Best universities for physics, chemistry and maths degrees 2018

Find the best universities for physics, chemistry and maths using Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings data

November 27 2017
chemist, chemistry, science, research

The study of physical science covers a number of science degrees, including mathematics, chemistry and earth science, in addition to the obvious – physics and astronomy.

The best universities for studying physics, maths, chemistry and related subjects feature in a 2018 Times Higher Education ranking of 500 universities.

American universities take 115 places in the ranking and feature predominantly in the top 10. 

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Only two institutions in the top 10 are not in the US: the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, and ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, in Switzerland.

Switzerland, home to the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern), the largest particle physics laboratory in the world, is well represented in the ranking, with nine institutions overall. Other countries that are well represented are the UK (50 universities), Germany (37) and Australia (23).

The ranking uses the same methodology as the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2018 but with adjusted weightings; more weight is given to citations and less to teaching and research. The full methodology can be found here. 

Scroll down for a full list of degrees covered by the ranking and what you can do with them. 

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Top five universities for physics, chemistry and maths

1. Princeton University

The physics department at Princeton University aims to impart knowledge of the physical universe and train students how to think like a physicist – encompassing intuition, the scientific method, approximation and problem-solving skills.

Programmes on offer include engineering physics, biophysics, computational biology and other more traditional physics courses.

In the department of chemistry, undergraduates are taught in small classes and progress to an independent senior thesis project. Students receive direct attention from faculty members throughout their course.

About 1,400 undergraduates enrol in a mathematics class every year at Princeton, learning the basics of mathematical proof, calculus and number theory before progressing on to more complex subjects.

Graduate studies in mathematics focus on independent research from the beginning of the programme, unlike many other doctoral courses in America.

2. Harvard University

About 50 physics majors graduate from Harvard University every year, not counting related degrees such as chemistry and mathematics.

Undergraduates can take advantage of a flexible course structure. Compared with other science majors, the physics course has few compulsory classes. Many students therefore choose to combine a physics major with maths, astronomy, history of science or chemistry.

Even at undergraduate level, students can carry out research projects independently and work as teaching assistants in some classes.

There is an active social and support community that organises buddies for new students, recreational events and extracurricular lectures in which students have the chance to interact informally with faculty.

For graduate students, the primary areas of research at Harvard are high-energy particle physics, atomic and molecular physics, physics of solids and fluids, astrophysics, nuclear physics, statistical mechanics, quantum optics, mathematical physics, quantum field theory, string theory and relativity.

3. Stanford University

Approximately half of all undergraduates at Stanford take at least one physics course as part of their studies.

These courses serve as essential training for science and engineering majors. The department offers introductory courses aimed at non-technical majors in addition to highly specialised classes.

Studying chemistry at Stanford University is also popular, with a specific track for chemical physics for those students with a strong physics and maths background.

Students can major or minor in maths and have the opportunity to participate in an annual maths contest with cash prizes for excellent scores and for outstanding performances by women.

There are many streams for graduates studying physical sciences, from applied physics to biophysical chemistry. PhD programmes take about six years to complete.

4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In the past few years, MIT has produced the largest number of physics graduates of any university in the US.

The physics department is accordingly fairly large, with about 75 faculty members and almost 300 undergraduates and 300 graduate students.

Since 1998, four alumni of MIT physics programmes have won Nobel prizes for their work.

Freshman physics courses are taught using an educational initiative known as “technology enabled active learning”.

All undergraduates take maths classes as part of their degree and many choose to major or minor in the subject.

Doctoral studies at MIT lead to a doctor of philosophy or doctor of science degree, although these are equivalent in terms of degree status.

Mathematics graduate students are admitted to applied or pure maths degrees, and applied maths students are encouraged to take classes in other departments, such as engineering.

5. University of Cambridge

The University of Cambridge has a long and distinguished history of training and research in physical sciences. Famous names including Newton, Maxwell, Rutherford and, more recently, Stephen Hawking, have all been associated with the university.

Undergraduates must apply for a specific degree course, unlike at US universities, where majors are declared after the first year of study.

The natural sciences course covers most biological and physical science subjects, allowing specialisation from the second year on in physics, chemistry, biology, earth sciences and other specific disciplines.

