Graduate Programs 101

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Graduate Programs 101

Physics and astronomy majors are qualified for many educational pathways 


Ben Perez, Contributing Writer

There is no one-size-fits-all grad program, even in a field like astronomy or physics. Most programs are classified by the highest degree they offer, master’s degree or PhD, but there are variations even within those categories. And having a physics or astronomy major doesn’t mean you’re limited to physics and astronomy grad programs. You’re qualified for many physics-adjacent grad programs and professional degree programs too.

Master’s programs

A typical master’s program in physics, astronomy, or engineering takes two years to complete. You may have to pass a qualifying exam, present a thesis, or simply pass the necessary classes. The requirements vary from program to program, so read the fine print on programs that interest you.

Master’s programs can be terminal (the end of the line) or earned on the way to a PhD. Terminal master’s programs are more common in engineering than physics and astronomy. However, physics and astronomy students who start a PhD program and then realize it’s not a good fit usually have the option to leave with a master’s degree after two years. Some transfer to a PhD program elsewhere, while others enter the workforce. These are sometimes called combined master’s/PhD programs.

If you’re undecided about pursuing a PhD or want to develop more skills first, a master’s-to-PhD bridge program may be the way to go. These programs typically include more mentoring, research experience, and academic support than a traditional master’s degree program, and the end result is the same degree. Students in bridge programs can apply to PhD programs or enter the workforce with their degrees.

Another option offered by some departments is the “4+1” program. The departments count dual-listed undergrad courses toward a master’s degree, so a fourth-year student (or equivalent) only needs one additional year of graduate coursework to finish the master’s degree.

A master’s degree is a great way to dive deeper into a topic and position yourself for more independent work and leadership roles. When deciding which type of program to apply to, keep in mind that terminal master's programs often have less financial support than combined programs.

PhD programs

A PhD program is the older sibling of a master’s program. Progress through the program can vary between schools, but typically you focus on taking classes and starting independent research for the first two years. That research may or may not become your thesis project, but you’ll learn valuable research skills.

During this time, many programs require students to pass a qualifying exam to show mastery over the core subject. Qualifying exams vary by program but may consist of one or a combination of measures such as a written exam, oral exam, research presentation, or thesis proposal.

After you complete the majority of your coursework, your focus shifts to research and preparing a thesis proposal (if that wasn’t part of the qualifying exam). A thesis proposal describes what you plan to explore with original research and demonstrates your ability to think about a subject, find a gap in existing knowledge, and outline the steps needed to fill that gap.

Once the proposal is approved, it’s time to narrow in on that topic—researching, publishing papers, and presenting in that niche area. This usually takes a few years.

In the final steps of a PhD program, you write and defend your thesis—your original research and its results. The format can vary, but it's common for a defense to consist of two parts. The first is a public session where you present your thesis to a thesis committee (a select group of faculty members) and the general public. The second is a closed session where the committee asks you questions about the research, possible holes in your work, and moving the project forward.

You’ll also need to submit a written version of your thesis to the committee. The committee provides feedback and helps you wrap up loose ends so it’s ready to be published. Then it’s the home stretch! The last thing to do is walk the stage in a cap and gown.

People with PhDs can become teaching or research faculty, lead research projects at industrial and national labs, consult, and enter a variety of other positions in the public and private sectors.

Professional degree programs

While many physics and astronomy undergraduates choose to pursue a master's or PhD in physics, astronomy, or a related field, those aren’t the only postgraduate degree options. Physics and astronomy undergraduates have gone on to earn many professional degrees: doctor of medicine (MD), juris doctor (JD, for a career in law), master of education (EdM), doctor of dental surgery (DDS), master of business administration (MBA), and more.

Professional degrees vary greatly in cost and aren’t always as well-funded as PhD programs in physics, astronomy, and related fields. Grants and tuition reimbursement programs sometimes supplement the cost, but you may need to self-fund.

Having a physics and astronomy background gives you a great foundation to pursue these degrees. Many of the critical thinking, problem-solving, learning, and deductive skills you’ve gained will help you transition to a new field. Your background is a ball of clay that you can mold into what you want to become. 


Contributing writer Ben Perez has a bachelor’s degree in physics and a PhD in materials science.


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