What Is a Master's in Physics (and What Can I Do With One)?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

A master's in physics is an advanced science degree you can get after completing your bachelor's. Learn more about what earning an MS in physics entails.

[Featured image] A master's in physics degree candidate uses a screwdriver to adjust a robotic device she's working on.

A Master of Science (MS) in physics is a graduate degree you can earn once you’ve completed your bachelor’s degree in a related field. With an MS in physics, you can explore a number of science careers or continue your education in a PhD program. 

Physics is a broad academic discipline that explores how the world works, including elements like motion, force, electricity, and sound waves. Beyond furthering your knowledge of those principles, you may also learn how to design devices, instruments, and applications, such as particle accelerators, electron microscopes, lasers, satellites, nuclear reactors, and other high-tech equipment. 

While a master’s in physics isn’t required to begin a career in the field, you may find that you qualify for more senior-level roles and earn a higher salary once you’ve completed the degree. You may also experience benefits like improving your analytical skills and bolstering your subject knowledge. In this article, we’ll explore what you’ll learn in a master’s program in physics and what you can do with the degree after graduation. 

What is an MS in physics?

A master's in physics is an advanced degree you can earn after graduating with your bachelor's degree in physics or a related subject. While you can apply to a master’s program in physics without having earned a bachelor’s degree in a subject area pertaining to science or math, you may first need to complete a few related courses, such as classical mechanics, to qualify for acceptance. 

An MS degree in physics typically takes about two years to complete when you’re able to attend full-time and requires advanced coursework and a final project. As of 2021, the average cost of an MS degree was $62,300 in the United States [1].

Learn more: MA vs. MS Degrees: A Guide

Specializations

Within the field of physics, you can focus on one of several diverse branches or areas of specialization. Physics specializations to choose from include:  

  • Acoustics and vibration

  • Aerodynamics

  • Applied physics

  • Astrophysics

  • Cosmology

  • Electricity and magnetism

  • Engineering physics

  • Fluid mechanics

  • Geo physics

  • Mechanics

  • Medical physics

  • Molecular physics

  • Nuclear physics

  • Optics

  • Particle physics

  • Quantum physics

  • Radiation physics 

  • Theoretical physics

  • Thermodynamics

Not every master’s program will offer the specializations listed above. If you already know what you want to study, it may be beneficial to search for colleges or universities that offer your particular specialization and begin making a list of the ones you'd like to apply to. Otherwise, if you’re still deciding between specializations, you may want to explore a number of different master’s programs in physics to better understand your options. 

Coursework

A typical MS in physics requires a minimum of 30 to 36 college credits, though each program differs. The courses you take as part of your master’s program will vary according to your specialization. Examples of coursework can include:

  • Techniques in experimental physics

  • Mathematical methods of engineers and physicists

  • Classical theoretical physics

  • Advanced quantum mechanics

  • Solid-state physics

  • Advanced statistical mechanics

  • Biological physics

  • Modern optics

  • Plasma physics

  • General relativity and black holes

Final project

Along with the coursework you’ll complete, your program may require you to finish a thesis, research report, or examination, depending on your specialization. This type of final project is meant to show what you’ve learned over your time in graduate school while contributing something original to the study of physics. 

Applying to a master's program in physics

It's a good idea to research potential programs worth considering and begin making a list of the ones you're interested in attending. Make a note of each program's application requirements so you start collecting the necessary materials.

As you prepare to apply to begin earning your master’s in physics, you will need to submit several different pieces of information, including some or all of the following: 

Learn more: How to Craft a Graduate School Resume

What can you do with a master's in physics?

Many students who earn their master’s in physics pursue one of three tracks after graduation: teaching, industry, or a PhD program to further their education. What you do with the degree will depend on your interests and larger goals. 

For example, if you’re interested in teaching at the university level, you will need to enroll in a PhD program and earn your doctorate in physics. However, if you are interested in working in research, you can explore relevant jobs in industry or government laboratories after graduating with your MS degree. 

It can help to know why you want to earn your master’s degree in the first place. What would you like to do with the degree? What are your long-term goals, and how will a degree help further them? Answering these questions can help clarify how you should focus your time in your master’s program and afterward. 

Learn more: Is a Master’s Degree Worth It?

PhD in physics

A PhD in physics can take between five and seven years and typically involves more rigorous coursework and a preliminary or comprehensive exam showing your understanding of the field and your area of concentration. You will also be expected to complete an original dissertation. 

Once you have your doctorate, you may qualify for roles like professor, astronomer, physicist, scientific director, or other advanced roles requiring additional field knowledge.  

Jobs you can get with a master's in physics

Throughout your master’s program in physics, you will likely advance your analytical and problem-solving skills. Once you graduate, you may find that you qualify for numerous careers that value those qualities, such as the ones we’ve listed below. 

While some of the roles listed below require a bachelor’s degree, you may find that your master’s in physics leads to more senior-level roles or higher salaries due to the additional education you’ve acquired and the knowledge you’ve developed.

Job titleAverage US salary*
Science writer$107,547
Computer programmer$101,883
Physics teacher$95,473
Biophysicist$104,971
Chemical engineer$105,550
Nuclear engineer$105,822
Electrical engineer$107,890
Aerospace engineer$122,270
Research scientist$122,757

*All salary data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and Glassdoor

Next steps

If you enjoy learning about physics and want to develop a deeper understanding of the subject, try an online course from leading universities on Coursera. For instance, to gain a deeper theoretical understanding of relativity, one of the pillars of modern physics, take a look at Understanding Einstein: The Special Theory of Relativity from Stanford University. If you're interested in quantum computing applications, then you might want to take a look at Introduction to Quantum Information from Kaist.

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Article sources

1. Education Data Initiative. “Average Cost of a Master’s Degree,”  https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-a-masters-degree.” Accessed June 7, 2022. 

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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