physicsiconThere’s a joke that all other natural sciences are just applied physics. But that physics is just applied mathematics. All intellectual hobnobbing aside, physics is perhaps the central science that informs all others, at least about the natural world and the cosmos.

Physics dictates and describes which medicines will work, why planes fly, when the next solar eclipse will happen, and so many other things besides. In it’s most succinct form, physics is defined as the science concerned with the nature and properties of matter and energy. When you think about it, that pretty much covers everything.

And while the science of physics is quite powerful indeed, the very range of applications can make choosing a degree program or career path confusing. Here at DegreeQuery, we’ve covered hundreds of degree types and our dedicated team of researchers have helped to classify some of the best university programs in the nation. Physics is no exception, and in this guide we’ll step you through the most common types of physics degree, how to gain admission to a physics degree program, and what you can do with a degree in physics.

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Don’t quite see what you’re looking for? Physics is related to a wide range of exciting fields covered here at DegreeQuery. Some of our related content includes:

What Physics Degrees Are Available?

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Courses in physics are available at the associates through doctoral levels. With that said, the most common degree for entry into the academic entry into a field is a bachelor’s. For those seeking to hold the title of physicist, master’s or doctoral degrees are typically required.

While physics degrees are similar in structure to a range of other natural science and engineering fields, there are no degrees in which you can specialize in nearly as in-depth of a nature in physics.

A bachelor’s of science degree in physics requires 120 credit hours for completion, and traditionally requires 4 years of full-time study.

Students in these degree programs begin their course of study with general education requirements. General education requirements are meant to ensure that students are exposed to a wide variety of topics at the collegiate level and are worthy of a baccalaureate degree.

Courses that most students are exposed to within bachelor’s-level general education requirements include:

  • English Composition
  • English Literature
  • Religion or Philosophy
  • A Social Science like Economics or Psychology
  • Ethics
  • Mathematics
  • A foreign language
  • Physical education
  • A Natural Science like chemistry, biology, or geology

General education requirements typically compose the first year and a half of collegiate study. Afterwards, students begin to primarily take courses within their major as well as a selection of major courses.
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For undergraduate physics majors, courses that may be included in your major include:

  • Calculus I and II or differential calculus
  • Physics I and II
  • Electromagnetism and Waves
  • Mechanics
  • Chemistry I and II
  • Linear Algebra
  • Contemporary Physics
  • Mechanics and Heat
  • Physics Lab I and II
  • Classical Mechanics
  • Electronics and El. Lab
  • Numerical Methods in Physics
  • Magnetism and Electricity
  • Thermodynamics
  • Physical Measurements
  • Quantum Mechanics
  • Optics
  • Solid State Physics
  • Space Physics
  • Plasma Physics
  • Partical Physics
  • Extragalactic Astrophysics
  • Astrology
  • Among Others

While most physicists do start with a bachelor’s degree in physics, more than 50% of bachelor’s degree holders in physics do continue to grad school.

Some of the most common degree programs for physics graduates to pursue at the graduate level include:

  • Speech Language Pathology and Audiology
  • Medical School (particularly radiology)
  • Engineering or Technology Graduate Programs
  • Physics programs

While we consider degree and career paths in most of these disciplines across our site at DegreeQuery, today we’ll be considering physics alone.
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At the master’s level, physics degrees come in two varieties: en route or terminal master’s. An en route master’s is a master’s degree program in which a student enrolls in a doctoral program directly out of their bachelor’s degree. Upon completion of an amount of school work comperable with a master’s, students are awarded a master’s in physics on their way to a doctoral degree.

Terminal master’s degrees are provided as stand alone programs that typically require 2-3 years for completion. While coursework has the potential to be similar in both master’s degree types, two main differences persist:

  • En route master’s tend to be more research heavy
  • Students in en route master’s will typically begin some student teaching during their master’s study.

We should also note that a majority of master’s-level physics programs in the United States are en route in nature.

