What Can You do With a Physics Degree?
If it weren’t for physicists, the modern world would be a very different place. The study of physics has brought underlies so many pivotal discoveries of the 20th century – including the laser, TV, radio, computer technology, DNA and nuclear weapons for instance – and has played a vital role in the development of quantum theory, the theory of relativity, the big bang theory, and the splitting of the atom.
While this may sound like physics degrees are only for direct descendants of Einstein, you don’t actually need to be a certified genius in order to study physics and make a contribution to the field. You just need a very strong head for numbers, a good grasp of scientific principles and a keen interest in discoveries relating to the physical world, at particle and/or cosmic level. Read on for an overview of where your physics degree could take you, and read our complete guide on how to get a job after university for more advice.
So, what can you do with a physics degree?
One possibly appealing aspect of studying physics is the diversity of physics careers, which are not set in any one direction. Physics graduates have skills that are in high demand in diverse sectors. These include skills relating to numeracy, problem-solving, data analysis and the communication of complex ideas, as well as a wider understanding of how the world works, on a scientific and human level.
This highly transferable and valued skillset also means physics graduates earn more! According to the Institute of Physics (IOP), while the average graduate starting salary in the UK is UK£19,700 (approx. US$29,270), those with a BSc in Physics earn 14% more (£22,500, approx. $33,410), and this increases to 18% more (£23,300; $34,600) for those with a Master of Physics (MPhys).
Typical careers in physics
Whether you want to explore space, time, matter or the many other intriguing elements of the physical world, a physics degree can do wonders for your career path. While many physics graduates go on to work within research roles, these are spread across many different industries – including education, automotive and aerospace industries, defense, the public sector, healthcare, energy, materials, technology, computing and IT.
See below for some answers to the question ‘what can you do with a physics degree?’…
Research scientist careers
Although it is possible to enter into scientific research as a trainee or technician with a good undergraduate degree, those looking to pursue long-term careers in research should consider further study, as senior research roles are often reserved for those with at least a master’s degree. As well as the MSc, MPhys and PhD qualifications, leading researchers can also gain the title of ‘Chartered Physicist’ (CPhys) from the Institute of Physics (IOP).
The main reason to study physics at graduate level is to help you gain more in-depth, specialized knowledge, to prepare you to work effectively in a specific field. Potential areas of specialization include astrophysics, particle physics, biotechnology, nanotechnology, meteorology, condensed matter theory, quantum dynamics, applied physics, plasma physics, aerospace dynamics, atomic and laser physics, atmospheric, oceanic and planetary physics and climate science.
Physics careers in space and astronomy
Everyone wants to be an astronaut where they’re young, but if you study physics you may actually have a chance! Of course, roles within the space sector are limited and highly competitive, and most do not include any direct involvement in space travel. For administrative and trainee roles in this sector, an undergraduate degree may be sufficient, but for higher-level and more specialized roles, you’ll almost certainly need at least a master’s degree.
As well as research institutes, within both the public and private sectors, other organizations offering roles related to space and astronomy include museums and planetariums. Many professional astronomers can also be found conducting research and teaching within universities and colleges, or research labs and observatories with affiliations to academic institutions.
As an astronomer, your job would essentially be to study the universe, collecting data from global satellites and spacecraft and operating radio and optical telescopes. Other tasks within this sector include investigation and research of new materials and technologies, measuring performance of existing materials and technologies, and problem-solving at the design stage.
Physics careers in healthcare
Although it may not be the first industry you think of, physics careers in the healthcare sector are numerous. Medical physics overlaps significantly with biomedical engineering, and physicists work alongside biomedical engineers to create, review and maintain medical technologies and equipment. Although cardiology and neurology are areas reserved for those with an additional medical degree, physicists are regularly employed within areas such as radiology, radiation oncology and nuclear medicine, in order to test and approve the latest technologies and equipment. As well as testing, responsibilities in this area include research, design and quality assurance.
Research-based roles in this field are available within medical technology companies, healthcare providers, research centers and academic institutions. Knowledge of accelerator physics, radiation detection and materials science is valuable for many of these roles, and a master’s degree in a relevant specialization (e.g. medical physics) will also give you a leg up into the industry.
Physics careers in engineering
The engineering sector provides many careers in physics, particularly within manufacturing and technology-based roles. Physics graduates are often tasked with improving and developing products and manufacturing processes, and benefit from a large range of potential employers spanning multiple industries such as medicine, energy, renewable energy, transport, defense, space exploration and telecommunications. Find out more about engineering careers and specializations with our guides, here.
Physics careers in energy
Whether we’re talking about renewable or non-renewable energy, there are plenty of careers in physics within the energy sector. Alongside the rise of renewable energy, oil and gas companies remain big players in the energy market, and are major employers for physics graduates. One area of focus is on extracting fossil fuel reserves in the most efficient way possible, using knowledge of the Earth’s characteristics and the newest technologies. With the prospect of fossil fuels running out, energy companies are also branching out into renewable alternatives such as wind and solar energy, and are investing heavily in research and development in this area, offering much career potential. Your role here could be to collaborate with other scientists and engineers to develop efficient and functional energy systems which harness the Earth’s energy sustainably and cost-effectively.
Physics careers in technology
A broad arena of continual growth and innovation, the technology sector is a constant source of new opportunities, challenges and career paths. For physics graduates, there is scope to work alongside other specialists in order to develop new ideas and products. Fields with particularly high demand for research and development workers from various backgrounds include relatively young and potential-rich fields such as robotics, nanoscience and nanotechnology.
Technology careers in physics may be based in public or private-sector research centers. Many opportunities for graduates are available within large technology companies such as Philips or Siemens, as these businesses are keen to attract innovative and talented researchers from around the world. Find out more about careers in new technologies here.
Geophysics and meteorology careers
Those who study physics are also prime candidates for environmental careers, thanks to their scientific understanding of the ways in which the Earth functions. While geophysicists are more concerned with the prediction of natural disasters, meteorologists focus on areas such as daily weather forecasting, as well as researching the long-term effects of climate change.
And finally, what can you do with a physics degree if none of the options above appeals to you? Well, you could use your mathematical proficiency to enter into the financial world, or your knowledge of technological innovation to head into a relevant field of the legal sector (such as patent law or forensics). Media and entertainment are two more potential industries, where physicists are in demand for roles such as scientific journalism, computer game programming and film special effects. Other options include roles in teaching, manufacturing, transport, architecture and communications.
“What Can You Do With a Physics Degree?” is part of our “What Can You Do With…” series. So far, we’ve also covered art, biology, business, communications, computer science, English, engineering, fashion, history, geography, law, marketing, mathematics, performing arts, philosophy, politics, psychology, sociology, chemistry, and economics.
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This article was originally published in April 2015 . It was last updated in January 2020