Physics Majors Guide


Table of Contents

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 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?

Job descriptions are difficult to quantify in this field. A physicist might spend their day designing materials for computer chips or smashing atomic particles. Physicists have orbited the Earth and explored the oceans. They have built instruments that diagnose disease; they have developed better and more efficient fuels for cars and homes; they have calculated the movement of Arctic glaciers.

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

Anyone planning to study physics in college should be considering a curriculum that is heavy in algebra classes at the high school level, with some calculus and trigonometry where possible. Science classes are important too, as one might expect.

Take advantage of any opportunity to expose yourself to science, such as by participating in a science fair, and to get involved in extracurricular activities, such as school science clubs.

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.

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 science degree programs such as 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 for the student who wants to be a theoretical physicist, the other for the student who is looking to use physics in a less research-oriented context. 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 performing research in private industry or government labs. These upper-division graduate degrees require concentrated study in a particular area of the student's choosing. Online physics degrees are another option, one that can lend a working professional some much-needed scheduling flexibility in regards to furthering their educational credentials.

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Physics?

While some physics majors go on to earn a position as a professional physicist, that is only the tip of the iceberg as far as physics opportunities are concerned. With their skills in problem-solving, mathematical reasoning, computer programming, and organizing and interpreting scientific data, physics graduates can be well-suited to a myriad of jobs that require step-by-step problem solving using math skills and good observational and communication skills.

Many industries seek physics graduates: telecommunications, industrial physics, hospital physics, electronics, computing, quality control testing, banking, insurance and technical sales, for starters. 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 discovering 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 archaeology.
  • 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.
  • 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. The region in which satellites orbit is of particular interest, seeing as satellites are being used for communication, broadcast, weather monitoring, remote sensing, positional information and more.
  • Physics Education. Physics grads with bachelor's degrees may decide to work as elementary or high school teachers, teaching physics to the next generations. Technical schools may 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 can earn a degree in physics and then go on to graduate school for a master's degree in engineering. Others 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.

Planning for Your Physics Career

Physics requires a strong commitment of time and effort. A student who plans to build a career as a physicist must make academic requirements his or her first priority. That means paying attention to grades, especially in math and science classes, and scoring high on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) before graduate school. In addition, future physicists should build relationships with faculty members who can write letters of recommendation.

Students who want to teach in high school should be aware that a teaching certificate is necessary to teach in public schools. Courses in education are important, as are communication and interpersonal skills. On the other hand, financial companies such as banks, insurance companies and investment firms can also make good use of the skills and critical thinking abilities of physics majors. Physics students considering a career in this industry should take classes in statistics, accounting and economics.

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) they should take before medical school. A premed student is required to take about the same amount of classwork in physics as in biology, and about a quarter of the test material on a typical 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 earn a teaching certificate.

Professional Associations

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