What is a Physical Science Degree?

Physical science is the study of the inorganic world. In other words, it does not study living things. Its primary branches are astronomy, physics, chemistry, and the Earth sciences. Astronomy encompasses the study of all extraterrestrial objects and phenomena. Physics is concerned with the nature and properties of matter and energy. Chemistry offers insights into the makeup of the universe and biological systems. The Earth sciences are concerned with the solid Earth, its waters, and the air that envelops it.

Clearly, physical scientists and those who aim to join their ranks have considerable subject matter with which to work. Because of its wide scope, the physical science major allows both undergraduate and graduate students to customize their curriculum.

Program Options

Associate Degree in Physical Science – Two Year Duration
At the associate level, physical science degree programs are most often comprised of courses in all of the four main branches of the field: astronomy, physics, chemistry, and the Earth sciences, which include geology and meteorology. Some schools, however, offer programs that are more specific in nature, such as astronomy and physics or geology and meteorology.

In all cases, the associate curriculum is designed to provide the knowledge and skills that form the foundation for completing a bachelor’s program in various physical science majors. While it is debated whether mathematics is itself a physical science, many programs include a math component because mathematics is used throughout the physical sciences. While careers in the physical science realm generally require education beyond an associate degree, associate grads may qualify for some entry-level roles such as lab technician.

Here is a sample curriculum leading to an Associate Degree in Physical Science:

  • Physical Geology with Laboratory – introduction to physical geology, the science of the Earth, the materials of which it is composed, and the processes that are acting upon it; topics span plate tectonics and Earth’s internal structure, the formation and classification of minerals and rocks, geologic structures, and geologic processes of the Earth’s surface and subsurface
  • Descriptive Astronomy – introduction to the solar system, stars and their evolution, the Milky Way galaxy, and cosmology
  • Exploring the Solar Systems and Life beyond the Earth – the origin of the solar system and how it changed with time; analysis of the physical properties of planets, moons, rings, comets, and asteroids; the history of space exploration; the potential for life elsewhere in the solar system and beyond; challenges of space travel
  • Earth Science with Laboratory – overview of the Earth’s major physical systems: the lithosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere; the Earth’s place in the solar system; combines topics in geology, physical geography, oceanography, meteorology, and astronomy
  • Weather and Climate – introduction to the principles of solar radiation and energy transfer, atmospheric structure and composition, cloud development, precipitation, atmospheric pressure, and wind; the origin and development of storms, the greenhouse effect, earth’s changing climate
  • Fundamentals of Chemistry with Laboratory – basic concepts of the structure, properties, and interactions of matter and energy; matter, chemical changes, chemical conversions, chemical bonding, and acid-base chemistry
  • Introduction to Organic and Biological Chemistry with Laboratory – basic physical, chemical, and structural features of organic and biological compounds; topics include the properties of important biological compounds such as carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
  • Physical Geography with Laboratory – the major world patterns of the physical environment; information and processes dealing with the Earth’s atmosphere, climate, landforms, natural vegetation, water, and soils; using maps and charts; environmental issues in geography and sustainability
  • Introductory Physics with Laboratory – basic knowledge in physics, including mechanics, wave motions, thermodynamics, optics, electromagnetism, and atomic and nuclear physics; explanation of natural phenomena
  • Electricity and Magnetism with Laboratory – the basic principles and applications of electrostatics, magnetostatics, time-varying electric and magnetic phenomena, direct and alternating current circuits, elementary electronics, and electromagnetic waves; the mathematical analysis of physical problems
  • Intermediate Algebra and Geometry – systems of equations and inequalities, radical and quadratic equations, quadratic functions and their graphs, complex numbers, nonlinear inequalities, exponential and logarithmic functions, conic sections, sequences and series, and solid geometry; application problems involving these topics
  • Elementary Statistics – introduction to descriptive and inferential statistics; analyzing data through graphs, measures of central tendency and dispersion; statistical rules to compute basic probability; applications of technology, using software packages for statistical analysis

Bachelor’s Degree in Physical Science – Four Year Duration
The general physical science degree exists only at the associate level. At the bachelor’s and graduate levels, physical science degrees are standalone, distinct degrees in astronomy, chemistry, physics, and the Earth sciences. For summaries of these degrees, please refer to the section below, Degrees Similar to a Physical Science Degree.

Degrees Similar to Physical Science

Astronomy degree programs teach students about celestial bodies and the energy and forces exerted by their interaction. This means that the curriculum is concerned with the study of objects in space, from the smallest neutrinos to planets, stars, solar systems, galaxies, asteroids, comets, and black holes.

