Physics deals with matter as it relates to space and time, particularly while in motion. This major has applications in many professional fields, particularly tech-driven industries and lab sciences like biology, chemistry and geology. Degree programs in physics are offered at virtually every accredited college and university in the United States; most undergraduate programs emphasize the fundamentals of physics, while master's and Ph.D. programs often allow students to choose a specialization.
In addition to professional physicists, other careers linked to this field include research and development, product development, computer science, engineering and higher education. Some physics professionals will spend the majority of their time in the field, while others will stick to lab work. Regardless of their career specifics, these individuals must have a keen understanding of the relationship between various objects and the physical forces that guide them.
Many universities offer dual physics course sequences, one for students who plan to major in physics and another for students who are majoring in another scientific field and must complete physics courses in order to satisfy their degree requirements. Although the key concepts remain the same, courses for the former tend to be more advanced than the latter; at schools with competitive science programs, prospective physics majors may be required to take a placement exam. In addition to physics courses, these majors will also be required to take courses in calculus, trigonometry, geometry and other advanced mathematical subjects.
In the field of physics, academic specializationsare often categorized by the nature of materials or objects the student hopes to someday work with in a professional capacity; applied physics concentrations may include solid state objects, organic materials and tools physicists use to achieve results (such as lasers). Other specializations will be concentrated in sub-fields like biophysics, astrophysics and geophysics.
Along with their specialization, students must research their prospective career to determine which degree level will be sufficient for receiving the job they want. Here is a rundown of the four major degree types in the field of physics:
On their own, associate degree programs will not yield many employment options for graduates. However, they do introduce some fundamental concepts and allow students to decide whether to pursue physics as a career. Additionally, many undergraduate physics degree programs require incoming students to take an entry exam; for this reason, prior knowledge of key physics concepts can be quite valuable.
Students who earn a Bachelor of Science Degree in Physics may be able to secure entry-level employment in a laboratory or corporate research and development office. However, without the specialization earned during a master's or doctoral program, students will not earn nearly as much as their counterparts and may find it difficult to advance without higher credentials.
This degree will enable physicists to competitively apply for jobs that match their specialization. However, physicists who want to serve in lab leadership positions or teach physics at the university level are encouraged to continue their education and earn a doctoral degree.
Most doctoral physics programs will include extensive lab-based courses, for which students can apply the rules and laws they have learned to everyday objects. Ph.D. students also write dissertations, complete capstone projects and/or complete internships related to their specialization. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists the Ph.D. as the most common academic credential among professional physicists.
In addition to the four degrees listed above, some schools offer professional degrees designed to assist physicists in specific occupations such as an applied physics program geared toward professional engineers.
Ideal Candidates for Physics
The field of physics requires scientific-minded individuals who are analytical and meticulous when it comes to data collection, analysis and interpretation. Physics also involves a lot of complex mathematics, so students who shy away from math are urged to look elsewhere when choosing a college major. And since lab work often requires major collaboration, strong interpersonal and communication skills are two assets that serve physicists well in the workplace.
According to the BLS, the number of professional physicists is expected to grow 10% between 2012 and 2022; this rate is on par with the average expected growth for all occupations. Individuals who earn a doctoral or professional degree in physics stand to earn a median annual income of $106,360.
The BLS also notes that "competition for permanent research appointments" for physicists at higher learning institutions is considerable, and even students who have earned a Ph.D. will likely have to complete several postdoctoral appointments before securing a long-term position. There is also a high rate of competition for research proposal grants, which may limit job availability at certain institutions.
Aspiring physicists can learn more about this job pathway by obtaining membership with a professional organization, speaking with a career counselor at their college or university and networking with fellow physics majors at events and conferences.