A Guide to the Career Path of a Physics Major
Earning a bachelor’s degree in physics takes curiosity, natural talent and diligence. It’s a versatile degree that lends itself to further work in the field or employment opportunities across the STEM landscape. Employment opportunities for physics majors are robust, plentiful and lucrative.
The American Institute of Physics (AIP) points out: “[P]hysics bachelors who get hired into positions with engineering or computer science job titles get paid the same salary as those who earned bachelor’s degrees in those fields. A physics degree tells a prospective employer that you are a person who has the background, knowledge and drive to succeed in a broad range of scientific or technical fields.”
It’s a common misconception that earning a role as a college professor is the most likely or realistic career path for physics majors. Another myth is that those who earn a bachelor’s of science in physics must pursue further credentials for their undergraduate degree to be useful.
The Society of Physics Students (SPS) reports that just about one of six bachelor’s recipients in the discipline go on to earn their doctorates; about 30% of those spend their careers in academia. The AIP points out that nearly 50% of grads who earn their BS in physics go directly into the workforce and enjoy careers in medical, engineering, computer science, military and other fields, often without further credentialing.
Read on to learn more about career paths and jobs for physics majors.
What Can I Do with a Physics Degree?
Earning a degree in physics, positions graduates for a variety of educational or professional opportunities. If they opt to continue their studies, grads can direct their work towards earning advanced degrees in astronomy, medicine, math, computer science, engineering and others. Physics grads are also well-positioned to enter the workforce directly.
If you know you want to pursue a career in a STEM field, but you’re not clear on what your end goal looks like, declaring a physics major may be the perfect way to make yourself a future fit for a range of jobs. The AIP explains: “A physics degree is a passport into a broad range of science, engineering, and technology careers.”
Professionals with physics degrees are truly versatile. They can hold engineering roles such as laser, project, research or application engineers. They can also assume computer science roles like systems analyst, software, systems or test engineer; or, they can inhabit other STEM roles like an accelerator operator, a physical sciences technician or a science educator on the middle or high school level.
The SPS points out another exciting application: “Physics bachelor’s work across all branches of the armed forces. Many work in aviation or nuclear power.”
Skills for Physics Majors
The American Physical Society (APS) describes the skillset that physics majors cultivate: “Given that physics is one of the broadest scientific disciplines, in the course of receiving a physics degree most students develop expertise with a great variety of scientific instruments and techniques. These kinds of ‘hard skills’ are what make physicists so attractive to employers in physics, engineering and computer science fields.”
Some of the particulars they mention:
- Research and problem solving
- Fluency in using scientific equipment
- Refined mathematical skills
- Modeling and simulation
- Quality control protocol
Additionally, the APS points out that soft skills are also vital to this work. Budding professionals should be mindful of those while training at the university. Soft skills include:
- Cultivating strategic written and oral communication skills
- Learning to work well on a team
- Being a good listener
Where to Begin Your Career After Getting a Physics Degree
While its versatility is a great quality of a physics degree, it can also make you feel a bit overwhelmed when you’re starting your professional journey and trying to figure out where to angle yourself for your first professional role.
How do you focus with all the change that’s happening in your life? Once you’ve surpassed the comfort zone that was your academic career, how do you start finding that right fit that will become your new normal?
In his book 101 Lessons they Never Taught you in College, Rutgers professor Mark Beal explains: “I believe the most logical path to pursue comes when your passion intersects with the focus of your studies. Why? Your passion point is something that you should be incredibly knowledgeable about and something that you would enjoy working on for the next 30 or more years.”
Take time and think about your classes, internship, experiences. What did you enjoy most about your studies? What bridges the divide between who you are as a person and who you are a student? If you had the chance to do an internship, what did you value about it? Whom did you meet?
Start developing a sense of what you want. Look at your network. See who among your contacts might have access to companies or roles that fit your “passion point.” Use your honed study skills to become an expert of the search. Beal advises: “analyze the market and find a way to turn yourself into a category expert that will easily differentiate yourself from all other candidates seeking a position in your chosen category.”
Become a student of your quest to find fit, and invite input starting with your own sense of what you want and then expanding out to your network.
Job Search Tips for Physics Majors
Once you know what kind of role you’re after, refine your strategy for getting it. Work and grow your network. Meet with contacts you know in the industry-professors, professionals you met during internships, friends, family members and other contacts.
Check out professional societies and organizations, noting who you know among the membership. Ask your professors and peers about industry associations. See if you can attend a chapter event or a meeting as a guest. Then aim to make connections.
In the same way, see what your university offers in terms of alumni connections. This can be a rich resource for networking. Be open to mentorship, informational interviews and internship opportunities. All stand to help you learn more about what you want and what options are available to you.
Update your Glassdoor profile, and research companies and open positions. Cultivate an informed sense of what positions and companies you’re targeting. This way, when you get the chance to talk with contacts in your network, you can ask specific questions.
Refine your professional candidacy package. You want to be poised and ready when an opportunity presents itself, so have your materials ready to go.
Continuing Education and Certifications
Many professionals go on to lead long happy careers after they earn a bachelor’s degree, without additional credentials. But if you feel inclined to continue your education, there’s ample support and reason to do so. Many physics majors choose to attend graduate school, which is can free for graduate students who teach or complete research.
