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Could a postgraduate physics course be for you?

James Davis

Careers Commentator
Physics allows us to unravel the most marvellous secrets of the universe. With a postgraduate qualification, you could be right at the forefront of our greatest discoveries.
Principles written on a blackboard.

Physics is the science of understanding how all the elements of the natural world interact and function. It concerns the properties of matter, energy and all their myriad byproducts like heat, light, electricity, radiation or magnetism. With a postgraduate qualification, it’s possible to deepen your knowledge and enter or re-enter a career in the field more qualified and confident than ever. However, it’s not necessarily for everyone.

This article will cover four questions regarding whether or not postgraduate study into physics is for you. In answering each, you should have a better idea of whether or not it’d be something for you:

  1. What does physics entail day-to-day in a professional context and what’s required academically?
  2. What are the job prospects like?
  3. What’s the salary like?
  4. What are your study options?

What does physics entail?

The day to day professional life of a physicist varies substantially between projects and specialisations. The life of a computational physicist will be different from a chemical physicist, which are both different from someone in nuclear physics or polymer physics. That said, they typically work at either private research centres or universities to further their field, but can also be found undergoing multi-disciplinary pursuits working to develop new technology, medical treatments or otherwise.

Postgraduate physics courses typically supplement an existing foundation of mathematical and scientific knowledge (preferably physics), providing units in topics like:

  • Frontiers of nanotechnology
  • Complex analysis
  • Partial differential equations
  • Nuclear and statistical physics
  • Quantum physics
  • Methods of applied mathematics
  • Advanced techniques in chemical and physical sciences

To enter one of these courses, it is often mandatory to have studied physics with substantial mathematics components throughout an undergraduate degree. However, many universities allow applicants from cognate disciplines, provided they can prove they’ve completed some relevant physics/ mathematics units.

Overall, this is a line of study for the insatiably curious. Postgraduate physics will bitterly test even the most accomplished students, requiring them to grapple with problems the greatest geniuses across hundreds of years made their life’s work. You will require nothing less than unending persistence and prodigious mathematical ability. If you’re the sort of person with these qualities however, postgraduate physics study could be one of the best decisions you make.

What are the job prospects?

If you’re thinking of entering a research-based field via PhD or master’s by research, you may have difficulties finding work. It’s by no means impossible however; we’ve even written an article about getting around this issue here. The specificity and demand for your field will likely work heavily in your favour too, particularly if you’re on the forefront of nanotechnology or computational physics given the rise of quantum computers boasting historic quantities of cubits. If you’re thinking of entering the private sector, you should have little issue finding work at tech startups or large companies like Google.

What’s the salary like?

According to Payscale Australia, physicists in Australia make AU $85,000 on average per year. This can range between $30,913 starting out to $135,451 when more senior. However, this of course doesn’t take into consideration the multitudes of other potential occupations available to physics degree holders aside from “physicist”.

Where and how can I study it?

Physics can be studied at all postgraduate levels. Bear in mind most of these if not all are designed for applicants with extensive prior knowledge of both physics and relevant mathematics, but there are sometimes exceptions.

  • Graduate certificates take six months full time or up to one year part time to complete. These sometimes allow students from other disciplines to enter the world of physics, provided they hold at least a bachelor’s degree. This makes them a great way of testing whether or not higher study is for you. However, be warned that even a short six month program can be highly daunting without completing extensive catch-up study beforehand. We would recommend analysing the units your chosen course provides and looking up the required mathematics/ scientific principles it entails. Units offered are fairly foundational, covering the basic properties and laws governing light, matter, electromagnetism and others.
  • Graduate diplomas are almost identical, the key difference being the year long full time or two years part time duration. This gives these courses more room for electives and ability for students to investigate further topics of interest.
  • Degrees like the Master of Science (Physics) from Flinders University are exclusively for students with plenty of experience in the discipline already. They take two years of full time study full time, or up to four years part. In addition to challenging core units in things like solid state physics and optoelectronics, there’s a strong research component. This requires students to investigate a problem of their choice under the guidance of a supervisor and write a lengthy thesis on the matter, which is the product of much research.
  • A doctorate is the pinnacle of physics education, requiring students to spend three years full time or up to eight years part time gathering data and producing a 70,000 - 100,000 word thesis on a problem of their choosing. These courses are offered by institutions like RMIT in the form of their PhD (Applied Physics). This is available to those who’ve either done an honours year in undergrad or completed a master’s degree in physics.

Hopefully this article has given you a better grasp of what postgraduate physics programs entail, who’s eligible for them and what employment opportunities are available. No matter where you take your qualification, we wish you luck!