Essentially, physics is the study of the entire universe. From studying stars far beyond earth, to explaining the shape of a water droplet, physics degrees offer students the chance to understand the world around them in all its enormity and complexity.
Great physicists who played a role in identifying the natural laws and theories that underlie modern scientific understandings of the world include Albert Einstein, Galileo Galilei, Erwin Schrodinger, Sir Isaac Newton and Max Planck – and those now choosing to study physics could be among the next generation of revolutionary thinkers in the field.
Although the subject has a bit of a reputation for being detached from everyday applications, physicists in fact play major roles in many key sectors, including many aspects of technology and engineering. Physics jobs could range from developing the use of fibre optics in communications systems to the application of electromagnetic knowledge in developing new industrial technologies.
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What to expect from a physics degree
Alongside practical work and experimentation, physics degrees will also include lots of theoretical learning and complex mathematics – so make sure that’s something you’re prepared for. Physics students will learn about the history of the profession and the physicists who paved the way for our modern understanding of the world. Often this will be accompanied by introductions to various essential principles and laws, which in turn will be divided into a number of more specialized study modules.
Key physics topics include electricity and magnetism, space and time, thermodynamics, quantum physics, relativity, geophysics, fluid dynamics, astronomy and geology, to name but a few. First year studies will focus on the fundamentals of classic and modern physics, plus a whole lot of mathematic formulae. As you progress through your physics degree you will move on to more complex mathematics, as well as more complex modern theorems such as quantum and relativity.
Towards the latter part of your degree, you’ll have more opportunities to choose your own specializations, perhaps with certain types of physics jobs in mind. At the final stage, you’ll most likely be tasked with completing a research project, independently or within a group.
Physics degree entry requirements
To study physics at university, it is likely that you’ll be required to have completed secondary-level qualifications (such as A-levels) in both physics and mathematics. An advanced mathematics qualification (such as ‘further’ or ‘higher’ mathematics) and an additional science, such as chemistry, may also aid your application.
Those who study physics will graduate in three or four years with a Bachelor of Science (BSc). Some universities offer the option to continue studying for an additional one or two years, graduating with a Master of Physics (MPhys) or a Master of Science (MSci). Alternatively a separate master’s program may be applied for after completing the bachelor’s degree.
As well as covering the works of major physicists throughout history, physics degrees will introduce students to contemporary physics topics, providing an overview of how the principles of physics are applied in industries such as medicine, communications and engineering. Physics topics covered may include:
Electricity and magnetism
This module will teach you the laws of electricity and magnetism, as well as how the two relate to each other. You will learn in depth about electrostatics, magnetostatics, steady currents, DC circuits and the principles of electric motors.
Space and time
Part of the philosophy of physics, space and times modules will examine the aspects of modern physics that bear on the world’s current understanding of space and time. You will study special relativity and learn the four-dimensional geometry involved. Thermal and statistical physics is also approached, allowing discussion of thermodynamics and the arrow of time.
This physics topic covers the key laws of thermodynamics – the study of how energy is used and transferred throughout a system – as well as the basics of statistical mechanics, including microstates and entropy.
The study of quantum physics will introduce you to quantum mechanics and aim to develop your knowledge of wave functions, solutions, the Schrodinger equation, and the quantum numbers used for fundamental physical problems.
This module will introduce you to concept of the atomic nucleus, as well as the multiple forms and properties of radioactivity. Radioactive decay and fission are also key areas of focus, helping develop theories to explain events such as the Big Bang.
Here you’ll be introduced to the General Theory of Relativity as well as special relativity, the concept of space-time, black holes, gravity and gravitational waves, and relativity in cosmology and astrophysics. You’ll also get to work with Einstein’s equations.
In basic terms, geophysics seeks to understand Earth in terms of simple physical principles. To do this you will learn principles of magnetism, heat, waves and radioactivity in order to develop an overview of Earth’s structure, the processes it is affected by and the techniques used to observe them.
