While most physics careers require at least a bachelor's degree, associate's degree programs provide students with a background in chemistry, math, engineering and computer science. Graduates can continue their education with a bachelor's degree in physics, which may lead to teacher certification if the student opts for a teacher education track. Students in bachelor's programs do lab work and attend lectures on mathematical and scientific topics, such as magnetism, thermodynamics, computer science and mechanics.
Master's and doctoral programs in physics can prepare students for work as professional scientists, researchers or educators. While master's programs may include research, thesis preparation, internships and projects, doctoral programs usually involve a comprehensive exam, extensive research and a dissertation on a chosen physics topic.
Associate's Degree in Physics
A 2-year physics program prepares students for transfer to bachelor's degree programs. Typical science topics are covered, including atoms, motion, relativity and gravity. The fields of chemistry, astronomy and geology are often introduced at this level. An aptitude for math and science helps. A high school diploma or GED and previous science coursework is required for application.
Most of the associate's degree classes fulfill general education requirements in bachelor degree programs. Computer programming classes may be part of the curriculum, since computers are an integral tool in scientific research and data analysis. Common subjects are:
- Analytical geometry
- C++ or Java programming methods
- Engineering physics
- Linear algebra
- Organic chemistry
Bachelor of Science in Physics
These 4-year undergraduate physics programs open up professional opportunities and provide a foundation for advanced education. Students learn the fundamentals of physical motion and related sciences in addition to the basics of scientific research and analytical skills. Some colleges and universities offer a physics education track that allows students to earn their teacher's certification. Students are encouraged to inquire about the universe and how physics can help solve environmental and technological problems. Applicants must hold a high school diploma or GED and have successfully passed general math and science courses.
Laboratory work and lectures go hand-in-hand, and students may choose areas of concentration to prepare for graduate work in areas like particle physics or astronomy. Class topics include:
- Computer science
- Magnetism and electricity
- Mathematical physics
- Quantum theory introduction
Master of Science in Physics
An advanced physics program is necessary for those intent on becoming professional scientists. Students may choose from several specialties, including health physics and applied physics, within either a teaching or research emphasis. The area of concentration is heavily researched and prepares graduates to work in research labs or as teachers.
The 2-year physics graduate programs require a qualification examination and thesis in order to graduate. A bachelor's degree in a related field and GRE scores are mandatory for application.
The second year of study involves research and thesis preparation. Some physics programs require internships and projects and others offer teaching-assistant positions. General course subjects that may be taken in the first year include:
- Advanced electronics
- Applied optics
- Air pollution
- Linear systems
- Quantum mechanics
Doctorate in Physics
A doctoral physics program involves more research and takes 4-6 years to complete. Graduates are able to design and conduct independent and original research in their chosen area, such as geophysics or astronomy. Students who earn their master's degree in conjunction with their doctorate must pass a comprehensive exam within the first year in order to fully enter the doctoral physics program. Physic doctoral candidates write, edit and research a dissertation on a chosen subject and defend it to their advisory committee. This oral examination takes place at the end of the program.
Applicants must possess a bachelor's field in a related area. GRE scores and letter of intent are mandatory.
Individuals take general classes in addition to courses chosen for their personal interests. Dissertation research makes up last part of the program. Class topics include:
- Atomic physics
- Classical mechanics
- Kinetic theory
- Nuclear physics
- Statistical mechanics
Popular Career Options
Physics programs produce graduates who are good problem-solvers with mathematical and organizational skills that are desirable in the financial, medical and governmental sectors. Possible entry-level opportunities within the physics field are:
- Physics teacher
- Research assistant
- Research technician
A master's degree in physics opens up opportunities for upper-level positions with science labs and research centers. In addition to teaching physics at the community college level, a graduate can go on to become a:
- Software engineer
- Research analyst
- Research scientist
- Laboratory technician
Doctoral physics programs create professional scientists. They are able to conduct their own research and be the head of their own labs. Position titles include:
- Nuclear physicist
- Physics professor
Employment Outlook and Salary Information
There are no entry-level jobs in the physics field for those with associate's degrees only. A bachelor's degree is the minimum degree held by industry professionals, though many physicists hold a graduate degree. Job opportunities for physicists were predicted to grow 8% between 2014 and 2024, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov). In May 2015, the BLS reported that physicists earned a median annual wage of $111,580.
Students interested in teaching physics or conducting professional research in physics may want to consider enrolling in a degree program in physics. Depending of the career objective, these programs are offered at the bachelor's, master's and doctoral level.