Students learn about when these objects were born, how they evolved, how some of them became extinct, and how they move in space. They develop skills to theorize about the origin of the cosmos and to predict future events in the universe. In addition, they study the mechanics involved in building and deploying space stations, satellites, space crafts, and transportation systems.

Astrophysics is a branch of astronomy. In the most rigid sense, astronomy focuses on observations of heavenly bodies and measures their positions, luminosities, motions, and other characteristics. Astrophysics focuses on creating physical theories about the origin and nature of those heavenly bodies. But the lines between the two fields are blurred, and today many who work in space science draw little or no distinction between the two. They view astronomy and astrophysics as two aspects of one science.

Chemistry is the science that deals with identifying the substances that make up matter. Degree programs in chemistry focus on investigating these substances: their properties; how they interact, combine, and change; and how scientists can use chemical processes to form new substances.

Students of geography study the Earth’s surface; its climate, soil, and water; and the relationship between people and the land. Some typical courses in a geography program are cartography, climatology, geology, political geography, statistics, and spatial analysis.

Geology, also known as geoscience and Earth science, is the study of the Earth. Students of the discipline learn about the processes that act upon the Earth, such as floods, landslides, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions; the materials of which the Earth is made, such as water, oil, metals, and rocks; and the history, evolution, and past climates of the Earth.

Hydrology is about the active nature of water, the movement of precipitation. Hydrologists study surface waters like rivers, lakes, and streams and examine how rainfall and snowfall cause erosion, generate caves, and permeate soil and rock to become groundwater or flow to oceans and seas.

Students of hydrology study these and other aspects of the field. They learn about water management methods, land use, environmental issues, and how to collect water data, interpret statistics, conduct computer modeling, and use geographic information systems (GIS) and the global positioning system (GPS).

Materials Science and Engineering
Materials scientists apply principles of engineering, physics, and chemistry to study existing materials and invent and manufacture new materials. Their work has broad applications to solving real-world problems. It is essential to our everyday lives.

Degree programs in materials science cover the structure and composition of materials, how they behave under various conditions, and how they can be manipulated and combined for specific uses in specific industries – from health and engineering to electronics, construction, and manufacturing.

Meteorology degree programs teach students how to predict weather conditions. The typical curriculum examines atmospheric movement, climate trends, and ozone levels. With an understanding of these concepts, students learn about various meteorological phenomena. They learn how to use statistical analysis to forecast weather events from sun, clouds, and rain to heat waves, droughts, thunderstorms, tropical storms, tornados, and hurricanes.

The oceans cover almost 70% of the Earth. Oceanographers study the oceans and their complex relationships with the planet. They are concerned with marine organisms, the ocean’s chemical composition, the structure of the ocean floor, the movements of the ocean, design of technology for ocean exploration, and policy that protects the oceans.

Physics is a field that keeps changing as discoveries are made. This means that the field asks at least as many questions as it answers. Students of physics degree programs study matter and energy. They learn about the relationships between the measurable quantities in the universe, which include velocity, electric field, and kinetic energy.

Skills You’ll Learn

Studying physical science develops a considerable set of transferable skills:

  • Ability to work both independently and as part of a team
  • Advanced math and science skills
  • Attention to detail
  • Awareness of ethical issues
  • Computer literacy / computer modeling
  • Research, data collection, analysis, and reporting
  • Debate skills
  • Dedication to ongoing learning
  • Experiment design
  • Field skills / comfortable working outdoors / physical stamina
  • Flexible approach to work
  • GIS (geographic information systems) and GPS (global positioning system) software
  • Global perspective
  • Observation, investigation, critical thinking, and problem-solving
  • Oral and written communication
  • Pattern recognition
  • Perseverance
  • Practical lab skills
  • Presenting information both orally and in written form
  • Project management
  • Quantitative reasoning
  • Safety consciousness
  • Understanding and use of maps, charts, and graphs
  • Understanding of the relationship between science and society
  • Using and use of statistical applications

What Can You Do with a Physical Science Degree?

As noted, the vast majority of jobs in the field of physical science require education beyond an associate degree. This means that careers available to students depend on the specific physical science in which they earn their bachelor’s or graduate degree. The links provided in the Similar Degrees section above will take you to comprehensive overviews of those degrees, including what you can do with each of them.

In general, employment opportunities exist with government agencies and the chemical, computer, construction, drug, food, industrial electronics, manufacturing, petroleum, energy, mining, and land use planning industries.

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