What is Physics?
Simply put, physics is the science that deals with the laws of nature and the relationship between matter and energy: it deals with complex issues such as subatomic particles and black holes, and theorizes about the overall structure of the universe.
In practice, physics fosters a logical, problem-solving mode of thinking that can be applied to almost any situation and develops an in-depth understanding of science and research practices. Because of these highly transferable skills, physics graduates usually have a range of career options available.
Famous people who studied physics
Looking at some of the most prominent physicists in modern times, you can catch a glimpse of the variety of possibilities a physics degree can offer you.
- One of the most famous physicists of the 20th century is J. Robert Oppenheimer, a Harvard graduate who went on to have a key role in the conceptualization and creation of nuclear weapons.
- These days, physics is almost unequivocally linked to English theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.
- The business magnate and founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, Elon Musk, has a Physics degree.
- There are even celebrities who studied physics such as Brian May (guitarist of Queen) and famous comedian Dara Ó Brian.
What can you do with a physics degree?
Because physics teaches highly transferable science and research skills, physics graduate have a wealth of career opportunities to choose from. A physicist may study the space or the Earth’s ocean; they can help develop diagnostic tools and revolutionize medicine and health care; they can work in the energy sector and help create more efficient fuels for cars and homes. Physicists often go into related majors such as aviation, environmental science, biotechnology and nanotechnology, biology and even geographic information systems.
Preparing for a career education in physics: high school
If you’re planning on studying physics, your preparation should start as early as high school. Many schools don’t offer specialized physics classes, but you should consider a curriculum that includes algebra classes (with calculus and trigonometry if possible). Knowledge of mathematics is essential as physics and math are increasingly intertwined.
Doing well in other science subjects, such as biology and chemistry, is not critical for studying physics at a college level but will certainly help you along way. You should expose yourself to science as much as you can – take part in science fairs and join your school’s science clubs.
In most cases, to pursue a career in physics, you’ll need advanced education at an undergraduate level at the least. Nearly a third of physics graduates have a double-major (usually Math). Many, however, choose to combine their physics degree with computer science, astronomy or chemistry.
Some universities have a clear division between the physics undergraduate programs they offer: some focus on the theoretical aspect, a path which usually prepares you for being a theoretical physicist, while others target students who may not be so research-oriented.
If you’re wondering what you can do with a physics degree, teaching is always a good option. If you aspire to educate others, you will most likely need a postgraduate degree (a Master’s degree or a doctorate). In addition to classroom teaching, you could also be a higher education lecturer for conferences and teaching events. In the United Kingdom, if you pursue a Ph.D. in physics and manage to develop original and innovative research, you will also be a prime candidate for a Charter of Physics, a recognition from the Institute of Physics.
Teaching, however, is far from the only application of a physics degree. Though some physics graduates go on to become professional physicists, there are plenty of other career options available as well. You could become a field seismologist, a metallurgist, nanotechnologist, a research scientist and more.
The problem-solving, computer programming, mathematical reasoning, and other physics-related skills are suited for a range of careers. Most industries welcome physics graduates – don’t be surprised to find people with physics degrees working in telecommunications, computing, electronics, hospital and industrial physics, insurance, technical sales, and even banking.
If you decide to pursue a career in physics, you might want to specialize in one area. Some of the more popular areas are nuclear physics (the study of the structure, components, and behavior of the nucleus of the atom), geophysics (the study of the properties of the Earth), atomic, molecular and optical physics, astronomy and astrophysics.
Physics careers in space and astronomy
As an astronomer, your job is to explore and study the universe. If you’re looking to secure an administrative or a trainee role in this sector, an undergraduate degree may be enough but for more specialized roles, you will usually need a master’s degree at the very least. Many astronomers and astrophysicist also conduct research in labs or teach at leading universities around the world.
Physics career in healthcare
Healthcare may not be the first industry that comes to mind when you’re thinking about what you can do with a physics degree, but it offers a myriad of opportunities to physics graduates. Physicists usually collaborate with biomedical engineers to develop and review medical technologies and equipment and are often employed in radiology and nuclear medicine.
Physics degree in engineering
Because a good portion of all physics graduates double-major in math, they also find employment in engineering. Your physics career can provide you with job opportunities in medicine, renewable energy, defense, telecommunications and transport, and even space exploration.
Physics degree in meteorology and geophysics
An in-depth understanding of how the Earth functions is key to obtaining a physics degree, which also makes physics graduates excellent candidates for environmental careers. Meteorologists focus on everyday events such as weather forecasting, while geophysics tend to explore larger events such as natural disasters.
If none of these options sound exciting to you, don’t worry: as we highlighted above, obtaining a higher education in physics presents you with plenty of transferable skills that span beyond engineering or even natural science.
Many physics students choose to also major in computer science and go on to obtain jobs in software, artificial intelligence, data processing and computer games. The development of computer hardware is a direct result of applied physics.
You can also apply your mathematical proficiency to obtain a position in the financial sector, or rely on your technical knowledge to pursue a career in the legal world (in patent law or forensics). Physicists are also in demand in the entertainment and media sectors as science journalists or film consultants.
Here is a great summary from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:
- 2017 Median Pay: $117,220 per year or $56.36 per hour
- Typical Entry-Level Education: Doctoral or professional degree
- Number of Jobs, 2016: 19,900
- Job Outlook, 2016-26: 14% (Faster than average)
- Employment Change, 2016-26: 2,800
The Department of Labor offers additional insight into what you can do with a physics degree here.