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.
Top 10 Online Physical ScienceDegree Programs & Majors 4-Year Colleges
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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.
To be considered for this ranking, schools were required to meet the following criteria:
Accredited at the institutional level
Private nonprofit or public school
Minimum of 1 online bachelor’s or master’s degree in subject area for 4-year schools
Minimum of 1 online associate degree or certificate program in subject area for 2-year schools
Schools were then scored on factors such as:
Cost & Financial Aid
Number and variety of online program offerings
Placement and support services offered
Academic/Career counseling services
Loan default rates
These factors were assembled for each school and rated using a peer-based-value (PBV) calculation. PBV compares the cost of a program to the cost of other programs with the same (or similar) qualitative score and cost. PBV denotes the overall value or “bang for your buck” of a college or degree program.
Those interested in physical sciences enjoy the study of chemistry, physics, astronomy and other non-living systems and then go on to careers with a wide range of opportunities. Earning a degree online can can help graduates get a foot in the door in their career of choice because they have added knowledge and possibly work experience to give them a leg up on the competition. To help in the search for the best possible program, we’ve done some research on classes available, services offered and student to teacher ratio so aspiring scientists can make a good choice.
University of Southern California first opened its doors to students in Los Angeles in 1880. From offering degree programs to those initial 53 students, USC has grown to serve today’s enrollment of 19,000 undergraduates. More than ten percent of today’s students are the first children in their families to attend college. The university’s Bachelor of Science in Physical Sciences is directed under the aegis of the Physics Department. A total of 64 units is required to complete the degree, including upper division electives in the fields of astronomy, physics, chemistry, or earth science. Graduate students can enroll in the Master’s Program in Medical Biophysics (MBPH). Applicants must undertake a research-based, thesis track.
Founded in 1887, North Carolina State University at Raleigh, with an enrollment of 34,000 students, is located in the heart of the state’s heralded Research Triangle. Students in the sciences have the opportunity to work with over 70 public and private partners in the region. Physical science students at the undergraduate level can pursue four-year degrees in biochemistry natural resources: marine & coastal resources, chemistry, meteorology, chemical engineering, physics, geology, marine science, and polymer & color chemistry. The university offers a dual major in paper science engineering & chemical engineering. Graduate students can choose from a master’s degree in chemistry, marine science, or physics.
Missouri University of Science and Technology became one of the first technological institutions in the Midwest when it was founded in 1870. Serving 8,800 students, Missouri S&T currently offers 97 undergraduate and graduate degrees in the physical sciences. These include 18 undergraduate programs in engineering and computing leading to BA or BS degree. There are seven undergraduate sciences and computing degrees, along with 15 majors in the Freshman Engineering program. On-campus programs lead to 27 master’s degrees in the physical sciences with more than 15 master’s degree programs in the physical sciences offered entirely online.
The oldest university in the state, Columbia University in the City of New York was founded as King's College in 1754. The institution took its current name following the War of Independence in 1784. Its School of Engineering is currently home to 1,619 students. There are degree programs offered in applied physics, applied mathematics, biomedical, chemical, civil, computer engineering, computer science, electrical, environmental, financial engineering, industrial engineering, materials, mechanical and mining engineering. Graduate enrollment is three times the number of engineering undergrads. One of the university’s greatest academic and social aspects is its unique location in New York, making it accessible by walking, mass transit, or taxi service.
Established in 1889, the University of Idaho currently serves 11,780 students with 85 undergraduate majors and 93 graduate degree programs. Programs are supported in part by a $100M annual research fund. The College of Science hosts undergraduate and graduate degree programs in biology, mathematics, chemistry, microbiology, molecular biology, statistics, geography, geology biochemistry, and physics. One of its newest academic/research science programs is the forensic chemistry option that meshes science with criminal justice professions. Popular emerging fields include the study of mathematical biology and bioinformatics. Hill Undergraduate Research Fellowships support the work of four-year students conducting their own laboratory investigations.
