Should I do a degree in physics?

Physics degrees - photo of the Milky Way
Physics degrees offer students the chance to explore and understand the fundamental building blocks of the universe, with a good range of career options after university.

Physics degrees are highly respected by employers and offer ample career opportunities. The workload can be quite heavy and the hours are long, but if you’re enthusiastic about unravelling the secrets of the universe, it’s a great choice. The degree involves a mixture of theoretical mathematics and practical experimentation, and most universities offer a wide range of optional modules to keep things interesting.

What A levels or Highers do I need to get onto a physics degree?

Most universities will ask that you have an A level in physics and an A level in maths. Those studying in Scotland will need Highers in physics and maths, and may need Advanced Highers in one or both of these subjects.

There are a small number of universities that will accept you if you have only studied either physics or maths, but if you want to have your pick of the universities, it’s best to have both under your belt.

What will I study on a physics degree?

Physics degrees most commonly exist in two forms: straight physics and theoretical physics. These degrees include much of the same course material, with the key difference being that straight physics degrees normally involve more practical laboratory work, while theoretical physics focuses more on mathematical content. How much the course content differs depends on the university you are applying for – for example, at some universities there is no difference between physics and theoretical physics until the third year, at which point physicists continue their laboratory sessions while theoretical physicists switch out their labs for theoretical modules.

Bear in mind though that straight physics degrees still contain a lot of mathematical content, so if you were hoping to avoid complex mathematics, this route offers no escape. There is just a more even balance between maths and practical experimentation on a straight physics degree, whereas a theoretical physics degree is more heavily weighted towards mathematical content.

When deciding which degree is right for you, keep in mind where your strengths lie. George Kileff, a third-year student at the University of York, is studying theoretical physics. He explains: ‘In my degree I have found my maths A level to be of more use than my physics A level, so if you’re enjoying your physics lessons but not your maths, I would advise against choosing theoretical physics.’ The choice is ultimately up to you, however, so before making a decision you should spend some time researching the differences between degrees. The TARGETcareers course search is a good place to start.

Regardless of whether you choose theoretical physics or straight physics, you will have to study a similar selection of core modules in your first year. These modules often include:

  • electromagnetism and optics
  • computational physics
  • Newtonian and relativistic mechanics
  • laboratory physics
  • mathematical techniques
  • properties of matter.

As your degree progresses, you will be able to take a number of specialised modules. Optional modules differ from university to university, but they could include:

  • nuclear astrophysics
  • cosmology and galaxy formation
  • medical imaging
  • fluid dynamics
  • spacetime and gravity
  • radiation detectors
  • advanced quantum mechanics.

What teaching methods are used on a physics degree?

Physics degrees typically include the following teaching methods:

  • lectures – learning by listening and taking notes
  • problem classes –working through physics problems individually under the supervision of a tutor
  • computing classes – learning to write computer programmes that can run simulations
  • laboratory sessions – practical sessions in which you will be physically carrying out experiments
  • tutorials – meeting with a small number of other students and a tutor to work through difficult physics problems.

Generally, a straight physics degree will contain more laboratory sessions than a theoretical degree, while a theoretical degree will include more computing classes.

How many contact hours will I have on a physics degree?

Physics students tend to have a high number of contact hours. The average student will normally have around 20 hours of contact time a week, although this varies depending on the university you are attending and the modules you are taking. Additionally, you will have reading to do outside of these hours, and at many universities you will be set weekly work to be done at home in preparation for tutorials.

What careers could a physics degree lead to?

As a physics graduate you will be eligible for a wide variety of job opportunities, both within the field of physics and outside of it.

Careers in physics

There are many career opportunities available for budding physicists. Leo Huckvale graduated from the University of Manchester in 2010 with a degree in physics with astrophysics and is now working as a software developer at Oxford Nanopore Technologies, a company that is using new technology to explore DNA sequencing. He explains: ‘Several of my course mates have remained in academia: one is a cosmologist, working with several large physics collaborations around the world; another is programming robots on Mars and modelling the Martian atmosphere. All of my course mates who have gone into industry have also gone into very interesting and varied careers. I have friends who are medical physicists for major cancer treatment centres, data scientists that use machine learning algorithms to predict traffic, and electronics engineers who work for defence contractors.’

Because there are so many job opportunities in the field of physics, it is not always necessary to undertake further study; it is possible, for example, to start on a company’s graduate scheme after only completing an undergraduate degree. That being said, many areas of physics will become more accessible with additional qualifications, and if you want a research post in a university or company then you will need postgraduate qualifications.

With a degree in physics you could find yourself working in the following:

  • aerospace engineering – researching and developing aircraft and spacecraft
  • climate forecasting – working with the technology that predicts future weather events
  • medical technology – designing and developing the medical devices and information technology that is used to diagnose, monitor and treat medical conditions
  • robotics and artificial intelligence – designing and creating the machinery of the future
  • scientific journalism
  • teaching or lecturing.

Careers outside of physics

If you decide that a career in physics isn’t for you there are many alternatives. A large number of sectors welcome graduates from all degree discipline. These sectors include:

For more information on possible career options, check out our article on what you can do with a physics degree on our graduate careers website TARGETjobs.

What skills will I develop on a physics degree? Will employers like them?

A degree in physics will leave you with a range of transferable and physics-specific skills, for example computational and data-processing abilities, problem solving skills, an analytical and evaluative way of thinking, and the ability to identify and predict trends and patterns.

These are skills that are highly valued by employers, as is a physics degree in general. Ed Moore graduated from the University of York in 2001 with a degree in physics, and has previously worked as a physicist for a company developing industrial gas flow monitoring equipment and as a consultant for a CE marking company, which assisted manufacturers to confirm their products met European safety Directives. He is currently a software developer at GTI Media. He explains: ‘The processes, methodologies and skills I learned during my degree are extremely useful and have made me highly employable. A physics degree is certainly a massive asset when job seeking – in my experience I have found that the degree is very highly respected and impresses people in all professions.’

What other degrees could I consider?

If you’re thinking of doing a physics degree you could also consider:

  • engineering
  • chemical physics
  • maths
  • astrophysics
  • computer science
  • chemistry
  • medical physics/physics with medical applications.

A few of these degrees, for example engineering and medical physics, have a heavier focus on the practical applications of physics than a straight physics degree. You could consider these degrees if you wanted to study for a specific career path, but because physics is a good choice anyway in terms of employability it is not necessary to choose a more vocational degree for the sake of a career. Instead, choose these degrees if you find the content more interesting.

What happens to physics graduates after they leave university?

The Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey is an annual publication that provides information about what former students are doing six months after graduation. The 2016 survey covers students who graduated in 2015 and paints a picture of their career paths so far.

  • Physics graduates were over twice as likely to be in further study than the average graduate (34.5% compared to the average 13.1%). This is most likely because postgraduate study is necessary for research posts and can open up career opportunities more generally within the field of physics.
  • The unemployment rate for physics graduates was slightly higher than average (9.9% compared to the average 5.7%).

Among those physics graduates who were working, the most popular job categories were:

  • Information technology professionals (20.5%)
  • Business, HR and finance professionals (19.2%)
  • Retail, catering, waiting and bar staff (10.6%)
  • Other professionals, associate professionals and technicians (8.5%)*
  • Engineering and building professionals (8.3%).

*Other professionals is a broad category covering a wide variety of roles, but includes graduates working as lab technicians, in environmental conservation and in sports and fitness.

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