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Physical Science Degree Program Information

The field of physical science offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Within the field, students can specialize in a particular area, such as geology, chemistry and physics.

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Essential Information

Associate's, bachelor's degrees and master's degrees programs are available in the physical sciences. At the associate's degree level students can pursue a general physical science degree. These 2-year programs prepare them for transfer to a 4-year bachelor's degree program. The bachelor's can be followed by a 2-year master's degree program, if desired.

At these advanced degree levels, schools typically offer programs in a specific field of the physical sciences. Jobs for those with a degree in physical science vary from teacher and technician to engineer and scientist. In general, the minimum suggested education for work in the physical science field is a bachelor's degree.


Associate's Degree in Physical Sciences

Associate's degree programs in the physical sciences cover a range of fields, including chemistry, geography, geology, hydrology and physics. In addition to the physical sciences, an associate's degree program in this area provides a foundation in mathematics and life sciences. Students gain theoretical knowledge and laboratory skills beneficial for an entry-level career in the physical sciences and for continued study. Topics of study include:

  • General chemistry
  • Physical geography
  • Geology
  • General astronomy
  • Physics

Bachelor of Science in Geology

Geology majors study the earth and its solid, liquid and gas components. Programs in geology usually combine classroom work with practical field study. In addition to geology topics, programs often include coursework in the social sciences, geography and history. Geology courses might include:

  • Earth system science
  • Earth materials
  • Geochemistry
  • Stratigraphy and sedimentology
  • Geophysics and tectonics

Bachelor of Science in Chemistry

Undergraduate degrees in chemistry focus on the study of physical substances and prepare students for entry-level careers or, more commonly, for continued graduate study. Programs can be rigorous and require a great deal of work in math and physics. Bachelor's programs cover inorganic, analytical, organic and physical chemistry in addition to biochemistry. Students participate in classroom study and laboratory coursework. Courses might include:

  • Organic chemistry
  • Analytical chemistry
  • Physical chemistry
  • Physical analysis
  • Inorganic chemistry

Bachelor of Science in Physics

Some physics degree programs at the bachelor's level are designed with a specific focus, while others provide more general, foundational knowledge. Physics majors prepare for careers in research and development, for further academic study or for applied careers in fields such as computer science, education, law, technical sales, medicine or technical journalism. Students take a combination of classroom and lab courses on their path to earning a bachelor's degree in physics. Topics of study include:

  • Computational physics
  • Theoretical physics
  • Mechanics and vibrations
  • Magnetism and electricity
  • Quantum physics

Master of Science in Geology

Master's degree programs in geology provide an in-depth study of the geosciences that builds upon undergraduate study. Although a bachelor's degree in geology is the preferred prerequisite degree, graduates with experience in other physical sciences, life sciences or engineering may be considered for admission. Graduate-level geology students participate in research and field study and may pursue an area of specialty, such as petrology, hydrology or paleoclimatology. A master's degree is usually the preferred level of education for geosciences employees working with private industry, federal and state agencies. Students complete extensive research work in addition to classroom study; they are also responsible for completing a thesis project. Courses might include:

  • Oceanography
  • Economic geology
  • Geology of earthquakes
  • Hydrogeology
  • Geographic information systems

Master's Degree in Chemistry

A master's degree program for chemistry is usually a research-based and offers focus areas such as biochemistry, inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, materials chemistry, physical chemistry, industrial chemistry or polymer science. Students may choose thesis or non-thesis programs. Master's degree programs in chemistry are often flexible and allow participants to create a curriculum that matches their desired focus area. Students are required to participate in lab work and seminars. Courses might cover:

  • Polymer science
  • Macromolecules
  • Structural analysis
  • Organic reactions
  • Physical chemistry

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Master of Science in Physics

Master's degree programs in physics are geared towards students interested in research-oriented careers. Enrollees must hold a bachelor's degree, preferably in an area of the physical sciences. Many graduate programs are designed only for students intending to pursue a Ph.D. Students can opt to take programs with or without a thesis requirement. A master-level in this field curriculum builds upon an undergraduate foundation in physics. Students may choose elective courses in an area of interest on top of core course offerings, which may address such topics as:

  • Electromagnetic theory
  • Advanced quantum mechanics
  • Theory of relativity
  • Nuclear physics
  • Solid state physics

Popular Career Options

A bachelor's degree in geology prepares graduates for a variety of careers, such as conducting research or consulting with government agencies, environmental groups or private industries. Careers include geoscientist, mining engineer, petroleum engineer, science technician, meteorologist, geology teacher. A bachelor's in geology helps students prepare for careers in the geosciences, and may go on to work in fields such as water resources, environmentalism, natural resource preservation, petroleum and mining.

Although a graduate-level education is needed for many positions in this field, a bachelor-level chemistry degree is an important stepping-stone for a variety of careers in research, development and education. Job titles for graduates might include chemist, materials scientist, secondary school teacher, forensic scientist, pharmacist. While many undergraduate physics students go on to graduate study, a bachelor's degree in physics may be sufficient for some careers. Career options include physics teacher, physicist, astronomer.

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

Employment of physicists is expected to grow 8% during the 2014-2024 time period. Those with a master's degree should see an increasing number of opportunities, especially in areas of applied research and development and product design. Median annual wages for physicists were $111,580 as of May 2015.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov) expects a 10% growth for geoscientists during the period from 2014-2024. Most of this growth is due to the need for better environmental and resource management. In 2015, geoscientists earned a median annual wage of $89,700, according to the BLS.

Employment growth for chemists and materials scientists is expected to grow 3% from 2014-2024, according to the BLS. Prospects may be best in small, specialized research and development firms because chemical companies are increasingly outsourcing research and development to these firms. In 2015, the median annual wage for chemists was $71,260, while materials scientists earned $91,000 annually.

Continuing Education

While a master's degree might be sufficient for jobs in applied research and development, most research positions dealing with physics and astronomy call for a Ph.D., according to the BLS. Master's degree programs are developed for those who intend to ultimately complete a Ph.D. in Physics.

For students interested in pursuing a career in one of the many fields of physical sciences, associate's, bachelor's and master's degree programs are available. Depending on the program level, specialization of field is sometimes required.

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