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The physical sciences encompass a broad array of subjects, from physics to geology. For prospective students considering a degree in the field, developing an understanding of the various educational options is important. The following guide serves as an introduction to the different types of online degrees in the physical sciences, the types of classes offered at each degree level, and how earning a degree can position a student for success in a diverse number of professional fields.

Physical Science School Degrees

Given the scientific nature of the fields of study that fall under the physical sciences heading, it is no surprise that a strong commitment to higher education is a prerequisite to a career in the field. Major areas of study in the physical sciences include astronomy, geology, physics, chemistry, and more. The level of postsecondary education necessary for employment depends on both the specific field of study and the specific job sought. For example, entry-level positions for geologists (such as geological or petroleum technician) are available to graduates with as little as an associate degree. However, astronomers and physicists seeking employment as researchers will have to earn their doctoral degrees to land entry-level positions.

Online Physical Science School Degrees

While a number of colleges and universities offer online courses in the physical sciences, due to the need for in-the-lab hands-on training, distance learning postsecondary degree programs in the physical science fields are almost non-existent (with the exception of a very few programs in physics and geology). Many of these online programs are presented in a hybrid format that requires some level of in-person on-site attendance in combination with online classes.

Program Highlight:
Online Bachelor’s Degree in Physical Sciences

Currently, many postsecondary institutions offer individual online courses in physical science. A few schools offer online bachelor’s degrees in science with a specialization in physics for those interested in becoming middle or high school physics teachers. This degree typically runs between 120 and 124 credit hours. Some online programs may require a full-time student teaching component for graduation. Students learn the basics of general science, advanced physics, and teaching methodologies to become qualified teachers in the field. Courses usually cover topics such as calculus, fundamentals of educational psychology, and modern physics. Graduates of an degree programs in the physical sciences should meet qualifications for single subject teaching at secondary schools. However, some school districts or states may have additional teacher requirements for employment.

Online Associate in Physical Science Degrees

An associate degree is a two-year program offered almost exclusively in the United States at junior and community colleges. Associate degrees in the physical sciences provide a basic foundation of knowledge in the given subjects. Anyone considering a career in the physical sciences would do well to forego an associate degree program and seek out an appropriate bachelor’s degree. Along with general education classes, students working on an online physical science associate degree will be required to complete general subject-related courses such as:

COURSE NAME overview
Conceptual Physics Introduction to important phenomena in physics through description with experimental demonstrations.
General Chemistry Detailed study of basic principles of atomic and molecular structure and bonding, chemical reactions, solutions, gas laws, and more.
Introduction to Astronomy General survey of astronomy that includes the sun, planets, moons, stars, black holes, dark matter, cosmology, and more.
Survey of Geology Introduction to the principles of geology including plate tectonics, earthquakes, volcanoes, and earth structure.

Online Bachelor’s in Physical Science Degrees

Bachelor’s degree programs in the physical sciences, like most other subject areas, can be successfully completed within four to five years. Online coursework will include a foundational general education requirement, a core set of classes in the chosen subject field, and a group of elective courses. The following table provides a sample of the types of courses physical science bachelor’s degree students will be taking:

COURSE NAME overview
Introductory Astrophysics [Astronomy] Topics include the development of astronomy, electromagnetic radiation, and the origin of the solar system.
Observational Astronomy [Astronomy] Introduction to current optical observation including, infrared, ultraviolet and x-ray techniques.
Foundations of Chemical Principles [Chemistry] Basic chemical principles, with topics that include the structure of the atom, periodic table and trends, covalent and ionic bonding, and others.
Principles of Chemical Thermodynamics and Kinetics [Chemistry] Focuses on the macroscopic properties of chemical systems.
Earthquakes and Natural Disasters [Geology] Addresses issues regarding earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, global warming and more.
Stratigraphy [Geology] Study of the principles of lithostatigraphy, biostratigraphy, and sequence stratigraphy.
Electricity and Magnetism [Physics] Magnetic properties of materials, electrodynamics, currents, magnetostatics, and more.
Optics [Physics] Covers geometrical and physical optics, waves, reflection, optical instrumentation, and several other topics.

Online Master’s in Physical Science Degrees

Master’s degree programs are typically offered for each physical science field (e.g., Master of Science in Physics or Master of Science in Chemistry), or under the generalized title of Master of Science in Physical Science, with a stated emphasis in one of the specific disciplines. A growing trend at many colleges and universities is to allow students to design (under supervision) their own courses of study, combining aspects of two or more physical science fields together, or even combining one or more physical science subjects with an engineering, technology, natural science, or social science discipline. In almost all cases, completing a master’s degree program in the physical sciences will require a time commitment of eighteen to twenty-four months or longer, during which students will encounter courses similar to those on the following list:

Chemistry and the Atmosphere [General] Focuses on chemistry as it applies to the Earth’s atmosphere, with topics such as the interaction of solar radiation and atmospheric gases.
Environmental History of the Earth [General] Emphasis on how geologic history has determined the physical and biological environments on Earth today.
Diffuse Matter in Space [Astronomy] Basic equations of fluid dynamics, fundamentals of magnetohydrodynamics and more.
Quantum Mechanics for Astrophysics [Astronomy] Quantum mechanical topics in areas of interest for astrophysics applications.
Advanced Analytical Chemistry [Chemistry] Emphasis on chemical information and modern analytical methods to chemical problems.
Medicinal Chemistry [Chemistry] Study of the chemistry and biological activity of hormones, vitamins, drugs, and other agents.
Earthquake Seismology [Geology] Topics include seismic waves, their recording and management, and the estimation of earthquake source strength, location and mechanism.
Environmental Geology and Planning [Geology] Geologic processes, hazards, minerals and energy resources, and their interaction with planning and regulations.
Lattice Gauge Theory [Physics] Introduction to Lattice Gauge Theory, building on the Wilsonian approach to Quantum Field Theory.
Topics in String Theory [Physics] Modern string theory topics, including aspects of 2d conformal field theory, mirror symmetry, and moonshine.

