There is no doubt that physics occupies a unique place amongst the sciences. The Nobel Prize in Physics is awarded before the others which is in keeping with the field’s role as the cornerstone of science. In its theoretical expressions it borders on pure mathematics and even philosophy as great thinkers contemplate worlds existing in-between dimensions and beyond our current space time continuum.
Physics departments receive incredible funding and resources. Studying physics affords its pupils a myriad of choices from government research, medical applications, industrial uses, astronomy, and the study of the outer fringes of humanities knowledge. Physicists steer our most ambitious projects, from the Mars rovers to the Hubble Space Telescope. Governments will expend massive resources in order to win prestige through success in physics, as America’s moon landings, the European CERN hadron collider, and the growing interest in a mission to Mars show.
Graduate Programs for Physics Majors
The QS University Rankings by Subject are based on four indicators: academic reputation, employer reputation, research citations per paper and the H-index (a way of measuring the productivity and published work of a scientist or scholar).
Physics is one of the oldest scientific disciplines, and the most fundamental to understanding how the universe behaves. Read on to learn more about the best physics schools in Europe.
1. Princeton University
The physics department at Princeton University aims to impart knowledge of the physical universe and to train students to think like a physicist – encompassing intuition, the scientific method, approximation and problem-solving skills.
Programmes on offer include engineering, physics, biophysics, computational biology and other more traditional physics courses.
In the department of chemistry, undergraduates are taught in small classes and progress to an independent senior thesis project. Students receive direct attention from faculty members throughout their course.
About 1,400 undergraduates enrol in a mathematics class every year at Princeton, learning the basics of mathematical proof, calculus and number theory before progressing to more complex subjects.
Graduate studies in mathematics focus on independent research from the beginning of the programme, unlike many other doctoral courses in the US.
2. University of Oxford
Location: Oxford, England, U.K.
Best Global Universities overall rank: 5
Fact: Undergraduates at Oxford University can pursue a three-year or four-year program in physics and philosophy, according to the university’s website. The shorter program culminates in a bachelor’s degree while the longer results in a master’s.
3. California Institute of Technology
The California Institute of Technology has a strong emphasis in science teaching and research.
The faculty members at the university share 74 Nobel Laureates between them, as well as there being four chief scientists of the US Air Force and 71 United States National Medals of Science or Technology.
Numerous members of faculty are also associated with NASA. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which was founded in the 1930s and is owned by NASA, is operated as a division of Caltech. To date it has spent billions on research and development.
Physics is among one of the most popular undergraduate and postgraduate degrees on offer at the university.
4. University of Tokyo
Best Global Universities overall rank: 74 (tie)
Focus areas of University of Tokyo physics researchers include astrophysics and astronomy, biophysics, experimental condensed matter physics, nuclear theory and theoretical general physics, according to the university’s website.
5. University of Cambridge
The University of Cambridge has a long and distinguished history of training and research in physical sciences. Famous names including Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, Ernest Rutherford and, more recently, Stephen Hawking, have all been associated with the university.
Undergraduates must apply for a specific degree course, unlike at US universities, where majors are declared after the first year of study.
The natural sciences course covers most biological and physical science subjects, allowing specialisation from the second year in physics, chemistry, biology, earth sciences and other specific disciplines.
Maths is a separate degree course, often considered one of the most demanding programmes. Maths students are nicknamed “mathmos” and undertake the course in three parts, progressing from set theory to quantum mechanics.
For most physical sciences graduate students, the famous Cavendish Laboratory is a centre for physics research and takes in about 75 students each year. Postgraduate programmes include physics doctorates and master’s degrees in scientific computing, nanoscience and computational methods.
6. University of Chicago
Best Global Universities overall rank: 13
NASA named its Parker Solar Probe spacecraft, which traveled to the sun, after University of Chicago physics professor emeritus Eugene Parker, who is known for his research on the star.
7. Stanford University
Location: Stanford, California, U.S.
Best Global Universities overall rank: 3
Stanford University operates the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy science lab. The lab is home to a two-mile-long particle accelerator that generates the world’s brightest X-rays, according to the SLAC website. About half of all undergraduates at Stanford University take at least one physics course as part of their studies.
These courses serve as essential training for science and engineering majors. The department offers introductory courses aimed at non-technical majors in addition to highly specialised classes.
Studying chemistry at Stanford is also popular, with a specific track for chemical physics for those students with a strong physics and maths background.
Students can major or minor in maths, and they have the opportunity to participate in an annual maths contest with cash prizes for excellent scores and for outstanding performances by women.
There are many streams for graduates studying physical sciences, from applied physics to biophysical chemistry. PhD programmes take about six years to complete.
8. Harvard University
Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.
Best Global Universities overall rank: 1
Among Harvard University’s numerous physics-related research centers are the Black Hole Initiative, the Center for the Fundamental Laws of Nature and the Center for Nanoscale Systems, according to the university’s website. About 50 physics majors graduate from Harvard University every year, not counting related degrees such as chemistry and mathematics.
Undergraduates can take advantage of a flexible course structure. Compared with other science majors, the physics course has few compulsory classes. Many students, therefore, choose to combine a physics major with maths, astronomy, history of science or chemistry.
Even at undergraduate level, students can carry out research projects independently and work as teaching assistants in some classes.
There is an active social and support community that organises buddies for new students, recreational events and extracurricular lectures in which students have the chance to interact informally with faculty.
For graduate students, the primary areas of research at Harvard are high-energy particle physics, atomic and molecular physics, physics of solids and fluids, astrophysics, nuclear physics, statistical mechanics, quantum optics, mathematical physics, quantum field theory, string theory and relativity.
9. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.
Best Global Universities overall rank: 2
Graduate physics researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology can conduct research within a dozen branches of physics ranging from photonics to atomic and optical physics, according to the university’s website.
In the past few years, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has produced the largest number of physics graduates of any university in the US.
The physics department is accordingly fairly large, with about 75 faculty members and almost 300 undergraduate students and 300 postgraduate students.
Since 1998, four alumni of MIT physics programmes have won Nobel prizes for their work.
Freshman physics courses are taught using an educational initiative known as “technology-enabled active learning”.
All undergraduates take maths classes as part of their degree, and many choose to major or minor in the subject.
Doctoral studies at MIT lead to a doctor of philosophy or a doctor of science degree, although these are equivalent in terms of degree status.
Mathematics graduate students are admitted to applied or pure maths degrees, and applied maths students are encouraged to take classes in other departments, such as engineering.