Polygence blog / Education and College Admissions

What Can You Do With a Physics Degree?

7 minute read

So, you're thinking, "What can I do with a physics degree?” Well, buckle up, because this is not your ordinary academic ride. In the vast tapestry of academic disciplines, physics stands out as a beacon of curiosity and exploration. Physics is all about unlocking the secrets of the universe — a physics degree allows you to understand the fundamental laws governing the natural world. Its principles unravel the mysteries of the universe, from the smallest particles to the grandest cosmic structures. Pursuing a degree in physics is not merely an academic endeavor; it opens doors to a plethora of exciting and diverse career opportunities. This foundation enables physics graduates to venture into various fields where analytical thinking and problem-solving skills are paramount.

What Are Some Physics Degree Career Trajectories?

1. Academic Research

The most traditional path for physics graduates is academic research. Many find themselves at universities and research institutions, delving into cutting-edge studies that push the boundaries of human knowledge. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in physics, students can pursue a Master’s or a PhD degree to explore a topic of their liking. This is quite similar to embarking on the Polygence Core program, where students can choose a research topic of interest, and delve deep into it. Research avenues for a graduate degree in Physics range widely, from particle physics and astrophysics to condensed matter physics and quantum mechanics. The pursuit of knowledge is ceaseless, and physicists contribute to our understanding of the universe in profound ways.

2. Industrial Research and Development

Beyond academia, the corporate world beckons physicists to contribute to technological advancements. Industries such as aerospace, telecommunications, and energy are eager to harness the problem-solving prowess of physics graduates. Working in research and development, physicists innovate new technologies, design novel materials, and enhance existing systems. The LinkedIn Physics Community is a professional group that allows physics professionals and enthusiasts to connect, share insights, and explore career opportunities. It’s a great way to meet other physicists spanning a wide array of expertise!

3. Data Science and Analytics

In the age of information, data is king. Physicists, armed with their quantitative skills, are increasingly sought after in the realm of data science and analytics. Their ability to model complex systems and extract meaningful insights adds tremendous value across industries. Polygence physics research mentor Soha is a physicist who uses data science and analytical tools every day in her personal and professional life. 

4. Finance and Quantitative Analysis

Surprisingly, the financial sector is a fertile ground for physics graduates. The intricate mathematical models used in finance benefit from the analytical mindset honed during physics studies. Physicists find themselves in roles such as quantitative analysts, where they use mathematical models to assess and predict financial risks, contributing to the stability and efficiency of financial markets. For example, meet Polygence physics research mentor John, who uses Python to predict market trends to employ investment decisions based on model output. 

5. Medical Physics

The intersection of physics and medicine gives rise to the field of medical physics. Physicists in this domain contribute to advancements in cancer research, medical imaging, radiation therapy, and diagnostic equipment. Their expertise ensures the accuracy and safety of medical procedures, playing a crucial role in the healthcare industry.

Polygence physics research mentor Soha has dabbled in some research in this space. More specifically, she has mentored students on modeling and simulation of Boron Neutron Capture Therapy, which is a form of treatment used to kill cancer cells. Another similar project is Machine Learning in Modern Cancer Treatment by Polygence school student Sia. 

6. Environmental Science and Renewable Energy

With the increasing emphasis on climate change and sustainable practices, physicists are at the forefront of addressing environmental challenges. Whether it's developing renewable energy technologies, analyzing climate data, or designing eco-friendly materials, physicists contribute to creating a more sustainable and resilient future. Some Physics departments even have specialized focus on climate sciences, for example, the University of California, Berkeley, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

When I was a physics undergraduate, I decided to minor in Nuclear Engineering. Then, I got a job at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory working as an engineer on the U.S. national nuclear fusion experiment. 

Side note, because I work in this field: Nuclear Fusion is the up-and-coming frontier in clean energy, holding immense promise for a sustainable energy future. Unlike current nuclear fission processes, fusion harnesses the power generated by combining light atomic nuclei, a reaction akin to what occurs in the sun. The promise lies in its potential to provide a nearly limitless and environmentally friendly energy source, free from greenhouse gas emissions and long-lived radioactive waste associated with traditional nuclear power. At the heart of this endeavor is the pursuit of controlled fusion reactions, where scientists and engineers aim to recreate the extreme conditions found in stars within controlled environments on Earth. 

The fusion community collaborates globally, with major projects such as ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) in France, National Spherical Tokamak Reactor (NSTX-U) at Princeton, or a myriad of other private companies that have emerged. As I work in this dynamic field, I witness firsthand the strides being made toward unlocking the immense energy potential of nuclear fusion, paving the way for a cleaner and more sustainable energy future.)

7. Science Communication and Outreach

Not all physicists stay confined to laboratories and offices. Some embark on the journey of science communication and outreach. Armed with the ability to distill complex concepts into digestible information, these individuals become science journalists, educators, or popular science content creators. They bridge the gap between the scientific community and the general public, fostering a greater appreciation for the wonders of the universe. If you find yourself on social media a lot, here are the top physics content creators to watch: PBS Space Time, Minute Physics, Veritasium, Physics Girl, and the PBS Infinite Series for those interested in quantum mechanics. 

8. Entrepreneurship

Physics graduates often channel their entrepreneurial spirit into startups, where they bring innovative concepts to fruition. Their contributions span diverse fields, from pioneering technologies to addressing global challenges. Noteworthy physicists-turned-entrepreneurs include Elon Musk, co-founder of Zip2, X.com (later PayPal), and the visionary behind SpaceX and Tesla. Richard Branson, who studied physics at Stowe School, founded the Virgin Group and has ventures across various industries, including space exploration with Virgin Galactic. Physicist Robert E. Kahn co-developed the TCP/IP protocols, laying the foundation for the internet. Additionally, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, while pursuing doctoral studies in computer science at Stanford, drew on their physics background to co-found Google, transforming the landscape of information retrieval and online services. These entrepreneurs exemplify how a grounding in physics provides a foundation for innovative thinking and problem-solving in the business realm.

