Physical Science Degrees
Physical science is the study of earth's natural processes and phenomena. Many disciplines fall within the physical science umbrella, including earth, atmospheric and environmental sciences. For more information about education and employment options for physical scientists, read on.
What Is a Physical Science Degree?
Physical science refers to multiple branches of science that examine the inorganic natural world. Physical science includes areas like physics, astronomy, chemistry, and Earth science, as well as the wide range of subfields within these fields. Students earn a physical science degree at the undergraduate or graduate level, and students in many different areas of study may need to take various physical science courses to complete degree requirements. Some commonly required physical science classes may include physics and chemistry.
A physical science degree can help prepare students to work in a variety of industries. Due to the scientific nature of the field, many positions in the physical sciences require students to have higher education in the field, but the level of education tends to vary by position and specific area of physical science. For example, students who study chemistry can find positions that require an associate, bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree in the field, while most professional physicists and astronomers need to have a doctoral degree.
Associate Degrees in the Physical Sciences
Associate degree programs in the physical sciences most commonly result in an Associate of Science degree (AS), but there are some programs that offer Associate of Arts degrees (AA) as well. Typically, careers in the physical sciences require a minimum of a bachelor's degree, and therefore, associate degrees in the physical sciences are usually used to meet lower division requirements for an advanced degree in the field. Students with the degree may still pursue entry-level careers in their given area of focus, like careers as chemical or environmental science technicians.
Associate of Science degrees typically take 2 years to complete and require around 60 credits. Although coursework varies by discipline and institution, students in associate degree programs may take introductory courses in areas like:
- General Physics- Students in these courses use calculus and other mathematical models to explore foundational concepts in physics, such as magnetic fields and electrostatic forces.
- Stars and Galaxies- Students get to observe stars and learn about gravity and light and how these affect the structures of stars, galaxies, and the universe.
- Principles of Chemistry- These courses provide an overview of foundational concepts in chemistry, such as periodic relations, gas laws, and stoichiometry.
- Geology- Students examine natural resources, minerals, and other structures of our planet, as well as natural processes, like earthquakes, that affect structures.
Bachelor's Degrees in the Physical Sciences
Bachelor's degree programs in the physical sciences typically award students with a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree, but Bachelor of Arts (BA) degrees are also available. What can you do with a Bachelor of Science? These bachelor's degree programs usually help prepare students for entry-level research or lab positions in their chosen field, but the types of positions vary by field. For example, students with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry may work as a chemist or materials scientist, but students with a Bachelor of Science in Physics may only work as a technician or assistant.
Traditionally, bachelor's degree programs take 4 years to finish, but students may take between 4 to 6 years. These programs generally require around 120 credits and may include a mandatory culminating experience. Below are some courses students pursuing a bachelor's degree in the physical sciences may need to take.
- Mechanics- General courses in mechanics provide an overview of different concepts, such as particle dynamics, central forces, and rigid body motion.
- Thermal Physics- These courses discuss the laws of thermodynamics and may examine the statistical methods applied to thermodynamic analysis.
- Observational Astronomy- Students gain hands-on experience using astronomical tools to practice the methods and techniques used to observe celestial bodies.
- Stellar Astrophysics- These courses may include a lab that allows students to obtain data from stars and study stars' structures and other physical concepts used to describe stars.
- Analytical Chemistry- Courses and labs in analytical chemistry study the quantitative measurements used to describe chemical systems and practice techniques in spectrophotometry, chromatography, and more.
- Physical Chemistry- Courses and labs in physical chemistry study topics in thermodynamics, gases, and properties of solutions.
- Earth History- Students may explore the concepts of geologic time and how to use the rock record to understand the planet's evolution over time.
- Oceanography- These courses focus on the processes and systems that occur in the ocean and how the ocean interacts with the atmosphere over time.
Master's Degrees in the Physical Sciences
Master's programs in the physical sciences are usually offered as a Master of Science degrees (MS), but some may award Master of Arts degrees (MA). Typically, students pursue a master's degree in a specific discipline, such as an MS in Physics or Chemistry, but more general MS in Physical Sciences or Applied Physical Science are also available. Students may even have the option to pair two physical science areas together, such as an MS in Astrophysics and Astronomy, or pair an area of physical science with an outside discipline, like an MS in Chemical Biology. Graduates with their master's may take on more advanced research positions in their fields.
Many master's programs in the physical sciences require around 30 credits and may be completed in 2 years or less. Depending on the program, students may be able to choose from a thesis or non-thesis/project option and take one or more of the courses described here.
- Electrodynamics- Students explore concepts in energy momentum, conservation laws, polarization, and more.
- Quantum Mechanics- These courses discuss approximation methods, wave equations, and the matrix formulation of the field.
- Cosmology- Students study various aspects of the universe, including galaxies, matter, and cosmic background fluctuations.
- High Energy Astrophysics- These courses examine the theories of high energy phenomena in the universe, like black holes and neutron stars.
- Inorganic Chemistry- Students may study acids and bases, bonds, transition metal chemistry, inorganic molecules, and more.
- Organic Chemistry- Courses focus on organic molecule structures, organic reactions, biochemical mechanisms, and more.
- Geologic Mapping- Students learn to convert field observations and structural analysis into geologic maps.
- Hydrogeology- These courses focus on groundwater and surface water and how these affect the environment.
