What Is a Physics Degree?
| Melissa Sartore
Are you ready to discover your college program?
Whether you plan to explore the nature of quarks or the properties of outer space, a physics degree will develop your knowledge of matter, motion, space, and time.
Physics degrees introduce students to matter's properties, structures, movements, and behavior in time and space. A physics program integrates natural science with mathematical analysis, training students in the core principles of physics and theories about the nature of the universe.
Coursework introduces learners to historical thinkers like Plato, Galileo, and Isaac Newton, along with more modern physics pioneers such as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.
Physics students develop an understanding of energy and matter as fundamental elements of the universe. Learners can explore branches of the discipline, such as nuclear and particle physics, astrophysics, and atomic physics. The following information includes descriptions of key physics fields.
Astronomy measures objects' positions and motions, while astrophysics develops theories about how the universe functions. Astronomers and astrophysicists seek answers about how the universe began, developed, and continues to function.
Engineering physics includes thermodynamics, computational physics, and fluid dynamics. This interdisciplinary field has applicability across engineering industries and research areas.
This field explores biological organisms and mechanisms of all sizes. It covers mathematical analysis, physics, biology, and chemistry principles.
Geophysics and meteorology apply physics to the Earth's processes and properties. Geophysicists conduct experiments, create computational and theoretical models, and observe the Earth and related planetary processes, while meteorologists focus on the Earth's atmosphere.
This discipline focuses on the protons and neutrons at the center of atomic material, applying physics principles to the study of nuclear matter. Nuclear physics seeks to understand matter by looking at nuclear reactions, changes, and structures.
Quantum physics is the study of nature at atomic and subatomic levels. Quantum physicists observe particles, waves, and their properties to develop an understanding of how they function within the universe.
Often referred to as "biomedical physics" or "applied physics in medicine," this course considers medical science through a physics lens. Medical physicists apply physics concepts and theories to clinical services, like cancer treatment and radiology. Medical physics also comprises researching and developing technologies to meet the needs of medical and healthcare industries.
What Kinds of Physics Degrees Are There?
Physics majors complete coursework in core principles and practices of the discipline, usually covering a lot of hard science and STEM topics, but curricula can vary widely among programs. Along with their chosen subsets of physics, students can focus on theoretical or applied physics.
Theoretical physics involves positing new models to explain the interactions between matter and energy, while applied physics tests models and theories against practical experiments, oftne leading to new technologies. Individuals should choose programs that match their interests and professional goals.
Associate Degree in Physics
An associate degree in physics introduces students to fundamentals of the discipline, generally serving as a pathway to a bachelor's degree in physics. Enrollees study mathematics, natural science, and chemistry through two years of coursework.
Earning an associate degree in physics often meets the general education requirements for a four-year degree, or graduates can pursue entry-level careers in healthcare or research. With an associate degree in physics, learners can work as laboratory assistants, nuclear technicians, and medical equipment maintenance providers.
Bachelor's Degree in Physics
A bachelor's degree in physics typically includes four years of coursework. Students begin by learning about core practices and principles of physics before continuing on to specialized classes. Degree-seekers explore nuclear particles, physical optics, and thermodynamics.
With a bachelor's degree in physics, students can pursue roles as physics teachers, laboratory technicians, and applications engineers. A bachelor's degree in physics can also serve as a pathway to graduate work in physics or a related field.
What's the Difference Between a Bachelor of Arts in Physics and a Bachelor of Science in Physics?
Most schools offer bachelor of science (BS) degrees in physics, but some institutions also offer bachelor of arts (BA) degrees in physics. BA and BS programs in physics share many similarities, but BS degrees emphasize research and direct application of physics concepts and principles, while BAs have more generalized curricula.
Earning a BS in physics is ideal for learners interested in pursuing careers in science-related industries or in attending grad school. A BA in physics integrates additional humanities and liberal arts coursework, making it best suited for learners who intend to pursue communications or managerial roles tangential to science.
With a BS in physics, students have the knowledge and skills to work as software engineers, research scientists, and mechanical engineers. A BA in physics leads to positions in data analysis, education, communications, and organizational leadership.
Master's Degree in Physics
A master's degree in physics includes two years of lecture, laboratory, and research coursework. Core classes cover mechanics, electrodynamics, quantum technology, and mathematical physics.
Students can specialize within the physics discipline in areas like medical physics, astrophysics, and materials science. A master's degree in physics typically requires an in-depth research project or internship. Some programs include a thesis option, which ideal for learners who want to continue on to earn doctoral degrees in physics.
Doctoral Degree in Physics
Students typically complete doctoral degrees in physics in 5-6 years. The curriculum includes two years of coursework followed by a competency exam. Once learners successfully complete the exam, they conduct independent research projects and produce dissertations.
