What is Physics?

Physics & Astronomy Department

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Physics is the foundation for all the natural sciences.

Physics is the study of the mechanical universe 

It is the basic science that underlies all the natural sciences. And it is a search for the basic rules of the behavior of matter and energy on every scale: from the interaction of subatomic particles, to the motion of every day objects, to the evolution of galaxies and the universe itself. Physics consists of many fields, including particle and nuclear physics, atomic and molecular spectroscopy, optics, solid-state physics, biological and medical physics, computational physics, acoustics, astrophysics and cosmology.

Discoveries by physicists, like quantum phenomena and the theory of the Big Bang, have literally transformed our view of the natural world. Inventions like the transistor and the laser have fueled the modern technological revolution. We can look forward to even more exhilarating breakthroughs in the future - a future that holds exciting opportunities for the physics students of today.

What does a Physicist Do?

Physicists work in a wide variety of professions in science, technology, and education.

  • Physicists can conduct basic research at a university or national laboratory, or applied research in an industrial or commercial setting.
  • Experimental physicists usually work in a lab and seek to test hypotheses and theories, to make discoveries of new phenomena, or to develop new applications of ideas.
  • Theoretical physicists use mathematics to develop explanations of experimental data, formulate new theories, and make new predictions.
  • Recently, a third branch of physics has emerged, computational physics, in which high-performance computers are used to do calculations which cannot be done analytically, or to simulate experiments that are difficult or impossible to perform in a laboratory.
  • Physicists also communicate their ideas, either by presenting scientific papers, writing patents, developing software, or by teaching at the university and high school levels.

So, there are many options for Physics graduates, and the American Institute of Physics and Society of Physics Students have compiled many of these options.

How do I know if Physics is right for me?

Are you the kind of person who is curious about how mechanical or electrical devices work?  Are you good at mathematics or with computers?  Are you eager to discover new concepts and see how they can be applied to real world problems? If so, there's a good chance that physics will challenge and excite you. And with new efforts underway to develop biophysics and astronomy tracks as part of our physics curriculum, there's a good chance our program is right for you, too.

Career Opportunities

Our diverse program can prepare you for a wide variety of positions and make sure you are highly sought after in modern industries. In fact, this article from CNN shows the unemployment rate among Physics graduates is 0.3%, the lowest of all disciplines. Other opportunities include research and design positions, quality control and product testing, mathematical and computer modeling, and sales of technical equipment. Physicists also play a significant role in medical instrumentation and health care delivery. They are needed to operate a multitude of clinical equipment found in hospitals, or to assist in the diagnosis and treatments of patients using nuclear radiation, x-ray, magnetic resonance imaging and ultrasound techniques.

Physicists and engineers can often be found working side by side. Because UMD physics majors are highly trained in experimental techniques, mathematical analysis and computation, they have the knowledge base and flexibility to meet numerous career challenges. Some common job titles UMD graduates hold include:

  • Data Analyst

  • Medical Physicist

  • Product Development Specialist

  • Research Physicist

  • Sensor Design/Optical Engineer

  • Sales and Electrical Engineer

  • Management Consultant Associate

  • Professor of Physics

With long-term career development or an advanced degree, you could become a:

  • University Professor

  • Research Astronomer

  • Computer and Electronics Engineer

  • Medical Physicist

  • Plant Manager

  • Government Administrator

You can also see who is hiring recent physics graduates in Minnesota.