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Guide to studying Physics & Astronomy

Physics & Astronomy addresses the fundamental questions about the universe: How did it begin? What is it made of? How does it work?

Scientist working with laser machine

CONTENTS

  1. What's Physics & Astronomy?

  2. Why study Physics & Astronomy?

  3. What jobs can you get as a Physics & Astronomy graduate?

  4. What do graduates do and earn?
  5. What qualifications do you need?

  6. What degrees can you study?

  7. How will you be assessed?

  8. What are the postgraduate opportunities?

What's Physics & Astronomy?

Physics & Astronomy degrees develop your 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. In contrast, 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 subatomic 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.

Why study Physics & Astronomy?

Learn why the sky is blue. Find out why the world goes round. Discover how global warming works. If trying to find out the answers to some of these questions sounds interesting, then this is the subject for you.

Read our six reasons to study Physics & Astronomy for more information on why you might choose this subject area.

Milky Way

What jobs can you get with a Physics & Astronomy degree?

Physics & Astronomy is a fascinating subject area that is fundamental to the development of modern society.

Applications of the subject range from the very pure to the very practical, and a 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.

What do graduates do and earn?

In the infographic below, the first table shows what graduates of Physics & Astronomy have gone on to do in the months after their graduation.

The second table shows the average salaries of undergraduate Physics & Astronomy students entering employment. The three skill levels – high, medium and low – reflect the UK's Standard Occupational Classification's major groups 1–3, 4–6 and 7–9 respectively.

Source: HESA Graduate Outcomes Survey 2017/18

What qualifications do you need?

For Physics & Astronomy courses, A Levels (or equivalent) in Physics and Mathematics are usually essential.

Grades and other requirements change with each university. They tend to be high, so make sure you check for the institution you're interested in.

What degrees can you study?

There's a vast choice of Physics & Astronomy degrees to choose from. In the early years, most courses will build upon your understanding of 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 physics are a significant part of all Physics & 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 focusing 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 & Astronomy degrees, especially the four-year courses, will include a substantial research project in the last year. This allows you 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.

Typical BSc Hons, MPhys Hons, and MSci (Hons) courses include:

  • Space Science and Astrophysics
  • Environmental Physics
  • Physical Sciences
  • Physics and Mathematics
  • Theoretical Physics and Applied Mathematics

Related courses include:

  • Chemistry
  • Computing
  • Engineering
  • Geophysics
  • Mathematics

Some universities that offer various 'flavours' of physics degrees allow you to switch your 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. 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.

Many universities also offer the option of spending a year of your studies abroad, typically during the third year of a four-year course.

How will you be assessed?

When studying towards Physics & Astronomy degrees, you're likely to be assessed by a mixture of coursework and exams.

Typical coursework includes practical laboratory experimental sessions, project work (such as reports and written/oral presentations), literature reviews, seminars and problem classes.

Formal examinations test knowledge, understanding and your ability to solve problems.

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)

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