PhD and Doctorate Degrees in the Physical Sciences
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree programs in the physical sciences tend to be even more specialized and focused than bachelor's or master's degree programs. Students may earn a PhD in a particular field of physical science with a specialization in a specific subfield, such as a PhD in Physics with a concentration in biophysics or nuclear and particle physics or a PhD in Chemistry with a concentration in radiochemistry. At the doctoral level, students may even be able to pursue interdisciplinary degrees that combine multiple areas of science, such as a PhD in Earth and Environmental Sciences or an interdisciplinary PhD in Physics where students can choose to study subjects like biological physics or nuclear chemistry. Students may choose to earn a PhD in a physical science to qualify for independent research and/or leadership positions in their area of expertise. Graduates may also go on to work in academia and teach the next generation of students in their field.
Although it varies by program, institution, and research factors, students can usually complete a PhD in physical science in 4 to 6 years. The total number of credits also varies by program, and individual degree pathways determined by dissertation committees, but usually these degrees require 60 or more credits. Students in these programs may take some core courses and electives but are usually required to complete a dissertation and qualifying exams and may have additional responsibilities, such as teaching.
The 50 Best Physical Science Degrees (2020-2021 School Year)
Students wanting to study a physical science field have lots of options for earning an undergraduate or graduate degree in such fields as chemistry, astronomy, physics, environmental science, and geology. To aid in your search for the right school and degree, we've compiled this list of the top schools with physical science programs. Our list takes into consideration factors such as total tuition cost, student graduation statistics, student retention numbers, and other data points from the US Department of Education. We also explored unique program features, such as internship opportunities within the physical science fields, labs and facilities available to students, physical science clubs students can join, and opportunities for students to conduct research with faculty and on their own.
1. California Institute of Technology
Taking the top spot on our list is the California Institute of Technology, where students enjoy a tiny 3:1 student-to-faculty ratio and learn from professors who are National Medal of Science winners and Nobel laureates. This Pasadena-based institute boasts many exceptional physical science programs, including Bachelor of Science degrees in:
- Applied Physics
Also offered here are many incredible Master of Science and PhD programs in areas like planetary sciences, geology, and astrophysics. Physical science students also have access to a range of world-class facilities, such as the Murray Lab that focuses on planetary visualization and the 3CPE lab where students research topics related to geology and astronomy. Over 80% of undergrads at this school conduct hands-on research right alongside faculty, and there are cool opportunities to research asteroids and neutron stars abroad in places like Germany and Taiwan.
2. Carleton College
At Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, students can earn outstanding Bachelor of Arts degrees in chemistry, physics, or geology. These amazing programs offer plenty of opportunities for hands-on learning; for example, chemistry students conduct research with high-tech equipment, such as an NMR spectrometer and lasers, while geology students take several field trips where they study geology in real-world settings. At least 70% of Carleton College students take part in off-campus study programs that happen during spring or winter break, as an example, past students have gotten the chance to study climate change in Ethiopia.
3. New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology
Located in Socorro, New Mexico, the Institute of Mining and Technology offers tremendous Bachelor of Science degrees in many areas of physical science, including chemistry, earth science, environmental science, and physics. Also offered here are notable graduate programs, including both master's and PhD programs, in such areas as:
- Earth and environmental science
- Chemistry, biochemistry, and geochemistry
- Physics and geophysics
Students here get all sorts of unique opportunities to gain important scientific research skills, including working with faculty on research papers that get published in leading journals or participating in research projects, such as refurbishing telescopes at the school's Etscorn Observatory. Students can also forge peer connections by joining such clubs as the NMT Geology Club or Physics Club that presents volunteer opportunities and fun research events.
4. Kalamazoo College
Students at Kalamazoo College in Michigan are always encouraged to grow beyond the classroom in order to become well-rounded scientists. As such, they can apply for fellowships and complete summer internships at places like the Lillian Anderson Arboretum or the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy, or they might work with faculty on research projects through the Sherman Fairchild Summer Research Stipend. There are also opportunities to gain real-world skills by working at the Hoop House, an on-campus greenhouse for environmental studies students, or through the use of state-of-the-art equipment for chemistry students. At this college, students interested in the physical sciences can pursue terrific Bachelor of Arts degrees in chemistry, environmental studies, biological physics, chemistry, or physics.
5. Beloit College
Beloit College, which is located in Beloit, Wisconsin, has incredible Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts degrees in the areas of geology, chemistry, physics, environmental studies, and biochemistry. This college is dedicated to granting students plenty of professional opportunities and holds a yearly Student Symposium where students present their own research. Geology students can also take part in the college's field program where they take short and long trips to geological sites throughout the Midwest, and environmental studies students can study off-campus at places like the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts and at the Wilderness Field Station located in the state's Superior National Forest.
6. Haverford College
Haverford College boasts a number of excellent bachelor's degrees in the physical sciences, including some in the fields of:
- Physics, astrophysics, and biophysics
- Environmental studies
- Chemistry and biochemistry
This Haverford, Pennsylvania, school is home to facilities such as the Koshland Science Center that contains lab space for physics students and the William J. Strawbridge Observatory, where astronomy students can gaze at the sky and conduct research in the library. Further, physical science students have unique opportunities to study all over the country and world, including through an internship at Asa Wright, a nature center in Trinidad and Tobago, and trips to places like Florida where geology students study marine environments.
