Colleges

Make a Big Bang: Majoring in Physics

Do you constantly think about how and why things work, and the mechanics behind them? Does the thought working with particle accelerators and lasers sound exciting? (At the very least, it definitely sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie.) Would you enjoy being able to drop “Higgs boson” and “quantum theory” in casual conversation—and actually know what you were talking about? If you have an acumen for science and math, you may want to look into a physics major, where you’ll study the laws and properties of space, energy, time, and matter. With a physics degree, you’ll emerge ready for a physicist’s role in the real world, where you’ll work for the government, health care systems, universities, and research entities, among others, either diving deep into physics’ laws and properties (think theoretical physicists like Stephen Hawking) or using known knowledge in the field to come up with new products and solutions for everyday issues.

What do physics majors work on in school?

Prepare to live, breathe, and sleep math and science for the next few years. Besides your gen-ed classes, you’ll be taking various calculus and linear math courses, as well as an intro to physics and quantum mechanics. Once the basics have been covered, you’ll move onto more advanced topics such as magnetism and electricity, thermal physics, the physics of fluids and solids, and computational physics, among others. Physics majors sometimes double up with a second major, often gravitating toward computer science, math, or astronomy.

So where can you expect a physics major to lead you?

Choose from several esteemed careers with this degree.

Other than saying you’re a “rocket scientist,” it’s hard to claim more cachet than saying you have a physics degree. With a bachelor’s in physics, and perhaps some additional technical training, you can likely find jobs with government agencies and with corporations, usually as research assistants or technicians, or you can teach at the secondary level if you also achieve teaching certification. To become a more high-level research scientist for government, industry, or academia, or to become a full-fledged college professor, you’ll likely need to build on your bachelor’s and go for a Ph.D. Other career possibilities with a physics degree (sometimes via an engineering physics degree) include applications engineer, data analyst, laser or optical engineer, or even software developer, among others.

Your paycheck won’t disappoint.

The median annual wage for physicists in 2016 was around $115,000, with a faster-than-average job outlook at 14% between 2016 and 2016 (that rate holds for both physicists and astronomers). Pay can increase even more, depending on what niche you fall into: Working for hospitals, for example, brought physicists a median annual wage of $166,000 and change in 2016.

There’s a niche and industry for every interest.

There are several sub-genres from which you can choose a specialty, including astrophysics (physics in the universe), nuclear physics, nanotechnology, biophysics (studying the physics of living organisms), medical physics (working in health care), and even plasma physics, studying the same type of matter we find in plasma TVs. Where you end up can vary, too: You may find yourself working in the fields of astronomy, health care, aerospace, engineering, geophysics, or technology, among others.

You may end up working for a pretty prestigious company.

Remember that cachet we talked about earlier? You can boost it even further if you’re able to nail a job at one of the country’s most venerated companies or institutions. You may be able to give your parents (and yourself) bragging rights to say you work for NASA, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, the Air Force Research Laboratory, or Boeing, among others. You can up your chances of finding a long-term opportunity at one of these employers by nabbing an internship with them during or after your undergrad studies.

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