If your ambition is to teach physics to junior high or high school students, then you may need to do some additional certification work to prepare for the role. The website Tobecomeateacher.org details how to make the move from physics student to teacher, explaining: “Completing a teacher education program, as well as student-teaching experience, are requirements before an individual qualifies to apply for a license or certification to teach in their state of residence.”
Most Common Jobs for Physics Majors
It may seem confusing to new grads that “physics” is not likely to appear in many job titles for which their skills are a fit. They should rest assured though, there are a wide range of STEM roles for which their credentials render them well-suited.
Some common jobs for those who have a bachelor’s degree in physics include:
Entry-Level Physics Major Jobs
Finding a professional fit is a process of self-discovery. Each role you assume teaches you about yourself, what role and professional environment best suits you. These are some common starting points for those who majored on physics and earned their bachelor’s of science degree.
Physics Major Internships
Internships help young professionals make important discoveries about their professional ambitions and trajectory while also providing experience. They also give young professionals the chance to make important connections and bolster their network.
Doing an internship stands to serve your well, and opportunities are plentiful for physics majors, as these examples demonstrate:
- Radiation protection/health physics internship–Exelon
- Engineer Internship-Molex
- Software engineer internship-Valkyrie Trading
- Mechanical engineer-Hansen Technologies
- Predictive Analytics Internship – Sentient Science Corporation
10 Great Jobs for Physics Majors
If you have the skills and the work ethic to earn a degree in physics, you can look forward to an exciting career that’s rich with options and possibilities. It’s a great time to pursue a degree in physics!
Average Base Salary: $83,490/yr
Related Titles: Physicist, Research Assistant, Researcher, Research Associate, Research Analyst
Description: Research scientists take on a broad range of tasks which may include conducting experiments, documenting their findings, managing staff, reading peer research, presenting research papers and more. Both the private and public sector hire for research scientists, with opportunities at companies, universities and government agencies alike.
Average Base Salary: $114,134/yr
Related Titles: Adjunct Professor, Associate Professor, Assistant Professor, Graduate Assistant
Those interested in a career in academia might consider becoming a professor. Beyond lecturing students, many professors conduct their own research, write research papers, submit to peer-reviewed journals, attend conferences and more.
Average Base Salary: $57,321/yr
Related Titles: Science Teacher, Teacher, Teaching Assistant, Teacher Aide
If you want to instruct students, but prefer a less research-focused role, a job as a high school physics teacher could be the best option for you. Although education is not the highest-paying field, physics teachers often command a higher salary than others due to their specialized background. What’s more, many education professionals find it to be a deeply rewarding career.
Average Base Salary: $117,345/yr
Related Titles: Data Analyst, Data Engineer, Business Analyst, Machine Learning Engineer
Due to high job satisfaction, salaries and number of open jobs, Glassdoor recently named Data Scientist as the #1 Best Job in America for the fourth year in a row. Data Scientists are tasked with analyzing, interpreting and deriving actionable insights from large quantities of data, making it a perfect job for physics majors with strong quantitative backgrounds.
5. Lab Manager
Average Base Salary: $57,321/yr
Related Titles: Lab Technician, Lab Assistant, Lab Supervisor
Lab Managers are responsible for the productivity and safety of laboratory settings. On a day-to-day basis, a lab manager might coordinate schedules, manage the budget, communicate and uphold safety standards, manage inventory, delegate tasks and more.
Average Base Salary: $129,183/yr
Related Titles: Physicist, Health Physicist, Radiation Therapist
Medical Physicists combine their knowledge of radiology/radiation and the human body in order to research and develop treatments, consult and educate medical professionals and oversee the implementation and operation of radiology/radiation.
Average Base Salary: $117,220/yr
Related Titles: Physicist, Astrophysicist
Astronomers study stars, planets, the sun and outer space in order to learn more about the universe and how it works. They are typically employed by governmental agencies, such as NASA or the Department of Defense. Typically, they spend their time observing telescopes, writing research papers, attending conferences, reading research and more.
Average Base Salary: $100,503/yr
Related Titles: Laser Engineer
Optical Engineers use their knowledge of the physics of light to design optical instruments and equipment, like lenses, sensors, lasers, telescopes, microscopes, binoculars and many more. In order to do this, they conduct research, sketch out product designs that meet the given specifications, collaborate with manufacturers to bring their ideas to life, and test and optimize their products.
Average Base Salary: $89,195
Related Titles: Aircraft Engineer, Rocket Propulsion Engineer
Aerospace Engineers design aircraft and spacecraft like planes, satellites and rockets. Beyond product design, they also analyze and interpret flight data, test their products and often work directly with clients in order to ensure products meet given specifications.
Average Base Salary: $98,348/yr
Related Titles: Petroleum Engineer, Geologist, Environmental Scientist
Geophysicists use their knowledge of the physics of the earth in a wide variety of applications. Geophysicists may draw upon their skills to predict earthquakes, locate natural resources like oil or supervise excavation. In order to do so, they often combine surveying and fieldwork with data analysis.