What can you do with a physics degree?

Why study a physics degree? Our essential guide to what you will learn on a physics course, what you should study to get your place on a degree, and what jobs you can get once you graduate

December 5 2016

What is physics?

In its essence, physics is a study of the mechanics and fundamental constituents of the universe, of matter and energy, which ranges from the fundamental particles inside atoms to the theory of alternate worlds.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a subject that has seen greater development since the beginning of the twentieth century. Pivotal moments range from Einstein developing the theory of relativity in 1905 to scientists at CERN tentatively confirming the existence of the Higgs Boson in 2013. Developments in the field are closely linked to work in computer science, engineering and mathematics.

Those looking to study physics will need an inquisitive mind, a natural aptitude for mathematics and a keen eye for detail. The days of Einstein the patent clerk scribbling theorems have been replaced by a computerised world, thanks in no small part to the developments of physics, and the technological literacy that is another key attribute of a modern physicist.

What do you learn on a physics degree?

Physics can be a difficult subject to master, and the first year of an undergraduate course can be an especially steep learning curve.

For this reason students will usually have extensive examinations in the first year to confirm that they have learned the concepts being taught, for example, the mechanics of particles, as well as partnered practical work in fields such as computing or general physics.

To support this workload, students will often have a high number of contact hours with professors to go over any issues they may be having.

If an upcoming course has a set textbook (a common first year resource is University Physics with Modern Physics with Mastering Physics by HD Young and RA Freedman), making extensive notes on the relevant chapter before the lesson may save time and stress further down the road.

In later years more specialisms will become available for students, in courses such as astrophysics and theoretical physics.

Undergraduate courses are typically three years for Bachelor of Science and four years for a Masters in Physics, though this can vary dependent on work placements or a student’s participation in a study abroad programme.

What should I study at high school if I want to study physics?

To state the obvious, a school level qualification in physics with a high grade is the best thing to have under your belt when applying for a university course in the subject.

While this is essential, knowledge of mathematics is equally as important, and prospective students should not overlook the increasingly intertwined roles the two fields play in an undergraduate degree compared to school studies.

High marks in other science subjects such as chemistry and biology will also be looked upon favourably by university admissions tutors.

If your school does not offer further learning opportunities specifically in the field of physics, or you do not feel comfortable enough with the subject to pursue it at degree level on its own, there are other options available.

For instance, an American college system allows for a period of time at college studying various disciplines before deciding on a major, and a strong academic performance in maths and business studies at school level can be a route to reading a course such as Economics and Physics at university.

What do people who study physics do after graduation?

To be at the cutting edge of international research can be a daunting yet fascinating opportunity for physics graduates, many of whom take up positions as research fellows in areas ranging from Aeronautics to Solar Physics.

An undergraduate course in Physics can be a first step in a long yet rewarding journey for students who want to combine learning and research up to a PhD level and beyond.

Original and innovative research can also lead to a ‘Charter of Physics’ recognition from the Institute of Physics.

Physics degrees can also offer the opportunity to gain skills applicable to other subjects and the wider world. A large proportion of physics graduates transfer their technical understanding to information technology and software firms, in roles such as a web developer. There is also the chance to work in the rapidly evolving fields such as robotics and nanotechnology, using intellectual rigour and ‘corkscrew thinking’ to come up with original and significant advancements in the industry.

Perhaps the most adventurous use of the skills learned at a university level came from the students who made up the MIT Blackjack Team: mathematicians and physicists who from 1979 used a formulaic understanding to develop card counting techniques that could reap huge profits from casino tables.

Which famous people studied physics?

One of the most famous physicists in 20th century history is J. Robert Oppenheimer, who studied at Harvard and went on to have a key role in the creation of nuclear weapons.

English theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking studied at both Oxford and Cambridge, and the film The Theory of Everything is based on his life and work.

Business magnate Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, studied Physics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Some celebrities with Physics degrees are Queen guitarist Brian May and comedian Dara Ó Brian.

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