What Can You Do with a Physics Degree? Jobs, Salary & Career

What Can You Do with a Physics Degree? Jobs, Salary & Career
Imed Bouchrika by Imed Bouchrika
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

As the body of knowledge that encompasses the complex study of scientific laws and theories expressed as general truths of nature, physics is not high on the list of the majority of students’ preferred college majors or career paths in general. If you, however, are one of those who think that the first detection of gravitational waves by the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) and Virgo collaboration on September 14, 2015, was the biggest event in history ever, then you probably have a basic idea where you want to spend the rest of your life. However, there is still always the chance that there are many details that you have missed or did not take into consideration.

What can you do with a physics degree aside from being a physicist, astronomer, and scientist? While a career in the field of physics and astronomy can guarantee professional and financial stability, there is also a broad array of alternative physics degree jobs that can be as fulfilling without the prestigious professional descriptions.

We have done the legwork and in this article, we’ll discuss what career opportunities await those who finished a physics degree, the financial packages tied to specific careers, and substantial statistics for insight, among many others.

Physics Degree Table of Contents

  1. What is physics degree?
  2. Key Physics Degree Statistics
  3. What are the requirements to study physics?
  4. How much does it cost to study physics?
  5. The Best Universities to Study Physics
  6. Possible Careers for Physics Majors
  7. How much do physics majors earn?
  8. Famous People Who Studied Physics
  9. Are non-doctorate degrees in physics worth it?

What is physics degree? 

Derived from the Greek word physikos, physics is defined by Oxford Dictionary as “the branch of science concerned with the nature and properties of matter and energy” (Lexico, n.d.). Similarly, Science Daily (2020) defines this body of knowledge as “the science of matter and its motion,” and as an experimental science, it aims to achieve the goal of analyzing and understanding the natural world and universal phenomena.

As a degree, physics encompasses a broad range of studies from subatomic particles to black holes and the overall structure of the universe (WorldWideLearn Editors, 2015). It is a broad and ancient field of science that is also considered its cornerstone as it provides a basis for other branches of science, including chemistry, biology, etc. According to Williams (2018), physics is often considered as “an excellent introduction to science” because it immerses the students not only to the laws governing the world around them, but also—through the problems students solve—provides them with a way of thinking which is conducive to solving problems outside of physics and even outside of science (Williams, 2018).

Historically, physics is divided into two broad categories, namely classical and modern physics. Classical physics covers the studies conducted from the Renaissance period through the Enlightenment and until around 1900. The fields of studies developed during this period include acoustics or the study of sound and sound waves, astronomy, meteorology, electromagnetism, optics, thermodynamics, and others.

Modern physics, on the other hand, “embraces the atom and its component parts, relativity and the interaction of high speeds, cosmology and space exploration, and mesoscopic physics, those pieces of the universe that fall in size between nanometers and micrometers” (Jones, 2019). Under modern physics are astrophysics, atomic physics, biophysics, cosmology, molecular physics, nuclear physics, quantum mechanics, relativity, and others. Physics can also be categorized as experimental and theoretical with the former being the practical application of physics and the latter dealing with the establishment of “overarching laws as to how the universe works” (Jones, 2019).

