The Best Schools For Physics: The Ultimate Guide

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Physics is the natural science that defines the measurable quantities in the universe, such as velocity and kinetic energy. It also searches for the basic rules governing matter and energy, from everyday objects to the universe itself. Put simply, the goal of physics is to understand the natural world—both how it operates and why.

If you think that sounds fascinating, you may want to pursue a degree in physics. In this post, you’ll learn about ten of the best schools for students who plan to study physics. We’ve also included a list of other excellent schools for you to consider. But first, let’s take a closer look at earning a degree in physics.

What Do Physics Students Learn?

Physics students learn about scientific theories from historical thinkers like Isaac Newton, Galileo, Plato, and more modern physicists like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. They learn how to formulate and test the scientific laws of the universe.

They study matter, energy, magnetism, electricity, nuclear processes, relativity and quantum theory, thermodynamics, nuclear processes, mechanics, and laboratory and quantitative methods. Physics also involves a lot of mathematics and technology.

Physics students can specialize in fields like engineering physics, nuclear physics, biophysics, astronomy and astrophysics, quantum physics, geophysics and meteorology, and more.

In general, coursework may include:

  • Analytical and Numerical Methods in Physics
  • Calculus
  • Analytic Geometry
  • Linear Algebra and Differential Equations
  • Thermodynamics
  • Light and Heat
  • Black Holes and Extreme Astrophysics
  • Origin and Development of the Cosmos
  • Optics
  • Mechanics and Special Relativity
  • Modern Physics
  • Vector Analysis
  • Electricity and Magnetism
  • Undergraduate Research Participation

Careers for a Physics Major

If your goal is to become a physicist, you will most likely need a doctoral degree in physics. Physicists work in laboratories, often for private research organizations, the federal government, or universities. With a master’s degree in physics, you may qualify for some positions in research and development.

With a bachelor’s degree in physics, potential careers include:

  • Data Analyst
  • Design Engineer
  • Technical Specialist
  • High School Physics Teacher
  • Lab Technician
  • Laser Engineer
  • Optical Engineer
  • Research Associate
  • Research Consultant
  • IT Consultant
  • Systems Analyst
  • Software Developer
  • Web Developer
  • Entry-level physicist job with the federal government

Physics Major Career Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, physicists earn a median of $129,850 per year. Over the next decade, the employment of physicists is expected to grow by about 8%. This is the average rate of growth for all occupations in the United States.

Of course, you may decide not to earn a graduate degree in physics. Now, let’s look at the salary and job growth rate for careers you can pursue with a bachelor’s degree in physics.

  • Lab Technician: $54,180; 11% job growth
  • High School Physics Teacher: $62,970 (varies by state); 8% job growth
  • Laser Engineer: $74,081; 4% job growth
  • Systems Analyst: $93,730; 7% job growth
  • Software Developer: $110,140; 22% job growth

As you can see, a bachelor’s degree in physics opens the door to many different possibilities. Salary and job growth vary dramatically, so you can choose the career that’s right for you.

However, it’s important to note that many of these careers are accessible with other degrees too. Many students who pursue a degree in physics ultimately want to become physicists, and that requires education beyond a bachelor’s degree. Before you decide to major in physics, think about what you want to do with your degree and whether it’s the best route to your goals.

Top 10 Physics Programs in the U.S.

So, if you do want to earn a bachelor’s degree in physics, where should you go to school? Let’s examine the 10 best physics programs in the United States.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Founded in 1861, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a private university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Undergraduate enrollment at MIT totals 4,361 students. The university is known for scientific and technological research. On the school website, MIT is described as “fun and quirky, elite but not elitist, inventive and artistic, obsessed with numbers, and welcoming to talented people regardless of where they come from.”

MIT is divided into five schools, including the School of Science. Within the School of Science, the Physics Department offers two tracks to a Bachelor of Science in Physics: Flexible and Focus.

The department’s most popular option, the Flexible track, provides a series of courses in fundamental physics and enables many students to complete second majors in other areas. Popular second majors for MIT Physics students include Computer Science, Mathematics, Earth and Planetary Sciences, and Nuclear Science and Engineering.

On the other hand, the Focus track requires a greater number of required courses, including two terms of experimental physics. Students in the Focus track write a research thesis. Both tracks prepare students for graduate school, research, or teaching.

Courses may include:

  • Physics I and Physics II
  • Differential Equations
  • Physics of Energy
  • Classical Mechanics
  • Introduction to Special Relativity

Three current faculty members in the Physics Department have won Nobel Prize in Physics and eight have won the Oersted Medal, which recognizes noble contributions to the teaching of physics.

