Physics teacher in front of whiteboard
Teaching Careers and Professional Development Updated March 1, 2020

Physics Teacher: Education Requirements and Career Info

By Robbie Bruens

Understanding the nature of the universe widens our experiences and allows us to see more than we otherwise would. If you’re interested in helping young people understand matter, energy and the forces that hold everything together, you should think about becoming a physics teacher.

Physics can be a challenging subject to learn and teach because it requires a mastery of mathematics and a keen understanding of scientific principles. But its importance has never been greater in an era where demand for science educators is rising amid discoveries that lead to life-changing technologies such as curing cancer and developing sustainable energy products.

Our guide will give you a sense of what it takes to become a physics teacher, including the required education, likely income, and pros and cons of this kind of work. Browse through the article or use the following links to skip forward to what you’re looking for:

At-a-glance
> Physics teacher job description
> Who makes a good physics teacher?

Types of physics teachers
> High school physics teachers
> Community college physics instructors
> Four-year college/university physics professors

Professional development

Related careers
> Other jobs

Best of the web
> Sites and Twitter handles to follow

At-a-glance: physics teachers

High school physics teacher Community college physics teacher Four-year college/university physics professor
Minimum education Bachelor’s degree; master’s preferred Master’s degree; doctorate preferred Doctorate
Estimated annual income $57,200 (BLS)
$55,114 (Glassdoor.com)
$49,593 (PayScale.com)
$43,350 (SalaryGenius.com)
$57,659 (Salary.com)
$93,950 (BLS)
$50,710 (Glassdoor.com)
$44,200 (Salary.Genius.com)
$56,483 (AAUP)
$93,950 (BLS)
$99,130 (Salary.com)
$44,200 (Salary.Genius.com)
$56,483 (AAUP)

Physics teacher job description

Physics teachers help their students explore the complex interplay of mass, energy and gravity. Calculus and other forms of higher math are integral to understanding the principles of physics, which makes it one of the toughest disciplines to learn. All that effort and know-how can pay off in the classroom: Physics teachers report a high rate of job satisfaction, according to the Cornell University Physics Teacher Education Coalition.

Teaching physics offers a variety of employment opportunities: high schools, professional schools, colleges and universities. Physics teachers can also work as private tutors, or offer their services online and/or via distance learning courses.

Physics teachers are in demand in most areas of the United States and worldwide, giving them more freedom to choose their location than people in most technical professions. If you become qualified to teach physics, you may be able to lecture or conduct research in addition to teaching.

Besides teaching physics in classrooms, physics teachers can lead experiments, form clubs and provide guidance through competitions such as the Team America Rocketry Challenge and the Science Olympiad.

Who makes a good physics teacher?

Someone who is:

  • Inquisitive, creative and curious
  • Comfortable with higher math
  • Sociable and easy to talk to
  • Passionate about connecting with students
  • Patient and resourceful
  • Organized and careful about time management
  • Devoted to learning
  • Attentive to details
  • Service-oriented
  • Able to laugh and have a sense of humor
  • Thoughtful about interacting with people from diverse backgrounds
  • Excellent at oral and written communication
  • Highly knowledgeable about the physical sciences
  • Qualified with a master’s degree in an education-related field, or a field related to the physical sciences

Interested in becoming a physics teacher?

Check out this video to get a better sense of what it’s like to be a physics teacher.

Different types of physics teachers

The road to becoming a physics teacher depends on which employment environment you pursue: high school, community college or university. Let’s take a look at these career paths in more detail.

High school physics teachers

High school physics teachers teach the subject to teenagers at public and private high schools.
Continue reading to learn more about high school physics teachers

What high school physics teachers do

Physics teachers instruct students in how to analyze and understand the properties and behavior of matter, motion and energy. They get students started on the road to studying every aspect of the natural world, from minuscule quarks to supermassive stars.

The most common duties of high school physics teachers include:

  • Preparing lesson plans
  • Teaching lessons on a predictable schedule
  • Leading in-class discussions
  • Answering relevant questions from students during or after class
  • Advising students on how to succeed in class
  • Setting up experiments and demonstrations
  • Creating a course syllabus that meets or exceeds standards set by the school
  • Staying current on important changes and/or discoveries in physics
  • Grading papers, labs, quizzes and exams
  • Assigning grades to students based on participation, performance in class, assignments and examinations
  • Working with parents, school administrators and other teachers to improve educational outcomes

High school physics teachers hold classes on a daily schedule for nine or 10 months out of the year. They may also work with students one-on-one or in smaller groups outside of class time. Physics teachers also set aside time outside of the daily class schedule to prepare for each day’s lesson and to grade student work and tests.

High schools physics teachers usually lead lessons introducing students to:

  • Mechanics and fluid mechanics
  • Kinematics
  • Thermodynamics
  • Electricity and magnetism
  • Oscillations and waves
  • Atomic and nuclear structure and behavior
  • Particle physics

High school physics teachers must master these topics to succeed in their profession.