Key Physics Degree Statistics

  • There were 8,122 physics bachelor’s degrees conferred in the class of 2015, an 8% increase from the previous year and a 123% increase from the recent low in 1999. The bachelor’s class of 2015 represents yet another all-time high (Nicholson & Mulvey, 2016)
  • Around 3,200 students were enrolled as first-year students in physics graduate programs in the U.S. for 2018-19 academic year (Mulvey, et al., 2019).
  • 1 in 7 physics bachelor’s degree holders will choose to complete PhD in physics (Bailey, 2015).
  • The United States holds 94 Nobel Prize in physics, which makes the U.S. the country with the highest number of this award.
  • In 2018, there were 8,946 physics bachelor’s degree conferred, as well as 935 exiting masters and 1,914 PhDs in the U.S. (Nicholson & Mulvey, 2019, p. 1).
  • There are 84 departments that grant astronomy bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. (Tyler et al., 2020).
  • 241 first-year graduate students were enrolled in graduate astronomy programs in the U.S. during the 2018-19 academic year (Mulvey, et al, 2019).
  • 60% of physics majors who pursued postgraduate degrees a year after graduation would choose physics or astronomy programs; 19% would choose engineering; the remaining 21% would choose other areas of focus such as mathematics, education, liberal arts studies, law, medicine, and more (American Institute of Physics, 2020).
  • 47% of PhD in physics graduates were employed in the private sector followed by four-year colleges (Bailey, 2015).
  • Since the 2000s until 2019, the overall percentage of non-U.S. citizens enrolling in physics programs in the U.S. has remained at more than 40% (Mulvey, et al., 2019).

Source: NobelPrize.org

What are the requirements to study physics?

Postsecondary physics studies offer four levels of qualifications and below are the requirements for each:

  • Associate degree. Although the majority of physics professions require at least a bachelor’s degree, an associate’s degree in physics helps students fulfill the general academic requirements in bachelor’s degree programs including introductory lectures in astronomy, chemistry, biology, etc., as well as some complementary laboratory course works (Academic Courses, n.d.; Study.com, 2020).  As an associate’s degree is a two-year program, a student is required to have a high school diploma or GED, as well as a science coursework (Study.com, 2020).
  • Bachelor’s degree. As a four-year undergraduate program, a bachelor’s of science degree in physics paves the way for career opportunities and postgraduate education. For those who would like to apply for this degree, general requirements include a high school diploma or GED certificate; applicants must also have passed general math and science courses (Study.com, 2020).
  • Master’s degree. Pursuing a master’s degree in physics is ideal for those who desire to become professional scientists. This advanced program also normally takes two years to complete and requires an undergraduate degree and passing Graduate Record Examinations (G.R.E.) and Physics GRE Subject Test scores for those who plan to receive their master’s degree in North America (Study.com).
  • PhD. A doctoral degree in physics is the final stepping stone in launching a career as a professional scientist. Although a master’s degree is not required to qualify, an applicant must meet a certain grade point average (G.P.A.) to be accepted. PhD in physics can take four to five years to complete the 90 credits of course work, which cover classroom studies, research, and laboratory works to complete a dissertation.

How much does it cost to study physics?

The cost of undergraduate physics vary depending on the institution and tuition fees can get as low as more or less $7,200 for in-state colleges and $14,900 for out-of-state institutions (AS Staff, 2020). According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average cost of undergraduate education in the U.S. for the school year 2018-19 ranged from $10,950 for public two-year institutions and $20,598 for public four-year institutions, including total tuition, other fees, room, and board. Private nonprofit and for-profit institutions cost an average of $28,627 for a two-year program and $44,662 for a four-year undergraduate program (NCES, 2019).

For master’s degree, the cost varies depending on the institution, the area of concentration, and other institution-specific considerations. A two-year master of science in physics degree can cost nearly $9,000 at California State University in Fullerton, more than $15,000 at California State University in Fresno, and can go as high as more than $20,000 at the University of Toledo in Ohio (Masters Portal, n.d.). Meanwhile, PhD programs can be completed at no cost as the majority of doctorate programs offer grants and scholarships to qualified applicants (Study.com, 2020).

Source: Masters Portal

The Best Universities to Study Physics

The following university ranking by U.S. News showcases the top 15 universities for physics studies out of 752 schools globally. Unless indicated otherwise, the university is located in the U.S.A.

Possible Careers for Physics Majors

A study conducted by the American Institute of Physics (2020) reveals that the majority of bachelor’s degree holders in classes 2017 and 2018 who are employed by private organizations are working in the engineering (38%) and computer information systems (26%); only a fraction of them are working in the fields of physics and/or astronomy (3%) and 21% were employed in non-S.T.E.M. fields. Meanwhile, those who were not employed in the private sector were working in high schools, colleges or universities, civilian government, national labs, or the military.

