Physics Majors: Salary and Career Facts

Find out about the types of jobs you could pursue as a physics major. Read on to learn more about career options along with education requirements and salary information. Schools offering Biology degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Physics Major Do?

Physics is a broad field with career possibilities in many areas, such as software development, education and the physical sciences. Career options include software engineers, science teachers, and physicists. Software engineers create applications or computer system software based on the needs of users. This might include databases or specialized tools for a workplace that can calculate expected outcomes in a process. Science teachers introduce students to the wonders of the world around them and help them ask and answer questions about how things work. Physicists use observation and experimentation to gather data about physical phenomena. They also come up with the formulae or laws necessary to hypothetically apply a physical phenomenon to a scenario. The following chart provides an overview of what you need to know about these career opportunities for physics majors.

Software Engineer Middle School Science Teacher Physicist
Degree Required Bachelor's degree Bachelor's degree Ph.D.
Education Field of Study Physics with focus on computer science Elementary education, physics, science Physics, cosmology, astronomy
Key Responsibilities Analyze computer user needs, design applications or systems, test software for optimum function, create reference documentation Lesson planning, student evaluations, communication with parents Research in areas such as medical technology, stars and galaxies, nuclear reactions
Licensure/Certification None State license required; certification requirements vary by state License may be required for sensitive federal government projects
Job Growth (2014-2024) 17% (for all software developers)* 6%* 8%*
Median Salary (2015) $105,570 (for all systems developers)*
$98,260 (for all applications developers)*
$55,860* $111,580*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What Can I Expect From a Physics Major Program?

If you plan to major in physics, you should know that colleges and universities sometimes offer a general physics degree, an applied physics degree, and even an engineering physics degree at the undergraduate level. One is a general degree and can sometimes lead to certification as a physics teacher, and the others are specializations in the field of physics.

In applied physics, you can specialize in acoustics, optics or materials science. You'll study biophysical modeling, fluid dynamics, nuclear science or plasma physics. You'll learn to apply the principles of physics to the real world. Some programs will allow you to specialize further, combining an applied physics program with chemical, civil or computer engineering, just to name a few possibilities.

If you major in engineering physics, you can expect to complete courses and related laboratory sessions in Newtonian physics, electricity and magnetism and study light, sound and nanotechnology. You'll explore quantum mechanics and design and you may choose to further specialize by studying energy systems, renewable energy or electromechanical system design. You can expect to study thermodynamics, material strength and applied quantum mechanics. Some programs may require an internship and most require completion of design projects that explore engineering design and manufacturing processes.

What Jobs Will I Be Prepared For?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that most graduates with bachelor's degrees do not qualify for work in research positions, but many work in other fields, like computer engineering and education (www.bls.gov). With a bachelor's degree in physics, you can work in a variety of fields, including education or software engineering.

As a software engineer in the computer engineering field, you would be responsible for development and design of computer software. You can also work in systems development as well, testing operating system and network software.

You can teach science in schools after completing this major. In middle and high school classrooms, teachers tailor their instruction to specific topics, like science; they help students to understand complex topics and may work in classrooms with students in different grades, according to the BLS. Some of the Bachelor of Science programs assist students with completing the requirements of a teaching certification.

You can also use your bachelor's degree as a basis for further study if you wish. The American Physical Society (APS) reports that a physics major offers suitable preparation for law school, especially for students interested in practicing patent law. (www.aps.org). Graduate-level degree programs in physics may prepare you for work in research and development.

How Much Can I Earn?

The BLS reports that in May 2015, middle school teachers in general earned a median salary of $55,860. High school teachers earned $57,200 in 2015, according to the BLS (www.bls.gov). At the same time, software engineers who developed computer systems took home $105,570, while those who developed applications made $98,260. Physicists overall earned an average annual salary of $111,580.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Astrophysicists, or astronomers, are related to physicists. However, instead of studying the physics of the world around them, they look to the stars for their research. Some, such as cosmologists, look at the universe in its entirety, and try to determine the history of galaxies. Some astronomers have specialties in solar, stellar, planetary or galactic study. When their primary method of research is through optical telescopes, they are called observational astronomers, whereas radio astronomers utilize radio telescopes, which can collect a different type of data.

Interdisciplinary scientists may use physics in their studies. For example, biophysicists analyze the physical principles of biological organisms and their processes. They may study heredity, cell development, growth, and/or diseases.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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