Online Doctoral Degrees in Physical Sciences

As one might expect, a PhD in the physical sciences represents the highest level of academic achievement one can earn in each of the respective fields. Physical science doctorate programs are often offered in highly specialized sub-fields (such as nanoscience, nuclear chemistry, or analytical chemistry) or in an interdisciplinary format, combining two or more specializations. The time commitment to complete a PhD degree program in the physical sciences can vary substantially by specific field and other degree requirements, but individuals can expect to commit between four and ten years or more to their academic pursuit.

What Can You Do With a Physical Science Degree?

Careers in the physical sciences encompass a wide variety of professions and occupations, with employment in teaching and academia, and by government agencies, non-profit organizations, and private firms and businesses.

Career choices vary greatly among the various physical science subjects. The following list offers a brief glimpse at the types of occupations one might expect to find within each of the physical science fields:

  • Astronomers

    Astronomers study how matter and energy interact in space. They use telescopes and other equipment to study planets, stars, galaxies and other solar bodies. Their research helps to further scientific knowledge of our galaxy and distant galaxies, stars and phenomena. The work of astronomers helps to pave the way for advances in communications, energy, navigation and more.

    Median Salary: $96,460

    Median Hourly: $46.37

    Est. Growth: 10%

    No. Employed: 2,150

    Minimum Education: Doctoral/Professional

  • Biological Technicians

    Biological technicians ensure that laboratories are clean and the equipment is ready for scientists when needed. They gather samples, conduct tests and experiments, analyze results, and report findings back to their team. Depending on their specialty, a biological technician may work in the field or in a sterile lab and may do everything from develop new medications to grow cultures in a Petri dish.

    Median Salary: $39,750

    Median Hourly: $19.11

    Est. Growth: 10%

    No. Employed 72,740

    Minimum Education: Bachelor’s

  • Chemical Technicians

    Working in a team, a chemical technician works in a laboratory or manufacturing facility to develop or test chemical processes to ensure they meet certain criteria. They prep laboratory equipment, conduct experiments and analyze, interpret and present their results. Their place of work can vary, depending on their specialty.

    Median Salary: $42,920

    Median Hourly: $20.64

    Est. Growth: 9.4%

    No. Employed: 61,300

    Minimum Education: Associate’s

  • Chemists

    Chemists study the ways certain substances react to one another and then use this knowledge to develop new and improved products for the benefit of others. They oversee technicians and other staff members as they research and test products such as drugs, plastics, cleaners and other manufactured goods. Most chemists work as part of a team and also work cross functionally with other scientists such as biologists, computer specialists, and engineers.

    Median Salary: $71,770

    Median Hourly: $34.5

    Est. Growth: 5.6%

    No. Employed: 84,950

    Minimum Education: Bachelor’s

  • Environmental Scientists/Specialists

    Environmental scientists and specialists work to help protect the environment, which in turn helps to improve the health of those nearby. They test and analyze the air, soil, water, food and other environmental elements and find ways to improve the quality of these elements. These experts are instrumental in helping the government and businesses assess environmental hazards and health risks.

    Median Salary: $63,570

    Median Hourly: $30.56

    Est. Growth: 14.6%

    No. Employed: 84,240

    Minimum Education: Bachelor’s

  • Hydrologists

    Hydrologists study water and how it moves over and through Earth—from the clouds to below the surface of land. They are concerned with the quality and quantity of water and study the impact that water has on erosion, sedimentation and pollution. Their expertise allows them to study and resolve issues with water quality.

    Median Salary: $75,530

    Median Hourly: $36.31

    Est. Growth: 10.4%

    No. Employed: 6,880

    Minimum Education: Master’s

  • Materials Scientists

    Materials scientists research the structures and chemical properties of different materials in an effort to improve upon existing products or develop new ones. They work in a team to experiment with a variety of materials, such as ceramics, semiconductors, composite materials and metallic alloys, and apply scientific and chemical knowledge as they work.

    Median Salary: $88,990

    Median Hourly: $42.78

    Est. Growth: 5.2%

    No. Employed: 7,970

    Minimum Education: Bachelor’s

  • Nuclear Technicians

    Steeped in research and safety, nuclear technicians monitor radiation levels in the air, water and soil. Using specialized instruments, they measure radiation produced by nuclear experiments, power generation and other activities and make sure that they are operating safely. While some nuclear technicians work in a laboratory, many others work directly in the field.

    Median Salary: $69,060

    Median Hourly: $33.2

    Est. Growth: 14.9%

    No. Employed: 8,040

    Minimum Education: Associate’s

  • Physicists

    Physicists help to identify and develop new sources of energy and new military technology through their study of the property and laws that govern space, time, energy and matter. While some try to explain the forces of nature, others work in more practical areas, such as developing new materials and medical equipment. In either aspect, the job of a physicist is embedded heavily in research.

    Median Salary: $106,840

    Median Hourly: $51.37

    Est. Growth: 10.4%

    No. Employed: 17,820

    Minimum Education: Doctoral/Professional

  • Survey Researchers

    Survey researchers design, conduct and analyze the results of surveys in an effort to answer a variety of questions about health, political and social issues, culture, education, the economy or general public interest. These surveys can be used for a variety of things, including business plans, government research, product lines, or to determine the products and services the public desires. Survey researchers are highly analytical and use a variety of statistical techniques to collect and analyze data.

    Median Salary: $45,050

    Median Hourly: $21.66

    Est. Growth: 17.6%

    No. Employed: 17,370

    Minimum Education: Master’s