M.S. Vs. PhD in Physics

Oct 20, 2021

Master's and doctoral degree programs in physics are plentiful and prepare students for professional careers as scientists. However, these programs vary at the different levels in a variety of factors, including program length. Learn about some of the similarities and differences to help you decide which degree to pursue.

Comparing an M.S. to a PhD in Physics

Master of Science in Physics

Master of Science (M.S.) in Physics degree programs may range from about 30 to 36 credits, may be able to be completed in as little as 1 year, and are typically on-campus programs. Many of these degree programs require students to maintain a specific GPA throughout the program, usually ranging from a 2.8 to a 3.0. It is also common for programs to allow students to choose from a thesis option or a non-thesis option, which requires students to complete a comprehensive exam and/or final research project in place of a thesis. Students typically take core courses in physics that discuss topics such as quantum mechanics, electrodynamics, and classical mechanics, as well as elective coursework that may come from physics or other areas, like chemistry, biophysics, astronomy, or engineering, and discuss topics including soft matter physics, stellar dynamics, and nuclear physics. Students who earn this degree may go on to pursue education in physics or astronomy at the doctoral level or pursue a career as a researcher and/or scientist in a variety of industries.

Doctor of Philosophy in Physics

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Physics programs may require around 64 credits, usually require students maintain a 3.0 GPA throughout the program, and typically take at least 5 years to complete. Some programs may provide full funding for 5 years through teaching or research assistantships and/or may allow students to earn their master's degree during the doctoral program. Typically, students earning this degree need to complete qualifying exams, a dissertation, and a final oral examination to graduate. Coursework for these programs may include core physics courses that cover subjects in mathematics, quantum mechanics, electrodynamics, and statistical mechanics, and elective courses that are usually in a student's area of specialization and/or research interests, such as computational physics, biological physics, particle astrophysics, or statistical physics. It is fairly common for graduates of PhD in Physics programs to pursue a post-doctoral research position on their way to securing a career as a professional physicist in various settings or teacher/researcher in higher education.

Common Entrance Requirements

Students pursuing a graduate degree in physics must have at least a bachelor's degree, usually in physics or a related field. Some of these degree programs may require students to meet a minimum GPA and/or suggest that students have prior coursework in areas such as mechanics, thermodynamics, calculus, quantum mechanics, and more. Many of these programs at the master's and doctoral levels require students to take the general GRE and the Physics GRE Subject Test and submit their scores to the institution. Other common application materials for graduate degree programs in physics include transcripts, letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and a resume or CV.

PhD in Physics programs are typically longer and allow for greater specialization and advanced career opportunities than the M.S. degree programs in the field. PhD students must also complete a dissertation, while M.S. students can usually choose between a thesis and non-thesis option.

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