Guide to College Majors in Physics

No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.
--Albert Einstein

What Is Physics?

Briefly defined, physics is the science that tries to understand the laws of nature and the relationship between energy and matter. However, it might be more appropriate to define physics as a way of thinking rather than as a profession. The field of physics trains students to take a logical, problem-solving approach in whatever situations they might find themselves. Physics students explore concepts and methods of science that can be applied in many different professional areas and research topics.

Physics deals with everything from subatomic particles to black holes and the overall structure of the universe. Physicists use mathematical formulas to try to explain their theories and make predictions. It is a science that has attracted and confounded some of the most brilliant minds of all time: Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking, to name just a few.

But physics is also concerned with how things work on a more tangible level. The laws of physics are applied to fields such as engineering, communications, biology, and electronics. The development of technologies like lasers and semiconductors resulted from pioneering work in physics. Televisions, microwaves and digital cameras would not exist without breakthroughs in physics.

Physics is really the study of how the world works, and, it might be considered the most fundamental of all the sciences. The goal of physics is to develop theories that will summarize the laws of nature and lead to an understanding of why things work as they do. The basics of physics can be applied to most other sciences, and for that reason, a great many people use physics as a springboard into other fields of study or professions.

What Does a Physics Professional Do?

Nearly 90 percent of all "physicists" are working in medicine, education, industry, or other professions. Physicists are in demand for their analytical skills in many financial, fund management and research roles, in law, as weather forecasters, computer programmers, and as physics and science teachers.

Job descriptions are difficult to quantify in this field. The physicist might work in a laboratory, designing materials for computer chips or smashing atomic particles. Physicists have orbited the Earth and explored the oceans. They also build instruments that diagnose disease; they develop better and more efficient fuels for cars and homes; they calculate the movement of Arctic glaciers, and they create smaller, faster electronic components for computers.

Some physicists in research and development, especially those employed at universities, help increase our overall scientific knowledge. More often, they conduct research for government agencies or for private sector companies to develop new devices for the marketplace. They also design equipment or find new uses for older technology.

Medical physicists have greatly enhanced the well being of patients through the application of physics. Such advances as computer tomography, laser treatments for cancer, and the X-ray have improved health care over the years and led to more effective diagnosis and treatment of medical ailments.

Those professionals who do actually become physicists most often work regular hours in a laboratory where they plan and conduct experiments, build models for study, and examine test results. But this work can extend beyond the laboratory. Often, physicists must report on their results in lectures or through academic papers. They also might be responsible for finding the grant money that funds their work. These efforts require extensive skills in oral and written communications.

Trends in Physics Careers

Job openings in universities and industry are increasing, thanks partly to a wave of retirements by senior physicists who entered the job market in the early 1960s. However, growth in academic jobs for physicists is expected to remain slower than average. Physics majors will continue to be in strong demand in industry, especially in the areas of information technology and semiconductor technology.

Physics graduates tend to split evenly between the workforce and graduate school. More than half of those students who return to graduate school decide to major in physics or astronomy. After those, the most popular graduate programs are in engineering, math, medicine, law, and education. Just over a quarter of all physics graduates who earn a bachelor's degree go to work in the private sector. Other career options include high school teaching, government, and the military.

For High School Students: Preparing for Your Career Education in Physics

Anyone planning to study physics in college should prepare at the high school level with a curriculum that is heavy in algebra classes, with some calculus and trigonometry where possible. Math skills are essential, but science classes are an important part of preparing, too.

Students who plan to use physics as a launch pad into another career should consider the types of classes that will be appropriate for their long-term objectives. For instance, English literature classes combined with writing and public speaking classes are helpful for nearly any career. Business management, economics, or accounting classes will be useful for scientists who want to compete in the business world.

Education counselors also recommend that students get more familiar with the applications of physics by reading common introductory works. Some recommended books are "The Elegant Universe" by Brian Greene, "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking, and "Flying Circus of Physics" by Jearl Walker.

Take advantage of any opportunity to get involved in extracurricular activities and expose yourself to as much science as possible. Science fairs are an excellent way to gain practical experience. Admissions counselors prefer to recruit students who demonstrate leadership abilities by volunteering to head up school clubs. Leadership qualities are even more important for students who want to go on to graduate school.