Stanford University

Stanford University, a private university in Stanford, California, is one of the world’s leading teaching and research institutions. The school website describes it as “a place for learning, discovery, innovation, expression, and discourse.” It was opened in 1891 and enrolls a total of 15,157 students.

The School of Humanities and Sciences offers a B.S. in Physics, as well as a master’s in Applied Physics and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Biophysics. Stanford’s undergraduate program in physics aims to equip students with problem-solving, and analytical skills, along with the ability to conduct experiments and interpret data. It emphasizes both classical and modern physics.

Stanford’s physics program prepares students for careers in engineering, physics, teaching, medicine, law, science writing, and science policy. The major offers a variety of pathways that allow students to explore an area of specialty, such as biophysics, computational physics, astrophysics, geophysics, education, and quantum information science. Students even have the option to propose their own pathway with a theme and rationale.

Coursework may include:

  • Classical Mechanics Laboratory
  • Electricity and Magnetism
  • Introduction to Laboratory Physics
  • Light and Heat
  • Foundations of Modern Physics
  • Electricity, Magnetism, and Waves
  • Quantum and Thermal Physics
  • Differential Equations with Linear Algebra, Fourier Methods, and Modern Applications
  • Integral Calculus of Several Variables
  • Thermodynamics, Kinetic Theory, and Statistical Mechanics I
  • Quantitative Evolutionary Dynamics and Genomics
  • Introduction to Stellar and Galactic Astrophysics
  • Applied Machine Learning
  • Ice, Water, Fire

As a capstone project, students must complete a senior thesis with a written report and presentation.

California Institute of Technology

Commonly known as Caltech, the California Institute of Technology is a private institution founded in 1891. It enrolls 901 undergraduate students and focuses on science and engineering. It’s located in Pasadena, California, just 11 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

Caltech is divided into six academic divisions, including the Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy. At Caltech, majors are referred to as “options.” In the physics option, academics and research are closely entwined. The program emphasizes providing students with the tools needed for a successful research career through innovative coursework, freshman seminars, and numerous research opportunities and practical lab experiences. Students participate in cutting-edge research in collaboration with scientists in departments like planetary science, engineering, chemistry, and biology.

Research areas include particle physics, nuclear physics, observational astrophysics, gravitational wave astronomy, cosmology, quantum optics, and more. Students also have the option to conduct classwork and research in other Caltech divisions and departments.

You can expect to take courses like:

  • Waves, Quantum Physics, and Statistical Mechanics
  • Computational Physics
  • Astrophysics and Cosmology with Open Data
  • Frontiers in Physics
  • Relativistic Astrophysics
  • Statistical Physics
  • Introduction to Condensed Matter
  • Atoms and Photons
  • Advanced Experimental Physics

Many Caltech physics students complete at least one Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF).

Harvard University

One of the world’s most prestigious institutions of higher education, Harvard is a private university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was founded in 1636 and enrolls 5,222 undergraduates. Harvard is made up of 13 schools, including the undergraduate Harvard College.

Majors at Harvard are called concentrations. The Harvard Physics Department graduates 50-60 concentrators each year. Students may study Physics, Physics with Applied Physics Emphasis, Physics with Biophysics Emphasis, or Physics and Teaching. The physics concentration is highly flexible, and many students choose joint concentrations, like Physics-Astronomy and Physics-Mathematics. Students can build programs based on their career goals and areas of interest.

Students gain research opportunities through an independent research course, and sometimes through summer research projects supervised by faculty. Harvard is known for its rigor, but it also provides extensive support for undergraduate students.

First-year physics students can be assigned an upper-division “buddy” in the concentration. They also have the option to participate in lunches with other students and professors, along with weekly “Cool Physics” sessions in which students talk about their research. The physics “puppet show,” which involves second-year graduate students “roasting” faculty members, draws a crowd of hundreds every year.

Courses include:

  • Quantum Field Theory
  • Modern Atomic and Optical Physics I
  • Introduction to Quantum Theory of Solids
  • Advanced Quantum Mechanics II
  • Advanced Electromagnetism
  • Optics and Photonics
  • Statistical Physics
  • Statistical Thermodynamics
  • Phenomena of Elementary Particle Physics
  • Topics in String Theory
  • Data Analysis for Physicists
  • Electron Microscopy Laboratory
  • Superconductivity

Although students are encouraged to conduct research in a lab, writing a thesis is not required.

