Doing a PhD in Physics

Doing a PhD in Physics

What Is It Like to Do a PhD in Physics?

Physics is arguably the most fundamental scientific discipline and underpins much of our understanding of the universe. Physics is based on experiments and mathematical analysis which aims to investigate the physical laws which make up life as we know it.

Due to the large scope of physics, a PhD project may focus on any of the following subject areas:

  • Mechanics
  • Thermodynamics
  • Cosmology and Astrophysics
  • Nuclear Physics
  • Solid State Physics
  • Condensed matter Physics
  • Particle Physics
  • Quantum mechanics
  • Computational Physics
  • Theoretical Physics
  • Electromagnetism and photonics
  • Relativity
  • Molecular physics
  • Optics
  • And many more

Compared to an undergraduate degree, PhD courses involve original research which, creates new knowledge in a chosen research area. Through this you will develop a detailed understanding of applicable techniques for research, become an expert in your research field, and contribute to extending the boundaries of knowledge.

During your postgraduate study you will be required to produce a dissertation which summarises your novel findings and explains their significance. Postgraduate research students also undertake an oral exam, known as the Viva, where you must defend your thesis to examiners.

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To get a better perspective of what life is really like doing a Physics PhD, read the interview profiles below, from those that have been there before, and are there now:

How Long Does It Take to Get a PhD in Physics?

The typical full-time programme has a course length of 3 to 4 years. Most universities also offer part-time study. The typical part-time programme has a course length of 5 to 7 years.

The typical Physics PhD programme sees PhD students study on a probationary basis during their first year. Admission to the second year of study and enrolment onto the PhD programme is subject to a successful first year review. The format of this review varies across organisations but commonly involves a written report of progress made on your research project and an oral examination.

Additional Learning Modules:

Most Physics PhD programme have no formal requirement for students to attend core courses. There are, however, typically several research seminars, technical lectures, journal clubs and other courses held within the Physics department that students are expected to attend.

Research seminars are commonly arranged throughout your programme to support you with different aspects of your study, for example networking with other postgraduates, guidelines on working with your supervisor, how to avoid bias in independent research, tips for thesis writing, and time management skills.

Doctoral training and development workshops are commonly organised both within and outside of the department and aim to develop students’ transferrable skills (for example communication and team working). Information on opportunities for development that exist within the University and explored and your post doctorate career plans will be discussed.

Lectures run by department staff and visiting scholars on particular subject matters relevant to your research topic are sometimes held, and your supervisor (or supervisory committee) is likely to encourage you to attend.

Typical Entry Requirements:

A UK Physics PhD programme normally requires a minimum upper second-class (2:1) honours undergraduate or postgraduate degree (or overseas equivalent) in physics, or a closely related subject. Closely related subjects vary depending on projects, but mathematics and material sciences are common. Graduate students with relevant work experience may also be considered.

Funded PhD programmes (for examples those sponsored by Doctoral Training Partnerships or by the university school) are more competitive, and hence entry requirements tend to be more demanding.

English Language Requirements:

Universities typically expect international students to provide evidence of their English Language ability as part of their applications. This is usually benchmarked by an IELTS exam score of 6.5 (with a minimum score of 6 in each component), a TOEFL (iBT) exam score 92, a CAE and CPE exam score of 176 or another equivalent. The exact score requirements for the different English Language Qualifications may differ across different universities.

Tips to Improve Your Application:

If you are applying to a Physics PhD, you should have a thorough grasp of the fundamentals of physics, and also appreciate the concepts within the focus of your chosen research topic. Whilst you should be able to demonstrate this through either your Bachelors or Master’s degree, it is also beneficial to also be able to show this through extra-curricular engagement, for example attending seminars or conferences. This will also get across your passion for Physics – a valuable addition to your application as supervisors are looking for committed students.

It is advisable to make informal contact with the project supervisors for any positions you are interested in prior to applying formally. This is a good chance for you to understand more about the Physics department and project itself. Contacting the supervisor also allows you to build a rapport, demonstrate your interest, and see if the project and potential supervisor are a good fit for you.
Some universities require you to provide additional evidence to support your application. These can include:

  • University certificates and transcripts (translated to English if required)
  • Academic CV
  • Covering Letter
  • English certificate – for international students

How Much Does a Physics PhD Degree Typically Cost?

Annual tuition fees for a PhD in Physics in the UK are approximately £4,000 to £5,000 per year for home (UK) students and are around £22,000 per year for overseas students. This, alongside the standard range in tuition fees that you can expect, is summarised below:

Situation Typical Fee Standard Fee Range
UK Full-Time £4,400 £4,000 – £5,000
UK Part-Time £2,200 £2,000 – £2,500
International Full-Time £22,000 £17,000 – £25,000
International Part-Time £11,500 £8,500 – £12,500

Note: The EU students are considered International from the start of the 2021/22 academic year.

Due to the experimental nature of Physics programmes, research students not funded by UK research councils may also be required to pay a bench fee. Bench fees are additional fees to your tuition, which covers the cost of travel, laboratory materials, computing equipment or resources associated with your research. For physics research students in particular this is likely to involve training in specialist software, laboratory administration, material and sample ordering, and computing upkeep.

