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Physics makes the world go round (literally), and that is just the start. According to The College Board, physics helps us understand how our universe works, from the tiniest particle to the universe itself - and, theoretically, beyond. Physics majors study the laws that govern this universe and, eventually, how to apply or expand upon them.

Though the world of physics includes some big names - think Einstein and Newton - one need not make some world-changing discovery to make a living in it. In fact, one need not become a "physicist" at all. Keep reading to learn more about physics degree programs and the types of careers they can lead to.

Physics Degrees: What to Expect

Great physicists have tackled some of life's most intriguing questions, like where we came from and where we're going. For many, that quest began with formal training.

Physics degree programs come in all shapes and sizes. Some colleges and universities offer specialized physics majors - such as applied physics, chemical physics and engineering physics - in addition to more general physics programs. Nonetheless, many physics degrees require a similar core curriculum.

The following are a few examples of courses students might encounter in a physics degree program, as reported by The College Board:

  • Classical mechanics
  • Computational physics
  • Nuclear physics
  • Modern physics
  • Quantum mechanics
  • Thermodynamics
  • Electricity and magnetism

Physics degrees run the gamut from two-year associate programs and certificates all the way to advanced doctoral and professional degrees. Most teaching or research positions require a master's or doctoral degree, which tend to be more specialized and complex than undergraduate science programs, and may entail advanced research projects or dissertations.

Undergraduate programs, on the other hand, typically incorporate several general education courses and related electives. Note that even though physics degree programs can work well in an online learning environment, some online schools may still require students to complete lab work. In some cases, this work can be completed through accelerated, on-campus intensives, or through partnerships with local colleges.

Potential Careers for Physics Majors

The common perception of physics graduates usually involves lab coats, high tech equipment and intensive research. This might be an appropriate description of some physicists, but there are actually a variety of different jobs suitable for physics majors -- and some involve little, if any, laboratory research.

The following are a few potential career paths, including job descriptions, training requirements and employment projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

  • Physicist or astronomer - Physicists and astronomers study how various types of matter and energy interact, both on a micro and cosmic scale. Theoretical physicists and astronomers focus their studies on space and time, while applied physicists use their physics savvy to develop or improve technologies for military, industrial and similar purposes. Physicists and astronomers typically must possess doctoral or professional physics degrees, especially those who specialize in research. The BLS expects demand for these professionals to grow by 10 percent between 2012 and 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations nationally.
  • Aerospace engineer - Aerospace engineers design and test aircraft, including airplanes, spacecraft, satellites and missiles. They can work for private industry or for the federal government. According to the BLS, most aerospace engineers enter the field with a bachelor's degree. Those who hope to land positions that require national security clearance must meet additional citizenship and training requirements. The BLS expects employment of aerospace engineers to increase seven percent nationwide between 2012 and 2022. Growth should be particularly strong in the national defense field, and those with training in computational fluid dynamics software may have an advantage in a competitive job market.
  • Nuclear engineer - Nuclear engineers research and develop instruments, processes and systems that rely on nuclear energy and radiation. They often work in the energy or defense industries, but their skills have industrial and medical applications, too. According to the BLS, nuclear engineers typically need bachelor's-level engineering or physics degrees to enter the field, and professional or academic experience is always a plus. Demand for nuclear engineers is projected to rise nine percent nationwide between 2012 and 2022. The BLS expects job prospects to improve for candidates with training in a developing field, like nuclear medicine.

Graduates might also consider pursuing positions as chemical physicists, biophysicists, materials scientists or even college professors. Students can learn more about any of these options by visiting the BLS and The College Board online, or by contacting professional organizations like the American Physical Society and the American Physics Institute. The AIP also maintains a student organization specifically for physics majors called the Society of Physics Student National Organization.

"Major: Physics," The College Board, https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/majors/physical-sciences-physics-physics
"Major: Applied Physics," https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/majors/physical-sciences-physics-applied-physics
"Physicists and Astronomers," Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 14, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/physicists-and-astronomers.htm
"Aerospace Engineers," Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 14, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/aerospace-engineers.htm
"Nuclear Engineers," Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 14, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/nuclear-engineers.htm
American Physical Society, http://aps.org
American Institute of Physics, http://aip.org
Society of Physics Student National Organization," spsnational.org

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