Complete Guide to an Online Physics Degree
Physics is the study of the fundamental elements of the universe, like matter, energy, gravity, motion, and force. Online physics degrees are available at many levels. Students take coursework in the application and theory of the universe's fundamental forces. Most physics graduates go on to work in research labs or in engineering positions within the government or private sector. Only about 30% of physics students become physics professors, which requires a doctoral degree.
Prospective physics students will benefit from choosing a program at an online college or university that has earned institutional accreditation from a national or regional accrediting agency. In addition to learning more about accreditation, read on for a list of the most popular online physics degrees, career specializations, and answers to frequently asked questions in the field.
Most Popular Accredited Online Schools for Physics Degrees
Online Physics Degree Overview & Career Information
The study of physics is often collaborative and tends to encompass multiple occupational areas, such as medicine and engineering. Physics is arguably one of the most challenging fields of science to study, and it is essential that those who plan to enter a physics program have an extremely strong grasp of mathematics (especially calculus), a broad understanding of the natural sciences, and the focus needed to conduct careful analytical research.
An online physics degree is available at the associate, bachelor's, master's, doctoral, and certificate levels. Graduates of online bachelor's and master's degree programs have the option of becoming secondary school instructors or technicians, while those who continue their education and earn their doctorate can become full-fledged physicists, college instructors, or researchers.
Online associate and bachelor's degree programs cover a breadth of subjects in science and other fields and prepare students for more advanced studies at the graduate level. Core physics courses often include classes in wave physics, relativity, electromagnetism, quantum and classical mechanics, optics, and thermodynamics. In addition to general physics classes, students are often expected to complete related courses in calculus and advanced mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, computer science, and the humanities.
Some online master's and doctoral degree programs are available in physics, but they may be hybrid programs. Advanced degrees in physics require research and hands-on experience and cannot always be completed entirely online. Online master's and doctoral degree students tend to study a specialty topic in physics which determines their overall coursework. Master's students are expected to complete a thesis on a particular area of physics research, while doctoral students will be required to write a dissertation on a subject related to their specialty before they graduate.
Online Associate Degrees in Physics
Online associate degrees in physics take two years to complete and can be earned through many degree-granting institutions, including four-year colleges or community colleges. Students pursuing associate degrees must earn 60 undergraduate credits and can begin this process immediately following high school graduation.
Online degrees in physics largely focus on math and physics. The math courses will usually teach advanced algebra through calculus, and physics classes cover kinematics, statics, thermodynamics, electrodynamics, and sometimes career-oriented applied physics courses. More advanced or focused classes in physics can be found at later degree levels, including the remaining two years of the bachelor's degree and up through doctoral degrees.
Online associate degrees in most subjects also require that students complete general education requirements and any courses consistent with prerequisites for the bachelor's degree. General education courses will add writing and history or social sciences classes to the math and science in the associate degree.
Although physicists can earn very high wages, the highest-paying research and experimentation positions require doctoral degrees. For many students, associate degrees in physics simply fulfill half of the years necessary for a Bachelor of Science degree. However, if you earn a career-specific certification, your associate degree in physics could be applied to work as a technician in an engineering, aerospace, or even a medical profession requiring physics knowledge.
Online Bachelor's Degrees in Physics
The online bachelor’s degree in physics provides students with a firm understanding of the natural laws and principles governing motion in the universe. These four-year natural science degrees require 120 credit hours of work. Applicants need a high school diploma, as well as high school coursework in math and natural science. Online bachelor's degree programs may ask applicants to have achieved a minimum score or better on the SAT, ACT, or other specialty exam, a high school diploma, and completion of a variety of physics classes.
The core of the physics program is based in math and the theories and applications of physics. Common courses cover classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism, thermal physics, optics, and electrodynamics. Math courses in calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, and mathematical physics provide a firm foundation for understanding the basis of physics laws.
Along with theory courses, online physics students also complete lab classes, which illustrate the theoretical findings and properties of physics. In the latter years of the degree, students can choose upper-level electives in order to explore aspects of physics that interest them, such as nanotechnology, cosmology, or lasers.
The online physics bachelor’s degree opens up job opportunities in a variety of engineering, industry, and educational areas. Graduates can become science technicians in labs, engineering firms, or scientific research organizations. Other physics graduates can assist in design and production in information technology, software, and engineering settings. Due to the shortage of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) teachers in secondary school settings, many states have alternative certification routes for STEM bachelor’s holders that would like to become high school teachers. Since these programs vary by state, students should contact their particular state’s education board for more information.