So what does one study at the master’s level?

With a master’s in physics students are commonly offered a broad or specialized path. Broad paths take a sampling of a wide range of topics within physics. While specialized courses of study cluster courses around one topic or industry.
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There are typically two ways to specialize at a master’s level in physics. The first is to cluster topics around a particular industry or job type. Many physics departments collaborate with a wide range of other fields and allow students to mix and match courses within departments. These may include:

  • Materials Science
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Engineering Science
  • Electrical Engineering
  • Computer Science
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Among Others

Students may also (or alternatively) focus on “pure” physics topics and cluster those such as to gain a concentration.

Typically the range of courses at a master’s level is considerably larger than at a bachelor’s level. Course offerings will likely include some array of the following:

  • Electrodynamics
  • Quantum Mechanics
  • Statistical Physics
  • Nuclear Physics
  • Particle Physics
  • Nonlinear Physics
  • Soft Matter Physics
  • Quantum Fluids, Solids and Gases
  • Many-Body Theory
  • General Relativity
  • Observational Astrophysics
  • Extragalactic Astrophysics
  • Stellar Astrophysics
  • Applications of General Relativity
  • Interstellar Gas and Radiation Pressure
  • Stellar Evolution and Structure
  • Among Other Topics

At the master’s level, courses of study are available that culminate in a master’s thesis, as well as some other form of capstone (or no capstone at all). At the master’s level a thesis should not be confused with a dissertation which is performed in doctoral degrees.
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A master’s thesis is a hundred plus page document that summarizes current research within a subsection of your field and arranges it into an argument. You still defend your master’s thesis similarly to a doctoral dissertation, but a master’s thesis is not “original research” in the same sense. The purpose of a master’s thesis is to show that you are adept at the interpretation of advanced facts and view points within your field of study.

Finally, doctoral degrees in physics are the primary degree with which one gains a job as a physicist. There is primarily one type of doctoral degree offered in physics, that of a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) in physics. This terminal degree is a research doctorate, meaning that it’s primary purposes include supporting students in the performance of original research as well as the preparation of the next generation of scholars and teachers within a field.

Many of the courses offered within a doctoral program overlap with those offered a master’s level. Doctoral candidates, however, are often pushed to continue their research into a given field even further than the master’s-level courses.
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In research doctorates, students must create a several hundred page research document known as a dissertation. Dissertations are comprised of original research that is theoretically publishable in a peer-reviewed journal. While not all dissertations are published, the quality must be deemed commensurate to those that are. Upon finishing the writing of a dissertation, doctoral candidates must “defend” their thesis by answering in-depth questions and describing their research to peers.

Can I Gain a Physics Degree Online?

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Physics degrees of any level are typically comprised of more theoretical courses that do not require any lab work, as well as courses in the applications of physics. These second course types typically do involve a great deal of time in a lab.

We note these two primary types of courses as they relate to availability of online degrees in physics. Physics degrees that are comprised of courses that are largely theoretical in nature can be offered online. Though degrees that require a great deal of lab work tend to be in-person.

One additional caveat is that graduate-level degrees that include physics but are primarily centered around another discipline do tend to be offered online. Examples of this include graduate-level engineering or technology degrees.

Here at DegreeQuery, we’ve covered a wide range of online and more traditional degrees. We should note that online degrees work well for many students, but just because a degree you are interested in is offered online does not mean that you should necessarily pursue this delivery method.

There are a number of trade-offs between online and in-person degrees. We’ll outline a handful of these in the form of pros and cons below.

Pros of Online Education Opportunities

  • No need to move or change your job to pursue a degree
  • Often built for working professionals
  • Often lower fees than on-campus programs
  • Provide the same degree as on-campus programs

Cons of Online Education Opportunities

  • Harder to get to know classmates and professors
  • Must be more of a self-starter than in traditional education settings
  • Less access to on-campus events
  • Less access to laboratory space or the university physics “experience”

One additional note is that while not many physics programs are offered 100% online, that many doctoral programs will allow students who have worked through a majority of their coursework and who are pursuing original research to do so “from a distance.” This arrangement may work for students who are close enough to attend courses periodically, though don’t want to regularly commute to school.