Education and certification requirements

A bachelor’s degree in physics, chemistry or another science qualifies you to teach physics in most U.S. high schools. A bachelor’s degree in physics may give you an edge since many schools prefer a teacher with a degree in the subject. You’ll also need to earn a teaching credential. And if you want to increase your earning potential and expand your job opportunities, consider pursuing a master’s degree in a science or education-related subject. Surveys show that physics teachers with master’s degrees earn higher salaries.

Income projections

According to Glassdoor.com, the average salary for a high school physics teacher is $55,114. Salaries are for the 10-month school year. You would still have the summer months to acquire work somewhere else and make additional money. Some physics teachers even get signing bonuses because of the high demand for the job.

Here are estimates of annual salaries for high school physics teachers:

  • BLS: $57,200 (average of all high school teacher salaries)
  • PayScale.com: $49,593
  • SalaryGenius.com: $43,350
  • Salary.com: $57,659
  • Glassdoor.com: $55,114

Pros and cons of being a high school physics teacher

As you consider becoming a high school physics teacher, think through the positive and negative aspects of the job.

Pros

  • Inspire the curiosity of students
  • You may need only a bachelor’s degree
  • Help students find direction and focus, which can have an immediate and lifelong impact
  • Many jobs come with good benefits
  • Potential to earn job security via tenure
  • Focus exclusively on teaching and students, rather than research and publication

Cons

  • Frustrating when dealing with unmotivated or disruptive students
  • Not as prestigious as a professorship
  • Lower pay than other jobs that require an advanced degree
  • Little opportunity for original research

Community college physics instructors

Physics teachers who teach the subject at two-year colleges are called community college physics instructors.

Continue reading to learn more about community college physics instructors

What community college physics instructors do

Community college physics instructors work at two-year institutions of higher education. Here are some of the main responsibilities of community college physics instructors:

  • Delivering lectures to undergraduates on topics such as fluid mechanics, particle physics and optics
  • Creating course materials such as syllabi, homework assignments and handouts
  • Overseeing student laboratory work
  • Holding regular office hours to answer questions and provide guidance
  • Grading students’ exams, quizzes, laboratory work, homework assignments and papers
  • Keeping abreast of recent developments in physics by reading current literature, talking with colleagues and participating in professional conferences.

Educational and certification requirements

Community college physics instructors are required to have a master’s degree, usually in physics or a similar field. You may also need a doctorate to get a full-time job at a community college, because it can be very competitive to earn a position.

Income projections

Physics instructors at community colleges may make significantly more money than high school teachers. According to the BLS, the median salary for a physics instructor at a postsecondary school is $93,950. Keep in mind this estimate includes community college instructors and physics professors employed by four-year colleges and universities.

Full-time faculty at community colleges generally command higher salaries than adjunct instructors. Adjunct instructors are paid by the course and don’t always receive benefits. For more about the difference between full-time faculty and adjunct instructors, check out our article on community college instructors.

Here are more annual salary estimates for community college physics instructors:

  • Glassdoor.com: $50,710
  • SalaryGenius.com: $44,200
  • AAUP: $56,483

Pros and cons of being a community college physics instructor

Consider the advantages and disadvantages of becoming a community college physics instructor.

Pros

  • Teach students who are dynamic, enthusiastic and eager for opportunities
  • Rewarding to provide a great education to many first-generation college students, often from immigrant families
  • Community college physics instructors are in high demand, improving job opportunities and salary prospects
  • Focus on teaching exclusively
  • Flexible hours and opportunities to take time off

Cons

  • Little opportunity for research or publication
  • Lower pay than professors at four-year colleges and universities
  • Many teaching positions at community colleges are adjunct, meaning lower pay, few benefits and little job security

Physics professors at four-year colleges and universities

Physics professors teach physics at four-year colleges and universities. In addition to teaching, they conduct research and publish academic papers and books.

Continue reading to learn more about university-level physics professors

What physics professors do

Physics professors teach college-level courses in physics at universities and other four-year institutions of higher education. Physics professors usually specialize in a sub-discipline such as mechanics, quantum physics, nuclear physics or optics.

In addition to teaching, physics professors conduct cutting-edge research in a specialized area of physics and publish their findings in academic papers and books. Here’s a closer look at a physics professor’s three main responsibilities: research, teaching and faculty support.

Research

Physics professors perform experiments and complete research projects to answer probing questions about the nature of the universe.

