20 Best Doctor of Physics Graduate Schools

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Updated: June 7, 2024, Reading time: 35 minutes

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Physics, or physical science, is a discipline that studies the elemental forces that govern every entity in the universe. Physical science is ubiquitous. It is concerned with electromagnetic energy, communication technologies, medical radiology and imaging, cosmological energy, astronomy, and biological physics.

While it is everywhere, not all of its forms and upshots are completely defined, described, or studied – yet this is where physics as an academic discipline thrives. 

Grad School Center is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

For the Inquisitive Type…

Academically, Physics is a degree for those with an unending inquisitive nature and an appreciation for abstract and intangible concepts. Waves, subatomic particles, and cosmology, to name a few, are concepts that only become alive and apparent through advanced mathematical equations.

The Doctor of Physics (Ph.D.) is a terminal degree in the field of physics. It is the most advanced degree available in the field of physics and provides students with the opportunity to explore a specialty area such as astrophysics, condensed matter physics, or quantum mechanics, among others.

Choose Your Discipline…

Through coursework and research experience, Ph.D. students develop expertise in a chosen sub-discipline as they advance their understanding of physics. These levels of learning require not only extensive research experience but also extensive patience, as completion of dissertations and research may take years.

Most students who embark on an academic track in physics are geared to take it all the way to graduate school. A doctorate and post-doctorate in physics are the ultimate academic goals (not career goals). Upon completion, graduates of the Doctor of Physics program often pursue a career in research and academia.

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The following metrics and considerations were employed to arrive at the ranking below (in no particular order):

In summary, the ranking below was based on two things: breadth of research opportunities and professional public opinion. The first criterion is a given. The second criterion may appear subjective, but the reality is that physicists determine the top caliber through published research in peer-reviewed journals and other scientific literature.

When on the hunt for a good physics program, you don’t ask a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer, right? You ask a physicist. 


Yale University

Yale University

New Haven, CT

Ph.D. in Physics

Yale University was founded in 1701. The Physics Department was an upshot of the Department of Philosophy, the Arts, and the Sheffield Scientific School. In 1894, the Physics Department had physicist Arthur Day as part of its faculty.

Standout Features of the Program:

The department researches 11 areas of physics. Among the notable fields are Gravitational Physics and Biophysics. It is also home to three physics research centers, such as the Wright Laboratory and the Yale Quantum Institute. It offers an option for Physics Ph.D. students interested in interdisciplinary applied physics to cross-enroll into the Physical and Engineering Biology Ph.D. program, an inter-departmental offering.

Yale University was the first to confer a Ph.D. degree in the US in 1861. Also, among its many firsts, it is the first institution to confer higher learning degrees to minorities – first, to Yung Wing, a Chinese BA graduate in 1854, and Edward Bouchet, an African American Ph.D. graduate in  1876.

University of Washington (UW)

University of Washington - Seattle

Seattle, WA

Ph.D. in Physics

The University of Washington, a public research facility and university, was established in 1861. It has been teaching physics courses such as mechanics and calculus ever since. The Department of Physics was launched in 1928 and has since expanded to include a department dedicated to Astronomy and other research centers and institutes.

Standout Features of the Program:

The department is home to six research centers and institutes, four of which receive government funding. For instance, the Department of Energy co-funds the Institute for Nuclear Theory along with university funding. 

UW spearheads the NSF Institute for Accelerated AI Algorithms for Data-Driven Discovery or A3D3. It recently received a $15 million NSF grant to help fast-track studies in physics and astrophysics and integrate these with neuroscience through AI, data science, and machine learning. The institute brings together nine universities with UW at the helm.

California Institute of Technology (Caltech)

California Institute of Technology

Pasadena, CA

Ph.D. in Physics

Caltech was founded in 1891 by benefactor Amos Throop. In 1921, astronomer George Hale, physicist Robert Millikan, and chemist Arthur Noyes worked together to lead the university to become a behemoth in scientific research. Since then, Caltech’s Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy co-manages and spearheads more than ten research centers, including JPL, and has produced close to 20 Nobel laureates in Physics.

Standout Features of the Program:

There are 13 research areas within the Physics division. Some of the standout areas include Theoretical and Experimental Elementary Particle Physics and Gravitational Wave Science. Caltech is home to 7 research centers, including the Center for Data-Driven Discovery (CD3) and the Space Radiation Laboratory (SRL).

Caltech manages NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory or JPL. Also, together with MIT, it operates the Laser Interferometer  Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, which the NSF funds. Caltech also owns the Palomar Observatory in San Diego, CA, and co-manages the Keck Observatory in Hawaii with the University of California system.

