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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Undergraduate Program FAQ

What kind of Job can I get with a B.A. in physics?

Physics boils down problem solving to its essence.  In this program of study, the methods of problem solving (theory, computation, and laboratory investigation) are employed to solve complicated problems that we face today.  A degree in physics is not direct preparation for any job which exists today, but it may be the best preparation to enter fields which do not yet exist and to enter fields which are constantly changing. You will find computer programmers, analysts, engineers, entrepreneurs, professors, lawyers, and industrial researchers on this list.  Prominent physics majors outside of academia include Elon Musk (CEO), Jimmy Carter (former president), Sally Ride (astronaut), and Brian May (guitarist for Queen).

What are the advantages of a physics major in competing for jobs?

Employers value the deep understanding of fundamentals and the skillful approach to problem solving which physics majors bring. There is also a second advantage to a physics education that we expect to grow in importance as you move through your working life. Highly educated people entering the workforce in the 21st century should expect to change fields and jobs, perhaps several times. Photonics and world-wide-web technologies, which developed from physics research, were not predicted before they exploded into prominence -- and it is such rapidly changing fields which offer the best opportunities to advance your career. A physics education prepares you to exploit new opportunities by providing a strong basis in the foundations of science and technology and to deeply cultivate your problem-solving abilities.

What is the "problem solving" skill which distinguishes people with a background in physics?

Perhaps the main reason why students major in physics is that they have a deep interest in the subject. It is wonderful to be able to study the nature of the physical universe for four years as an undergraduate, exploring subjects such as space and time, biological physics, quantum mechanics or astronomy. However, while an intuitive feeling for physics is very valuable in many contexts, perhaps equally important to your job prospects is that a physics education is as much about learning to do physics as it is about studying the great discoveries of the past.
This aspect of a physics education is often described as "developing problem solving skills." The term "skill" is probably not the best word for what's involved here. "Problem solving skill" is not about learning calculus or how to wire up the electrical circuits for an experiment -- although you will do both of these things as a physics major. Instead, "problem solving" involves confronting problems which no one has told you how to solve -- and finding in yourself and in the resources around you some way of cracking the problem.

What are the job statistics for physics bachelor's recipients?

The most recent American Institute of Physics survey of physics bachelor's degree recipients contains the relevant job statistics. The percentage of physics bachelors who go directly to the work-force is 43%, with the remaining 57% going on to pursue advanced degrees. For Physics Bachelors going into private sector STEM jobs, the median starting salary is $51,000; for private sector non-STEM, it is $40,000; for those who went into high school teaching (12%), the median starting salary was $30,000; for those working for civilian government (8%), the median starting salary was $37,000. Over the 90's, starting salaries rose by about 8% to 13% a year, depending on sector. Presently, about 1/3 of physics bachelor's recipients enter graduate school in physics; most of these students are interested in research and development jobs in industry or in jobs as professors at colleges and universities. About another 1/3 of physics bachelor's recipients will enter graduate school in other fields such as law, medicine, and the other sciences or engineering.

How can I pursue my interest in astronomy?

Today, astronomy and astrophysics are some of the most active and interesting fields of science. There is not a separate "astronomy major" at most universities. At Syracuse University, there are courses that focus on astronomical and astrophysical questions: the general astronomy courses (AST101 & AST104), Relativity & Cosmology (PHY312), Astrophysics (PHY317), and Astrobiology (PHY316). Other physics courses provide the important scientific background (such as mathematical methods, electromagnetism, and modern physics) that are necessary for pursuing astronomical research in graduate school or for having a strong background in the "astro" area. Research opportunities are also available in gravity wave detection and laboratory astrophysics. So if you are interested in this type of science, the SU Department of Physics can provide the courses and research opportunities for this area.

What's the difference between majoring in physics and in engineering?

There are many courses which engineering students and physics majors both take, so there is naturally some confusion about the differences between them. Basically, physics is both a science and a "liberal art": it is concerned with fundamental aspects of the physical world, the process of increasing our understanding of it, and of creating devices that aid in our exploration.  Engineering is more vocational: it aims to train students who can enter the work force as working electrical, chemical, and mechanical engineers. Of course, many physics majors do take engineering jobs, with employers understanding that the skills of a physics major are highly valuable and complementary assets on an engineering team.

How can I pursue my interests in both engineering and physics at the same time?

A combination of engineering and physics is attractive to some students. Several students at any time are pursuing degrees that combine the two fields. This combination makes sense intellectually, as much technological progress takes place and some basic questions are asked in this area of intersection. Graduating with strength in both areas also can be useful to one's career.  The following are examples of different options that students pursue.  Working with an academic advisor in physics at S.U., students can decide what is the best option for them. One can earn a double major by satisfying the degree requirements of one college (Arts and Sciences or Engineering and Computer Science) and satisfying two major requirements (e.g., engineering courses and physics courses.) In this way you earn one degree with two majors.

The combined degree option allows one to earn two degrees from the two colleges. For engineering and physics, you need to satisfy the degree requirements, including core courses, for both programs.

You can minor in one of the fields while completing a degree in the other.

How do I reach other students in physics?

Contact the Society of Physics Students here at SU. The 2rd Floor lounge in room 206A often has a couple of students hanging out. Also meet your peers in classes: in class or out of class, people often work in groups.

What else should I know about the Department of Physics?

The glass case on the first floor is filled with demos and maintained by Sam Sampere. For information about research, teaching, and other opportunities, consult the research page. Get your questions answered by a faculty member, see the Advising page or contact the department.