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 down hill or as complex as trying to find the unifying theory of the universe. The study of physics 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!
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 50 Best Physics Programs in the World Today.
- You might also be interested in checking out The 50 Best Life and Agriculture Sciences Programs in the World Today.
If you need a little more information, continue on.
Covered in this article:
- What do I need to know about accreditation?
- What kinds of Physics Degrees Are There?
- What can I do with a Physics Degree?
- How much can I make with a Physics Degree?
- What Professional Physics Associations or Societies should I join?
Let’s start with the one thing you absolutely must be sure of before you proceed: accreditation.
What Kind of Accreditation Should My Degree Program Have?
The last thing you want to do is waste time and money on a degree that won’t be taken seriously by future employers. That’s why it is absolutely imperative that you make sure your school has the proper accreditation before you proceed.
As with most other higher education disciplines, accreditation is of critical importance in determining where to obtain a physics degree. Program accreditation is granted by accrediting agencies that are formally recognized by the Department of Education. Only accredited colleges or universities are eligible for financial aid. Moreover, accreditation typically indicates that an institution is not only maintaining its standards but that it continues to advance and remain current within its field.
As you proceed in your search, you’ll find both institutional accreditation and program accreditation. The former refers to school-wide accreditation and the latter refers to the accreditation conferred upon your specific discipline and degree program.
Regional Accrediting Agencies
The institutional accrediting sector is divided into regional and national accrediting agencies. Generally, regional accrediting agencies confer greater credibility and merit. When you’re investigating a college or university, you’ll want to look for the “stamp of approval” from one of the following regional accrediting agencies:
- The Higher Learning Commission
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges
Be sure that your physics degree is conferred by an institution bearing one of these regional accreditations.
You don’t necessarily need to earn a physics degree with program-specific accreditation. Your physics degree can still carry plenty of practical value as long as 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 seek your license and as you compete on the job market.
The easiest way to determine accreditation status is to contact your school of choice. You can also take a look at the Department of Education’s database of all recognized accreditors within its purview.
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 take a 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’s degree in the subject will usually be a stepping stone 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 a number of mathematics courses. These will be fundamental building blocks as you advance in the science itself. This is the perfect degree if you’re trying physics on for size but you’re still uncertain whether this particular 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’s 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?
- Introduction to Physics
- Physics for Scientists and Engineers
- Calculus I, II, III
- Differential Equations
- Electricity and Magnetism
- Waves, Optics, and Modern Physics
Now that you know what to look for, check out 100 Best Online Colleges for 2018–2019.
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 degree. This is up to you. This 120-credit undergraduate degree in physics 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 degree will focus on math-intensive subjects like calculus and computational sciences. This degree will open you up to a number of career opportunities in the sciences, including laboratory assistant, healthcare technician, or 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 masters program. This is a great way to save time and money while building your credentials.
What Courses Will I Take?
- General Physics I and II
- Mathematical Physics
- Modern Physics
- Classical Mechanics
- Calculus I, II, III
- Electromagnetic Theory
What’s the Difference between BA and a BS in Physics?
The Bachelor of Science in Physics 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 in Physics provides a parallel course of study in the humanities and is most beneficial if you are likely to ultimately enter into a separate but related field such as healthcare, information technology or industrial organizational management.
Now that you know a bit more, check out The 50 Best Physics Programs in the World Today.
Master of Physics
Most students who aspire to work directly in the field will earn a Master’s Degree in Physics. This 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 Degree will give you the opportunity to conduct and lead research in the field, applying your skills in the math and 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 Masters in physics—alongside a teaching certification—can also qualify you to work as a science teacher in most public schools. A masters 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 opportunities.
What Courses Will Will I Take?
- Methods of Mathematical Physics
- Statistical Physics
- Quantum Mechanics
- Advanced Mechanics
- Classical and Modern Physics
- Atomic 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 and Master of Science in Physics. 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.
PhD of 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?
- Relativistic Quantum Theory I and II
- High Energy Physics
- Condensed Matter Physics I and II
- String Theory
- Effective Field Theory
- Nuclear Physics
- Particle Physics
If you’re not sure where to start on your program, check out The 50 Best Physics Programs in the World Today.
Depending on your area of concentration, we would also recommend taking a look at The 50 Best Mathematics Programs in the World Today, The 100 Best Computer Science Programs in the World and The 50 Best Chemistry Programs in the World Today.
What can I do with a Physics degree?
Your Physics degree can be the key to any number of fascinating Careers in the Life, Physical, and Social Sciences.
If you plan to work in the sciences, check out a few of the top careers in your field:
- Agricultural and Food Science Technicians
- Agricultural and Food Scientists
- Anthropologists and Archeologists
- Atmospheric Scientists and Meteorologists
- Biochemists and Biophysicists
- Chemical Technicians
- Chemists and Materials Scientists
- Conservation Scientists and Foresters
- Environmental Science and Protection Technicians
- Environmental Scientists and Specialists
- Forensic Science Technicians
- Forest and Conservation Technicians
- Geological and Petroleum Technicians
- Medical Scientists
- Natural Sciences Managers
- Nuclear Technicians
- Physicists and Astronomers
- Political Scientists
- Survey Researchers
- Urban and Regional Planners
- Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists
What kind of salary can I earn with a Physics degree?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides some basic salary statistics for top jobs in the field:
- Bio-Physicist: Median Pay,2016 — $82,180
- Chemical Technician: Median Pay, 2016 — $45,840
- Medical Scientist: Median Pay, 2016 — $80,530
- Nuclear Technician: Median Pay, 2016 — $79,140
- Physicist: Median Pay, 2016 — $114,870
- Computer and Information Research Scientist: Median Pay, 2016 — $111,840
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 Institute of Physics works to promote physics to the public, cultivate the educational discipline, advance and distribute research, and encourage collaborative efforts.
The American Physical Society is a non-profit organization promoting academia through research publications, advocacy, outreach, international activities, and more.
The Federation of American Scientists, founded by Manhattan Project members, aims to provide preemptive solutions to avoid catastrophic threats to the nation.
The National Society of Black Physicists promotes the educational and professional advancement of African-American’s within the field.
The American Association for Physics Teachers encourages and supports those who share the knowledge of physics through teaching.
Now that you now a bit more about how to earn a Physics Degree, jump to our ranking of The 50 Best Physics Programs in the World Today and find the best school school for you!