Princeton University

Princeton University is a private research university in Princeton, New Jersey with an undergraduate enrollment of 5,267 students. It was established in 1746 and is the fourth-oldest institution of higher education in the United States. The university’s website describes it as “a vibrant community of scholarship and learning that stands in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”

Undergraduate students at Princeton pursue either a Bachelor of Arts (A.B.) or Bachelor of Science in Engineering (B.S.E). They can choose from 37 concentrations, including Physics and Astrophysical Sciences. Like Harvard, Princeton calls majors “concentrations.”

The Physics concentration at Princeton not only teaches students about the laws of physics, but it also allows them to participate in its discovery. Students develop an in-depth understanding of “atoms, solids, radiation, galaxies, and living things.” Alumni work in industrial and academic research positions, medicine, teaching, law, biotechnology, engineering, consulting, and university leadership.

Students acquire skills like inductive reasoning, problem-solving, estimation, and analysis. They have an abundance of research opportunities, including immersive summer research experiences. The program allows enough flexibility for students to take on substantial coursework in other areas of interest.

Courses include:

  • Introductory Physics I & II
  • General Physics I & II
  • Advanced Physics (Mechanics)
  • Advanced Physics (Electromagnetism)
  • Physics for the Life Sciences
  • Physics for Future Leaders
  • Classical Mechanics
  • Experimental Physics Seminar
  • Thermal Physics
  • The Science of Fission and Fusion Energy
  • Global Geophysics
  • Stars and Star Formation
  • Physics and Chemistry of Earth’s Interior
  • Geodynamics

Physics students at Princeton must complete two junior papers and a senior thesis.

University of California-Berkeley

The University of California-Berkeley was established as the state’s first land-grant research university in 1868. Located in Berkeley, California, the university enrolls 31,814 undergraduate students. UC Berkeley’s website describes the university as “a place where the brightest minds come together to explore, ask questions, and improve the world.”

Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science offers degree programs in Astrophysics, Geophysics, and Physics. The Physics major focuses on a broad and thorough understanding of physics fundamentals, but specialized courses are also available to students. Graduates work in academic, industrial, and government laboratories or pursue graduate work in varied scientific fields.

Students take courses like:

  • Physics for Scientists and Engineers
  • Introductory Mechanics and Relativity
  • Calculus
  • Multivariable Calculus
  • Introduction to Mathematical Physics
  • Analytic Mechanics
  • Quantum Mechanics
  • Electromagnetism and Optics
  • Particle Physics
  • Modern Atomic Physics
  • Special Relativity and General Relativity
  • Solid State Physics
  • Principles of Molecular Biophysics
  • Relativistic Astrophysics and Cosmology
  • Bayesian Data Analysis and Machine Learning for Physical Sciences
  • Quantum Information Science and Technology
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Cornell University

Cornell University is a private research university in upstate Ithaca, New York that was founded in 1865. Enrollment totals 23,620 students. Cornell has “taken to heart the revolutionary spirit that founded [the] university and encourage each other to pursue unpredicted lines of thinking in order to effect change on local and international scales.”

The College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell offers 40 majors, including a customizable Physics program. The Department of Physics is home to award-winning faculty and innovative research facilities like the Cornell Center for Nanoscale Systems and the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source.

Students take a required set of core courses and choose a complementary concentration, such as applied math, geophysics, astrophysics, biophysics, chemical physics, or computer science. Students may also create an individualized concentration with coursework in physics-related history, law, business, or economics.

About 65% of graduates pursue graduate study. Others work in technology, government, consulting, education, biotech, life sciences, and more. They are employed by such diverse organizations as Amazon, Boeing, CollegeVine, Extreme Engineering Solutions, Google, Humatics Corporation, National Institutes of Health, and the United States Navy.

Courses include:

  • Thermodynamics and Statistical Physics
  • Geometric Concepts in Physics
  • Introduction to Special Relativity
  • Physics of Musical Sound
  • Physics II: Heat/Electromagnetism
  • Physics III: Oscillations, Waves, and Quantum Physics
  • Exploring Experimental Physics
  • Multivariable Calculus
  • Linear Algebra
  • Differential Equations
  • Modern Experimental Optics
  • Experimental Astronomy
  • Bioinstrumentation

University of Chicago

One of the world’s leading research universities, the University of Chicago is a private research university founded in 1890. It’s located in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago and enrolls approximately 6,800 undergraduate students. The university emphasizes innovation, inquiry, and free and open discourse in pursuit of tackling the world’s most pressing issues.