How Do I Gain Admission to a Physics Degree Program?

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Admissions to physics degree programs typically mirror the admission process to other degree types of the same level.

At the bachelor’s level, students should expect to complete or be in the process of completing a high school diploma. For most schools, they should be expected to provide ACT or SAT standardized test scores. Additionally, students should be prepared to write a series of essays, fill out an application, as well as potentially sit through an interview.

At the master’s level, students should have obtained prerequisite coursework in collegiate math and physics (and likely have a physics degree). If students are pursuing a degree in physics itself (instead of a related, applied degree), they should take the GRE exam, and have performed well in coursework within the discipline they wish to study in the future.

At the doctoral level, physics degrees are research degrees. This means that students should seek out a program that performs research they are interested in being a part of. Additionally, students should seek out a faculty mentor and contact them before application to the program. In graduate research degrees, faculty typically work with a small group of students to oversee original research that the student may perform. Ensuring this arrangement is in place is critical to gaining the full benefit of a doctoral research degree in physics.

What Can I Do With a Degree in Physics?

Learning about physics degrees is all fine and good. But once you have a degree in physics, what can you do with it?

From the bachelor’s level, graduates in physics disciplines may find work in engineering firms and governmental agencies assisting in original research and engineering. Additionally, bachelor’s degrees can prepare graduates to teach physics in secondary school. For some schools graduates will need to pursue additional coursework to become licensed to teach to pursue this route.

At the master’s and doctoral levels, graduates of physics degrees may graduate into roles with the title of physicist. Physicists work in a variety of laboratory, research, and engineering settings. They may also create a product around a discovery in or application of physics, and start their own venture.
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A third route available to graduates in physics is to pursue a closely related and applied degree. Some of the most closely related degree types include engineering degrees, speech language pathology and audiology degrees, or medical degrees that rely heavily on physics.

Looking at particular jobs, let’s work our way through some of the most common paths for physics graduates.

Physics teachers primarily work in middle or high school settings or within extracurricular providing organizations such as summer camps or online tutoring services.

In many settings, a bachelor’s in physics is enough to prepare for this role. Though potential teachers may need to gain licensure to teach within a state, particularly if they wish to teach at public schools.

Responsibilities for these roles include the preparation of instruction, instruction of students, classroom management, curriculum development, and overseeing of testing of students pursuing courses in physics at the middle and high school levels. Earnings for physics teachers roles vary depending on the state in which you teach as well as your level of expertise. On average nationwide, physics teachers earn $55,114 a year.

Physicists work in a variety of governmental labs, hospital settings, and engineering firms. A particularly large concentration of physicists work in the fields of energy, aerospace, or defense. Responsibilities within physicist roles include being a resident expert on matters within your research area as they pertain to product or service development. This may include overseeing advanced testing or original research within a field, as well as being able to advise other members of your project or team who are partaking of project elements that relate heavily to physics.

While earnings vary depending on the employer, level of seniority, and industry in which a physicist works, the average earnings for this role are $100,000 a year.

Engineers, particularly nuclear, mechanical, and electrical engineers rely on physics with great regularity in their work. For some applications, employers may seek engineers with particularly strong backgrounds in physics. And many physics graduates seek further education through an engineering degree to prepare themselves for such roles.

Work responsibilities of engineers depend on seniority, the project being worked on, and the industry in which the project is taking place. But some of the most common tasks include the preparation of specifications for the construction of a product or service, the iterative development of enhancements to an existing project, as well as providing educated advice within your focus area.

Engineering salaries can vary based on a variety of factors. Though aerospace engineers — who often have some physics background — earn an average of $82,656 a year.

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