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Physics Major Overview

Physics is a fascinating field of study that covers everything from the atoms in our bodies to the stars that fill the night sky. As a physics major, you’ll study the fundamental laws that govern the universe and learn about the properties of matter and energy. In this guide, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about majoring in physics. 

Also read: Top 15 college majors for the future

What is a physics major?

Physics majors learn how the universe works, from the microscopic to the macroscopic level. That means students in this field study everything from the behavior of subatomic particles to the gravitational forces that keep planets in orbit. The ultimate aim of physics is to find a unified set of laws that bring together and explain all these different phenomena. 

Of course, much progress has already been made toward this goal. Students learn about the theories of historical thinkers like Plato, Galileo, and Isaac Newton, along with the work of modern physicists such as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. Throughout their studies, students hone their problem-solving skills and learn to approach complex topics from a variety of perspectives. 

Coursework to expect

Physics majors should expect a heavy dose of math, including coursework in calculus, differential equations, and algebra. Introductory courses cover fundamental topics such as Newton’s laws of motion, kinematics, and rotational motion. In advanced classes, students can explore the different branches of the discipline. Some examples include nuclear and particle physics, astrophysics, atomic physics, biophysics, meteorology, and engineering physics. Some schools offer both Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degree options. 

Below are some potential courses you may encounter as a chemistry major:

  • Foundations of Mechanics
  • Astronomy and Astrophysics 
  • Electricity and Magnetism 
  • Quantum Mechanics 
  • Thermodynamics
  • Vibrations, Waves, and Optics
  • Mathematical Methods for Scientists
  • Ordinary Differential Equations with Linear Algebra
  • Integral Calculus
  • Biological Physics 

Opportunities after graduation 

Job opportunities vary between physics majors. Graduates with a BS in physics may pursue work as software engineers, research scientists, and mechanical engineers. A BA in physics usually leads to science-related jobs in data analysis, education, communications, and management. Some students choose to double major and study engineering or computer science to expand their career possibilities. Other students choose to pursue graduate work in physics or a related field, which we’ll touch on later. 

Jobs you can get with a physics degree

Physics majors can pursue jobs across a variety of fields. The most popular industries include engineering, healthcare, and technology, but graduates can also explore job opportunities in education, meteorology, and business. Below are some popular professions for physics majors, along with median annual salaries according to the 2020 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

1. Natural sciences manager 

Natural sciences managers supervise the work of scientists, including physicists, chemists, and biologists. They direct research activities and coordinate product development projects. They’re employed in a variety of fields, including research and development, manufacturing, government, and consulting. 

2020 Median Pay: $137,940 per year
Projected Growth (2019-2029): 6% (Faster than average)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

2. Physicists and astronomers

Physicists and astronomers conduct experiments to test theories and study the interactions of matter and energy. They typically work in academia and research and are employed by colleges and laboratories. Significant employment growth is expected throughout the coming years. 

2020 Median Pay: $128,950 per year
Projected Growth (2019-2029): 8% (As fast as average)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 

3. Physics college professor

Physics professors teach at four-year colleges and universities. Along with teaching, most professors conduct research and publish academic papers and books. A PhD is typically required to teach physics at the college level. 

2020 Median Pay: $80,560 per year
Projected Growth (2019-2029): 12% (Faster than average)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 

4. Software developer

Software developers design computer applications and programs. They analyze user needs, develop software to meet those needs, and ensure that programs continue to function throughout maintenance and testing. 

2020 Median Pay: $110,140 per year
Projected Growth (2019-2029): 22% (Much faster than average)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 

5. Mechanical engineer 

This line of work involves designing and building a variety of products ranging from batteries to automobiles. Some mechanical engineers design power-producing machines like electric generators and internal combustion engines. Others may design escalators, elevators, refrigerators, and conveyor belt systems.

2020 Median Pay: $90,160 per year
Projected Growth (2019-2029): 7% (As fast as average)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 

6. Clinical laboratory technician

Also known as medical lab scientists, these professionals collect and analyze samples of tissues, fluids, and other bodily substances. Nearly half of lab techs work in hospitals, while others work in laboratories, physicians’ offices, colleges, and outpatient care centers. 

2020 Median Pay: $54,180 per year
Projected Growth (2019-2029): 11% (Faster than average)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Read more: What are the fastest growing careers?

Advanced degrees you can pursue with a physics degree

A bachelor’s degree in physics can also serve as a pathway to an advanced degree. A master’s degree in physics can be completed in two years. A master’s degree can lead to jobs in computer programming, information technology, engineering, aerospace, data analysis, and more. A doctoral degree in physics can be completed in 5-6 years and can lead to management and postsecondary teaching positions. Graduates may also pursue advanced degrees in engineering, computer science, or business. 

How do I know if this major is right for me? 

If you’re considering a major in physics, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Do you enjoy math?
  • Are you curious about how things work, especially in the natural world? 
  • Are you passionate about problem solving? 
  • Do you enjoy lab work and experimentation? 

If you answered yes to most of these questions, then a physics major could be right for you!

Also read: How to pick a major