7. Whitman College
Students at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, enjoy personalized attention from faculty where they often collaborate on research and fieldwork. This college offers noteworthy Bachelor of Arts degrees in areas like astronomy, physics, chemistry, and geology, and students can also pursue an interdisciplinary major where they could study chemistry/environmental studies, chemistry/geology, and geology/astronomy among other combined choices. Whitman College has a range of different facilities for student use, including several physics labs that contain everything from motion sensors to optics tables and the Clise Planetarium and telescopes that aid astronomy students in learning about the universe. Students can also study off-campus through geology field camps and programs that can take them to South Africa, Mexico, and other places.
8. Wesleyan University
With a campus in Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University boasts amazing Bachelor of Arts programs in earth and environmental sciences, chemistry, astronomy, and physics. The school also has notable Master of Arts degrees in astronomy and earth and environmental sciences and PhD degrees in physics and chemistry. Students can also choose a dual BA/MA program in astronomy, chemistry, earth and environmental sciences, or physics where they earn both degrees in only five years. This university offers great researched-focused experiences for students, including funded faculty-led research during the summer, field camps for environmental studies students, and facilities like the Van Vleck Observatory, which houses several telescopes. Physical science students can also join groups that have a science focus, such as the Women in Science group that holds lab tours, panels, and luncheons for all students.
9. University of Minnesota Morris
The University of Minnesota - Morris believes that all students, starting right in their undergrad years, should be able to pursue their research interests. That's why students can apply to take part in the Morris Academic Partnership (MAP) program where they get to collaborate with faculty or can an choose independent research project, and past students have even presented their findings at conferences like the Geological Society of America (GSA) meeting. Other opportunities include pursuing internships with such places as the Minnesota Zoo and the National Outdoor Leadership Program. This university offers many fantastic Bachelor of Arts degree options in the physical sciences, including in chemistry, environmental science, environmental studies, geology, and physics.
10. Reed College
Located in Portland, Oregon, Reed College has many exceptional Bachelor of Arts degree programs that include options in the physical sciences - including chemistry, environmental studies, and physics as well as a dual BA/master's program where students earn the BA in Environmental Studies at Reed College and a master's degree in forestry or environmental management from Duke University. Students here are immersed in research, with chemistry students able to learn on the latest instrumentation, such as spectrometers and even a nuclear reactor, while physics students interested in astronomy have access to the Reed Telescope. Environmental studies students can pursue fellowships that help them complete an internship or research project.
11. St. Olaf College
At St. Olaf College, which is located in Northfield, Minnesota, students can earn a phenomenal Bachelor of Arts degree in chemistry, environmental studies, or physics. Students in these terrific programs have unique chances to study abroad and study their chosen area, and environmental studies students have studied sustainable land ecology in Costa Rica and physics students have taken classes in places like Scotland and New Zealand. Students also get a ton of help landing internships with chances to study community development in Japan or work with the national parks or Minnesota Zoo. Further, chemistry students routinely pursue their own research through an independent research course.
12. Coe College
Students at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, can benefit from a low 11:1 student to faculty ratio, an average class size of only 16 students, and a campus that is close to Chicago, St. Louis, and Omaha. This college offers physical science Bachelor of Arts degrees in physics, chemistry, biochemistry, environmental science, and environmental studies. Students in each major can join a student organization related to their area of study, such as the Chemistry Club or the Physics Club, where they can connect with peers, access research opportunities, take local tours, and attend fun social activities. Real world experience is key at this college, and students have been able to take advantage of internships that have places them at institutions like the University of Iowa and the Optical Society of America.
13. Pomona College
Located in Claremont, California, Pomona College offers incredible Bachelor of Arts degrees in physics and astronomy, geology, and chemistry - as well as a unique minor in environmental analysis. Pomona College has a strong commitment to undergraduate research. In fact, the school's Table Mountain Observatory has the world's largest telescope specifically for undergraduate students use, and 90% of chemistry students complete a summer research project. This college also takes full advantage of its location by treating the state of California as a classroom, and geology students can take fields trips to Joshua Tree National Park, the Mojave Desert, and Mecca Hills.
14. Grinnell College
Grinnell College provides students a personalized education with a small 9:1 student-to-faculty ratio, classes that usually have less than 20 students, and a chance to complete a Mentored Advanced Project (MAP), which is a research project guided by a faculty member. This Grinnell, Iowa, college has fantastic Bachelor of Arts programs in physics, chemistry, and biological chemistry in addition to a concentration option in environmental studies. The outstanding physics program also has a focus option in astronomy, and the college is home to the Grant O. Gale Observatory where students can use a powerful Cassegrain reflecting telescope. Students can gain hands-on experience in the sciences by participating in summer research projects or pursuing internships focused on environmental studies that have taken students China and India.
15. West Virginia Wesleyan College
At West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, students can earn superb Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts degrees in chemistry, environmental studies, physics, and biochemistry. These outstanding programs emphasize research and hands-on learning, and students can pursue summer research experiences and internships at such places as the National Energy Technology Lab and Raytheon. This college also runs the West Virginia Wesleyan College Planetarium and is a member of NASA's West Virginia Space Grant Consortium, which offers scholarships to students.
16. The College of Wooster
According to the school, 95% of College of Wooster graduates have found employment within six months of graduating and 94% have gone on to their first choice of graduate school. This success is due to the great opportunities that students are afforded, including a robust independent study program where students are guided by faculty and are offered a variety of summer research options, such as on- and off-campus internships. This Wooster, Ohio-based school boasts notable Bachelor of Arts degrees in:
- Earth science: Environmental
- Earth science: Geoscience
- Environmental Studies
To round-out their academics, students can join the Chemistry Club or Physics Club, both of which hosts fun events, speakers, and community outreach events.