What Specific Funding Opportunities Are There for A PhD in Physics?

As a PhD applicant, you may be eligible for a loan of up to £25,700. You can apply for a PhD loan if you’re ordinarily resident in the UK or EU, aged 60 or under when the course starts and are not in receipt of Research Council funding.

Research Councils provide funding for research in the UK through competitive schemes. These funding opportunities cover doctoral students’ tuition fees and sometimes include an additional annual maintenance grant.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is a government agency that funds scientific research in the UK. Applications for EPSRC funding should be made directly to the EPSRC, but some Universities also advertise EPSRC funded PhD studentships on their website. The main funding body for Physics PhD studentships is EPSRC’s group on postgraduate support and careers, which has responsibility for postgraduate student support.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) funds a large range of projects in Physics and Astronomy. To apply for funding students must locate the relevant project, contact the host institution for details of the postdoctoral researcher they wish to approach and then apply directly to them.

You can use DiscoverPhD’s database to search for a PhD studentship in Physics now.

What Specific Skills Will You Get from a PhD in Physics?

PhD doctorates possess highly marketable skills which make them strong candidates for analytical and strategic roles. The following skills in particular make them attractive prospects to employers in research, finance and consulting:

  • Strong numerical skills
  • Strong analytical skills
  • Laboratory experience
  • Application of theoretical concepts to real world problems

Aside from this, postgraduate students will also get transferable skills that can be applied to a much wider range of careers. These include:

  • Excellent oral and written communication skills
  • Great attention to detail
  • Collaboration and teamwork
  • Independent thinking

What Jobs Can I Get with a PhD in Physics?

The wide range of specialties within Physics courses alone provides a number of job opportunities, from becoming a meteorologist to a material scientist. However, one of the advantages Physics doctorates have over other doctorates is their studies often provide a strong numerical and analytical foundation. This opens a number of career options outside of traditional research roles. Examples of common career paths Physics PostDocs take are listed below:

Academia – A PhD in Physics is a prerequisite for higher education teaching roles in Physics (e.g. University lecturer). Many doctorates opt to teach and supervise students to continue their contribution to research. This is popular among those who favour the scientific nature of their field and wish to pursue theoretical concepts.

PostDoc Researcher – Other postdoctoral researchers enter careers in research, either academic capacity i.e. researching with their University, or in industry i.e. with an independent organisation. Again, this is suited to those who wish to continue learning, enjoy collaboration and working in an interdisciplinary research group, and also offers travel opportunities for international conferences.

Astronomy – Astronomers study the universe and often work with mathematical formulas, computer modelling and theoretical concepts to predict behaviours. A PhD student in this field may work as astrobiologists, planetary geologists or government advisors.

Finance – As mentioned previously, analytical and numerical skills are the backbone of the scientific approach, and the typical postgraduate research programme in Physics is heavily reliant on numeracy. As such, many PostDocs are found to have financial careers. Financial roles typically offer lucrative salaries.

Consulting – Consulting firms often consider a doctoral student with a background in Physics for employment as ideal for consultancy, based on their critical thinking and strategic planning skills.

How Much Can You Earn with A PhD in Physics?

Data from the HESA is presented below which presents the salary band of UK domiciled leaver (2012/13) in full-time paid UK employment with postgraduate qualifications in Physical Studies:

Salary Percentage
Less than £15,000 1.10%
£15,000 – £17,499 1.40%
£17,500 – £19,999 3.00%
£20,000 – £22,499 7.90%
£22,500 – £24,999 5.50%
£25,000 – £27,499 8.10%
£27,500 – £29,999 6.70%
£30,000 – £32,499 20.20%
£32,500 – £34,999 8.20%
£35,000 – £39,999 16.60%
£40,000 – £44,999 9.30%
£45,000 – £49,999 4.20%
£50,000+ 7.80%

With a doctoral physics degree, your earning potential will mostly depend on your chosen career path. Due to the wide range of options, it’s impossible to provide an arbitrary value for the typical salary you can expect.
However, if you pursue one of the below paths or enter their respective industry, you can roughly expect to earn:

Academic Lecturer

  • Approximately £30,000 – £35,000 starting salary
  • Approximately £40,000 with a few years experience
  • Approximately £45,000 – £55,000 with 10 years experience
  • Approximately £60,000 and over with significant experience and a leadership role. Certain academic positions can earn over £80,000 depending on the management duties.

Actuary or Finance

  • Approximately £35,000 starting salary
  • Approximately £45,000 – £55,000 with a few years experience
  • Approximately £70,000 and over with 10 years experience
  • Approximately £180,000 and above with significant experience and a leadership role.

Aerospace or Mechanical Engineering

  • Approximately £28,000 starting salary
  • Approximately £35,000 – £40,000 with a few years experience
  • Approximately £60,000 and over with 10 years experience

Data Analyst

  • Approximately £35,000 starting salary
  • Approximately £45,000 – £50,000 with a few years experience
  • Approximately £60,000 and over with 10 years experience
  • Approximately £90,000 and above with significant experience and a leadership role.

