Physics is the most basic of the natural sciences – it is the study of how the world works! Physics seeks to understand the world on all scales of length, time and energy by developing and refining fundamental models to quantitatively explain observations and the results of experiments. Thus, it is the basis for much of technology because it is the study of the interactions of matter and energy, which make the physical universe work. It is the laws of physics and the knowledge discovered by physicists that scientists in all other fields use to guide them.
At Johns Hopkins, the department of Physics and Astronomy offers a B.A. in Physics as well as a more focused B.S. degree for those who intend to pursue graduate study in physics or astronomy. While it does not offer an undergraduate degree in astronomy, it does offer many astronomy courses and research opportunities to prepare students for graduate study in the field. While the basic educational degree for physicists is the doctorate, an undergraduate degree in physics is fundamentally applicable to many fields because of its focus on critical thinking, problem solving and analytical skills. According to the American Physical Society, about 70% of physics bachelors either enter the industrial workforce or pursue fields like engineering, mathematics, chemistry, business, computer science, medicine and law.
Your undergraduate degree is the best time to explore different areas of physics to determine your strengths and interests. Areas of specialization in physics include:
- Atmospheric physics
- Chemical physics
- Environmental physics
- Fluid mechanics
- Materials science
- Medical physics
- Molecular physics
- Nuclear physics
- Optical physics
- Particle physics
- Plasma physics
- Solid state physics
- Space physics
- Thermal physics
- Vacuum physics
Careers in research and teaching at the university level require a doctorate. However, the majority of physics undergraduates do not pursue doctorates and either enter the workforce or pursue graduate study at a different level, such as medical, business or law school, or master’s degrees in a more focused area of science or math. The type of career you ultimately pursue depends heavily on your degree level – but, while the number of careers you can have in physics with only a bachelor’s degree is somewhat limited, the number of careers you can pursue with a bachelor’s in physics is not:
- Teaching - teaching secondary school physics, though in many instances further certification in education is required.
- Engineering – designing, analyzing and constructing works for practical purposes, including electrical, systems, civil, mechanical, acoustic, computer and aeronautical engineering. Further certification might be required.
- Research and development in industrial and government labs - developing technological advances in areas such as semiconductors, optoelectronics, computers, television, telecommunications, and energy development.
- Environmental conservation and energy – developing new energy sources and improving efficiency and safety in energy production; pollution monitoring.
- Meteorology – weather forecasting, atmospheric modeling, oceanography.
- Computer science – modeling, simulations, programming, and software development.
- Finance and consulting – working with investment banks, brokerage and consulting firms to analyze and solve concrete problems by applying abstract mathematical knowledge and models.
- Medical and law school – statistically, undergraduate physics majors receive the highest scores on the MCAT and the LSAT, and excel in medical and law school due to their highly sophisticated problem solving skills and ability to think outside the box
The first step in preparing for your career is choosing the right degree in physics: the bachelor’s of science or the bachelor’s of arts. If interested in pursuing advanced study in physics, the B.S. degree provides the most focused background in physical science. If interested in pursuing a graduate degree in a different area or going directly into the work force, the B.A. degree allows more freedom to choose coursework that specifically relates to your area of interest, including engineering, computers, education, medicine or law. It is particularly important to develop strong writing and communication skills, as most work in physics is collaborative – it requires working with a team and presenting your findings.
Employers look for graduates with a strong understanding of fundamental physical principles, research and laboratory experience, quantitative skills, the ability to apply and integrate fundamental scientific principles, statistical analysis skills and experience with high tech equipment. The best way to develop and demonstrate these skills is by doing well in your courses and participating in research and internships in the industry. The physics department at Hopkins offers research opportunities in condensed matter physics, high-energy physics, astrophysics, plasma spectroscopy and theoretical physics, along with other opportunities. For students interested in careers not directly relating to physics, internships and research in your area of interest are crucial to demonstrating your abilities and interest in that field, as well as to gain experience applying principles of physics to real world problems.
Employers frequently stress the importance of communication and teamwork skills in students in science and math. Active participation in the department’s chapter of the Society of Physics Students offers opportunities to demonstrate leadership and interpersonal skills, as well as membership and leadership roles in campus extracurricular activities
Hopkins Physics alumni go into a variety of career fields. Since 2005 the Career Center has surveyed recent graduates about their academic and career plans 6 months after graduation. Here is a summary of their responses.
Listed below are actual job titles that JHU alumni acquired with their degrees in Physics:
- Aerospace Research Engineer
- Associate Director of Research
- Computer Platform Architect
- Managing Partner, Information Management and Consulting
- Engineering Manager, Semiconductors
- Engineering Physicist, Acoustics
- Forensic Engineer, Manufacturing
- International Technical Advisor, Federal Government
- Manufacturing Engineer
- Owner, Computer Software and Computer Systems
- Physicist/Director of Operations, Military Research and Development
- Project Manager, Aerospace
- Research Assistant
- Senior Process Engineer
- Senior Project Engineer
- Senior Scientist, Petroleum Industry
- Science & Technology Analyst, Defense industry
Hopkins Alumni in Physics
Additional Alumni Profiles
Networking with alumni and other professionals who work in these fields can help you learn very specific information about a career field. Use Johns Hopkins Connect to contact alumni to ask for their advice. You may also find professional contacts through professional associations, faculty, friends and family.
For more information on what you can do with a Physics Major go to What can I do with a major in Physics.
Want to know more? Read our Hopkins Career Profiles on Engineering, Scientific Research, Consulting, and Teaching.
If you would like to talk about how your search is going, we invite you to make an appointment with a Career Counselor by calling 410-516-8056.
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The Career Center is here to help you navigate the graduate school search process. Click here for guidelines and preparing for Graduate School and Professional School.
For information on the specific programs, the best people to talk to are the experts in your field you wish to study, faculty members and graduate students in that specific discipline. We strongly encourage you to talk with your advisor and other faculty members with whom you have a good working relationship. This will also help when you request letters of recommendation. The Career Center has a handout to guide you in asking for letters of recommendation.