British science writer Simon Singh once said: “I reckon that physicists can do pretty much anything. Our training can be applied to almost any activity, and it allows us to see things in ways that might not be obvious to others.”
It’s certainly true that physics jobs are incredibly diverse. While many physics students undertake further study in order to be qualified for research-based physics jobs, many also go on to pursue physics jobs in a number of alternative industries, including business, finance, academia and other scientific areas. Even media broadcasting is an option, if you fancy yourself as the next Brian Cox!
Here are some physics jobs you could consider:
Aeronautical or aerospace engineers are the people who design, develop, service and test large airborne creations, such as aircraft, satellites, spacecraft and even weapons systems. Aerospace engineers use their extensive knowledge of scientific and technological principles in order to build and improve components of these systems.
Physics jobs in this sector will involve research and analysis, and will be heavy on data and statistics. Among your duties you may be tasked with improving the safety and efficiency of existing designs, controlling weight and speed and lowering costs. There will likely be an increasing emphasis on reducing the environmental impact of these systems. Specialist areas include avionics, propulsion, aerodynamics, systems integration, materials and structures.
To be an astrophysicist is every space-loving child’s dream. The role of astrophysics, according to NASA, is to “discover how the universe works, explore how it began and evolved, and search for life on planets around other stars.” But although it still sounds as cool now as it ever did, becoming an astrophysicist is highly competitive and challenging.
Careers in astrophysics are available within governmental and transnational space agencies (including NASA) and will involve astrophysical and cosmological data analysis, mission conception and control, and developing astronautical programs. Many astrophysicists are closely involved in academic research, working with leading universities, while some focus on developing technology and systems within smaller or transnational companies. Other astrophysics jobs are available within distribution, management, space policy and law.
As a mechanical engineer, you will specialize in the development and construction of components and machinery used in sectors such as manufacturing, transport, construction, water, power and health. Depending on your industry and the size of the company, you will most likely be involved in a number of different projects. You may carry out research, surveys and assessments, and/or play a role in designing, constructing, maintaining and managing different projects.
Physics jobs within manufacturing could involve designing pumps and valves for water distribution or creating off-shore wind turbines. Related opportunities in healthcare are also varied, and could involve improving the functionality of prosthetic implants for humans or developing more efficient and longer-lasting medical equipment.
Otherwise known as a field seismologist, the role of a geophysicist is to study the physical elements of the Earth and to collect information about earthquakes and seismic waves using highly advanced technology. Duties will include tracking and controlling quality data before interpreting it into hydrocarbon maps and data models. Geophysics jobs are often found within oil companies, consultancies and environmental consultancies.
Medical physicists apply their technical knowledge of physics to the practice of medicine in order to help with the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of various diseases, illnesses and health conditions. This is done through the development, testing and evaluation of specialist medical equipment and medical procedures. Areas of specialization for medical physicists include laser technology, radiotherapy, nuclear medicine and physiological monitoring. Medical physicists are often employed within public or private health services, external medical equipment manufacturers, regulatory authorities, research organizations and universities.
Scientific laboratory technicians work on numerous laboratory-based investigations with the aim of developing public knowledge in different areas of biological, chemical, life and physical sciences in order to advance modern medicine and science. This role will involve activities such as measuring, sampling, testing, recording and analyzing results, often within a team environment. Laboratory technicians are particularly important during the early stages of research and development (R&D) and are typically employed within governmental bodies, research organizations and industry R&D teams.
Other careers with a physics degree
Alternative careers for physics degree graduates include software development, medical technology, manufacturing and media. Roles in business and finance are also a major option for physics degree graduates, due to the high levels of numeracy and data analysis needed to study physics.
Other specialized physics jobs include careers in science journalism, ice science, coastal science, architecture, pyrotechnics, sound engineering, solar and renewable energy, radar and laser fusion and computer games design.