How to Major in Physics

Physics is a notoriously difficult field with many challenging branches, including quantum physics, mathematical physics, biophysics, astrophysics, and much more. But physics is also tremendously rewarding for those who put in the time and study. If you’re curious about nature, good with numbers, and up for a challenge, consider majoring in physics.

How to Major in Physics

Physics is the study of matter, energy and the properties comprising the physical world around us. Physics is also one of the oldest scientific fields. As long as people have wondered about energy, force, and how the physical world behaves, physics has been a topic of discussion. Because of this, completing a major in physics opens you up to a vast world of fascinating subjects--everything from the behavior of distant stars and mysterious space radiation, to the ideal design of cars for keeping passengers safe during a collision.

If you’re ready to earn your degree at one of the most prestigious schools in the world, get started with a look at the Most Influential Schools in Physics.

Or read on to find out what you can expect as a Physics Major.

5 Reasons to Major in Physics

1.Physics majors are well paid.

Careers in physics tend to be highly specialized, which means that those who occupy these roles typically earn a healthy living. Six-figure salaries are not uncommon in this field. This is because the work that physics majors are asked to do is advanced, challenging, and weighted with responsibility. If you’re up to the task, you may be well compensated for your effort.

2.Physics majors learn about the fundamental forces of our world.

Physics is the study of interactions between objects, and the forces that define those interactions. Because of this, physics majors develop a fundamental understanding of how the world literally moves.

3.Physics majors solve problems.

Physics is a field of logic and prediction, as much as it is a field of practical application. Because of this, physics majors are good at solving problems, and not just ones in the field. Physics majors develop useful knowledge and skills that can be applied in a wide range of specialized settings and everyday situations.

4.Physics majors have interesting careers.

Physics majors fill fascinating jobs in scientific fields and often work with advanced technology. As a physicist, you might use high-powered telescopes to unravel the mysteries of the distant corners of the universe; study the process of plants extracting energy from the sun to produce more efficient solar power technology; or design and perfect cutting edge aerospace technology. If you’re interested in pushing the limits and taking on big challenges, physics is the field for you.

5.Physics majors are influential.

Physics majors work in a wide array of fields, striving to advance our understanding of the universe, and how we apply that knowledge. Today, top influencers in physics are breaking new ground in mathematical physics, quantum field theory, theoretical physics, and much more.

Find out who the Most Influential People are in Physics today!

What Kinds of Physics Degrees Are There?

Physics degrees are available at all levels of study. Whether you choose to earn an associate degree and enter the workforce immediately, or you continue all the way through to a doctoral degree, will depend on your professional and personal goals. It’s important to remember, however, that most jobs in the field require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree or beyond.

  • Associate in Physics (AA or AS): An associate degree in physics typically takes two years to complete and requires 60 credits. The associate’s degree provides a point of entry into the field with introductory instruction in topics such as calculus, thermodynamics, electricity, and magnetism. While this degree may qualify you for some entry level roles, such as nuclear technician or chemical technician, most jobs in physics will require you to earn a bachelor’s degree. This two-year degree can be an affordable way to get a head start on your way to a four-year degree.
  • Bachelor of Physics (BA or BS): A bachelor’s degree in physics typically takes four years to complete and requires 120 credits. Bachelor’s degree students gain foundational and advanced knowledge in the field, through general and specialized coursework. Specialization options include areas such as astronomy, medical physics, and mathematical physics. Students engage with courses such as calculus, classical mechanics, mathematical physics, and thermodynamics. Typically, bachelors must also amass lab experience and complete a research project. Bachelor’s degree holders are prepared for entry-level physics jobs in roles such as research assistant, data analyst or IT consultant.
  • Master of Physics (MA or MS): A master’s in physics typically takes two years to complete and requires 30-45 credits. Students at this level develop advanced knowledge in specialized areas, such as biophysics, astrophysics, quantum mechanics, or atomic physics. Coursework includes topics such as electrodynamics, advanced calculus, differential equations, quantum mechanics, and statistical physics. Typically, students must also amass lab experience and complete a thesis project. Students with a master’s degree in physics are prepared for advanced and specialized roles such as medical scientist, biophysicist, computer scientist, and more.
  • PhD in Physics: A PhD in physics is the most advanced degree you can earn in the field. This terminal degree will typically take three to five years to complete, and requires a combination of advanced coursework, a research project and dissertation, comprehensive exams, and lab or instructional work. At this level, you will already be well into your specialization area. Therefore, you may need to determine where to earn your doctoral degree based on how each school ranks for your specialization. Your PhD will qualify you for an array of high-level professions, including physicist, astronomer, astrophysicist, biophysicist, or tenured college professor.

*Note: Many, but not all, degree programs offer the choice between Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees. Likewise, many, but not all, advanced degree programs offer a choice between Master of Arts, and Master of Science degrees. In most cases, the primary difference is the diversity of course offerings. “Science” degree courses will focus almost entirely on the major discipline, with a deep dive into a specific concentration, including laboratory, clinical or practicum experience. An “Arts” degree will provide a more well-rounded curriculum which includes both core/concentration courses and a selection of humanities and electives. The type of degree you choose will depend both on your school’s offerings and your career/educational goals. Moreover, there are sometimes numerous variations in the way that colleges name and categorize majors. The degree types identified here above are some of the common naming variations, but may not be all-encompassing.

What Are Some Popular Physics Concentrations?

Your “concentration” refers to a specific area of focus within your major. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) provides a complete listing of college degree programs and concentrations (Classification for Instructional Programs), as sourced from The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). According to IPEDS, the following are among the most popular physics concentrations:

  • Atomic Physics
  • Biophysics
  • Astrophysics
  • Medical Physics
  • Mathematical Physics

What Courses Will I Take as a Physics Major?

Your concentration will determine many of the courses you’ll take as a physics major. Likewise, you will be required to take a number of requisite courses on foundational topics such as thermodynamics and modern physics. However, you will also have the freedom to select an array of courses that most interest you. As a physics major, you’ll have the chance to craft a well-rounded educational experience that ultimately furthers your professional goals.

Common physics courses include:

  • Classical Mechanics
  • Modern Physics
  • Calculus
  • Mathematical Physics
  • Thermodynamics
  • Differential Equations
  • Electricity and Magnetism
  • Waves and Optics
  • Statistical Physics
  • Quantum Mechanics
  • Atomic Physics

What Can I Do With a Major in Physics?

Majoring in physics opens up a diverse array of exciting and well-paying careers in science, technology and medicine. Your physics major can lead to a wide range of professional opportunities, including these top jobs:

Curious how far you could go with a major in physics? Start with a look at the top influencers in the field today!

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Now that you know how to major in physics, check out The Most Influential Schools in Physics and get started on your path to a physics degree.

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