17. SUNY College at Geneseo
SUNY College at Geneseo provides students with the following exceptional Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts degree programs:
- Geological Sciences
This college offers physical science students unique opportunities to study out in the world; for example, chemistry students can spend a year or semester in Jamaica and geology students take January field trips to place like New Zealand and Chile. Right on campus, however, students have access to a range of modern labs, facilities, and equipment, including a rock prep lab, X-rays, spectrometers, and light microscopes. Students can also work alongside faculty on directed or independent research projects.
18. College of the Holy Cross
College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, educates students within the Jesuit tradition that emphasizes the whole person (spiritual, personal and intellectual) and making connections to a wider global community. This college boasts noteworthy Bachelor of Arts degrees in environmental studies, chemistry, and physics. Students in these amazing programs receive a well-rounded education with opportunities to complete summer research projects, take classes that utilize a lab-based model, and even work for non-profit organizations, such as the Blackstone River Coalition. Students can also find mentorship and support by joining a student organization, such as the Women in Physics group, which also provides networking opportunities, or the Eco-Action club that focuses on community action and education.
19. Williams College
Williams College is a small, private liberal arts college that has a history dating all the way back to 1793. Today it enrolls about 2,000 students and maintains a tiny 7:1 student-to-faculty ratio. This Williamstown, Massachusetts, school offers notable Bachelor of Arts programs in:
- Environmental studies
Students here are encouraged to grow outside of the traditional classroom setting, and astronomy students can study at the Hopkins Observatory, which is the oldest astronomical observatory in the country, and environmental studies students can spend a semester studying maritime topics at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut. Faculty at this college act as true mentors, and physics professors have received prizes for their undergraduate research mentorships from the American Physical Society.
20. Gustavus Adolphus College
Located in St. Peter, Minnesota, Gustavus Adolphus College boasts excellent Bachelor of Arts degree programs in many physical science fields, including chemistry, environmental studies, geology, geography, and physics. With an average class of just 17 students and a low 11:1 student-to-faculty ratio, students get to work closely with their professors on research projects through the summer Swanson-Holcomb Undergraduate Research (SHUR) program or during the regular academic semesters. Gustavus students also have amazing chances to study and research off-campus, including through geology field trips that have taken student to places like Utah, Texas, and New Mexico, and through environmental studies-centered study abroad programs in Italy, Spain, and Denmark.
21. Bowdoin College
Bowdoin College has a unique educational philosophy that is centered on the concept of the common good, and that's why students routinely complete community service, participate in alternative breaks that center on digital literacy and homelessness, and tutor local public-school kids. This Brunswick, Maine, school offers exceptional Bachelor of Arts degrees in biochemistry, chemistry, environmental studies, physics, and earth and oceanographic science. To aid students in their educational journey, this college offers access to world-class facilities and instrumentation, such as mass spectrometer that is the only one of its type at any undergraduate college and a machine shop for physics and astronomy students.
22. South Dakota School of Mines and Technology
With a campus in Rapid City, SD, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology boasts incredible Bachelor of Science degrees in atmospheric and environmental sciences, chemistry, geology, and physics as well as excellent Master of Science and PhD programs in atmospheric and environmental sciences, physics, and geology and geological engineering. This institution believes fully in hands-on learning, and 79% of students complete a co-op or internship with geology students working for petroleum companies and chemistry students working for Dow Chemical. Students can also conduct research at the underground Sanford Underground Research Facility where there are projects centering on everything from dark matter to nuclear astrophysics.
23. Colorado College
Colorado College has a unique learning model called the Block Plan where students take only one course at a time for three and a half weeks and are able to concentrate all their time studying that one single subject in an in-depth manner. The physical science degrees offered at this Colorado Springs-based college include Bachelor of Arts programs in physics, geology, environmental studies, and chemistry and biochemistry. This college full supports students in their endeavors outside of the classroom, and students can apply for a Keller Family Venture Grant that allows them to pursue their own research project. Experiential learning is another part of a student's education, and 80% of students study off campus through study abroad programs or field study trips - such as environmental students studying marine ecosystems in Massachusetts.
24. Rhodes College
At Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, students can choose from fantastic Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts degrees in physics, environmental studies, environmental sciences, chemistry, or biochemistry. This college offers a personalized education to its students who benefit from an average class size of 14 and a small 10:1 student-to-faculty ratio. Applied learning is big here, and 80% of students complete internships! Environmental studies and sciences students get the chance to work at places like the Memphis Zoo and Project Green Fork. This college also has a number of fellowship opportunities for students wishing to pursue their own research projects or work on faculty-led projects. The top-notch facilities at this college include the Rhodes College Observatory, which houses a powerful reflecting telescope.
25. Earlham College
Located in Richmond, Indiana, Earlham College boasts a tremendous list of programs in the physical sciences - including Bachelor of Arts degrees in biochemistry, chemistry, environmental sustainability, geology, physics, and astronomy. About 70% of students at this college get hands-on learning experiences by studying off-campus through a study abroad programs that has taken students to Iceland to study geology and the environment. On-campus students also have a range of opportunities to build real-world science skills through an extensive student/faculty collaborative research program where 85% of faculty have worked alongside students. Other cool opportunities here include working at the Joseph Moore Museum, where students have curated geology collections.
