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Physical Science Professions: Education Requirements & Career Info

Degree programs in physical science cover inorganic, or nonliving, parts of the natural world. Find out about the requirements of these programs, and learn about career options, job growth and salary info for physical science graduates.

All physical sciences are rigorous academically and often require a Ph.D. for cutting edge research. Salaries are usually strong, but it's important to consider job growth rates that can vary significantly between fields and specializations.

Essential Information

Education requirements vary for physical science professions, depending on the job and field. There are degree programs that award bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in most physical science areas, such as physics, chemistry, astronomy or earth science. Degrees in these subjects can qualify graduates for many jobs within their field of study and in other science-related careers.

Career Physicist Chemist Astronomer Geoscientist
Required Education Ph.D. for most jobs Minimum of a bachelor's degree; research jobs require graduate degrees Ph.D. for most jobs Bachelor's degree
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)* 8% 3% 3% 10% for geoscientists, except geographers and hydrologists
Median Annual Salary (2015)* $111,580 $71,260 $104,100 $89,700

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Career Options

As a whole, the physical sciences concern themselves with the properties and behavior of energy and inanimate matter. These areas are distinguished from the biological and life sciences, which deal primarily with living organisms. The most prominent physical sciences are physics, chemistry, astronomy and geoscience.

Physicist

Physics courses in bachelor's degree programs include a wide variety of subjects, both in the general principles of physics and in specific scientific elements. Studies of fundamental, modern and experimental physics form the backbone of the curriculum, along with courses in thermodynamics, classical and quantum mechanics, electromagnetism and optics. Students must also complete a rigorous mathematics curriculum that includes differential equations and advanced calculus.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), degrees in physics can launch careers in areas such as environmental science, computer science and mathematics. Those who meet state certification requirements could also become secondary school physics teachers, however most other jobs typically require a Ph.D. (www.bls.gov). The BLS also projects a job growth rate of 8% for physicists from 2014-2024. Physicists' median annual salary was $111,580, as of May 2015.

Chemist

Undergraduate chemistry students focus on the various types of chemistry, including organic, inorganic, analytical and biophysical. Biology is also frequently included in chemistry programs, as are basic physics and calculus. Other common courses include quantitative analysis, instrumental analysis, biochemistry and forensic investigation. Graduates of chemistry bachelor's degree programs may find work as chemical technicians or teachers. Sales and marketing positions in the chemistry field may also be available. A Ph.D. is typically required for work in research and for teaching at a university. Chemists are projected to experience slow job growth - a rate of just 3% - between 2014 and 2024, according to the BLS. As of May 2015, these scientists' median annual salary was $71,260.

Astronomer

Astronomy students participate in general and introductory astronomy courses in addition to those that delve into specific subjects. These may include planetary science, the history of astronomy, stellar astronomy and astrophysics.

The BLS reported that astronomers have below average job prospects, with projected growth at 3% from 2014-2024. Federal budgets can have an impact on the number of jobs available. Many of those with an astronomy bachelor's or master's degree enter fields such as computer science or engineering, where their analytical skills are useful. Some may also find jobs at planetariums or working with sophisticated instruments, but a Ph.D. is usually necessary to work in research or academia. BLS salary data from May 2015 showed a median annual salary of $104,100 for astronomers.

Geoscientist

Incorporating geography, geology and ecology, geoscientists study earth science, which involves learning about inorganic elements and relationships of the planet. Oceanography, mineralogy, geomorphology and soil science are just a few of the many subjects that students learn about when engaging in these programs. Those with a bachelor's degree in earth science can often qualify for entry-level positions working to protect and restore the environment, but a master's degree may be required by many companies, reported the BLS. Careers in research and academia usually require a Ph.D. Geoscientists, according to the BLS, are expected to see a 10% increase in jobs from 2014-2024. According to 2015 BLS data, these scientists' median salary was $89,700.

The physical sciences, such as chemistry, astronomy, geoscience or physics, are typically quantitative, dealing with concrete facts and discoveries. Graduate degrees are the norm to pursue most professions, but some may call for just a bachelor's degree. Job growth rates and salaries vary, depending on the occupation.

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