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Guide to Studying Physics and Astronomy

Milky way © khlongwangchao - Fotolia
Milky way © khlongwangchao - Fotolia
Astrophysics is concerned with
the stars that fill the universe.

What is Physics and Astronomy?

Physics and Astronomy address the fundamental questions about the universe: How did the universe begin? What is it made of? How does it work? If trying to find out the answers to some of these questions sounds interesting, then this is the subject for you.

  • Physics and Astronomy degrees develop students’ understanding of the relationship between the physical laws of the universe and how they apply across different scales of space and time.
  • For example, cosmology is the study of the origin, evolution, and eventual fate of the universe, whereas astrophysics is concerned with the stars that fill it, and space science is the study of our local planetary neighbourhood. 
  • In contrast to these grand scales, particle physics, nanotechnology and condensed matter physics focus on the atomic and sub-atomics domains to probe the physics of matter at its constituent level. 
  • Although incredibly diverse, there are theoretical and experimental aspects within most of these disciplines. 
  • Some branches of physics, such as nuclear physics and medical physics, are also very closely related to applications in industry and society.

As you might expect from this diversity, there is a dizzying choice of Physics and Astronomy degrees to choose from! 

  • In the early years most courses will build upon your understanding in core physics areas such as classical mechanics, electric and magnetic fields, optics, waves, thermodynamics, quantum physics and relativity. 
  • Alongside these subjects, the mathematical techniques that underpin the physics are a significant part of all physics and astronomy courses.

Typically, the subject-specific aspect of your course, such as astrophysics, cosmology or particle physics, will increase as you proceed through your degree. 

  • Meanwhile, the core content will reduce as you spend more of your time focussing on your chosen subjects. Your theoretical understanding is usually reinforced (and sometimes challenged!) by practical laboratory sessions which tend to evolve from quite structured to much more open-ended investigations in the later years of your studies. 
  • Most Physics and Astronomy degrees, especially the four-year courses, will include a substantial research project in the last year. This gives you the opportunity to work on a current research topic linked to your chosen degree specialisation over many months, closely supervised by a research supervisor who is an expert in that field. 

Some universities that offer various 'flavours' of physics degree allow students to switch their course specialism (such as from Physics with Astrophysics to Physics with Particle Physics) or switch between three- and four-year degrees. 

  • This flexibility means that if your interests change once at university you’re not locked into the degree course you applied for, but most universities have a cut-off point for switching, often in the second year, so it’s worth checking what the rules are wherever you're thinking of applying to. 
  • Lots of universities also offer the very popular option to spend a year of your studies abroad, typically the third year of a four-year course.

Specific or general skills developed

  • As well as the knowledge and experience specific to the course, physics students gain valuable general skills such as logical thinking, problem solving, numeracy and computer literacy.

Coursework, assessments and exams

  • When studying towards Physics and Astronomy degrees, you are likely to be assessed by a mixture of coursework and exams. 
  • Typical coursework includes practical laboratory experimental sessions, project work (including reports and written/oral presentation), literature reviews, seminars and problem classes. 
  • Formal examinations test knowledge, understanding and your ability to solve problems.

What degree can I get? 

BSc Hons, MPhys Hons, and MSci (Hons) in courses including:

  • I love physics © markrubens - Fotolia
    © markrubens - Fotolia
    Astronomy and Physics
  • Astronomy, Space Science and Astrophysics
  • Astrophysics
  • Environmental Physics
  • Natural Sciences
  • Observational Astronomy
  • Physical Sciences
  • Physics
  • Physics and Mathematics
  • Physics with Astronomy
  • Physics with Astrophysics
  • Physics with Chemistry
  • Physics with Medical Physics
  • Physics with Nanoscience
  • Physics with Nanotechnology
  • Physics with Nuclear Astrophysics
  • Physics with Nuclear Technology
  • Physics with Particle Physics and Cosmology
  • Physics with Photonics
  • Physics with Planetary and Space Physics
  • Physics with Planetary Science
  • Physics with Quantum Technologies
  • Physics with Satellite Technology
  • Physics with Space Science
  • Physics with Space Science and Technology
  • Physics with Theoretical Astrophysics
  • Physics with Theoretical Physics
  • Physics, Astrophysics and Cosmology
  • Theoretical Physics
  • Theoretical Physics and Applied Mathematics

Related courses

  • Chemistry
  • Computing
  • Engineering
  • Geophysics
  • Mathematics

What qualifications do I need?

  • A level or equivalent Physics and Mathematics is essential.
  • Entry requirements change with each university. They tend to be high, so make sure you check with the institution you are interested in.

Use the CUG Course Chooser to search through Physics & Astronomy courses.

What are the postgraduate opportunities?

  • One or two-year certificates in initial teacher training (PGCE);
  • One-year taught master's degree courses (MSc);
  • One-year master's degree by research courses (MRes);
  • Two-year research degrees (MPhil);
  • Three or four-year research degrees (PhD).

Graduate job prospects

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*Professional employment refers to a job or occupation which normally requires a degree.
**Non-professional employment refers to a job or occupation which doesn't normally require a degree.

What are the job opportunities?

  • Physics is an exciting subject that is fundamental to the developments in modern society. 
  • Applications of the subject range from the very pure to the very practical, and a physics degree opens up a wide range of rewarding careers in scientific research and technological development, as well as in a variety of other professions. 
  • A substantial number of graduates continue onto postgraduate education, or enter employment that directly relies on their specialist skills.
  • Students also find employment in careers where they are valued because of general skills gained during the course such as logical thinking, problem solving, numeracy and computer literacy. Examples include consulting, finance, computer programming, and accountancy, as well as managerial and administrative positions.

By Professor Jim Wild, Professor of Space Physics, Physics Department, Lancaster University.