Maths is a separate degree course, often considered one of the most demanding programmes. Maths students are nicknamed “mathmos” and undertake the course in three parts, progressing from set theory to quantum mechanics.

For most physical sciences graduate students, the famous Cavendish Laboratory is a centre for physics research and takes in about 75 each year. Postgraduate programmes include physics doctorates and master’s degrees in scientific computing, nanoscience and computational methods. 

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Best universities for physics, chemistry and maths degrees 2018

Click each institution to view its THE World University Rankings 2018 profile

Physical sciences rank 2018 University Country
1 Princeton University United States
2 Harvard University United States
3 Stanford University United States
4 Massachusetts Institute of Technology United States
5 University of Cambridge United Kingdom
6 University of Oxford United Kingdom
7 California Institute of Technology United States
8 ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich Switzerland
9 Imperial College London United Kingdom
10 University of Chicago United States
11 University of California, Los Angeles United States
12 University of California, Berkeley United States
13 Cornell University United States
14 Columbia University United States
15 École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne Switzerland
16 National University of Singapore Singapore
17 Peking University China
18 University of Washington United States
19 University of Michigan United States
20 University of California, Santa Barbara United States
21 University of Edinburgh United Kingdom
22 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign United States
23 UCL United Kingdom
24 Tsinghua University China
25 University of Wisconsin-Madison United States
=26 LMU Munich Germany
=26 Northwestern University United States
28 Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris France
29 University of Toronto Canada
30 Technical University of Munich Germany
31 Australian National University Australia
32 Heidelberg University Germany
33 University of Colorado Boulder United States
34 University of Texas at Austin United States
35 University of California, San Diego United States
=36 École Polytechnique France
=36 University of Tokyo Japan
38 Georgia Institute of Technology United States
39 University of Maryland, College Park United States
40 Pierre and Marie Curie University France
41 University of Manchester United Kingdom
42 Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Singapore
43 Rice University United States
=44 University of Bristol United Kingdom
=44 Carnegie Mellon University United States
46 University of Hong Kong Hong Kong
47 Delft University of Technology Netherlands
=48 Brown University United States
=48 University of California, Davis United States
=48 Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology Russian Federation
=48 Utrecht University Netherlands
=52 University of British Columbia Canada
=52 Humboldt University of Berlin Germany
=52 University of Melbourne Australia
55 Pennsylvania State University United States
56 University of Bonn Germany
57 Chinese University of Hong Kong Hong Kong
58 McGill University Canada
59 RWTH Aachen University Germany
60 Lund University Sweden
61 Karlsruhe Institute of Technology Germany
=62 University of Arizona United States
=62 Kyoto University Japan
64 Fudan University China
65 Technical University of Berlin Germany
=66 University of Science and Technology of China China
=66 Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Hong Kong
=66 Wageningen University & Research Netherlands
69 University of Minnesota United States
=70 University of Göttingen Germany
=70 Leiden University Netherlands
72 Uppsala University Sweden
=73 Durham University United Kingdom
=73 University of Zurich Switzerland
75 Colorado School of Mines United States
76 Michigan State University United States
77 University of California, Santa Cruz United States
78 Boston University United States
=79 University of California, Irvine United States
=79 University of Southampton United Kingdom
81 Stockholm University Sweden
82 Nanjing University China
83 University of Hawai’i at Mānoa United States
=84 KU Leuven Belgium
=84 Ohio State University United States
86 University of Bern Switzerland
87 École Normale Supérieure de Lyon France
88 University of Helsinki Finland
=89 National Research Nuclear University MEPhI Russian Federation
=89 Paris Diderot University – Paris 7 France
91 Paris-Sud University France
92 Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) South Korea
93 University of Queensland Australia
94 University of Copenhagen Denmark
95 University of Reading United Kingdom
96 University of Warwick United Kingdom
97 University of Sydney Australia
98 University of Geneva Switzerland
99 University of Freiburg Germany
100 University of New South Wales Australia

Click here to view all top 500 universities for physics, chemistry and maths degrees

What can you do with a physical science degree?

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Read more: the most detailed subject guide you will ever see to help you pick your degree

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