Geophysicist

  • Approximately £28,000 – £35,000 starting salary
  • Approximately £40,000 – £65,000 with a few years’ experience
  • Approximately £80,000 and over with significant experience and a leadership role

Medical Physicist

  • Approximately £27,500 – £30,000 starting salary
  • Approximately £30,000 – £45,000 with a few years’ experience
  • Approximately £50,000 and over with significant experience and a leadership role

Meteorologist

  • Approximately £20,000 – £25,000 starting salary
  • Approximately £25,000 – £35,000 with a few years’ experience
  • Approximately £45,000 and over with significant experience and a leadership role

Again, we stress that the above are indicative values only. Actual salaries will depend on the specific organisation and position and responsibilities of the individual.

UK Physics PhD Statistics

The Higher Education Statistics Agency has an abundance of useful statistics and data on higher education in the UK. We have looked at the data from the Destination of Leavers 2016/17 survey to provide information specific for Physics Doctorates:

The graph below shows the destination of 2016/17 leavers with research based postgraduate qualifications in physical sciences. This portrays a very promising picture for Physics doctorates, with 92% of leavers are in work or further study.

DiscoverPhDs Physics Leaver Destinations

The table below presents the destination (sorted by standard industrial classification) of 1015 students entering employment in the UK with doctorates in Physical Studies, from 2012/13 to 2016/17. It can be seen that PhD postdocs have a wide range of career paths, though jobs in education, professional, scientific and technical activities, and manufacturing are common.

Standard Industrial classification Number of Doctorates
Agriculture, forestry and fishing 0
Mining and quarrying 5
Manufacturing 120
Electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning supply 5
Water supply, sewerage, waste management and remediation activities 5
Construction 5
Wholesale and retail trade; repair of motor vehicles and motorcycles 20
Transport and storage 5
Accommodation and food service activities 5
Information and communication 85
Financial and insurance activities 25
Real estate activities 0
Professional, scientific and technical activities 180
Administrative and support service activities 5
Public administration and defence; compulsory social security 35
Education 465
Human health and social work activities 20
Arts, entertainment and recreation 10
Other service activities 15
Activities of extraterritorial organisations and bodies 0
Unknown 5

Noteworthy people with a PhD in Physics

Stephen-Hawking-PhD Stephen Hawking: It should come as no surprise that one of the most influential physicist in history had a PhD in physics. Specifically, Hawking had a PhD in in applied mathematics and theoretical physics, specialising in general relativity and cosmology. His thesis was titled: “Properties of Expanding Universes”. He was awarded the PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1966. Hawking is best known for his contribution to our understanding of general relativity and black holes. In particular he was influential in the work around predicting radiation from black holes, so much so that the term Hawking radiation was coined after his name. In addition to the ground-breaking papers he authored, Hawking served as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge for 30 years, supervised 39 successful PhD students, created and featured in numerous documentaries, published the bestselling book ‘A Brief History of Time’, and had a number of biographical films made about him.
Sally Ride Sally Ride: Sally Ride was the first American woman to go to space, and to this day remains the youngest American astronaut to go to space. Before joining NASA, Ride obtained her PhD in physics (specifically astrophysics and free electron lasers) from Stanford University. Her thesis focused on interactions of x rays with the interstellar medium.
Angela Merkel Angela Merkel: Angel Merkel is a well-known German politician, who has served as Chancellor of Germany since 2005, and is often dubbed by some as ‘the leader of the free world’. After studying graduating with a degree in Physics from Karl Marx University in Leipzig in 1978, Merkel worked in East Berlin, before being awarded her doctorate for her work on quantum chemistry in 1986. Even in her role as chancellor, her background as a scientific researcher has come in handy. Her logical and rational explanation of the scientific approach behind Germany’s COVID-19 lockdown strategy was well received by critics.

References

[1] Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education Longitudinal survey – https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/publications/long-destinations-2012-13/employment

[2] Typical salaries have been extracted from a combination of the below resources. It should be noted that although every effort has been made to keep the reported salaries as relevant to Physics PostDocs as possible (i.e. filtering for positions which specify a PhD qualification as one of their requirements/preferences), small inaccuracies may exist due to data availability.

Glassdoor
PayScale
Indeed
TotalJobs

[3] NASA, 1999. NASA Starchild Image Of Stephen Hawking, The Cosmologist And Divulging Scientist, Who Was Elected A Member Of The Royal Society In 1974.. [image] Available at: <http://starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov/Images/StarChild/scientists/hawking.jpg>.

[4] NASA, 1984. Sally Ride. [image] Available at: <https://images-assets.nasa.gov/image/S84-37256/S84-37256~orig.jpg>.

[5] © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons), 2019. Angela Merkel. [image] Available at: <https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/0f/Angela_Merkel_2019_cropped.jpg/429px-Angela_Merkel_2019_cropped.jpg>.

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