Study Physical Science: Associate's Degree, Majors & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in a physical science degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of an associate's and bachelor's degree and potential careers.
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Physical Science Associate's and Bachelor's: Degrees at a Glance

Associate's and bachelor's degree programs in the physical sciences provide the basic foundation for a large number of careers in the scientific, mathematical and engineering fields, including medicine and engineering. Students in these undergraduate programs typically have the option of choosing a major in such areas as astronomy, chemistry, environmental science, geology or physics.

Although a degree in the physical sciences can lead to a variety of career paths, it's important to keep in mind that many of the jobs for which you'll qualify are technician or entry-level positions. At least a master's or a professional degree is typically needed to perform independent scientific research or to teach at the collegiate level.

Associate's Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? - Individuals preparing to enter a bachelor's degree program in science, mathematics or engineering - People who intend to pursue graduate-level education or entry-level positions in a science-related field
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Agricultural or food science technician ($36,000)*
- Environmental science or protection technician ($45,000)*
- Mechanical engineering technician ($53,000)*
- Forensic science technician ($56,000 - requires extensive on-the-job training)*
- Entry-level environmental scientist ($69,000 - a master's degree may be required for career advancement)*
- Entry-level chemist ($75,000 - a graduate-level degree is usually required to perform research)*
Time to Completion Two years, full-time Four years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements Approximately 60-64 credits
At least a 'C' grade point average
- Approximately 120 credits
- Grade point average of at least 2.0
Prerequisites - High school diploma or its equivalent
- At least 18 years old
- High school diploma or its equivalent
- Minimum ACT or SAT scores (required by some institutions)
- Satisfactory college preparatory curriculum
Online Availability Yes Available, but rare

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Associate's in Physical Science

An associate's degree program in physical science at a two-year college is often designed as a transfer program. Students are generally expected to transfer to a four-year college or university and continue on to earn a bachelor's degree in a physical science major. Some schools award an Associate in Science degree, while others award an Associate of Science; the two programs are equivalent.

Pros and Cons


  • Credits generally transfer to a four-year program
  • It may cost less to complete a transfer program than to earn a four-year degree at a university
  • Distance-learning options are available


  • Job opportunities are limited with only an associate's degree
  • It may be more convenient to earn all undergraduate credits in one bachelor's degree program rather than transferring
  • Not all majors are available at all schools

Courses and Requirements

Physical science programs generally require a combination of classroom lectures and laboratory courses. Coursework subjects depend upon the student's major, but might include:

  • Electricity and magnetism
  • Physical geography
  • Calculus
  • General chemistry
  • Analytical chemistry

Online Degree Options

Fully online degree programs are available at the associate's degree level. Some of these programs include online laboratory courses; however, you may benefit from hybrid programs, since hands-on laboratory experience can be valuable.

How to Stand Out

Bachelor's degree programs offer more opportunities to take elective courses than associate's degree programs. However, choosing as many electives as possible, both in the subspecialty of the physical sciences in which you would like to work and in related fields, can expand your general scientific knowledge and help you stand out in the transfer admissions process.

Bachelor's in Physical Science

At the bachelor's degree level, a physical science program may allow you to choose a specific track, such as pre-medicine or pre-engineering, designed to prepare you for postbaccalaureate studies. Graduates of bachelor's degree programs might pursue entry-level work in a number of science-related fields or they may use the bachelor's degree program as the basis for further education in a specific sub-discipline of the physical sciences.

Pros & Cons


  • Prepares students for graduate-level education in the natural sciences, mathematics, engineering or medicine
  • General science skills prepare graduates for a wide range of possible careers
  • It may be convenient to complete all four undergraduate years in a single program


  • Further education and professional licensure and/or certification are required for some science, mathematics and engineering careers
  • Distance education programs are rare
  • Very specialized tracks are not available at every college

Courses and Requirements

Courses and requirements vary based on the physical science major you choose to pursue. Some typical courses might include:

  • Biochemistry
  • Inorganic chemistry
  • Discrete mathematics
  • Differential equations

Online Degree Options

Online Bachelor of Science in Physical Sciences programs from accredited U.S. colleges and universities did not exist as of December 2012, although it was possible to find online courses in some physical sciences subjects, such as chemistry, and credits from these courses might transfer to an on-campus program. A few majors within the physical sciences, such as environmental science, can be studied through online bachelor's degree programs.

How to Stand Out

Chances to stand out in a bachelor's degree program might include participating in internships, research opportunities and pre-professional student organizations. Some schools offer study abroad opportunities as well, which can expose you to other cultures and help make you a more well-rounded student.