Clarkson University was founded in 1896 as the Thomas S. Clarkson Memorial School of Technology, serving an initial coeducational class of 17 students. It currently is home to 50 degree programs in engineering, sciences, arts, education, business, and healthcare. Undergraduate physical science degree programs foster hands-on learning and students are encouraged to join SPEED (Student Projects for Engineering Experience and Design). Programs culminating in master’s degrees are offered at both the Potsdam and Capital Region campuses. Graduate students may also pursue selected Master of Engineering (ME) or Master of Science (MS) degree programs online.
Established in 1826 in Cleveland, Case Western Reserve University currently offers degree programs to more than 5,000 undergraduates and 6,000 graduate students. For over 125 years, the Case School of Engineering has offered research-intensive degree programs. Today’s undergraduates can choose a bachelor of science in engineering in aerospace engineering, biomedical engineering, chemical engineering, civil engineering, computer engineering, electrical engineering, engineering physics, materials science and engineering, mechanical engineering, polymer science and engineering, and systems and control engineering. The newest offering is the undergraduate major and minor in data science. Students can apply for the Case Bachelor/Master of Science degree program in their senior year.
Founded in Stillwater as a land-grant university in 1890, Oklahoma State University began by offering students classes in area churches until the campus could be built. There are more than 200,000 alumni worldwide. The College of Arts and Sciences contains 24 academic departments, with 13 departments making up the College of Engineering, Architecture, and Technology. Key departments for undergraduate and graduate studies in physical sciences include aerospace studies, computer sciences, geology, mathematics, microbiology, physics and statistics. The academic focus is on problem-solving, inquiry based learning, critical thinking, and independent research.
Established in 1801, the University of South Carolina-Columbia is one of the eight campuses in the University of South Carolina system. It is host to 25,254 undergraduate and 8,518 graduate students with nearly 100 bachelor and master’s programs. In 2016 the university received $250 million in sponsored research awards. For graduate students, the College of Arts and Sciences offers master’s degree programs in biotechnology and bioinformatics. The newest offering at the Department of Physics and Astronomy is BS degree in engineering physics, joining other popular USC programs in nanotechnology and computational physics.
Michigan Technological University was established in 1885 on 925 acres on Lake Superior. Over 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs currently offer majors in engineering, mathematics science, and technology. Programs were buoyed last year by $72 million in research funding, including undergraduate paid research support totaling 126,000 hours. BS degrees from the Department of Natural Science provide students a choice among concentrations in 15 major fields, including actuarial science, bioinformatics, biochemistry,discrete mathematics, applied physics, statistics, and cheminformatics. In computing, students can pursue an undergraduate degree in applications, computer systems, applied/computational mathematics, and software engineering.
East Mississippi Community College, founded in 1927, today serves 4,000 students with more than 3,000 at the college’s Golden Triangle location and 1,000 residential students at its Scooba campus. The Mathematics and Science Division offers nearly 30 associate degrees, with select concentrations in the physical sciences. Majors include studies in architecture, physics, chemistry, meteorology, engineering, chemistry, and mathematics. The 33-35 credit hours of the core curriculum make up the foundation of the 60-credit associate degree. Basic course requirements in the physical sciences are designed to prepare students for transfer to accredited four-year institutions.
Allen County Community College was established in 1923 and today serves 2,500 undergraduate students online or through campuses in Iola and Burlingame. Associate in arts and science degree options are available in 15 subject tracks, with nine degree tracks available for the associate of applied science degree. Physical science tracks are offered in subjects including chemistry, information technology, pre-engineering, mathematics, physics, and general studies. Online students have access to the Online Student Resource Center (OSRC), ACCC Library, and Allen Writing Center. Students can receive financial support in the form of grants, scholarships, loans, and student employment programs.
A member of the Alamo College District, Palo Alto College has served students in the San Antonio and Bexar County areas for more than 30 years. The U.S. Department of Education has recognized Palo Alto College as a Hispanic-Serving Institution. Associate of science or applied science degree programs offer students a broad foundation in the physical sciences through courses or majors in computer science, industrial technology, aviation, cybersecurity, biology, chemistry, geology, engineering, mathematics and agriculture. Associate degrees are comprised of 60 undergraduate credits and 17 elective credits in fields including calculus, linear algebra, and statistical methods.