The university’s Physical Sciences Division has an established history of discovery and advances in physical and mathematical sciences. It includes the departments of Astrophysics, Geophysical Sciences, and Physics. The department is also home to interdisciplinary research centers like the Kavli Center for Cosmological Physics.

In the physics major, students focus on experimentation and the broad fundamentals of the field. They’re able to focus on specific areas of study through physics electives. Students may participate in undergraduate research, summer internship, and additional research experiences outside of the university.

Courses include:

  • Mechanics
  • Electricity and Magnetism
  • Modern Physics
  • Introduction to Mathematical Methods in Physics
  • Solid State Physics
  • Nuclei and Elementary Particles
  • Waves, Optics, and Heat
  • Statistical and Thermal Physics
  • Intermediate Mechanics
  • Physics of Galaxies
  • Astrophysics of Exoplanets
  • Climate Foundations
  • Ocean Circulation
  • Dynamical Physics
  • Engineering Electrodynamics
  • Quantum Computation
  • Markov Chains, Martingales, and Brownian Motion

University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign

The University of Illinois- Urbana Champaign is a public land-grant research university located in the twin cities of Urbana and Champaign. It was founded in 1867 and enrolls 52,331 students. The university aims to “pioneer innovative research that tackles global problems and expands the human experience.”

Physics majors fall under the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. It’s a flexible program designed for students interested in technical or professional careers that require a foundation in mathematics and physical science. The university also has a Physics (Engineering) program and a Physics Teaching program. Students who want to pursue graduate education may also consider the Physics Specialized Curriculum.

Students take courses such as:

  • Physics Careers
  • Mechanics
  • Thermal Physics
  • Quantum Physics
  • Relativity and Math Applications
  • Classical Mechanics I
  • Electromagnetic Fields I
  • Calculus I, II, and III
  • Intro Differential Equations
  • General Chemistry I
  • Intro Computing: Engineering and Science

Students also select an elective technical or professional option, either from a list of pre-approved options or by designing a custom option. The “option” refers to a set of courses addressing an “intellectually coherent body of knowledge.”

Columbia University

A private Ivy League research university in New York City, Columbia was established in 1765 and has been a leader in higher education for more than 200 years. Columbia’s mission is to “engage the best minds in pursuit of greater human understanding, pioneering new discoveries, and service to society.”

In the Department of Physics, students begin their coursework with a series of one-semester courses that introduce the subfields of physics and feature both lectures and lab work. Students also complete first-year seminars on current research topics, designed to “convey the intense excitement of research at the forefront of science.”

The department then offers various intermediate and advanced courses in more specialized physics topics, along with lab experience in modern physics and electronics. During the final year of the program, students take an advanced seminar in an area of current physics research. Some undergraduate students qualify for individual tutorials in advanced topics with a faculty member.

Physics students complete coursework in topics such as:

  • Classical Mechanics
  • Quantum Mechanics
  • Nuclear and Particle Physics
  • Astrophysics
  • Statistical Mechanics
  • Electromagnetism
  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Atomic Physics
  • Solid State Physics
  • String Theory

Other Excellent Physics Programs

The schools above are some of the most renowned in the nation, but there are plenty of other great options to consider. Here are some other schools to research as you make your college plans:

  • University of California-Santa Barbara
  • Yale University
  • University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Johns Hopkins University
  • University of California- Los Angeles
  • University of California- San Diego
  • University of Texas- Austin
  • University of Washington
  • Northwestern University
  • Duke University
  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Brown University
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • Boston University
  • New York University

Final Thoughts: Best Schools for Physics

Physics is a fascinating major for students interested in mathematics, research, and understanding the natural world. Typically, becoming a physicist requires a doctorate degree. However, a bachelor’s or master’s degree in physics can also open doors to a range of interesting and rewarding careers.

If you’re interested in studying physics, the universities listed here give you a good starting point for selecting a school. But ultimately, choosing a great physics program means choosing the program that’s the best fit for you. It’s not all about rankings and prestige—it’s about a school you’ll enjoy that will prepare you for the opportunities you want.

Think about what you want to do with physics. What career(s) are you most interested in? Is there a subfield of physics that particularly captivates you? Is hands-on research important to you? What types of courses and experiences would you like to have in school? Considering these questions will help you narrow down your list of prospective colleges and build a promising career in physics.

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