Fields of Employment for New Physics Bachelors in Private Sector

(Classes of 2017 and 2018 Combined)

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Source: American Institute of Physics

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There is also a broad array of opportunities for master’s degree holders. According to Forbes, physics was the third-best master’s degree to have jobs in 2017 with career opportunities in the academia and other fields, such as aerospace and engineering (Best Master’s Degrees, n.d.). Meanwhile, a PhD in physics can open the doors to becoming an established physicist or astronomer. Below are some of other career options for physics majors according to academic qualifications (Study.com): Associate degree

  • Entry-level technical assembly work
  • Mechanical maintenance

Bachelor’s degree

  • Laboratory assistants
  • Healthcare technicians
  • Mechanical professionals

Master’s degree

  • Teaching assistants
  • High school physics teachers
  • Staff scientists
  • Project managers

PhD

  • Physicists and astronomers
  • Postsecondary physics teachers
  • Biophysicists
  • Natural sciences managers
  • Petroleum engineers
  • Geophysicists

How much do physics majors earn?

Arguably one of the most fulfilling careers for those who love science in general and how stuff work in particular, a career born of a physics degree also brings with it substantial monetary rewards. An astronomer, for example, will have all the fun inherent to those who love stargazing while expecting to collect a clean $120,000 on average (Moore, 2019).

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, 2020), the median annual salary for astronomers as of May 2019 was $114,590. For physicists, the annual mean wage was $131,080, which placed it on the top five highest-paying S.T.E.M. occupations as of May 2019 (BLS, 2019). Below are some of the career options for physics majors along with the average base salary for each (Glassdoor, 2019).

Source: Glassdoor

Famous People Who Studied Physics

Beyond Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Marie Curie, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and other renowned physicists of our time, there are also the following individuals who studied physics but are not really known for their physics degrees:

  • Brian May. The Queen guitarist has completed his undergraduate degree in physics and PhD in astrophysics at the Imperial College (Perry, 2014).
  • Angela Merkel. The first female chancellor of Germany and also dubbed as the most powerful woman in the world right now holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Leipzig (formerly Karl Marx University). She also received a doctorate from the Central Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin for her quantum chemistry thesis (Petrikowski, 2020).
  • Elon Musk. Inspired by Richard Feynman, Elon Musk pursued physics at the University of Pennsylvania where he also studied business at the same time. He also got accepted to Stanford University’s physics PhD programs but decided to drop out of it (Baer, 2015).
  • Jimmy Carter. The 39th president of the United States served in the U.S. Navy. During his stay in Schenectady in New York where he was assigned to work on a nuclear submarine program, he went to the Union College and finished a graduate work in reactor technology and nuclear physics (NobelPrize.org, n.d.).
  • Dara Ó Briain. Before he became a famous Irish comedian and television show host, Briain studied mathematics and theoretical physics at the University College in Dublin, Ireland (Lewis, 2020).

Are non-doctorate degrees in physics worth it?

According to Williams (2018), graduating physics students often find themselves in the awkward position of ending an undergraduate career equipped with fledgling intelligence necessary to work and flourish in their chosen subject or field, only to enter a job market where only a handful of potential employers are interested in what their intelligence can offer. Master’s degree in physics, on the other hand, is “treated like an ugly stepchild,” and ending your pursuit of knowledge at master’s level “may even be accompanied by undertones of failure” (Feder, 2019, p. 22). But while PhD in physics is the ultimate academic goal, it is not the ultimate requirement that dictates one’s growth and success in a chosen career path.

At the end of the day, a physics degree, regardless of level, is a respected qualification that can help an individual find an interesting and eventually well-paying profession in various industries and sectors. After all, the strength of physics majors lies not only in their understanding of the physical laws of the universe but also in their analytical skills in resolving and learning how to solve problems.

 

References

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