Training programs in theoretical physics are found from the undergraduate to the doctoral levels. Coursework will vary based on the level of education, but some topics of study include thermodynamics, magnetism, string theory and advanced research methods. Much like the coursework, prerequisites vary for each respective degree level.
Bachelor's Degree in Mathematical Physics
Students in bachelor's degree tracks in mathematical physics learn about applied mathematics, classical physics and elementary particles, in order to understand the basic building blocks of the universe. Though lab work is required of students interested in theoretical physics, mathematics physics students also take advanced math courses instead of some laboratory work. Undergraduate physics programs typically take four years to complete and prospective students are not expected to meet any additional prerequisites, other than that they be high school graduates.
Commonly offered courses include:
- Abstract algebra
- Electromagnetic theory
- Quantum mechanics
Master's Degree in Physics
Building on their knowledge of the cosmos, graduate students use observational evidence, experimentation and mathematics to explain apparent anomalies in physical laws and to refine human understanding of the universe's mechanics. Students learn about the interplay among the four fundamental forces--gravity, strong, weak and electromagnetic. Many physics departments have laboratories that allow students to tailor research towards theoretical physics. Master's degree programs typically take two years to complete; applicants are required to have an undergraduate degree in physics or mathematics and have taken at least one year of undergraduate chemistry.
Master's degree programs teach students everything from gauge theory to polymer physics, so that students perceive humanity's understanding of the cosmos as a work in progress. Theoretical physicists work to unite Einstein's theory of general relativity with quantum mechanics. Common course topics include:
- Classical mechanics
- Statistical thermodynamics
- Quantum mechanics
Doctoral Degree in Physics
Theoretical physics Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) students apply their understanding of complex math to anomalies in order to infer the existence of matter from observed effects of known forces. Doctoral degree programs take 5-6 years to complete, including the research and writing of a thesis. Applicants to doctoral level physics programs need to have earned a bachelor's degree in engineering or a physical science.
Doctoral level programs allow students to focus studies on a specific area of interest, like field theory, particle physics or string theory. Core coursework includes:
- Advanced quantum mechanics
- Quantum field theory
- Particle physics
- Statistical physics
- String theory
Popular Career Options
Graduates of bachelor's degree programs are not qualified to conduct independent research as physicists; however, with additional training, bachelor's degree holders in physics are able to teach high school physics. Mathematical physics bachelor's degree holders entering the workforce may be employed in positions such as:
- Computer systems analyst
- Computer programmer
- Computer scientist
- Software engineer
- Systems developer
- Systems engineer
For those with advanced degrees, jobs within the field of physics can be found in scientific research and development companies, colleges and university settings or working for the federal government. Job titles include:
- Accelerator operations physicist
- Applied physicist
- Postdoctoral fellow
- Radiation protection physicist
Employment Outlook and Salary Info
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 20,000 physicists employed across various fields in 2014. The employment of physicists is projected to increase 7% for the years 2014 through 2024 (www.bls.gov). The BLS also reported that, as of 2015, the median annual salary for physicists in general was $110,980.
Aspiring theoretical physicists have the option of bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree programs to choose from depending on their career goals. Usually a master's or doctoral degree is needed in order to do research or for advanced physics-based careers.