Find adults who have experience or an interest in physics, including your teachers. Having a mentor to talk to about physics or ask questions plays an important role in your professional development. Get to know your teachers and professors.

Is an Advanced Degree Needed to Work in Physics?

Nearly a third of physics students choose to double-major, with math being the most common focus. This is usually because only a few extra classes beyond those required for the physics degree are needed for the additional math degree. But math is not the only option. Some of the other most common double majors are engineering, computer science, astronomy, and chemistry. Education degrees and teaching certifications are required for aspiring science or physics instructors.

Some schools have two options in their bachelor's degree programs. One prepares the student who wants to get a graduate degree and become a theoretical physicist. The other is for those who just want to develop essential skills to enter another career. A bachelor's degree is typically the only requirement for the latter option.

A master's degree or doctorate is required for teaching university-level physics, or for top-level research in private industry or in government labs. Most professionals who go into this type of research have doctorates. Graduate degrees require concentrated study in a particular area of the student's choosing. Online physics degrees have become more popular among working professionals who are ready to further their educational credentials. In an online physics degree, topics of study might include beam physics, health physics, radiation biology, and physics education.

Graduates with bachelor's degrees have reported that people skills are an essential part of their work activities. Much of their time is spent on activities that have nothing to do with science, such as teamwork, dealing with clients, managing projects, technical writing, making presentations, and training people. The physics major who has not mastered communication skills will be ill-prepared for the job market.

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Physics?

The answer most appropriate for this question is: anything she wants to do. However, while some physics majors go on to become professional physicists, the majority pursue careers in fields where they can put their knowledge to more practical applications. With their skills in problem-solving, mathematical reasoning, computer programming, and organizing and interpreting scientific data, physics grads can move into government and industrial jobs that require an ability to think logically and creatively. Physics majors are well-suited to jobs that require step-by-step problem solving using math skills and good observational and communicational skills.

A wide range of industries seeks physics graduates: telecommunications, industrial physics, hospital physics, electronics, computing, quality control testing, banking, insurance, teaching, management, technical sales, and the armed forces, for starters. Students who become physicists tend to specialize in one or more areas of physics, such as:

  • Nuclear physics. Nuclear physics involves the study of the components, structure, and behavior of the nucleus of the atom. It has a number of practical applications in developing nuclear energy, archeological dating, smoke detectors, and nuclear medicine. Nuclear diagnostic techniques have revolutionized medicine by providing ways to "see" inside the body without surgery.
  • Geophysics. Geophysicists apply physical theories and measurements to discover the properties of the earth. Geophysics includes the branches of seismology, geothermometry (heating of the earth), hydrology (ground and surface water), and gravity and geodesy (the earth's gravitational field). Some of its applications are used in building highways and bridges, studying earthquakes, urban planning, and archeology.
  • Atomic, molecular, and optical physics. In this field, physicists study matter and light interactions at the level of the atom. The three are usually grouped together because of their interrelationships, the similarity in methods used, and their related energy scales. Atomic physics is more concerned with the study of the atom than with the forces studied in nuclear physics. Molecular physics focuses on multi-atomic structures and their internal and external interactions with matter and light. Optical physics manipulates light to gain insight into the fundamental properties of light.
  • Astronomy. Astronomy is considered a subfield of physics. Astronomers observe and collect data used to explain relationships between stars and planets as well as other phenomena occurring in the universe. Astronomers, in conjunction with other types of physicists, might be called upon to solve problems connected with space flight navigation and satellite communications. Astronomers account for about 7 percent of physicist jobs tracked by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
  • Astrophysics. Astrophysics is the part of astronomy that deals with the physics of stars, star systems, and interstellar material. Astrophysicists apply the laws of physics to understand how astronomical bodies are formed, how they interact, and how they die. Astrophysics might be used to figure out how to get to other planets, how to build things in new and safer ways, or to examine how the human body adapts to new situations.
  • Space physics. Space physics is the study of the space environment from the uppermost reaches of the earth's atmosphere to deep space, especially the environment in which satellites must survive. It has important applications as society becomes increasingly dependent on satellites for communication, broadcast, weather monitoring, remote sensing, positional information, and military uses. Space exploration has led to the creation of several products such as new types of ceramics, high-performance materials, and even microwave ovens.
  • Physics Education. Physics grads with bachelor's degrees can become elementary or high school teachers. There is almost always a shortage of teachers in the sciences. Technical schools will also hire physics majors who have some professional experience. Public schools require a certification to teach, but not all private schools or technical schools do.
  • Engineering Physics. Engineering is another outlet for the physics major. It is one of the most demanding professions, because it often deals with decisions that affect the safety of individuals. Building bridges, skyscrapers, airplanes, and electrical systems requires a solid foundation in physics. Some students will earn a degree in physics and then go on to graduate school for a master's degree in engineering. Others will double-major in physics and engineering. A few other industries that require a solid physics background are construction, chemical, food, aerospace, agriculture, energy, fuel, metallurgy, textiles and clothing, computers, and transportation.
  • Computer Science. Computer science offers careers for the physics major in graphics and software, artificial intelligence, data processing, and computer games. Computer hardware is the result of applied physics. Nearly 30 percent of physics majors choose to go into a software profession.

