Study Physics: Bachelor's, Associate & Online Degree Info

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What will you learn in a physics degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of an associate and bachelor's degree, and potential careers.
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Physics Associate and Bachelor's: Degree at a Glance

Physics studies allow you to explore fundamental principles of nature using experimentation and mathematics. You will learn about the interplay between matter and energy. While gaining an understanding of the laws of physics, you will also develop strong analytical and quantitative skills.

If you aspire to work as a physicist, you will have to hold a PhD to be considered for employment. Though associate and bachelor's degree programs will not prepare you for that specific profession, they can provide you with skills that can be used for many other jobs and opportunities that exist in various fields. With an associate degree in physics, you can work as a chemical technician, though job growth may be slow in this field, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Bachelor's degree holders might find employment as high school teachers, a field projected to grow at a rate of 7% (also slower than average) over the same time period (www.bls.gov).

Associate Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? Individuals who wish to transfer into a bachelor's degree program in physics or begin a career in a support-level position in a variety of fields, like technology, business or chemical technology Individuals who wish to work in a variety of physics-related professions or advance to graduate-level studies in physics
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Chemical technician ($42,000)*
- Laboratory assistant ($34,000)**
- Materials scientist ($85,000)*
- High school teacher ($54,000)*
- Geoscientist ($84,000)*
- Research and development associate ($46,000 - for entry-level positions)**
- Mathematical technician ($46,000)*
Time to Completion 2 years full-time 4 years full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - General education requirements in sciences, mathematics, and English
- Core courses in physics and related subjects
- Electives
- General education requirements in sciences, mathematics, and English
- Core courses in physics and related subjects
- Electives
- Laboratory requirements
- Research projects
- Senior capstone project
Prerequisites High school diploma or equivalent High school diploma or equivalent; some previous experience in advanced mathematics might be required
Online Availability Not at this time Very rare at this time

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures), **Salary.com (June 2012 figures).

Associate Degree in Physics

Associate degree programs in physics are generally intended for students who wish to continue on to study physics or a related subject in a bachelor's degree program. In an associate degree program, you will get preparation for future study by learning about the basic principles of physics. You will study a number of subjects, including motion, gravity, electromagnetism, and thermodynamics. There is usually a heavy emphasis on mathematics, and you might need experience with mathematics, especially calculus, before transferring into a bachelor's degree program.

Some students go on to enter the job market after earning an associate degree, but you should be aware that job opportunities might be limited, and jobs specifically in physics are not available at this level. Many of the skills you learn, however, will be valuable to you as you search for a job across a number of different fields, including technology and business.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Studying a broad range of subjects provides a well-rounded educational experience for students in these programs
  • You can complete an associate degree program in as little as 2 years
  • On-the-job training is offered for chemical technicians
  • Completing lab courses in your degree program provides experience for a future career as a laboratory assistant

Cons

  • Online associate degree program specifically for physics might be very difficult to find
  • Career options are limited for graduates, especially those who wish to work in the field of physics
  • The BLS predicts slower-than-average job growth for chemical technicians (about 7% from 2010-2020)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Common Courses

You will have a number of general education requirements to complete in an associate degree program in physics. Subjects include English composition, fine arts, mathematics, foreign language, chemistry, communication, social sciences, and technology. In addition to these requirements, you will also have core courses to complete.

Core courses for a physics associate degree program might include:

  • General physics
  • Physics lab
  • Calculus
  • Linear algebra
  • Introduction to modern physics
  • General chemistry
  • Chemistry lab

You might also have an opportunity to select some elective courses, usually in physics or quantitative areas. If you are planning to transfer to a 4-year program, it is important to meet with an advisor to determine which courses are needed to qualify for a transfer.

Online Degree Options

It would be very unusual to find an online associate degree program in physics at this time. You might find online programs to earn your associate degree in mathematics and science, which you may be able to customize to concentrate on mathematics or physics and prepare yourself for transfer into a bachelor's degree program in physics. However, programs specific to physics will be very difficult to find.

Stand Out with This Degree

Some schools offer the opportunity to gain a position as a grading or laboratory assistant to a professor in the physics department. Honing your skills in a lab environment and working one-on-one with faculty members is a good way to get experience for a future career as a laboratory assistant or chemical technician. Some programs also present openings for motivated students to work as tutors in math and science labs. Getting extra practice solving problems will help you sharpen your skills in that area. Developing communication and problem-solving skills is a great asset for your career.

Bachelor's Degree in Physics

In a bachelor's degree program in physics, you will gain an understanding of the core principles of physics through theoretical learning and practical application. You will take courses and complete laboratory work, generally in small classes where you can interact with faculty and students. Bachelor's degree holders can choose from a variety of career paths, pursuing employment in the technology and health industries, financial services, computer science, education, or communications.

Though you will have more career options after completing this program than you would with an associate degree program, you still might not find any options specifically in the physics field. A career as a physicist usually requires a PhD, and many students in bachelor's degree programs continue on to advanced study in the field in both master's degree and PhD programs. Students who choose to advance to master's or PhD programs typically study physics, chemistry, materials science, and engineering.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • You might be able to specialize in a particular area of interest in your degree program, allowing you to concentrate on the subjects that interest you most
  • Access to state-of-the-art laboratories and research facilities provides valuable experience for your future career
  • Job growth for geoscientists is projected at 21% from 2010-2020, faster than average, according to the BLS*

Cons

  • You will need an advanced degree to work as a physicist
  • In order to work in a public school teaching physics, you will need to complete additional education courses, acquire a state-issued license, and possibly complete student teaching requirements
  • Students in bachelor's degree programs in physics are often expected to have prior knowledge in mathematics, especially calculus

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

The general education requirements for a bachelor's degree program in physics are very similar to those of an associate degree program. You will take courses in subjects such as composition, social sciences, and mathematics. Many programs allow you to choose an area of concentration, and the required departmental courses are usually based on that choice. Some examples include applied physics, chemical physics, computational physics, materials science physics, medical physics, and biophysics.

Your courses will vary depending on which area of physics is your focus, but some classes you might take include:

  • Foundation of physics
  • Quantum mechanics
  • Differential equations
  • Modern optics
  • Design of experiments
  • Theoretical mechanics
  • Atomic physics

Additionally, you will select elective courses, complete research projects, and carry out required lab work. Some programs have a required senior capstone project.

Online Degree Options

If you do find an online bachelor's degree program in physics, you would be wise to research it carefully. Programs in physics generally have a lab work requirement, and it would be very difficult to replicate this experience through an online delivery system. Another advantage of a campus-based program is the access that students have to faculty working on research and the opportunity to work in research facilities along with them, allowing you to gain significant practical experience.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

A good way to get ahead while completing a bachelor's degree program in physics is to actively seek out opportunities for internships, fellowships, or work-study options. These opportunities will allow you to gain experience in a laboratory and collaborate with faculty on research projects. Whether you are planning on advancing to a master's degree or PhD program in physics or entering the job market, the technical and research skills you acquire will be an advantage to you in the future.

Many jobs that are available to you after earning a bachelor's degree in physics involve data analysis or computer modeling. With this in mind, you might also wish to take some computer science courses to hone your skill set in this area.

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