26. Furman University
Students at Furman University can enjoy a great academic education that is supplemented by a range of research opportunities, including with a chemistry department that has the biggest summer research program in the country or with the earth and environmental science department that has a number of initiatives related to water quality and geology. This Greenville, South Carolina, school boasts superb Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts degree programs in chemistry, physics, and earth and environmental science. Students also benefit from professors who act as mentors and offer personalized coaching. This university puts an emphasis on global learning as well, and students can choose from programs that could take them to Iceland to study environmental topics or to Tanzania to study geology.
27. Lycoming College
Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, has a lot to brag about - including the fact that students enjoy a 12:1 student-to-faculty ratio and more than 98% of students find a job or are in grad school within six months after graduating. This college also boasts exceptional Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts degrees in areas ranging from astronomy and astrophysics to chemistry and physics. There are also minors offered in environmental science and environmental sustainability. Students wishing to pursue an internship get a ton of help finding the right placement and physics, and past astronomy students have interned with the National Science Foundation and NASA. This college is home to the Detwiler Planetarium that houses high-tech equipment, such as electron microscopes, which students can use for research, and students can gain teaching experience at the planetarium.
28. Marietta College
Marietta College has a robust set of top-notch Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts degrees in the physical sciences, including those in the fields of:
- Applied physics
- Land & energy management
- Environmental studies or environmental science
- Chemistry or biochemistry
This Marietta, Ohio, college is all about undergraduate research, and students often present their original research at national and regional conferences. Additionally, the college holds an All Scholars Day each year where students showcase their research. Students have opportunities to go on faculty-led study away trips (to places like Australia and Coast Rica) and to join a student club, such as the Chemistry Club. Marietta College is home to the Anderson Hancock Planetarium, which offers chances for students to learn to operate the planetarium and host shows.
29. Hanover College
Physical science students at Hanover College, which is located in Hanover, Indiana, are provided plenty of opportunities to delve into research, including working on faculty research projects and completing collaborative research projects. The school offers outstanding Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts degrees in chemistry, physics, geology, and environmental science. Understanding the benefit of studying out in the real world, Hanover College offers students the opportunity to go on geology or environmental science field trips to wildlife refuges and national parks. Students wanting to gain work experience can also get help finding the right placement, for instance, physics students have interned at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Caltech.
30. Princeton University
The prestigious Princeton University, which is based in Princeton, New Jersey, boasts notable Bachelor of Arts programs in physics, geosciences, chemistry, and astrophysical sciences as well as incredible PhD programs in:
- Atmospheric and oceanic science
- Astrophysical sciences
- Plasma physics
Students at Princeton are afforded a range of exceptional research experiences, including summer research programs for astronomy and chemistry students. Fostering a sense of community is also important here, and students can join organizations, such as the Women in Chemistry club, which provides support to female students, and the Princeton University Geosciences Society (PUGS) that hosts speakers and dinners.
31. Rice University
At Rice University, students can find many amazing physical science programs, including Bachelor of Science degrees in:
- Chemistry or chemical physics
- Earth, environmental, and planetary sciences
- Environmental science
Undergraduate students learn from the best here, including faculty who are members of the National Academy of Sciences or have won Nobel Prizes. Furthermore, 75% of undergraduates get involved with research through summer research projects or real-world field trips. This Houston, Texas-based school also boasts notable Professional Science Master's (PSM) degrees in applied chemical science, environmental analysis, space studies, and subsurface geoscience - all of which prepare students for technical science careers.
32. Saint John's University
Saint John's University boasts a unique partnership with the College of Saint Benedict where students can take courses at each school and can also study, attend events, and use the labs and facilities on each campus. Based in Collegeville, Minnesota, Saint John's University offers noteworthy Bachelor of Arts programs in the areas of biochemistry, chemistry, forestry, environmental studies, and physics. Students are well-supported in their research endeavors for all four years of their academic journey, including having access to grants for student travel and research and chances to complete stipend-supported summer research with faculty. There are also many opportunities for internships and joining student clubs, such as the Physics Club.
33. University of North Carolina at Asheville
The University of North Carolina at Asheville is a leader in undergraduate research (it even founded the National Conference on Undergraduate Research!) and boasts that 65% students conduct their own original research project. Research takes many forms here with physics and astronomy students designing in the optics labs or working at the Lookout Observatory and environmental studies students getting special funding to pursue sustainability research. Students seeking physical science degrees from this university can choose from outstanding Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts programs in chemistry, environmental studies, and physics. Students looking to form strong bonds with peers with similar interests can join the physics honors society, Sigma Pi Sigma, or the school's Chemistry Students Club.
34. Centre College
Located in Danville, Kentucky, Centre College offers fantastic Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science programs in such areas as chemical physics, chemistry, environmental studies, biochemistry, and physics. This college makes a guarantee to students that they will 100% have the chance to have an internship, study abroad, or pursue research during their four years. As such, past physics students have worked with Toyota and local startups, and environmental studies students have interned with places like the Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center. On the research side, students can apply to become John C. Young Scholars and have a fully funded year where they pursue their own research project.
