subjects like biophysics, organic chemistry, and Newtonian law. You’ll also take several mathematics courses. These will be fundamental building blocks as you advance in the science of physics. This is the perfect degree if you’re trying physics on for size but you’re still uncertain whether this science is the right fit. It could also be an affordable and accessible way to gain introductory instruction before advancing into a four–year program. If you plan to parlay your associate degree into immediate job placement, you could qualify for factory–level work in technical assembly, mechanical maintenance, or laboratory assistance.
What Courses Will I Take in an Associate Program?
- Calculus I, II, and III
- Differential Equations
- Electricity and Magnetism
- Introduction to Physics
- Physics for Scientists and Engineers
- Waves, Optics, and Modern Physics
Bachelor of Physics
A bachelor’s degree in physics could be your path directly into a career in the sciences. It could also be a building block toward an alternate career or an advanced physics degree. This is up to you. This 120–credit undergraduate physics degree will provide you with introductory level instruction in both life sciences and mathematics, as well as more advanced engagement of subjects like mechanics, aeronautics, information technology, thermodynamics, and climatology. Your bachelor’s physics degree will focus on math–intensive subjects like calculus and computational sciences. Careers for physics majors include laboratory assistant, healthcare technician, and mechanical professional. Many physics majors will pursue a dual degree in a subject like communication, business, or education. This provides the flexibility to pursue a career in one of these related fields while enjoying the practical benefits of a well–rounded science education. If you plan to pursue an advanced degree, note that some colleges allow you to roll your four–year undergraduate degree into a five– to seven–year master’s program. This is a great way to save time and money while building your credentials.
What Courses Will I Take in a Bachelor’s Program?
- Calculus I, II, and III
- Classical Mechanics
- Electromagnetic Theory
- General Physics I and II
- Mathematical Physics
- Modern Physics
What’s the Difference Between BA and a BS in Physics?
The bachelor of science (BS) in physics degree is the classic introductory degree for the field. Students who wish to pursue research in physics or a similar field should enroll in the BS. The bachelor of arts (BA) in physics degree provides a parallel course of study in the humanities and is most beneficial if you are likely to ultimately enter a separate but related field such as healthcare, information technology or industrial organizational management.
Master of Physics
Most students who aspire to work directly in the field will earn a master’s degree in physics. This physics degree will typically require a minimum of 30 additional credit hours beyond your bachelor’s degree. Depending on your enrollment status, this could be a commitment of two to four additional years. Your master’s physics degree will give you the opportunity to participate in field research, applying your skills in math and the sciences, and providing you with hands–on research and laboratory experience. You will also have the chance to hone your focus, whether you are most drawn to quantum physics, aerodynamics, astronomy, electrodynamics or any of the nearly limitless areas of application for physics. Earning your master’s in physics degree alongside a teaching certification can also qualify you to work as a science teacher in most public schools. A master’s degree is generally considered far more competitive than a bachelor’s degree among employers and will give you a leg up in your search for work as an engineer, a government–funded researcher, or a laboratory specialist, to name just a few careers for physics majors.
What Courses Will I Take in a Master’s Program?
- Advanced Mechanics
- Atomic Physics
- Classical and Modern Physics
- Methods of Mathematical Physics
- Quantum Mechanics
- Statistical Physics
What’s the Difference Between an MA and an MS in Physics?
There are some minor, and mostly negligible, curricular differences between the master of arts (MA) and master of science (MS) in physics degrees. Those interested in ultimately pursuing a profession in a related field—such as education or business—will usually prefer the master of arts, while those interested in research will often favor the master of science.
Ph.D. in Physics
The doctorate is the most highly regarded degree in the field of physics. This degree can take up to seven years to complete, but will qualify you for most opportunities in the field, including work for private or government research associations, grant–funded independent research, and professorship at the university level.
What Courses Will I Take in a Ph.D. Program?
- Condensed Matter Physics I and II
- Effective Field Theory
- High Energy Physics
- Nuclear Physics
- Particle Physics
- Relativistic Quantum Theory I and II
- String Theory
What Can You Do With a Physics Degree?
Your physics degree can be the key to any number of fascinating Life, Physical, and Social Sciences Careers. If you’re wondering “what can I do with a physics degree?”, then read on to learn more about these top physics degree jobs:
- Atmospheric Scientists and Meteorologists
- Biochemists and Biophysicists
- Chemists and Materials Scientists
- Nuclear Technicians
- Physicists and Astronomers
What Kind of Salary Can I Earn With a Physics Degree?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides some median annual salary statistics, as of 2018, for top jobs in the field:
|Computer and Information Research Scientist||$118,370|
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Are There Professional Physicist Associations or Societies I Should Join?
Professional associations are a fantastic way to make connections in your field, learn about valuable seminars, obtain important certifications, and improve your own credentials. The association or associations you choose to join will depend to an extent on the career path you take. Look for physics associations that correspond with your academic or professional concentration.
- The American Association of Physics Teachers
- This organization encourages and supports those who share the knowledge of physics through teaching.
- The American Institute of Physics
- This organization works to promote physics to the public, cultivate the educational discipline, advance and distribute research, and encourage collaborative efforts.
- The American Physical Society
- This organization is a non–profit organization promoting academia through research publications, advocacy, outreach, international activities, and more.
- The Federation of American Scientists
- This organization, founded by Manhattan Project members, aims to provide preemptive solutions to avoid catastrophic threats to the nation.
- The National Society of Black Physicists
- This organization promotes the educational and professional advancement of Black scientists within the field.