Since 1970, Tulsa Community College has served students in northeastern Oklahoma. As the state’s largest community college, TCC is home to 27,000 students at its Metro, Northeast, Southeast and West Tulsa campuses. It is accredited by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education and the Higher Learning Commission. Associate and university transfer degree programs span the physical sciences, with two-year majors including aviation sciences technology, biology, chemistry, computer information systems, electronics technology, engineering, geography, information technology, mathematics, and physics. Financial aid is available through loans, grants, scholarships and work study.
Pamlico Community College began in 1962 as the Bayboro branch of the Lenoir County Industrial Education Center. Today, PCC offers fully accredited undergraduate academic programs, continuing education courses, and programs for cultural enrichment. Students can choose among 60-61 semester-hour associate degree programs in sciences that include 16 hours of studies in mathematics and natural sciences. Foundation and science courses are designed for students who intend to transfer to a four-year institution. Natural science studies are required in biology, chemistry, college physics, pre-calculus algebra, descriptive astronomy, calculus, and environmental biology.
Founded as Holmes County Agricultural High School in 1911, Holmes Community College today serves students that hail from Mississippi counties of Attala, Carroll, Choctaw, Grenada, Holmes, Madison, Montgomery, Webster, and Yazoo. It offers programs leading to an Associate of Arts and Associate of Applied Science degree, along with technical and career certificates. Two-year degree students can select from 21 majors at HCC. The Department of Natural Sciences offers four-credit science courses in biology, chemistry, mathematics, engineering, and physics. The courses are comprised of theoretical lectures and student labs, mock job interviews, and educational tours.
In 1963 voters in Newton and McDonald counties voted to create Crowder College, which opened a year later to 378 students. Today, the public community college has an enrollment of 5,500 students attending classes for college credit. The Neosho campus extends over 608 acres. Crowder offers physical science courses in astronomy, chemistry, physics, and geology as a foundation for students planning to transfer to four-year institutions. Degree programs can be completed in four semesters unless the incoming student needs to complete additional prerequisite coursework in mathematics and precalculus. Students may earn an associate in arts degree by completing 65 hours in communications, humanities, mathematics, physical science and social/behavioral sciences.
Three Rivers Community College was established in Poplar Bluff in 1966 to serve residents of Butler, Carter, Ripley, and Wayne counties. Today, 3,700 students pursue college transfer and career development programs at TRCC’s main campus and nine service centers. Associate degree programs are designed for transfer to four-year colleges and universities. The two-year associate physical sciences degree program is built around concentrations in chemistry, biology, analytic geometry and calculus, general physics, and environmental geology. Some physical science courses may be available at Poplar Bluff, Dexter, Sikeston, Malden, Kennett, Cape Girardeau and Piedmont locations.
Ozarks Technical Community College was established in 1990 and charged with offering one-year certificates, two-year associate of applied science degrees (AAS) and two-year associate of arts degrees (AA). OTCC today has grown to encompass three campus locations, two southwest Missouri educational centers, and a center for online undergraduate programs. AAS degree programs are designed for students planning to complete a transfer four-year degree in chemical laboratory technology or environmental science technology. Associate of Science (AS) degree programs are offered with majors in biological clinical science, biology, chemistry, engineering (mechanical, civil, or electrical), and mathematics.
The Eastern Iowa Community College District, established in 1965, includes Clinton Junior College, Muscatine Junior College, and Scott Community College. The district and the colleges are accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. Two year undergraduate programs are designed for students entering the workforce or those transferring to four-year degree programs within Iowa. Associate degrees are offered in biology, chemistry, mathematics, physical science, physics, and pre-engineering. Associate in Applied Science degrees are available in the fields including heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), information technology, renewable energy systems, and engineering technology.
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.
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:
Introduction to important phenomena in physics through description with experimental demonstrations.
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:
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.
Study of the principles of lithostatigraphy, biostratigraphy, and sequence stratigraphy.
Electricity and Magnetism [Physics]
Magnetic properties of materials, electrodynamics, currents, magnetostatics, and more.
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:
MASTER’S PROGRAM CORE COURSES
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 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 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
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 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 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 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 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
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 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 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
Whether you’re looking to earn your online degree or you’re a parent looking for answers, you can find all of your questions covered here. Explore these resources to help you make informed decisions and prepare for whatever is thrown your way.