After Graduation for Physics & Astronomy Majors
Nationwide, around half of physics bachelor degree holders enter the workforce and half pursue graduate studies. Amherst grads are split comparably, though leaning more towards grad school. Those who enter the workforce pursue a wide range of careers, including engineering, computer or information systems, other STEM careers, and non-STEM careers like banking or finance. The American Institute of Physics (AIP) surveys recent graduates about the knowledge and skills they use in their jobs. Among the most used skills are solving technical problems, working on a team, and writing technically. You can see the full list as well as data on employment sectors, starting salaries, and job satisfaction at www.aip.org/statistics. The AIP provides many other data sets as well, including numbers of degrees granted nationwide, who is receiving them, and other trends in education and employment in physics and astronomy.
Over half of our Physics and Astronomy majors go to graduate school. In the past few years, our students have entered programs at Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale, the University of Colorado, and Rice University, among others. They are pursuing Ph.D.’s in diverse fields such as Physics, Applied Physics, Electrical Engineering, Oceanography, and Atmospheric Studies.
Graduate programs are not like undergraduate programs. While you will likely take some courses and may need to pass a challenging exam, the main emphasis is on research. A good way to get experience is to spend a summer conducting research either at Amherst or elsewhere. An honors thesis is even better. Success in grad school requires self-motivation and enough persistence to dedicate five or more years to working on one problem.
Our main advice for graduate school is to talk to your professors early and often. Of all your options after graduation, this is the one we know the most about. It’s also one of the harder ones to navigate on your own.
Students thinking about graduate school should choose their electives carefully and should take courses beyond those required for the major. Be sure to discuss your options with your advisor.
For Physics graduate school, we recommend that your electives be the advanced courses in mechanics (PHYS 343), electromagnetism (PHYS 347), and quantum mechanics (PHYS 348). Graduate programs in Astronomy and Astrophysics require a substantial background in physics and mathematics. Students intending to pursue Astronomy/Astrophysics graduate school should consider a Physics major instead of (or in addition to) an Astronomy major. For either graduate program, you should consider additional physics or astrophysics regular or special-topics courses; math courses in differential equations, linear algebra, or group theory; and courses in statistics, computer programming, or data analysis.
The application process is not short or easy, so use your time as an investment. Learn about the open questions in the field. Beyond identifying what the questions are, learn about how they’re being addressed as well as who is working on them and where the work is being done. Use guides like the internet, journal articles, discipline-specific magazines like Physics Today, gradschoolshopper.com, and your professors. Your grad school application will be due in late fall of your senior year. It is handled differently than your undergrad applications; it will be read by physics and astronomy faculty not a generic admissions office. Be sure to address your essays to this audience. You’ll need several recommendation letters. At least one should come from a professor who has worked closely with you in a research setting. For Physics and some other programs, you will need to take the Physics GRE. You should take it September or October of your senior year or April junior year if you’re ready. Study thoroughly. We recommend you form a study group over the summer and work together. There are a few practice exams available, and you should treat them like gold; take them only after studying and under test-like conditions.
Any student pursuing studies after graduation should apply for an Amherst College Fellowship. The College has endowed funds specifically for this purpose and regularly gives away over a million dollars a year to recent alumni. It does not have to be a Ph.D. program and the application is easy. See https://www.amherst.edu/mm/140397 for more information.
Amherst College students are regularly competitive in national fellowship programs. Finalists and winners typically have high GPAs and compelling backgrounds or proposals. For more information, contact the Fellowships Office. Recent Physics and Astronomy majors have been winners or finalists for the Goldwater, Marshall, Keasbey, and Fulbright scholarships.