A physics professor’s research duties will probably include:

  • Selecting and leading a team of research assistants and associates
  • Writing articles, books or other original materials based on findings
  • Publishing findings in professional journals, books and online databases
  • Writing grant proposals for external funding from foundations, governments and businesses
  • Staying informed about current physics research developments
  • Supervising graduate students’ research projects

Teaching

Though research may absorb a considerable portion of their attention and focus, physics professors usually also teach courses to undergraduates. Teaching duties typically include:

  • Setting overall instructional objectives for each course taught
  • Creating and maintaining curricula, syllabi, course content and instructional methods
  • Lecturing undergraduates on topics such as fluid mechanics, particle physics and optics
  • Selecting and leading a team of teaching assistants
  • Holding regular office hours to answer questions and provide guidance

Professors lead teams of teaching assistants who will help the professor with many of the tasks integral to teaching. Physics professors use their discretion in deciding how closely to manage their assistants as they carry out the following tasks:

  • Creating course materials such as homework assignments and handouts
  • Overseeing student laboratory work
  • Grading students’ exams, quizzes, laboratory work, homework assignments and papers
  • Initiating, leading and moderating classroom discussions
  • Selecting and ordering materials and supplies such as textbooks and laboratory equipment

Faculty support

Helping out the larger academic community may include:

  • Participating in the faculty evaluation process, including providing input on the admission of new professors
  • Mentoring newly hired faculty members
  • Serving on advisory boards, hiring committees and ad hoc committees
  • Participating in the Faculty Senate
  • Taking part in commencement or other ceremonies
  • Advising your department on the designation of learning outcomes, administrative measurements and student evaluation standards
  • Collaborating with faculty colleagues and administrators in developing program standards, policies and textbook selection

Check out this video of a physics lesson:

Educational and certification requirements

Gaining a professorship at a university or four-year college can be a monumental task. At minimum, aspiring physics professors will have to complete a doctorate demonstrating a commitment to research and inquiry in the field of physics. Getting a full-time faculty position at a college or university also requires that you publish original research and earn the respect and admiration of your colleagues.

Income projections

Physics professors usually earn significantly more than high school and community college teachers. According to the BLS, the median annual salary for a physics professor is $93,950.

Here are more annual salary estimates for college/university physics instructors:

  • Glassdoor.com: $50,710
  • AAUP: $56,483
  • SalaryGenius.com: $44,200

Pros and cons of being a physics professor

Consider both the advantages and disadvantages of becoming a physics professor at a four-year college or university.

Pros

  • Full benefits for health insurance and retirement security
  • Higher pay than most other physics education jobs
  • Tenure-track position, meaning an opportunity for long-term job security
  • Opportunities for research and discovery
  • Publish your findings in prestigious journals and books
  • Get to teach students with a passion for learning and achievement
  • May be able to take on a leadership role at a college or university

Cons

  • Probably responsible for joining a committee and attending many extra meetings and professional events
  • Can be frustrating to work within bureaucratic institutions like universities
  • Academia can be highly competitive and exhausting, with a “publish-or-perish” norm
  • Many years of advanced education are required

Professional development for physics teachers

If you are serious about becoming a physics teacher, start thinking about how to improve your career prospects and develop your skills and connections. You can get involved in an organization like the American Physical Society (APS) or the Institute of Physics (IOP). You can also join a professional association such as the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). These groups will keep you up-to-date on the latest advances in physics and give you access to networking opportunities.

If you’ve just started pursuing a career in physics education, consider seeking out a physics-related internship with a research or education focus. Getting real-world experience in a physics lab or classroom will be an invaluable experience and will help you get a job in the future.

Benefits of continuing education

To become a physics teacher at any level, you should seriously consider pursuing a master’s degree or a doctorate. While you may be able to find a job teaching high school physics without an advanced degree, most jobs in physics education and research require a higher degree.

Jobs for physics teachers beyond teaching

With additional education or certification, physics teachers may become librarians, instructional coordinators, assistant principals, principals or an educational administrator at a college or university.

Librarian: A master’s degree in library science (MLS) is generally required for employment. Some states also require librarians to pass a standardized test.

Instructional coordinator: Instructional coordinators generally need to complete a master’s degree related to a subject like curriculum and instruction, and they may be required to have a teaching or education administrator license.

Academic advisor: With a master’s degree in an education-related field, you can transition into being an academic advisor at either the K-12 or college/university level.

Education consultant: Physics teachers can become education consultants if they want to tackle challenges in a variety of schools and education systems. You’ll probably need an advanced degree in an education-related subject.

Education policy analyst: With an advanced degree in an education-related subject, physics teachers can become policy analysts and examine big-picture issues affecting education nationwide.

School principal: Physics teachers wishing to become a school principal should seriously consider earning a master’s degree in an education-related field. Most states also require public school principals to be licensed as school administrators.

Educational administrator: Depending upon the position, either a bachelor’s or master’s degree may be required. For a higher-level position such as dean or president, a master’s degree or doctorate in educational leadership may be required.

Best of the web: our favorite physics teacher blogs, websites and Twitter handles

The web makes it easy for us to stay connected to prominent physics scholars and educators. Here is a list of our favorite websites and Twitter handles, in no particular order.

Favorite physics teacher/education websites and blogs

Favorite physics teacher Twitter handles

Learn More: Click to view related resources.

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