35. Willamette University
Students at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, have three physical sciences fields to choose from - they could earn a distinguished Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry, physics, or environmental sciences. This school also boasts a 3+2 Forestry program where students earn a bachelor's degree from this college and an environmental management or forestry master's degree from Duke University. Starting in their very first years, students enjoy a range of research opportunities, including projects that began freshman year and end with a full senior year of independent research and summer funded research that happens through the Science Collaborative Research Program (SCRP). Other cool opportunities include participating in the Willamette Science Outreach Program where female students go into 5th grade classrooms to teach students about science and encourage young girls to pursue science careers.
36. Bryn Mawr College
Bryn Mawr College has a which has a unique partnership with nearby Haverford College that allows students to take advantage of the academics and campuses of each college - and this means they are able to offer even more physical science programs! The school offers excellent Bachelor of Arts degrees in:
- Chemistry (with biochemistry and geochemistry concentration options)
- Environmental studies
This Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania-based college also offers incredible Master of Arts and PhD programs in chemistry and physics. Students are provided great opportunities to embark on their research interests, including through funded summer programs and off-campus programs. To aid in their research activities, students can access high-tech, modern equipment, such as microscopes and magnetometers, and facilities like a rock preparation lab and rock magnetics lab. Students can also choose to study abroad globally or locally, and geology students have studied in the Florida Keys, while environmental studies students have traveled to places like Australia and Iceland.
37. Lawrence University
Physical science students at Lawrence University are afforded a range of unique ways to study off campus, for instance physics students are able to spend a semester at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory studying clean energy and environmental studies students could travel to Italy and China. Offered at this Appleton, Wisconsin, school are amazing Bachelor of Arts degrees in fields like chemistry, biochemistry, environmental studies, geosciences, and physics. Students are required to complete the Chandler Senior Experience, which could consist of a seminar paper, group research project, or exhibition. Past physical science students have used this experience to conduct cutting-edge research into subjects like medicinal chemistry and quantum mechanics.
38. Virginia Military Institute
Virginia Military Institute in Lexington has the distinction of being the oldest state military college in the country, and it provides students with a strong military-based education. Here, students can earn a phenomenal Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts degree in chemistry or physics. The chemistry program further offers a concentration in biochemistry as well as optional pre-medical and research tracks. Chemistry students have amazing chances to conduct research, present their findings at regional or local conferences, and apply for the honors program that allows them to work on research projects with faculty. The physics program offers minors in astronomy or physics, and students have the opportunity to work on independent research projects where they can utilize the VMI Observatory, which houses a telescope, or the laser lab.
39. Occidental College
Located in Los Angeles, CA, Occidental College offers students seeking a physical science major the opportunity to choose between exceptional Bachelor of Arts programs in chemistry, biochemistry, geology, physics - there's also a concentration option in environmental science. This college has a number of special programs for its science students, such as the Oxy Immersive Semester where students complete a community internship and take courses based on a single topic like conservation and the California environment. Students also have opportunities to conduct in-depth research on their own or with professors or to gain real-world experience through internships at such places as NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory or the Southern California Earthquake Center.
40. Washington & Jefferson College
At Washington & Jefferson College, students have the one-of-a-kind opportunity to embark on what the school calls the Magellan Project, which is a funded project that involves travel, research (or an internship), and the creation of final project in the students' specific area of interest. This Washington, Pennsylvania, school has a range of incredible Bachelor of Arts degrees in the physical sciences, including programs in:
- Biological physics
- Environmental studies
- Environmental science
Students in these great programs get plenty of chances to grow outside of the classroom, for instance, past chemistry students have interned at Kinex Pharmaceuticals and the FBI and environmental students have secured positions at the Matador Wildlife Management Area.
41. Franklin and Marshall College
Franklin and Marshall College, which is located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, offers a number of outstanding physical science programs, including:
- BA in Physics
- BA in Chemistry
- BA in Environmental Studies or Environmental Science
- BA in Environmental Management
- BA in Geosciences
- BA in Astronomy and Astrophysics
This college places a special emphasis on faculty-student collaboration: chemistry students often spend the summer researching right alongside their professors, while geology students can conduct field-based research with professors on trips that take them to Puerto Rico and Hawaii. Students also have access to modern facilities to learn in, including the Astronomy Research Lab, chemistry labs, and the North Museum Planetarium, which is the largest in the state.
42. Hendrix College
Students at Hendrix College can go on journeys of self-discovery and learning through the college's funded Odyssey Program, which requires students complete three experiences that could include a professional internship, a mission, or a research project based on the physical science field of their choice. This Conway, Arkansas, college offers noteworthy Bachelor of Arts degrees in chemistry, biochemistry, chemical physics, environmental studies, and physics. Students enjoy a low 11:1 student to faculty ratio, an average class of 17 students, and lots of opportunities for research. Chemistry students can join faculty-led research groups that are exploring bioorganic chemistry and physical chemistry, and physics students can work with faculty on projects related to rockets and robots.
43. University of California - Santa Barbara
The University of California - Santa Barbara makes our list due to its wide range of top-notch physical science programs - which include Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts degrees in:
- Hydrologic sciences and policy
- Environmental studies
- Earth science
This university also offers preeminent master's and PhD programs in chemistry, geography, physics, and environmental science and management. Students here have access to advanced, modern equipment, such as a mass spectrometer, a 3-D printer, and seismic and infrasound sensors. Research opportunities are plentiful, and chemistry students can join a research organization that is studying such things like biochemistry and materials science, while undergrad physics students can apply for the Worster Summer Research Fellowship where they are mentored by a grad student.