A student with an interest in physics and communications might consider telecommunications, television, image analysis, video recording, photography, laser technology, journalism, scientific writing, and publishing. Other non-technical careers in which physics majors have found success are law, business administration, sports, marketing, and business management.

Besides astronomy, space and earth science careers for physics majors include space technology, atmospheric sciences, energy and resources, and ocean sciences. Openings in environmental sciences and physics would include positions studying noise control, pollution control, conservation, radiation protection, and environmental monitoring.

Despite the important and intriguing specialties available to physicists, the vast majority of physics majors enter other professions. They may teach high school physics, perform research and development in private industry or in government labs, or lend their expertise to medical imaging, scientific book publishing, and scientific reporting. Physics careers can come from unexpected places. Insurance companies, for example, hire physicists to study the performances of the products they insure and make recommendations for reducing injuries and property loss.

A graduate with a master's degree in physics can do most of the above jobs but usually with a higher degree of responsibility and pay. They also have the opportunity to teach at community colleges. A PhD holder is more likely to become a university professor or researcher. Industries will also hire PhDs to oversee research projects for their companies and design new scientific instruments.

Planning for Your Physics Career

Physics is not a career for the dilettante. People considering a career in this demanding but rewarding profession should first ask themselves whether they are excited by physics, above and beyond other options, and whether they are good at it. This profession requires a strong commitment of time and effort. For those who want to succeed, the rewards can be plentiful, but the preparation depends on the direction in which one wants to go.

The student who plans to build a career as a physicist must make academic requirements his first priority. That means paying attention to grades, especially in math and science classes, and scoring high on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) in preparation for graduate school. In addition, future physicists must build relationships with faculty members who can provide letters of recommendation. Courses in the major are more important than courses in other disciplines, because applications to graduate schools will be based more on those grades. However, academic advisors recommend building communication skills with writing, literature, and speech communication courses.

If you want a career in government or industry, communication and interpersonal skills rate higher than physics or math grades. Much of your time will be spent writing and making presentations. Computer skills and courses in areas such as statistics, electronics, and applied physics are important, too. When interviewing with potential employers, you must be able to show you are a team player.

Those students who want to teach in high school should be aware that they will need a teaching certificate to teach in public schools. Courses in education are important, as are communication and interpersonal skills. You will improve your chances of being hired if you are also qualified to teach classes such as biology, general science, or math.

Financial companies like the skills and critical thinking abilities of physics majors. Anyone considering a career in this industry should take classes in statistics, accounting, and economics. Banks, insurance companies, and investment firms are interested in math and science majors.

Students who want to apply to a medical or dental school should speak with a premedical adviser early in their college careers to determine the supplemental courses such as biology and chemistry that will be needed for acceptance to medical school. A premed student is required to take about the same amount of class work in physics as in biology, and about one-quarter of the knowledge needed for a medical school entrance exam is based on physics.

Certification, Licensure and Associations

No licensing is required for physicists, but anyone who plans to teach at a public elementary school or high school must receive a teaching certificate.

Professional Associations

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