What can you do with a physics degree?
A wide range of professions and opportunities are open to graduates with a physics degree!
A bachelor’s degree in physics qualifies you for many career fields
If you’re interested in studying physics or if you’re already decided on a physics major, congratulations! You are pursuing a field with unlimited opportunities for careers. Read on for a description of the career fields that are open to people with physics degrees, both undergraduate and graduate.
But first, why do students major in physics?
There is a wide variety of reasons to become a physics student. If you like science and math, a physics degree will satisfy your curiosity about how nature works. And it will give you the tools to undertake and solve a set of challenges and problems, which employers will value. You will develop a marketable set of skills and breadth of knowledge to build upon as your experience builds over time. A physics degree proves to a prospective employer that you have the background, knowledge and skills to work in a physics job in a range of scientific, technical and corporate positions.
As you earn your degree in physics, you will study the laws that govern heat, electricity, magnetism, quantum systems and more–all while learning theoretical and experimental techniques.
Rather than preparing you for a specific career, a physics degree is more like a tool kit. The skills and knowledge you gain enable you to pursue a wide range of careers. Students who concentrate on physics:
- Will learn to frame questions about nature through the methods of physics.
- Will acquire skills necessary to answer and report on experimental questions.
- Will learn mathematical and computational methods to solve problems in theoretical physics.
Exciting, interesting careers paths open to physics majors
You can be at the forefront of many of today’s fast-paced careers. Are you interested in climate change or sustainability? An environmental engineer develops solutions to environmental problems to improve recycling, waste disposal, public health, and water and air pollution control. Or your physics knowledge can be applied to areas such as geosciences, which is the study of the Earth–its oceans, atmosphere, rivers and lakes, ice sheets and glaciers, soils, its complex surface, rocky interior, and metallic core. Geophysics is the science of predicting natural disasters.
How about astronomy, aerospace engineering, architecture or computer programming? Or you could pursue biomedical engineering, which involves combining engineering principles with medical and biological sciences to design equipment, devices, computer systems and software used in healthcare.
You might be part of particle accelerator research at a U.S. Department of Energy facility, like Fermilab. Or you could explore the career field of meteorology, which is weather forecasting and studying climate change. Perhaps you want to teach science/physics to middle or high school students. You might set your sites on a physics Ph.D. program, to eventually research and teach at a college or university.
In addition, you’ll find physics majors working in a variety of other fields, including finance, economics, statistics, consulting, construction management, medicine, communications technology, space exploration and other areas. Some of these career fields will require you to attend graduate school to earn a master’s degree and a doctoral degree.
Students with physics degrees: areas of employment
If you’re looking for career information about what to do with a physics degree and answer the question "What do physicists do in their careers?", a good source of information is the Society of Student Physicists website.The following career fields are most popular for undergraduate degree students with a physics degree but as you’ve just learned, there are unlimited career options open to you:
- Engineering: The largest percentage of graduates with a bachelor’s degree in physics–who are hired into a STEM profession–find a job in an engineering field.
- Computer science, hardware and software: If you like working in computer fields, a physics degree qualifies you to work in computer hardware and software, including programming, modeling, and simulation.
- Research and Technical: Another common career field for physics majors is performing scientific research and other work in a laboratory environment.
- Education/physics teacher: You can earn a bachelor’s degree in physics to teach middle and/or high school physics and other science courses—but you must make this choice early in your college coursework to build in time for education courses and to become qualified for teaching.
- According to the American Institute of Physics, students with bachelor’s degrees from the classes of 2017 and 2018 were employed in these sectors:
- Private sector–67 percent; college/university–9 percent; high school–7 percent; military–6 percent; government/national labs–6 percent; and other–5 percent.
What are some common job titles for a physics graduate?
Here’s a list of job titles within popular career fields, gathered from surveys of recipients of bachelor’s degrees in physics. These surveys were conducted by the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics. Job titles not on this list from AIP include aerospace engineer, theoretical physicist, health physicist, petroleum engineer, nuclear engineer, data scientist and material scientist.
- Systems Engineer
- Electrical Engineer
- Design Engineer
- Mechanical Engineer
- Project Engineer
- Optical Engineer
- Manufacturing Engineer
- Manufacturing Technician
- Laser Engineer
- Associate Engineer
- Application Engineer
- Development Engineer
- Engineering Technician
- Field Engineer
- Process Engineer
- Process Technician
- Product Engineer
- Product Manager
- Research Engineer
- Test Engineer
- General Engineer
- Technical Services Engineer
Computer Hardware / Software
- Software Engineer
- Web Developer
- IT Consultant
- Systems Analyst
- Technical Support Staff
- High School Physics Teacher
- High School Science Teacher
- Middle School Science Teacher
Research and Technical
- Research Assistant
- Research Associate
- Research Technician
- Lab Technician
- Lab Assistant
- Accelerator Operator
- Physical Sciences Technician
Why are there so many doors open to physics majors?