44. Davidson College
The students at Davidson College, which is located in Davidson, North Carolina, benefit from a low 9:1 student-to-faculty ratio and from classes sizes that average only 16 students. Physical science students at this institute can choose between incredible Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science programs in chemistry, physics, or environmental studies. Hands-on learning is paramount at this college, and environmental studies students have traveled to Death Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains to study right in the field. Chemistry students enjoy researching in small groups and can receive funding for summer research projects, while physics students get to learn in small labs and can branch out and conduct research with faculty who are working at places like the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) and the MoNA Collaboration.
45. Wofford College
Located in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Wofford College allows students to choose between earning a Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts in one of the following physical sciences: environmental studies, chemistry, and physics. And these programs can be tailored to a student's interest. For example, the chemistry program offers two tracks: one for students wanting pursue graduate work and one for students wishing for an industrial or medical career. Likewise, physics students can choose a professional or industry/education track. Environmental studies students have the unique opportunity to learn at the Goodall Environmental Studies Center, which is housed in a dam built around the 1900s and contains a weather station and steam gauge.
46. Hope College
Hope College is committed to undergraduate research, and it was one of the first schools in the nation to grant undergrads the opportunity to research with chemistry faculty. This Holland, Michigan-based school offers notable Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts degrees in chemistry, physics, and geological and environmental studies. Students have a ton of ways to up their research skills, including through faculty-guided independent research, summer research, and joining a research group. Beyond researching on campus, students can also study around the globe and country. Geological and environmental studies students conduct research at real-world sites, such as the Lake Macatawa Watershed and the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area, while physics students can take a course through a study aboard program to Scotland or Australia.
47. Lake Superior State University
Lake Superior State University, which has a campus in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, offers several physical science programs, such as Bachelor of Science degrees in Chemistry, Cannabis Chemistry, Environmental Science, and Geology. Students in these excellent programs have access to a range of modern research equipment with environmental science students getting to use GPS receivers and ponar dredges, and chemistry students getting to use spectrometers and more. There are also opportunities to get out into the field with geology students averaging 80 plus days of real-world field work and environmental studies students taking advantage of all the
freshwater lake systems located near the school. On-campus internships for chemistry students are available as well.
48. Fort Lewis College
Physical science students at Fort Lewis College can enjoy a vibrant student life where they can join a variety of science-focused organizations, such as Women in Science, which presents networking opportunities and focuses on encouraging young kids to enter science, the Chem Club that conducts fun demos and experiments, or Geology club, which hosts trips to mineral and gem shows and outdoor events. This Durango, Colorado, college has a wide range of science programs, that include Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts degrees in chemistry, biochemistry geology, physics, environmental science, and environmental studies. Place-based learning is big here, and students routinely go out and study in the Rocky Mountains and surrounding areas. Geology students can be found attending field camps in New Mexico, Arizona, and other areas, while environmental studies can intern in Colorado or Uganda.
49. Skidmore College
Located in Saratoga Springs, New York, Skidmore College offers exceptional Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts degrees in chemistry, environmental science, environmental studies, geosciences, and physics. These awesome degree programs offer cool, research-based experiences for students, and 80-90% of environmental studies and science students study off-campus, such as participating with faculty-led trips to places like China and Cuba. Chemistry and physics students are presented opportunities to conduct research in modern labs and through summer research programs.
50. Swarthmore College
The physical science students at Swarthmore College are highly encouraged to pursue their own independent research, and chemistry and physics students have produced work that has been published by leading academic journals! Based in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, the physical science programs at this college include excellent Bachelor of Arts degrees in environmental studies, astronomy, physics, and chemistry. Students often decided to complete a senior honors research thesis that allows them conduct research and participate in summer research groups or projects. This college also has great study abroad opportunities, and environmental studies students can travel to South Africa to study the environment and globalization.
Physical Science Majors
Typically, the broader field of science can be divided into life and physical sciences to better categorize subjects in the field. The branches of physical science usually include the disciplines of physics, astronomy, chemistry, and Earth science. This list of physical sciences also typically corresponds to available physical science majors at colleges and universities, which are often found at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. While students in these physical science majors may focus their study on their chosen field, the implications of the work done in these fields can apply to a wide range of areas, including economics, agriculture, medicine, and the arts. Here we explore each branch of physical science in greater detail, including courses and specializations that each field may offer.
Physics degree programs are available at the associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degree levels. At the associate degree level, students usually earn a general physics degree, but bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in physics typically offer various areas of concentration through degree options or research opportunities. For example, students may be able to pursue research in physics education, particle physics, and biophysics; earn specific degrees like a nuclear physics degree; or focus on various concentration areas within or outside a physics degree, such as in quantum computing, space physics, geography, or engineering. Coursework for degree programs in physics usually includes topics in quantum physics, electricity and magnetism, thermodynamics, statistical physics, mathematical physics, and mechanics.
While undergraduate degree programs in physics may not have specific admission requirements, programs at the graduate level, like quantum physics degrees, can. These requirements vary by institution. It is common for graduate degree programs in physics to require applicants to hold a bachelor's degree in physics, mathematics, or another closely related field. Students may be required to have prior coursework in areas like classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and more. Some programs may also suggest that students take the GRE Physics Subject Test.
