The real-world applications of physics — an area of science that focuses on the interplay between matter and energy — are so numerous that it is difficult to imagine a technology that doesn’t involve physics in some way.
Physics degree recipients graduate with highly marketable skills in math, data analysis and predictive modeling, often finding lucrative employment in the business world.
The Influence of Physics on Society
Simple mechanical devices such as pulleys and levers, as well as complex modern machines like quantum computers and nuclear reactors, would be impossible to create without the use of physics.
Physics lies at the root of many inventions that have had an enormous impact on the everyday life of the average person. There are numerous ordinary objects that people use regularly that rely on the science of physics to function, including semiconductors, lasers, X-rays, GPS devices, radio transmitters and bar code scanners.
Transportation vehicles such as automobiles, airplanes and space shuttles could not be constructed without the help of physics experts. Physics is also useful for military purposes, informing the design of weapons. Many of the scientists responsible for inventing the atomic bomb were physicists, and today physicists are involved in the creation of nuclear weapons.
Physics is integral for space travel, so some astronauts have a credential in this field. This academic discipline is also necessary for explaining and investigating the origins and mechanics of the universe, so it should come as no surprise that legendary space scientists Stephen Hawking, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson all studied physics.
Physicists Who Changed the World
Anyone contemplating a physics degree who is wondering if he or she will be able to use that degree in a meaningful way should study a bit of history. Some of the most accomplished individuals of all time studied physics.
Famous physics degree recipients include legendary innovators such as two-time Nobel Prize laureate Marie Curie — who discovered radioactive elements along with her Nobel-winning husband Pierre Curie and contributed enormously to scientific understanding of radioactivity — and Nobel Prize recipient Albert Einstein, creator of the theory of relativity. Richard Feynman, a Nobel laureate who transformed the way the world understands light, was also a physics scholar.
There are also influential living individuals who have physics degrees, such as serial entrepreneur Elon Musk — founder of the SpaceX aerospace company and co-founder of the Tesla electric automobile firm — and Lene Hau, an applied physicist who pioneered how to slow down and even stop the movement of light.
The Many Types of Physics
The field of physics has increased human understanding of sound, light and heat, and it has enhanced knowledge about electricity, gravity, magnetism and mechanical forces. Physicists can focus on topics ranging from tiny objects like atoms and subatomic particles to enormous things like planets and galaxies. It is a complicated academic discipline that addresses scientific inquiries ranging from the quest to discover the most minuscule particles within atoms to investigations into the behavior of black holes. The field also encompasses debates about the nature of dark matter and controversies about the nature of time.
“Broadly, the three areas of physics are theory, computation, and experiment,” Effrosyni Seitaridou, an associate professor of physics at Emory University‘s Oxford College in Georgia, explained in an email. “Each subfield of physics contains these three areas.”
She notes that physics has many subfields including:
— Astronomy and astrophysics.
— Chemical physics.
— Engineering physics.
— Medical physics.
— Particle physics.
— Quantum computing.
Seitaridou notes that some interdisciplinary subfields of physics integrate natural science with social science, such as psychophysics. Psychophysics focuses on the influence of physical events on a person’s perceptions and thought processes.
According to a PowerPoint presentation about physics careers published by Crystal Bailey, career programs manager at the nonprofit American Physical Society, physics degree-holders wind up in a wide range of jobs, many outside of academia. Physics grads often work in the private sector and sometimes at government laboratories.
Salary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the median annual salary among U.S. physicists as of May 2019 was $122,850.
Moreover, a report from the American Institute of Physics shows that workers with college degrees in physics routinely use the skills they acquired through their physics education, such as solving technical problems and working productively on a team.
Physics majors routinely collaborate with classmates when conducting lab experiments, and physics faculty say that this experience prepares students for group projects in the workplace. Individuals with physics degrees also tend to have strong quantitative abilities that make them attractive hires for profit-oriented employers, according to physics professors.
“Financial institutions are always on the lookout for physics majors since they have the perfect blend of strong math skills and the training in how to apply math to modeling real-life problems,” Jed Macosko, a professor of physics at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, explained in an email.
He notes that physics majors have numerous career options. “The jobs available to physics graduates are more varied than what most science majors can find. They range from pure science, to engineering, to finance, to public policy, and, of course, to education.”
The most lucrative employment opportunities for physics grads tend to involve either engineering or finance, Mocosko adds.
Here is a list of jobs where a physics degree might come in handy:
— Business analyst.
— Data analyst.
— Patent attorney.
— Physics researcher.
— Physics teacher or professor.
— Project manager.
Abhijeet Narvekar, CEO of The FerVID Group, a Houston-based executive recruiting firm wrote that the oil and gas industry tends to hire physics grads because their knowledge can be applied “to different aspects of extracting oil.”
A bachelor’s degree in physics can provide a solid foundation for graduate school in a different discipline such as business, law or medicine, notes Rainer Martini, associate dean for graduate studies and associate professor of physics in the school of engineering and science at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.
Having a technical background in physics is useful for professions that combine science with another field. For example, one of Martini’s students ended up working for a hedge fund and was tasked with figuring out which technologies were promising and worth investing in.
An advantage of studying physics, he suggests, is that it is easy to switch from one branch of physics to another because they are so interconnected.
Physics training can also help someone become an inventor or businessperson in the tech sector, Martini suggests.
“A physics degree is a great way to become an entrepreneur,” he says, adding that physics education enables a person “to see a solution to a technological problem” that others might not see. “Suddenly, you have a potential really great product — a new invention — that can solve a need.”
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