Physics and Astronomy

What Can I Do With A Major In Physics and Astronomy?

Physics is considered to be the most fundamental of all the disciplines in the natural sciences. In physics we try to describe and understand a myriad of physical phenomena ranging from subatomic to cosmological scales by quantifying the relationships among different physical quantities. Not only does physics have its own merit as a challenging but exciting scientific endeavor, it provides the basis for understanding underlying processes in astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, computer science, engineering, and even in behavioral sciences. Applications of physics are virtually unlimited: computers, communications, energy production, medical technology, and space flight, to name just a few. Some physicists explore theoretical areas, such as the origin of the universe, or the fundamental theories of nature. Other physicists concentrate on testing theories experimentally, or developing practical devices based on theoretical or experimental work. Many physicists work in collaborations that combine both theoretical and experimental endeavors working in parallel. More than ever, working physicists use computers to solve theoretical problems not easily attempted analytically, to model physical systems either in conjunction with experimental efforts or in lieu of an experiment, and to analyze and reduce large data sets from experimental efforts. As in many other fields, computers have become an integral part of virtually every physicist’s work.

The Department of Physics and Astronomy at the UM offers a range of physics courses from introductory to advanced undergraduate level in both experimental and theoretical physics with computational methods in mind. In addition, we offer introductory to advanced astronomy and astrophysics courses in which astronomical applications of physics are emphasized. These courses deal with the Universe, from the solar system to clusters of galaxies, both theoretically and observationally.

The Department of Physics and Astronomy offers the Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in physics. Graduates with this degree are prepared for further study in physics or related fields at the masters or Ph.D. level, as well as a wide variety of technical positions in industry. In addition, the department offers two other degree paths, which combine a solid background in the study of physics with in-depth study in other fields. These options allow for specialization in related fields and provide appropriate background for certain employment opportunities and for continued graduate or professional study:

Astrophysics: The astrophysics option provides a thorough study of astronomy and astrophysics as well as a solid background in physics and mathematics. Graduates from this program have gone on to graduate programs in astronomy and astrophysics while others have found career opportunities at national astronomical observatories.

Computational Physics: The computational physics option provides a thorough study of computer science and computational physics as well as a solid background in physics and mathematics. Graduates from this program have gone on to graduate programs in physics and computer science while others have found career opportunities in technical fields.

Career related data:

The federal government and scientific research and development services firms employ about three-fifths of all physicists and astronomers.

Most positions are in research and development, and normally require an advanced degree (PhD or masters). Physicists who have only a bachelor’s degree can qualify for positions as technicians or research assistants.

Although many students who earn a bachelor's degree in physics go on to obtain higher degrees, these higher degrees are not necessarily in physics. A bachelor's degree in physics (or an associated option) is an excellent preparation and foundation for advanced degrees in:
  • Engineering (electrical, mechanical, civil, aeronautical, computer, etc.)
  • Health related fields (medical, dental, optometry, physical therapy, etc.)
  • Law school.
  • Other scientific fields (chemistry, geology, biology, computer, atmospheric, materials, mathematics, oceanography, etc.)
Sub-disciplines of physics include: Applied Physics, Optics & Photonics, Materials Science, Atomic & Molecular Physics, Condensed Matter Physics (sometimes called Solid State Physics), Nuclear Physics, Atmospheric and Space Physics, Biophysics, Astronomy & Astrophysics, Particles & Fields (sometimes called Elementary Particle Physics), and Medical Physics.

More than most other majors, physics is a passport into a broad range of science, engineering, and education careers. Where you are likely to work will differ by your degree level. The majority of physics bachelors work in the private sector compared to only about one-quarter of physics PhDs. In academia, most physics bachelors and masters teach in high schools, while virtually all university and 4-year college positions are held by PhDs. The other sector that employs a large number of people with physics backgrounds is the government including federal agencies, government laboratories, state and local government, and the military. The most common occupations differ by where they work, but few physics bachelors have the title, physicist. In large part, this is because most physics bachelors work in the private sector and, unlike other sciences, there is no "physics" industry; physics is used in nearly all industries. Among the most common occupations are engineer and computer scientist. Many physics bachelors also teach science in secondary schools. Over time, physics bachelors are often promoted into positions that involve managing projects, people, and budgets.

Hidden physicists are people with a physics background, but without a typical physics job. Nearly 90% of all physicists are hidden physicists. This web site has dozens of testimonials from hidden physicists from a wide variety of fields:

Physicists and astronomers held about 14,000 jobs in 2002. Jobs for astronomers accounted for only 7 percent of the total. Nearly one-third of physicists and astronomers worked for scientific research and development services firms. The Federal Government employed 29 percent, mostly in the U.S. Department of Defense, but also in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and in the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Health and Human Services, and Energy. Other physicists and astronomers worked in colleges and universities in non-faculty, usually research, positions, or for state governments, information technology companies, pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing companies, or electronic equipment manufacturers. Besides the jobs described above, many physicists and astronomers held faculty positions in colleges and universities. Although physicists and astronomers are employed in all parts of the country, most work in areas in which universities, large research and development laboratories, or observatories are located.

A Sample of Related Occupations

Types of Employers

Private and Non-Profit Organizations

Atomic/Nuclear Labs
Manufacturing/Processing Firms
Petroleum Companies
Research Firms
Technical Libraries
Engineering Firms
Patent Law Firms
Professional Journals
Technical Journals

Government Agencies

Naval Research Lab
Sandia National Lab
Brookhaven National Lab
US Department of Commerce
US Department of Energy
National Aeronautics & Space Administration-NASA
Pacific Northwest National Lab
Oak Ridge National Lab
US Department of Health and Human Services
US Department of Defense

Related Web Links

Professional Associations