Doctoral learners specialize in subsets of the field, like cosmology, quantum technology, or biophysics. Each enrollee's emphasis informs their research and dissertation.
With a doctorate in physics, individuals can teach in postsecondary institutions or pursue roles like medical physics program specialist, natural science manager, and computer software engineering manager.
Featured Online Physics Degrees
Accreditation for Physics Programs
Most colleges and universities in the United States receive regional or national accreditation. The regional form is preferred for STEM subjects, like physics. Accreditation attests to an institution's educational quality, the scope of its programs, and its compliance with professional standards and policies. Students should always determine the accreditation status of a prospective school before enrolling.
Along with national and regional accreditation, individual programs and departments can receive programmatic accreditation. Several accrediting agencies work in the physics field, including The Commission on Accreditation of Medical Physics Education Programs, which provides accreditation for medical physics degree programs, and ABET, which accredits applied and natural science, computing, engineering, and engineering technology programs.
What Can I Do With a Physics Degree?
Physics majors can pursue career options across economic sectors. The main industries for physics students include engineering, healthcare, and technology, but graduates can also pursue careers in education, meteorology, and business.
Physics degrees prepare learners to enter these fields by building foundational knowledge and skills in physics, chemistry, and related disciplines. Enrollees develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills applicable to many different roles.
Physics programs integrate coursework in natural science, mathematics, and technology, which can lead to many different employment options in engineering. Bachelor's degrees in physics offer learners basic knowledge and skills to work in engineering, while many master's programs in physics have specializations directly applicable to aspects of engineering. Undergraduate physics majors can also pair their programs with engineering degrees.
Individuals interested in working in astronomy and space-related industries need an understanding of how matter and energy function in the universe, which they can gain by pursuing physics majors. During a bachelor's degree in physics, learners can explore astrophysics, cosmology, and astronomy. These specializations commonly appear in physics graduate programs, as well.
A physics degree teaches students about the scientific method, which is essential for individuals interested in working in public research. Students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills while also learning to develop hypotheses, carry out experiments, and draw accurate conclusions based on their findings.
Learners develop essential math and statistics skills for quantitative data assessment during bachelor's degrees in physics. Graduate degrees in physics hone research skills as learners postulate, explore, and conduct advanced research projects of their own.
Physics degrees cover knowledge and skills applicable to many healthcare roles. For example, a physics program typically incorporates coursework in biology, chemistry, technology, and mathematics — all subjects that benefit individuals working in medicine and healthcare.
Within bachelor's and master's programs in physics, students can focus on biophysics and applied physics in medicine to prepare for healthcare careers.
Physics degree-seekers complete coursework in mathematics and natural science, while is ideal for pursuing careers in technology and computer science. With a bachelor's degree in physics, students build the qualitative and analytical skills needed to work in technology, especially in more research-oriented positions.
Combining a degree in physics with a major in computer science further enhances qualifications. A master's degree in physics may also include a specialization in computational or applied physics, helping learners thrive as technology and computer science professionals.
What Kind of Salary Can I Earn With a Physics Degree?
Salaries for individuals with physics degrees vary by level, role, and experience. Many of the traditional fields for physics graduates offer lucrative opportunities for employment. By taking specific classes or specializing in topics like engineering, individuals can prepare for careers in high-paying fields with strong projected job growth rates.
|Median Annual Salary (2020)||Projected Job Growth (2019-2029)||Minimum Degree Required|
|Natural Sciences Managers||$137,940||5%||Bachelor's|
|Physicists and Astronomers||$128,950||7%||Doctoral|
|Computer and Information Research Scientists||$126,830||15%||Master's|
|Atmospheric Scientists, Including Meteorologists||$99,740||6%||Bachelor's|
|Bioengineers and Biomedical Engineers||$92,620||5%||Bachelor's|
|Physics College Professors||$90,400||9%||Doctoral|
|Chemists and Material Scientists||$80,680||5%||Bachelor's|
|Environmental Scientists and Specialists||$73,230||8%||Bachelor's|
|High School Teachers||$62,870||4%||Bachelor's|
Frequently Asked Questions
This versatile degree can lead to careers in engineering, education, and computer technology. With a physics degree, individuals can also find work in healthcare, research, and business.
Yes. Coursework in a physics degree provides the essential knowledge and skills needed to work in engineering. By combining engineering and physics degrees, students can further enhance their qualifications for engineering careers.
A physics degree incorporates classes in mathematics, chemistry, and other natural sciences, including courses in quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and principles of physics.
Melissa Sartore holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her BA and MA in history are from Western Illinois University. A medievalist by training, she has published on outlawry in medieval England with additional publications on outlaws in popular culture and across geographic and historical boundaries.
Header Image Credit: SolStock | Getty Images
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