Which Physics Concentration is Right for You?

By Stephanie Small
Published June 13, 2012

Physics is the scientific study of matter and its behavior through space and time. Physicists formulate and test hypotheses regarding motion and energy at all levels of existence, from subatomic particles to stars and planets.  
Physics Concentration Programs
Those interested in working as professional physicists must obtain a master’s or a doctorate in the field. While a master’s program generally takes two to three years, the Ph.D. in physics can take five to seven years to complete. Students spend the first two years taking classes, followed by qualifying examinations. Research begins during the third year, and eventually, students complete a dissertation based on original work. For many schools, a teaching assistantship is also a degree requirement. After graduation, most graduates complete one or two post-doctoral positions before entering the workforce. Although this may sound like a long and arduous path, remember that funding in the form of fellowships and grants is often available for those pursuing doctoral degrees.

Physics Concentration: Career Options

Physicists have a wide variety of career options. They are needed in fields ranging from medicine to education, industry to the government, and computer science to communications. Physicists are qualified to take on roles related to research, teaching, management and consulting. 
While it’s important to check with your particular program regarding prerequisites, most physics graduate programs may require the following:

- B.S. degree in a related area
- GRE scores
- GRE subject test in physics
- Evidence of research experience, and ideally, publications
- Letters of recommendation (ideally from a research supervisor)
- Personal statement
- TOEFL, if necessary

Those considering a graduate degree in physics can choose from a general physics program, or a more specialized physics concentration such as astrophysics, geophysics, nanoscience or optics. Which physics concentration listed below are you most interested in?

General Physics

General physics graduate programs offer training in both classical and modern physics. While students must focus on a sub-discipline for research and their thesis, they are encouraged to explore other areas in order to broaden their knowledge base. Core classes may include the following:

- Mathematical methods
- Satistical mechanics
- Classical mechanics
- Quantum mechanics
- Electrodynamics
- Research
- Advanced physics

Electives may include:

- Lasers in medicine
- Computational molecular biophysics
- Advanced biophotonics
- Molecular biophysics
- Chemical engineering of nanostructured materials
- Transition metal chemistry
- Chemical kinetics and dynamics


Geophysicists use math, physics, and geology in order to understand how the Earth works. In addition to the usual class work, research, and dissertation, students attending graduate school in geophysics may also have the option of conducting field work on-site. Geophysics graduate curriculum may include:

- Basic Earth imaging
- Environmental soundings image estimation
- Understanding natural hazards
- Reflection seismology
- Structural geology
- Atmosphere, ocean and climate dynamics
- Seismic data processing
- Tectonics
- Wave physics


Astrophysics is the study of the universe, including celestial bodies. It encompasses many aspects of physics, including statistical mechanics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, and relativity among others. Astrophysicists may focus their research on stars, galaxies, planets, or the interstellar medium. Astrophysics coursework may include:

- The interstellar medium
- Relativity, cosmology, and the universe
- Comparative planetology
- Stellar astrophysics
- Infrared astronomy
- Cosmology


In contrast to the vast entities that astrophysics addresses, nanoscience is the study of objects measured on the nanometer scale: for example, atoms and molecules. Recent advances in the field of technology, such as the development of specialized microscopes, have improved the ability of nanoscientists to conduct research. Core coursework may include:

- Nanochemistry
- Nanobiology
- Nanophysics
- Nanotechniques

Electives may include:

- Advanced topics in cell biology
- Advanced organic chemistry
- Software engineering
- Mathematical statistics
- Gene expression
- Quantum mechanics
- Vitamins and minerals
- Principles of robotics


Optics deals with the behavior and properties of light, including visible, ultraviolet, and infrared. Encompassing physics, chemistry, engineering and mathematics, this interdisciplinary degree generally leads to a career utilizing and developing new optical technology in fields such as medicine, manufacturing and telecommunications. Areas of focus for graduate work may include:

- Fiber and integrated optics
- Biomedical optics
- Microoptics and nanophotonics
- Adaptive optics
- Nanoscale imaging
- Optical communication

Browse our directory of graduate physics programs.
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