Online Master's Degrees in Physics
The online master’s degree in physics provides bachelor’s-level students with a deeper understanding of core physics principles, as well as graduate-level research skills. These degrees typically take two years to complete and require approximately 10 courses, along with the research experience. In addition to an accredited bachelor's degree, applicants to graduate programs are generally required to have a minimum score or better on the GRE, as well as extensive college education in the natural sciences and advanced mathematics.
The coursework for online master's degree level students depends largely upon their chosen specialty within physics. For example, students who enter a beam physics program can be expected to complete classes in nonlinear beam dynamics and particle accelerators and may have to complete a written thesis in order to graduate. Conversely, those who apply to a program in health physics might take classes in nuclear medicine and diagnostic imaging and may be required to complete a clinical rotation as well as a master's thesis. Overall, students at the master's degree level and higher should expect a variety of specialty topics that prepare them for specific career paths and interdisciplinary studies.
Not all online physics master’s programs require a full thesis project, but most require some type of research in a physics lab. Students develop a relationship with their faculty advisor and assist in the advisor’s lab to learn graduate-level research skills. Most programs require that students pass a comprehensive exam at the end of the program before they can be awarded the degree.
Graduates of the online physics master’s degree may land positions in industry, research, information technology, or education. Physics is highly applicable to many electrical engineering and computer science issues, and graduates may be eligible for positions as software developers, computer hardware developers, or IT researchers. Research and development firms in aerospace, defense, and related areas can also be suitable places of employment for master’s-level graduates. Those interested in physics education could become instructors at a high school or community college.
Online Doctoral Degrees in Physics
An online Doctor of Philosophy in Physics degree may prepare graduates for academic careers teaching at the university level and advanced physics research. Outside of academia, graduates may be able to find work in military research or the private sector and business world, with jobs as product researchers, market analysts, and others in the the emerging space industry. Online physics doctoral programs are almost entirely research-based, with the exception of a few high-level versions of physics courses taken during the first years of the programs, such as classical, statistical, and quantum mechanics, theoretical physics, and electrodynamics. After the basic coursework, students work on their dissertations while completing exams and faculty reviews.
Online physics doctoral programs take an average of five to seven years to complete, depending on research intensity. The few schools offering online doctorates in physics are four-year universities with specialized physics programs. Online Ph.D. programs are research intensive and require many physical components that are difficult to achieve exclusively online. Universities offering these online doctoral programs tend to only offer specific concentration areas, such as beam physics. Online physics doctoral programs require that the applicant has completed undergraduate studies, as well as any prerequisite physics and mathematics courses. A specified minimum GPA is also required, which varies by institution. Some online programs also require an amount of time teaching for the institution.
Online Certificates in Physics
Online certificates in physics disciplines are available to professionals and graduate students who wish to expand on their current knowledge of physics. For example, a graduate-level certificate in medical physics will expose current scientists or engineers to a clinical branch of physics, while an undergraduate certificate in radiological physics can be used by current healthcare professionals who need to complete continuing education credits to maintain their professional certification. Online certificate programs typically require the successful completion of four to six courses.
Students in physics degree programs take courses in mechanics, heat, matter, electricity, magnetism, light, and modern physics. They also learn how to use algebra and calculus to solve physics problems. Master's and doctoral students take additional courses in topics like quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, and electrodynamics. Graduate students conduct original research in their field and write a thesis or dissertation.
Students in radiation health physics programs learn about the chemistry and physics of radiation and how it affects living things. Other coursework may include therapeutic medical physics, which is the use of radiation therapy to treat disease, and environmental health physics, which is the study of the effects radioactive materials have on the environment. Students also learn about radiation safety, including the regulations that govern the use of radiation and the methods used to detect radiation. Graduate students may pursue thesis or non-thesis programs in this field.
Nuclear engineering students learn about the physics of nuclear materials and nuclear reactors from an engineering perspective. Coursework includes engineering analysis and reactor design, operations, and safety. Students may be required to complete and present a nuclear engineering project before graduating.
Physics education programs include coursework in both physics and pedagogy. Students learn about some of the same topics covered in physics degree programs and take courses in physics teaching practices. These programs may require students to design and defend a physics curriculum.
Accreditation is granted to colleges and universities that voluntarily request to have their educational programs reviewed and evaluated by outside agencies. Once a school has received accreditation, it must reapply after a certain number of years in order to prove that it still meets the standards set by the accrediting agencies. Attending an accredited school will enable students to transfer credits to other accredited schools and apply for financial aid; most financial aid providers require that students attend an accredited school.
Though not typically needed for finding employment, programmatic accreditation can help students pursuing a specialized career in physics meet the requirements for certain employment opportunities. Medical physicists, for example, must be enrolled in a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Physics (CAMPEP) in order to qualify for certification from the American Board of Radiology.