Students who go earn a degree at an undergraduate physics program will acquire skills in a wide variety of areas. A school like North Central College offers opportunities for research, mentoring and connections for academic experiences and internships at national laboratories like Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab).
What’s it like to study physics and work with a professor?
In this interview with Paul Bloom, associate professor of physics at North Central, you’ll learn more about what to expect as you study physics and how that prepares you for your future career.
- Why is math so important to physics? “Math is the language of nature. It is how we speak precisely and quantitatively about the behavior of physical systems. North Central College physics majors are required to take five semesters of mathematics starting with calculus. At that point, they are only a couple of credits short of a math minor. Therefore physics majors have enough math background to immediately work in fields like big data and finance. Historically, many physics majors also double major in applied mathematics.”
- How is computer science related to physics? “Most real-world problems in physics are far too complex to solve with pencil and paper. The equations also can't be solved in ‘closed-form,’ which means that we have to use computers to solve them numerically. We also make heavy use of computation to process large data sets and learn how to visualize physical systems. For example, the North Central College physics major requires students to take at least one semester of computer science using the Python programming language (industry standard). We are integrating computational methods and problem-solving at all levels of our curriculum. Computational skills go hand-in-hand with analytical skills and that pairing is highly valued in all areas of industry, finance and other areas that seek information from data collection.”
- What is electronic instrumentation? “Unlike other areas in science, the measurements we make in physics quite often require the creation of novel instrumentation. You don't just go to an online catalog to buy a particle detector or a research-grade telescope. To build new instrumentation requires electronics and then those electronics need to be interfaced to a computer (see below) to acquire the data. North Central College majors take a semester in practical electronics in which they develop the basic skills to understand and build digital and analog electronic circuits and to design new circuits. (However, a physicist is never a good substitute for an experienced electrical engineer!) This is a skill that is valuable throughout the industry.”
- Explain LabVIEW programming.“Once you build an apparatus, its output is likely to be some kind of electronic signal that needs to be acquired by a computer for it to be of any use. We require our majors to take a course in LabVIEW programming, which is an industry standard application that allows computers to control an apparatus and acquire data from that apparatus. This skill is so valuable that students get industry jobs solely because they have experience with LabVIEW.”
- Why are communication skills so important? “No matter how important the science, you must be able to effectively communicate your findings. Our students develop skills in oral and written communication of their findings through lab reports and in-class presentations. These skills are highly valued throughout the professional world, including business, industry, academia.”
- How do students build their research experience? “You don't really learn science until you do science. That is why we work diligently to give all of our students the opportunity to engage in the doing of physics research–– either by working with physics faculty in our own research, or by placing students into external research opportunities such as those provided by National Science Foundation opportunities called REUs (Research Experiences for Undergraduates). These run every summer at universities around the country. Other opportunities are available through the U.S. Department of Energy internship program called SULI (Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship), available at facilities around the country–including Argonne and Fermilab, both located near our Naperville, Ill., location.
"One of our recent graduates spent a summer conducting research at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research in Switzerland! In research, students put what they have learned to work. They also learn how to deal with doing science in real-world situations, not the artificial and contrived environment of the classroom or educational laboratory. They get an opportunity to network with scientists, which can turn into job opportunities. Most importantly, they have the opportunity to fail, and learn from that failure. That's a real part of science that is hard to teach in a classroom, but is a vital skill for anyone who is going to be successful in anything they do.”
Finally, if you’ve decided to pursue physics in college, determine if the institution you’re attending can prepare you for your career. Visit the physics department of different schools and learn more about each physics degree program and what it offers you.
Here’s what you should learn when you study physics in college. You should be able to:
- Design and perform experiments using lock-in amplifiers, multichannel analyzers and Fourier spectral analyzers—all available for research at North Central College.
- Apply the laws of physics to solve problems in areas ranging from renewable energy to medical instrumentation to nanotechnology.
- Identify which tools to use and paths to take when finding solutions to problems
- Formulate and apply explicit approximations when solving problems
- Understand and interpret complicated scientific literature.
- Plan, execute, analyze and effectively report the results of an periment
- Critically review the results of an experiment
- Produce clear and accurate scientific reports
- Evaluate the level of uncertainty in experiment results and compare them with expected outcomes
- Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the fundamental laws of physics and apply them in diverse areas
- Understand mathematical modeling and of the role of approximation
With a physics degree, doors will open to you throughout the professional world. If you like math and science, this is the degree for you!
Laura Zahn Pohl is an editorial director in higher education with more than 17 years of experience as a content writer, publications editor and speechwriter. An honors graduate of the University of Iowa School of Journalism, her experience includes corporate communications and freelance reporting for the Chicago Tribune, Daily Herald and Kalamazoo Gazette.