What is physics? It's at the heart of everything, opening doors to a wide variety of careers, says Ian Cuthbert of the Institute of Physics

Physics is the study of the laws that determine the structure of the universe with reference to the matter and energy of which it consists, from the finitely small to the infinitely large. Cosmology and nanotechnology are two fields in modern physics that help to illustrate both the physical scales and the amount of research invested in each field:

* Cosmology ­ the study of the beginning, formation and evolution of our universe ­ is currently in an uncertain state. At the moment, no one is sure for certain what 95 per cent of the universe is made of. Although much of what is visible in the Universe is becoming comprehensible, with recent great strides in understanding star formation, galactic structure and spectacular events such as supernovae, it would appear that there is another component of the universe ­ possibly making up most of its mass ­ which we cannot see and do not understand. Unsurprisingly, this missing mass has been called "dark matter" and there is a lot of research going on by physicists around the world to establish what it actually is.

* Nanotechnology ­ the type of research where the characteristic dimensions are less than about 1,000 nanometres (one ten-millionth of a metre) ­ is predicted to spark a series of industrial revolutions in the next two decades. These will transform our lives to a far greater extent than silicon microelectronics did in the 20th Century. One application of this technology is "nanotubes", which have an impressive list of attributes. They can behave like metals or semiconductors, can conduct electricity better than copper, can transmit heat better than diamonds, and they rank among the strongest materials known ­ not bad for structures that are just a few nanometres across. Meanwhile, there is research into the creation of 'nanotrains', molecular shuttles that move from point A to point B and which can load and unload chemicals ­ a possible new approach in the treatment of disease.

These are just two examples of areas where physicists are employed but there are many, many more. About one third of all physicists work in public service industries, one third in private industry and one third in secondary and higher education. Some physicists work on problems at the frontiers of knowledge; others tackle problems arising from the application of physical ideas to industrial and engineering issues. Physics graduates also find themselves employed in occupations such as medicine, meteorology and even high finance.

Physics in higher education

A four-year first degree course leading to MSci or MPhys is recommended for those who wish to work in physics after graduation because it provides for study of physics in greater depth. This type of degree is not to be confused with the postgraduate MSc courses that provide a bridge between undergraduate physics and postgraduate research and offer specialist training for those who intend to become professional physicists after graduation.

A three-year BSc course provides a balanced study of physics and other appropriate subjects including mathematics. Courses often have flexible arrangements of modules to enable students to follow their own specific interests related to physics or other areas such as management or geology. Sandwich degrees are also available. These are either "thick" (two or three years at university, one year in industry) or "thin" (with an alternating pattern of six months in university and industry throughout the course). Many universities offer a four-year degree with a period abroad. Finally, most universities offer the option of switching from a three-year BSc to a four-year MSci/MPhys and vice versa.

Entry to most degree courses requires 2/3 A-levels (or a suitable combination of A- and AS-levels) or 3-5 Higher Grades, including maths and physics. Since there is a shortage of applicants, grade requirements in some universities are not high but all departments consider good grades in maths to be equally as important as good grades in physics. A National Diploma with several merits and distinctions or Advanced GNVQ/GSA in science with merit or distinction may be considered if it has "suitable maths and physics content" (contact university departments for guidance). Additional qualifications in mathematics may be an advantage in gaining a place on a physics course.

Looking ahead

How much can you expect to earn? Salaries for new graduates are extremely variable, averaging in the region of £17,500. Join the civil service as a researcher or teach in a school and you will start on a salary of around £17,000. Go for a PhD and in three years' time you might earn £16,000 as a post-doctoral researcher in a university (currently 30,000 people in the UK do this). Take a job with an investment bank and the figure will be nearer £25,000. Jobs in computing usually pay around £17,000 to start, though some companies pay as much as £24,000 to new graduates.

BSc/BA General Honours or Honours degree, achieved after three years' full-time study or four years in Scotland (with possible exemption from the first year). Programmes focus on physics or physics with another subject and include a substantial maths element.

MSci/MPhys, the qualification achieved after a first-degree programme of four years' full-time study. Physics is studied to a greater depth as a basis for research in university of industry.

MSc "Masters" courses are post-graduate taught courses of one or two years' duration, usually with a vocational focus leading to a career in the area of specialisation of the course. They can be used as a stepping-stone to a PhD.

PhD/DPhil is a research degree of three or four years' full-time study or four to six years' part-time study.

Recommended further reading:

Physics on course; Physics ­ Just the Job; and A Day in the LifeInstitute of Physics

Further information and advice:

Institute of Physics, 76, Portland Place, London, W1B 1NT

Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine, Fairmount House, 230 Tadcaster Road, York, YO24 1ES

Royal Astronomical Society, Burlington House, London, W1J 0BQ

Useful Websites:

www.iop.org Institute of Physics

www.ipem.org.uk Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine