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Physics Overview - Preparation - Specialty Areas - Day In The Life - Earnings - Employment Career Path Forecast - Professional Organizations 

Because most jobs are in basic research and development, a doctoral degree is the usual educational requirement for physicists and astronomers. Master's degree holders qualify for some jobs in applied research and development, whereas bachelor's degree holders often qualify as research assistants or for other occupations related to physics.  Professional Science Master's degrees in the area of Physics is another option.

Education and Training
A Ph.D. degree in physics or closely related fields is typically required for basic research positions, independent research in industry, faculty positions, and advancement to managerial positions. Graduate study in physics prepares students for a career in research through rigorous training in theory, methodology, and mathematics. Most physicists specialize in a subfield during graduate school and continue working in that area afterwards. Additional experience and training in a postdoctoral research appointment, although not required, is important for physicists and astronomers aspiring to permanent positions in basic research in universities and government laboratories. Many physics and astronomy Ph.D. holders ultimately teach at the college or university level.

Master's degree holders usually do not qualify for basic research positions, but may qualify for many kinds of jobs requiring a physics background, including positions in manufacturing and applied research and development. Increasingly, many master's degree programs are specifically preparing students for physics-related research and development that does not require a Ph.D. degree. These programs teach students specific research skills that can be used in private-industry jobs. In addition, a master's degree coupled with State certification usually qualifies one for teaching jobs in high schools or at 2-year colleges.

A Professional Science Master's (PSM) is an reasonably new (about a decade old) graduate degree designed to allow students to pursue advanced training in science or mathematics, while simultaneously developing workplace skills highly valued by employers. PSM programs in the fields of physics consist of two years of academic training in an emerging or interdisciplinary area, along with a professional component that may include internships and "cross-training" in workplace skills, such as business, communications, and regulatory affairs.

Those with bachelor's degrees in physics are rarely qualified to fill positions in research or in teaching at the college level. They are, however, usually qualified to work as technicians or research assistants in engineering-related areas, in software development and other scientific fields, or in setting up computer networks and sophisticated laboratory equipment. Increasingly, some may qualify for applied research jobs in private industry or take on nontraditional physics roles, often in computer science, such as systems analysts or database administrators. Some become science teachers in secondary schools.

Many colleges and universities offer a bachelor's degree in physics. Undergraduate programs provide a broad background in the natural sciences and mathematics. Typical physics courses include electromagnetism, optics, thermodynamics, atomic physics, and quantum mechanics.

Approximately 190 universities offer Ph.D. degrees in physics; more than 60 additional colleges offer a master's as their highest degree in physics. Graduate students usually concentrate in a subfield of physics, such as elementary particles or condensed matter. Many begin studying for their doctorate immediately after receiving their bachelor's degree; a typical Ph.D. program takes about 6 years to complete.

Many physics and astronomy Ph.D. holders begin their careers in a postdoctoral research position, in which they may work with experienced physicists as they continue to learn about their specialties or develop a broader understanding of related areas of research. Initial work may be under the close supervision of senior scientists. As they gain experience, physicists perform increasingly complex tasks and achieve greater independence in their work. Experience, either in academic laboratories or through internships, fellowships, or work-study programs in industry, also is useful. Some employers of research physicists, particularly in the information technology industry, prefer to hire individuals with several years of postdoctoral experience.

University Listings
The American Institute of Physics offers two resources for selecting physics programs at U.S. universities:

Other qualifications
Mathematical ability, problem-solving and analytical skills, an inquisitive mind, imagination, and initiative are important traits for anyone planning a career in physics or astronomy. Prospective physicists who hope to work in industrial laboratories applying physics knowledge to practical problems should broaden their educational background to include courses outside of physics, such as economics, information technology, and business management. Good oral and written communication skills also are important because many physicists work as part of a team, write research papers or proposals, or have contact with clients or customers who do not have a physics background. Certain sensitive research positions with the Federal Government and in fields such as nuclear energy may require applicants to be U.S. citizens and to hold a security clearance. 

Advancement among physicists and astronomers usually takes the form of greater independence in their work, larger budgets, or tenure in university positions. Others choose to move into managerial positions and become natural science managers. Those who pursue management careers spend more time preparing budgets and schedules. Those who develop new products or processes sometimes form their own companies or join new firms to develop these ideas.

Undergraduate Research
How important is experience in undergraduate research?  Undergraduate research experiences are very valuable for several reasons. They are an opportunity for you to assess whether this is a direction that you will find intellectually challenging and exciting. Undergraduate research provides you with an opportunity to apply the knowledge that you have learned in courses to solving real problems. It provides you with the experience of working in a team environment. Finally, your undergraduate research will show future employers what you can do.

Note: Some resources in this section are provided by the  American Institute of Physics and the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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