Accrediting agencies should be recognized by the US Department of Education in order to be considered reputable. A list of agencies and accredited institutions can be found on the USDE website. For specific information pertaining to the accreditation of distance education schools, students may also consult the Distance Education and Training Council.
Professionals in physics enjoy intricate, fulfilling careers that benefit society in a variety of ways. They apply mathematical and scientific principles to their practice and explore mysterious elements of the universe. Physicists play a large part in constructing research equipment that is valuable in surgical procedures and chemical practices. They frequently test the quality and effectiveness of products in the medical industry and governmental matters. Many physicists work out of university or government-owned laboratories or private offices. Being exposed to dangerous chemicals and lifting heavy objects is sometimes part of the job.
Most research and teaching positions in physics require the completion of a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in physics. Those with a bachelor’s degree can apply for research assistant and technician positions. Earning a master's degree in physics education can help high school teachers qualify for teaching certification in states that require teachers to hold graduate degrees. For the most part, the complex scientific and mathematical nature of the physics field requires attaining the highest level of education possible.
Here are just a few examples of some of the careers that physics degree program graduates can pursue:
- Medical Physicists: Medical physicists use their understanding of biology and physics in order to diagnose and treat patients. They use radiological procedures -- radiation -- to do just that. Subfields include nuclear medicine, diagnostic radiology, and therapeutic radiology. These professionals need at least a master's degree, but a PhD is highly useful in the field. Many states also require specific licensing or certification for medical and health physicists.
- Nuclear Engineers: Graduates of nuclear engineering programs may go to work researching and designing uses for nuclear power. Nuclear engineers work in government and industry research facilities and nuclear power plants. Earning a master's degree is not required to become a nuclear engineer or certified professional engineer, but it can help those who want to work in research.
- Occupational Health and Safety Specialists: Graduates of radiation health physics programs may work as occupational health and safety specialists. Health physicists ensure that facilities meet government regulations for the safe use of radiation. In addition to occupational safety, they can work in medical, environmental, and industrial safety situations. The American Board of Health Physics offers certification for health physicists looking to advance their careers.
- Physics Teachers: Physicists with a PhD can go into teaching at the postsecondary level. Professors in physics teach college students about the laws of matter and energy. Teaching may also be combined with research projects.
- Research Physicists: Physicists study the nature of the universe, from space to subatomic particles. They research new avenues of inquiry and develop new technologies and theories in an effort to come to a better understanding of our universe. Physicists spend a lot of time in laboratories conducting scientific experiments. Some also write proposals, design scientific equipment, develop computer software, write scientific papers, present their research findings, and do complex mathematical equations in order to analyze data. To become a research physicist, one should hold a doctoral degree in physics.
Frequently Asked Questions About Physics Degrees
How much can I expect to earn with an online degree in physics?
Because a physics degree is so versatile, leading to many different career opportunities, earning potential varies widely. According to ONET Online, physicists who have earned master's or doctoral degrees have a median annual income of $122,850. Biophysicists, many of whom also have advanced degrees, earn a median annual income of $94,490. Nuclear engineers with bachelor's degrees report a median annual income of $113,460.
Should I get a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science in Physics?
Some colleges and universities offer only a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Physics or a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Physics, and some programs offer students a choice. In general, the BA in Physics is a better option for students who want a foundation in physics before pursing a graduate degree in another subject, such as medicine or business. The BS in Physics is a better choice for students who are interested in research and intend to become physicists, as the requirements for earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics often involve more research and lab work.
How can I complete lab work in an online physics program?
Physics programs that are delivered on campus require lab work and, in graduate programs, research. Online physics programs handle lab experience, research, and projects in different ways. Some require students to visit campus for a short period, while others allow students to complete individual lab work at a local school or with an employer. Physics programs that require original research may not be offered completely online. Before choosing a program, prospective students should research its requirements for lab work, research, and final projects to determine if the program will be a good fit.
- Initial Certification. American Board of Radiology. Accessed Novbember 5, 2019. https://www.theabr.org/medical-physics/initial-certification.
- Nuclear Engineers. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Accessed June 25, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/nuclear-engineers.htm
- Occupational Health and Safety Specialists. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Accessed June 25, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-health-and-safety-specialists.htm.
- Physicists and Astronomers. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Accessed June 25, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Life-Physical-and-Social-Science/Physicists-and-astronomers.htm.
- Radiological Physics Certificate. Illinois Institute of Technology. Accessed June 25, 2014. http://science.iit.edu/programs/graduate/radiological-physics-certificate.