Theoretical Physics Degree Program Information

Read about degree programs in theoretical physics. Find out about educational prerequisites, potential coursework, continuing education information and employment possibilities after graduating.

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Essential Information

Theoretical physics is an interdisciplinary field that relies heavily on mathematics, physics and experimentation to better humans' understanding of how the various properties of the universe interact. The Large Hadron Collider, as well as work in string theory, has excited the field of theoretical physics in recent years. Training programs in theoretical physics are found from the undergraduate to the doctoral levels. Coursework will vary based on the level of education, but some topics of study include thermodynamics, magnetism, string theory and advanced research methods.


Bachelor's Degree in Mathematical Physics

Students in bachelor's degree tracks in mathematical physics learn about applied mathematics, classical physics and elementary particles, in order to understand the basic building blocks of the universe. Though lab work is required of students interested in theoretical physics, mathematics physics students also take advanced math courses instead of some laboratory work. Undergraduate physics programs typically take four years to complete and prospective students are not expected to meet any additional prerequisites, other than that they be high school graduates.

Program Coursework

Undergraduate students learn about advanced mathematics and modern concepts in physics in order to prepare themselves for work in quantum optics, computational physics and string theory, among other topics. Commonly offered courses include:

  • Abstract algebra
  • Calculus
  • Classical mechanics
  • Electromagnetic theory
  • Statistics
  • Thermodynamics
  • Quantum mechanics

Popular Career Options

Graduates of bachelor's degree programs are not qualified to conduct independent research as physicists; however, with additional training, bachelor's degree holders in physics are able to teach high school physics. Mathematical physics bachelor's degree holders entering the workforce may be employed in positions such as:

  • Computer systems analyst
  • Computer programmer
  • Computer scientist
  • Software engineer
  • Systems developer
  • Systems engineer

Master's Degree in Physics

Building on their knowledge of the cosmos, graduate students use observational evidence, experimentation and mathematics to explain apparent anomalies in physical laws and to refine human understanding of the universe's mechanics. Students learn about the interplay among the four fundamental forces - gravity, strong, weak and electromagnetic. Many physics departments have laboratories that allow students to tailor research towards theoretical physics. Master's degree programs typically take two years to complete; applicants are required to have an undergraduate degree in physics or mathematics and have taken at least one year of undergraduate chemistry.

Program Coursework

Master's degree programs teach students everything from gauge theory to polymer physics, so that students perceive humanity's understanding of the cosmos as a work in progress. Theoretical physicists work to unite Einstein's theory of general relativity with quantum mechanics. Common course topics include:

  • Classical mechanics
  • Electricity
  • Magnetism
  • Optics
  • Statistical thermodynamics
  • Quantum mechanics
  • Quantum electronics

Employment Outlook and Salary Info

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 17,820 physicists employed across various fields in May 2012. The employment of physicists is projected to increase 14% for the years 2010 through 2020 (www.bls.gov). The BLS also reported that, as of May 2012, the median annual salary for physicists in general was $106,840.


Doctoral Degree in Physics

Theoretical physics Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) students apply their understanding of complex math to anomalies in order to infer the existence of matter from observed effects of known forces. Doctoral degree programs take 5-6 years to complete, including the research and writing of a thesis. Applicants to doctoral level physics programs need to have earned a bachelor's degree in engineering or a physical science.

Program Coursework

Doctoral level programs allow students to focus studies on a specific area of interest, like field theory, particle physics or string theory. Core coursework includes:

  • Advanced quantum mechanics
  • Quantum field theory
  • Particle physics
  • Statistical physics
  • String theory
  • Supersymmetry

Popular Career Options

Jobs within the field of physics can be found in scientific research and development companies, colleges and university settings or working for the federal government. Job titles include:

  • Accelerator operations physicist
  • Applied physicist
  • Postdoctoral fellow
  • Professor
  • Radiation protection physicist
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    Areas of study you may find at Brown University include:
      • Graduate: First Professional Degree, Master
      • Undergraduate: Bachelor
    • Physical Sciences
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      • Natural Resources Conservation
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      • Physics
        • Atomic and Molecular Physics
        • Theoretical Physics
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    Areas of study you may find at University of Miami include:
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        • Theoretical Physics
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    Areas of study you may find at Vanderbilt University include:
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