Students who are enrolled in a PhD program in physics will learn how to conduct high-level research to further our understanding of the subject for academic and industrial purposes. In addition, students will take part in a teaching assistant program, which allows them to prepare for a career as a post secondary educator. For those interested in becoming a university professor of physics, a Ph.D. in the subject is required. A PhD in physics is also useful for a research career with a government agency or private industry. In addition to completing the required coursework, students who are seeking a PhD in physics are also required to complete an oral and written examination and write a dissertation that contains original research. A PhD program in physics takes four to eight years to complete, depending on the school you choose to attend.
About Online PhD Programs in Physics
Although there aren't any true online PhD programs in physics, a few universities do allow students to take some of their required courses online. These online courses are taught in the same manner as on-campus courses. Students may communicate with their professors via the internet, or they may set up a face-to-face meeting during the professor's regular office hours. Because a Ph.D. program requires students to take part in a teaching assistant program and to conduct research, they must work on campus on a regular basis. However, choosing to take a few courses online may make the program more flexible, especially for students who enjoy working independently. Most PhD programs in physics require students to take similar courses. Listed below are a few example courses from the Princeton University Graduate Program in Physics.
- Quantum Mechanics. This course covers the basics of quantum mechanics, a branch of physics that looks at physical phenomena at microscopic levels.
- Introduction to Condensed Matter Physics I. This is an introductory course to the branch of physics that deals with the physical properties of condensed phases of matter.
- Introduction to General Relativity. This course introduces Albert Einstein's geometric theory of gravitation, or general theory of relativity.
- Relativistic Quantum Theory I. This course teaches the basics of quantum field theories.
- Introduction to Condensed Matter Physics II. This course is a continuation of Introduction to Condensed Matter Physics I.
- Advanced Topics in General Relativity. This course is a continuation of Introduction to General Relativity.
The dissertation or thesis is the last project a student must complete before graduating from a PhD in physics program. Some schools require students to find a thesis advisor and choose a topic before the end of the first year, and others give students more time to start on the project. A student's thesis topic must be related to physics and must be approved by the department of graduate studies.
Value and Criticisms of a PhD in Physics
A PhD in physics is valuable for someone who has a goal of becoming a university professor of physics or a physics researcher. In terms of the scientific research community, there is still much to be discovered about physics at the astronomical level. There are many other phenomena that have yet to be explained through physics, meaning there is much more work to be done by those interested in the subject. In terms of tuition costs, most physics graduate students qualify for fellowships that pay for their tuition, and they receive a stipend from working as a teaching or research assistant. Post secondary teachers of physics are also paid a higher mean annual wage than the mean annual wage for all post secondary teachers.
However, there are some drawbacks to pursuing a PhD in physics. Namely, you are not guaranteed a job as a professor or academic researcher after graduation. A high-paying position at a respectable institution is hard to get, and many find that it would have been more cost effective to simply get their master's degree in physics and teach at the community college level. Although it is possible to become a great physicist who makes a good salary, it is very rare and requires a good deal of hard work and some good old-fashioned luck.
Application and Admission Requirements
Most PhD programs in physics require applicants to hold a bachelor's degree in physics or a closely related subject. Typically, applicants must submit an official application, two to three letters of recommendation, all post secondary education transcripts, a statement of purpose, a resume and graduate exam scores. Specific admission requirements can be found on the official website of the graduate school you are interested in attending. Professional work experience is not required, though some lab experience will certainly increase your chances of acceptance.
Career Options and Job Market
A PhD degree in physics is necessary to teach the subject at the university level. Many high-level research positions also require a Ph.D. In terms of a teaching career, the employment outlook for post secondary educators looks good through 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Currently, the average salary for a university professor is around $60,000 per year, but the average salary for physics professors is $86,730. There are also job opportunities in research for government agencies and private institutions and businesses.
Where to Find Information
- The Institute of Physics. The Institute of Physics is a charitable scientific society that works to advance physics education, research, and application.
- The American Institute of Physics. This non-profit corporation was created to promote the advancement of physics and its application to human welfare, and its website is a great resource for those interested in the subject.
- The MIT Department of Physics. The official webpage of the MIT Department of Physics is a great resource for news about recent physics research and upcoming lectures that are open to the public.
How to Get Funding
There are several options for funding your graduate studies. Although graduate students do not qualify for federal grants or federal subsidized loans, they are still eligible for federal unsubsidized loans. Ph.D. students may also earn funding through fellowship programs and teaching and research assistant work. For more information about federal student loans, take a look at the links below.
- Federal Direct Stafford Loan. This aid program offers students low-interest loans while they pursue their PhD in physics. The maximum loan available is $12,000 per academic year, and there is a fixed interest rate of 6.80%.
- Federal Perkins Loan. In the case of full-time students with the most need for financial assistance, the Federal Perkins low-interest loan can be awarded, offering an average of $3,500 per academic year — with a fixed interest rate at 5.0%.
- Campus-Based Aif. Campus-based programs are managed by the financial aid office of your university. Of course, all schools actively participate in almost every program made available by the federal government.
- Seek advice from current Ph.D. students. Find a friend who is currently in grad school whom you can talk to about the pros and cons of earning a Ph.D. If you don't personally know anyone who is currently in school, email a former professor and ask for their advice.
- Work as a research assistant. Most universities offer research assistant positions to undergraduates or to applicants with bachelor's degrees. Try to work as a research assistant for at least one year before applying to grad school, preferably in the physics department.
- Apply for early admission. Many universities have an early deadline for grad school applicants. Try to meet this deadline. You will find out sooner whether or not you were accepted. Plus, applying for early admission can increase your chances of acceptance.
- Apply for a fellowship. Don't just assume you won't qualify for a fellowship opportunity. If you can get into a PhD physics program, there's a good chance you are also eligible for a fellowship.