At the undergraduate level, students can pursue an associate or bachelor's degree in astronomy. At the bachelor's level, astronomy may also be offered as a specialization in a combined degree in astronomy and astrophysics. At the graduate level, students can usually pursue a master's or doctoral degree specifically in astronomy. Students pursuing a graduate astronomy degree may be able to choose from some areas of specialization, such as astrophysics or astrostatistics, and they can also pursue a wide range of interests through their research in various areas, such as galaxies, stars, stellar dynamics, and black holes. Coursework for astronomy degree programs are usually heavy in math, physics, and astronomy and may cover topics in observational astronomy, stellar astrophysics, thermodynamics, cosmology, the solar system, and galaxies.
Students interested in pursuing an undergraduate astronomy degree may need to have taken 4 years of high school math and science. At the graduate level, students usually need to have a bachelor's degree with a strong background in physics and math. Students may need or benefit from having prior coursework in astronomy, differential equations, classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, and more. Students applying to graduate programs usually need to take the GRE.
Chemistry is a broad field with many opportunities for specialization within the field. At the associate level, students can pursue an associate degree in chemistry or a related area, such as an associate degree in chemical technology. A bachelor's degree in chemistry provides students with various concentrations or specializations, including analytical/physical chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, chemical physics, chemical education, environmental chemistry, synthetic chemistry, and more. Master's degrees in chemistry and PhD chemistry degree programs may add additional areas of concentration in areas like biophysics, inorganic chemistry, theory/computation, and materials and nanoscience. A chemistry degree typically includes courses in multiple areas of chemistry like analytical chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and biochemistry.
Admissions to undergraduate degree programs usually do not have any chemistry-specific requirements, but students at the graduate level may need to hold a bachelor's degree in chemistry or a closely related area, such as chemical engineering. Students applying to graduate chemistry degree programs may also be required to take various entrance exams, such as the GRE, American Chemical Society (ACS) exams in general chemistry and organic chemistry, or institution-specific exams in various areas of chemistry, such as organic, inorganic, and analytical chemistry.
Earth Science Degree
Earth science degree programs at the associate level typically do not provide additional areas of concentration but give students an overview of the field. At the bachelor's level, students can pursue additional areas of specializations in topics like economic geology, mineralogy, environmental geology, oceanography, atmospheric science, terrestrial sciences, geosciences education, and hydrology. Graduate students in earth science degree programs may further specialize in areas such as tectonics, geophysics, petrology, and geochemical systems. Students may also choose to pursue undergraduate or graduate degrees in specific areas of earth science, such as a degree in geology, meteorology, or hydrology. Course topics for earth science degree programs may include geography, meteorology, oceanography, geology, climate change, Earth systems, stratigraphy, and seismology.
Although undergraduate degree programs in earth science usually do not require applicants to meet any specific standards other than holding a high school diploma, some programs may prefer students who have successfully completed one year of calculus and/or a science course with a laboratory, such as in chemistry or physics. At the graduate level, applicants need a bachelor's degree and may need to take the GRE. Some programs may also require prior coursework in areas like physics, chemistry, and calculus.
Physical Science Degrees Online
Due to the hands-on nature of physical science and the common laboratory courses, most of these degree programs are available on-campus. However, there are some physical science degree programs available online at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Associate degree programs in physical science are not commonly offered online, and neither are PhD programs due to its required research components. However, there are several different online Bachelor of Science and Master of Science programs available in areas like physics, Earth science education, and geoscience.
Online degree programs in physical science may not have the same research requirements as on-campus programs. Laboratory experiences may be completed through online labs and purchased kits. In general, coursework for online degree programs are designed to be more flexible and convenient for students who may have other commitments.
Physical Science Jobs
Although the exact career will vary by level of education and area of expertise, students with a degree in the physical sciences can pursue a wide range of careers in an array of industries. For examples, physical science jobs are available in the government, academia, research, manufacturing, mining, and engineering. Graduates may work as educators, researchers, scientists, technicians, specialists, and more. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, many of these careers make a median annual salary greater than $50,000, and there are a multitude of jobs that involve physical science education. Here, we will examine a small sample of career options in various areas of the physical sciences in more depth.
|Career||Job Description||Median Salary (2019)*||Job Growth (2018-2028)*|
|Physicists||Physicists study and model various properties of the natural world and may focus their studies in a particular area, such as medical, nuclear, or optical physics. They may design experiments and analyze their results to explore the laws of time, matter, energy, and more. Some of their work may be applied to other industries, like the development of new medical materials and equipment.||$122,850||9%|
|Astronomers||Astronomers usually study celestial bodies and may focus their studies in different areas, like solar, optical, or planetary astronomy. These scientists may use advanced equipment, like telescopes and satellites, to observe planets, stars, and galaxies. They may use their findings to develop models about the universe and publish their work in scholarly articles.||$114,590||5%|
|Chemists||Chemists work with various substances at the molecular level (or smaller) to observe how substances interact. Their work can often be applied to a range of industries to develop new materials and products, as well as improve existing ones and/or ensure the quality of products. Chemists may perform their own experiments, analyze elements, conduct tests, and write reports with their findings.||$77,630||4%|
|Geoscientists||Geoscientists study various aspects of the Earth and may specialize in areas like geochemistry, geophysics, oceanography, and more. Their work may require them to conduct field research and surveys to observe the structure and processes of our planet. Other job duties may include developing maps, writing reports, and modeling data using equipment like geographic information systems (GIS).||$92,040||6%|
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)