Different types of physics degrees

Surrey students in lab

What is physics? Simply put, physics is the scientific study of matter and energy. Physics effects everything on the planet – including heat, light, sound, electricity and atoms – so studying  a degree in physics is a great way to learn more about the world around you. As one of the highly-renowned STEM subjects, a physics degree is also a great way to impress employers.

As well as graduating with the academic knowledge related to your chosen discipline, you’ll also be well-equipped with a whole other range of transferable skills, such as reasoning and problem solving. There are many different options when it comes to studying physics. Depending on your personal interests and career goals, you can choose from a variety of exciting degree specialisms. From astrophysics to quantum technologies, there is lots to think about before choosing your physics degree.

What should I expect from a physics degree?

Physics degrees are an excellent choice for anyone interested in science. At the University of Surrey, they are available for both undergraduate and postgraduate students. For undergraduate degrees, you will study for three years – or four years if you choose to undertake a professional training year as part of your studies. A placement year is a paid year-long work placement, allowing you to practice what you’ve been learning in the classroom. Postgraduate degrees usually last a year and are taken after a relevant undergraduate degree in the subject.

Facilities are an important part of studying physics at university. At the University of Surrey, for example, the Department of Physics has recently received a £3.5 million refurbishment of its research laboratories, which undergraduate students use to complete their final-year research projects. You’ll get a lot of hands-on experience when studying physics, with a good mix of practical and theoretical lessons.

What physics degree should I study?

The most important thing to consider when choosing what degree to study is whether you will enjoy it. Is there a specific area of physics you’re most interested in? Perhaps there’s a particular scientific career you hope to work in? University is the perfect time to learn more about what you’re passionate about.

If you’re not sure exactly what your specialism should be yet, you can study a BSc Physics degree to a get a broader understanding of your subject. This will give you the opportunity to learn about different areas within physics, and once you find your passion, you’ll be able to study a postgraduate degree in your specialist subject. The best way for international students to study a physics degree in the UK is to take a foundation year before their degree. A good example of this is the International Foundation Year in Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Surrey International Study Centre – which introduces the subject knowledge, academic skills and language required to succeed at a UK university.

What are the different types of physics degrees?

So, what physics degree should you pick? There’s plenty of choices, as many degrees will focus on one specialism of a vast and challenging subject matter. These are just some of the areas of physics you could choose to focus on.

Astronomy and astrophysics

For a truly out of this world university experience, specialising in astronomy or astrophysics is an excellent choice. Astronomers observe stars and planets and often work in areas such as space flight navigation and satellite communications. Astrophysics is a subset of astronomy itself – looking at the actual physics of stars and interstellar material. Astrophysicists research how to get to other planets, as well as humans’ relation to space.

Mathematical physics

Combining mathematics and physics is a popular choice for those interested in STEM subjects. Specialising in mathematical physics provides you with the key theories of modern physics, whilst you look how to use mathematical theories to solve problems in a wide range of physics specialisms.

Medical physics

If you’re interested in physical concepts and theories, why not apply those to save lives? Combining physics theory with the latest developments in medicine, you will learn everything from imaging, ultrasounds, radiation and lasers – and how you can develop and improve these to help other people.

Nuclear physics

The world runs on energy, so nuclear physics is a great choice for anyone looking to learn more about how the world works. Named after the nucleus of the atom, the skills you learn on this degree can help you to work in a variety of industries, including the environment and medicine.

Quantum physics

If you’re interested in everything and want to learn how it all works – this is the subject for you. By studying how atoms and particles work, you’ll get a strong understanding of how important physics is in every day life. Quantum physics is apparent in every form of science from chemistry to biology, and even computing.

What can I do with a physics degree?

After completing an undergraduate degree in physics, there are plenty of options for your next step. One route is to continue your academic adventure with a postgraduate degree. This is the perfect opportunity to find an even more detailed specialism for you to spend your time on. By studying a postgraduate degree in a specialist subject, you’ll be even more valuable to employers once you enter the job market.

There are different forms of postgraduate study for you to choose from. Your first step would be to undertake a Masters degree. You can stop there and enter the world of work, or continue your studies with a PhD – which is an excellent choice if you want to work in innovation and research. Another option would be to get a teaching qualification, allowing you to work in schools to share the knowledge you’ve gained with the next generation.

What jobs can I get with a physics degree?

If you decide to enter the graduate employment market straight after your undergraduate degree, there are many opportunities waiting for you. There are a whole range of different specialisms for you to work in, based on your interests and degree choice.

Careers related to a physics degree

There are many jobs which directly relate to your physics degree. Some of these include:

  • Astronomer: a scientist who studies the universe
  • Clinical scientist: a scientist who specifically works in medical physics
  • Geophysicist: a scientist who focuses on the various physical aspects of the earth
  • University lecturer or secondary school teacher: using your excellent academic knowledge to teach and inspire future generations
  • Meteorologist: a scientist who studies the atmosphere to predict the weather
  • Research scientist: a role across many different fields, you’ll be helping to innovate a whole range of industries
  • Sound engineer: a way to combine the science and music industries, as you mix technical knowledge with creativity 

Additional physics careers and transferable skills

Studying physics at university means you will learn a variety of transferable skills. From solving problems and reasoning, to communication and teamwork – a degree in physics means you’ll graduate with more than just the practical skills related to your degree. You’ll be an expert at communication with your fellow students and teachers, skills which will be sure to help you in whatever industry you work in. As well as these transferable skills, you’ll also graduate with the research and practical skills to impress employers.

This means that your physics degree will also make you valuable in other careers, including:

  • Actuary: analysing data to find financial risks
  • Data analyst: using your analytical skills in various industries from pharmaceuticals and manufacturing to government and education
  • Nuclear engineer: designing and building nuclear power stations
  • Patent attorney: assessing whether new inventions are innovative and different so they can be patented
  • Prosthetist: helping to create and fit prostheses for patients
  • Software engineer: creating computer software and solving problems using maths and science

Study physics abroad in the UK

Studying physics at a UK university is an excellent choice for international students. As well as gaining the academic skills in whatever physics degree you choose, you’ll also be benefiting from the additional English language skills you’ll gain by studying in the UK. This will be beneficial for you as it shows you have the level of English required to work across the world, as English is commonly used as a universal language between teams of multiple nationalities.

Your first step should be to study a foundation year prior to your degree. This means that you’ll develop both the physics-related skills and language skills necessary to succeed at a UK university – giving you a head start in your academic career.

The University of Surrey International Study Centre offers an International Foundation Year to help you on this journey. Find out more about studying in Surrey on our website.


Are graduates with a physics degree in demand?

The world of science is constantly evolving and with it the need for new and innovate minds are needed. This means there are numerous job opportunities for physics graduates in a variety of fields.  

Is a physics masters worth it?

Further expanding your scientific knowledge is an excellent idea if you want a prestigious career in physics. Obtaining a masters will give you a higher chance of getting a good graduate job. 

How many years is a physics degree?

The typical physics degree takes three to four years to complete at undergraduate level. You can also choose to further your study with a postgraduate degree for an additional one or two years. 

The length of your degree will depend on the subject you choose to study and the university you attend.