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?
- What do graduates do and earn?
Physics & 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 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.
As you might expect from this diversity, there's a vast choice of Physics & 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 & 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 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 degrees 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. 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 popular option of spending a year of your studies abroad, typically during the third year of a four-year course.
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.
The graduate prospects for the top universities in this subject area are high, so it's very likely you'll find professional-level employment or further study after finishing your undergraduate degree.
Many people who have studied Physics & Astronomy find it helps them develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. It makes you very employable.
Quite a few courses include a year in industry, and many placements can be taken abroad. For most this will be in English speaking countries such as Ireland or the USA, but if you also speak a foreign language, the possibilities go further. Knowledge of the universe and how to research it offers skills and knowledge that can be applied in any country or culture around the world.
Physicists need not stick to their subject too closely. You can be a mathematician, an engineer in any discipline, or take on a range of other subjects and topics. Explore the universe, develop laser technology, solve a world energy crisis – and so on and so forth. If you're a multiskilled type, try a joint 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.
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
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.
- GO TO
- Choosing A Levels
BSc Hons, MPhys Hons, and MSci (Hons) in courses including:
- Astronomy and Physics
- Astronomy, Space Science and Astrophysics
- Environmental Physics
- Natural Sciences
- Observational Astronomy
- Physical Sciences
- 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 include:
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.
- 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)