What Do You Learn With a Physics Degree?

The physics curriculum varies by university and the specific program  you are in; however, generally speaking, these courses are offered. As an undergraduate physics major, I studied: 

  • Classical Mechanics

    • Newtonian Mechanics: Understanding motion and force using classical principles.

    • Lagrangian and Hamiltonian Mechanics: Exploring alternative formulations for describing physical systems.

  • Electromagnetism

    • Maxwell's Equations: Investigating the interplay between electric and magnetic fields.

    • Electrodynamics: Analyzing the behavior of charged particles in electromagnetic fields.

  • Quantum Mechanics

    • Wave-Particle Duality: Grasping the dual nature of matter and radiation.

    • Schrödinger Equation: Solving the fundamental equation governing quantum systems.

  • Thermodynamics

    • Laws of Thermodynamics: Exploring concepts like energy transfer, entropy, and heat.

    • Statistical Thermodynamics: Connecting macroscopic properties to microscopic behavior.

  • Optics

    • Geometric Optics: Understanding light propagation using rays.

    • Wave Optics: Examining light as a wave and its interactions with matter.

  • Statistical Mechanics

    • Microcanonical Ensemble: Applying statistical methods to understand isolated systems.

    • Boltzmann Distribution: Analyzing the statistical behavior of particles in thermal equilibrium.

  • Special and General Relativity

    • Lorentz Transformations: Grasping the effects of motion on space and time.

    • Curvature of Spacetime: Understanding gravity as the bending of spacetime.

  • Nuclear Physics

    • Nuclear Reactions: Investigating processes involving changes in atomic nuclei.

    • Radioactive Decay: Understanding the spontaneous emission of radiation from unstable nuclei.

  • Solid-State Physics:

    • Crystal Structure: Exploring the arrangement of atoms in solids.

    • Band Theory: Understanding the behavior of electrons in crystalline materials.

  • Particle Physics

    • Standard Model: Studying the fundamental particles and their interactions.

    • Quantum Field Theory: Describing particle interactions through fields.

  • Astrophysics/Cosmology

    • Celestial Mechanics: Analyzing the motion of celestial bodies.

    • Big Bang Theory: Exploring the origin and evolution of the universe.

  • Conduct Laboratory Experiments

    • Data Collection: Hands-on experience in conducting experiments and gathering data.

    • Analysis and Interpretation: Applying theoretical knowledge to real-world observations.

How Can High School Students Prepare to Pursue a Physics Degree?

A Physics degree not only provides a deep understanding of the physical world but also cultivates critical thinking and analytical skills essential for scientific exploration. Here's a roadmap to get you started:

  • Take core math and science courses by enrolling in advanced math courses, such as algebra and calculus.

  • Take advanced physics courses offered at your high school

  • Science Clubs or Competitions:

    • Participate in science competitions or physics internships to challenge yourself and enhance your problem-solving skills.I discuss this topic more in my article on “Top Internships in Physics”

  • Explore online resources offering educational resources, such as Khan Academy, Coursera, or edX, to supplement your learning.

  • Conduct simple physics experiments at home to understand fundamental principles. There are many DIY experiment guides available online.

  • Attend local science events, lectures, or workshops to gain exposure to cutting-edge research and meet professionals in the field.

  • Build a Strong Foundation in Computer Science skills, such as programming in Python, C++ or C

  • Connect with your physics teachers and seek guidance on additional resources or advanced topics you can explore.

  • Visit Science Museums and Planetariums

  • Physics is all about exploring the unknown and understanding the world around us. So cultivate a curious mindset and don't hesitate to ask questions.

  • Connect with physics communities by joining online forums or communities where physics enthusiasts share their experiences, knowledge, and resources.

Take on a physics project

Pursuing a passion project is a great way to explore physics topics at a deeper level. With the Polygence Core program, students are paired with an expert research mentor who can provide guidance and support throughout the project stages.

Work with an expert mentor to explore your passion

At Polygence, we precisely match you with a mentor in your area of interest. Together, you can explore and deepen your passions.

Here are a few examples of physics projects Polygence students have completed with their mentors:

Get inspired by more physics passion project ideas for high school students

Explore resources available to fellow physicists

The references below serve as valuable guides for physicists at various stages of their careers, from students exploring academic paths to professionals seeking new opportunities in diverse fields.

  • American Physical Society (APS)APS is a leading organization that advances and disseminates knowledge in the field of physics. It offers resources for physicists, including journals, conferences, and career services

  • Institute of Physics (IOP) and/or Physics WorldIOP is a global professional body that supports physicists and promotes physics research. It provides publications, events, and educational resources, along with career development services. Physics World is a magazine published by IOP, providing news, features, and opinion pieces on the latest trends and discoveries in physics.

  • American Institute of Physics (AIP)AIP is a federation of scientific societies dedicated to advancing and distributing knowledge of physics. It offers various publications, statistics, and resources for physicists.

  • European Physical Society (EPS)EPS is a platform for physicists in Europe, promoting collaboration and communication. It provides information on conferences, publications, and educational initiatives.

  • Physics TodayPhysics Today is a magazine published by the APS, offering news, features, and commentary on the latest developments in physics.

  • American Astronomical Society (AAS)AAS is an organization for astronomers and astrophysicists. It provides resources, publications, and information on conferences and meetings.

Your Project Your Schedule - Your Admissions Edge!

Register to get paired with one of our expert mentors and to get started on exploring your passions today! And give yourself the edge you need to move forward!