Harvard University

Harvard University

Cambridge, MA

Ph.D. in Physics

Harvard University is one of the oldest US universities founded in 1636. In the 1800s, the Department of Physics was instituted, emphasizing integrating theoretical learning and laboratory application.

Standout Features of the Program:

The program offers four tracks toward a doctoral degree in Physics: General Physics, Biophysics, Engineering and Physical Biology (EPB), and Molecules, Cells, and Organisms (MCO). Students interested in doing physics research and its integration or application with other fields such as engineering and biology may opt for the other three tracks. Students under the general track may choose to join any of the department’s 13 research centers, including the Black Hole Initiative, the first of its kind worldwide.

The Department of Physics does its part to break stereotypes and glass ceilings through its “Women in Physics” initiative. The organization’s objective is to bring together female physics students of all levels of higher learning for mentoring and professional camaraderie. It also aims to encourage more women to be part of a career field that male scientists have long dominated.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cambridge, MA

Ph.D. in Physics and Ph.D. in Physics, Statistics and Data Science (PhysSDS)

Founded in 1861, MIT is a groundbreaker in research and its applications and, thus, home to many innovations. It launched the Department of Physics four years later, which offers the doctoral program via two pathways – General Physics and the Physics, Statistics and Data Science (PhysSDS) track. 

Standout Features of the Program:

MIT is proactive in helping its Ph.D. students, especially those in good standing, receive full funding throughout their residency, whether through fellowships, research assistantships (RA), or teaching assistantships (TA). For example, if the research contract for which the RA is completed or terminated, MIT will support the student for one term and proactively help seek other funding opportunities. 

The MIT Physics faculty comprises achievers who have won almost every award and prize in Physics known to man – the Nobel Prize, the MacArthur Fellowship, the National Medal of Science, the Sloan Research Fellowships, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and many more.

Princeton University

Princeton University

Princeton, New Jersey

Ph.D. in Physics

In 1746, Princeton University became the fourth educational institution established in the US Princeton’s Physics research rose to prominence a century later thanks to Joseph Henry’s studies on electromagnetic induction. 

Standout Features of the Program:

The department offers 11 research areas from which students can choose to conduct research. Some of the notable areas include Condensed Matter Experiment and Theory, High Energy Experiment and Theory, and Particle Phenomenology, to name a few. Princeton Physics is also home to 5 research centers. The NSF funded three of these, including the IRIS-HEP software center, which provides advanced information systems to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

Albert Einstein held an academic residency at Princeton, specifically at the Mathematics building, during the 1930s. He accepted an offer from the university’s Institute of Advanced Study as a researcher. Though he was not employed as a university faculty, he delivered lectures at Princeton and other American universities. 

University of California – Santa Barbara

University of California Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara, CA

Ph.D. in Physics and Ph.D. in Physics with Astrophysics Emphasis

After its incorporation into the UC system in 1936, not only did UCSB carry a new, but a new location as well, and this time, facing the sea with a two-mile-long shoreline. UCSB’s Department of Physics was launched in 1944 and continues to carry the reputation of being “relatively small” yet, a powerhouse in physics research and education.

Standout Features of the Program:

UCSB Physics researches eight areas of physics and houses and co-manages ten research centers, including Microsoft Station Q, which focuses on quantum physics. It is home to more than 20 research groups, including the Young Lab Group, helmed by Prof. Andrea Young. The group consists of post-doc, graduate, and undergraduate students and conducts studies on quantum materials through nanofabrication techniques and electronic measurement.

UCSB is the only educational and research institution in the US situated within walking distance of the beach. So, if you hit a snag in your research and feel burned out, remember that the sea is just right outside. 

Stanford University

Stanford University

Stanford, CA

Ph.D. in Physics

Stanford University was established in 1891, and the same year, the Department of Physics was also instituted. Research at the university first reached its peak during the 1930s, through prominent figures such as Felix Bloch, who discovered spin waves and was also Stanford’s first Nobel Prize recipient, for his collaborative work involving Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR).

Standout Features of the Program:

The department has and continues to produce research in seven different areas of physics. Some of the department’s most applauded and popular research are the ones done on theoretical, observational, and experimental astrophysics and cosmology.

The Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology, or KIPAC, and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, or SLAC, were both established to deeply explore how the fundamental physical forces in the universe can be dissected, simulated, analyzed, and applied to other industries such as biotechnology, medicine, agriculture, geodetic science, and engineering, among many others. KIPAC is housed within SLAC, and the Department of  Energy funds both entities.

University of Colorado – Boulder

University of Colorado Boulder

Boulder, CO

Ph.D. in Physics

The University of  Colorado – Boulder (CU Boulder) is a publicly funded research institution belonging to the elite group of the American Association of Universities (AAU), along with 63 other universities. Established in 1876, CU Boulder has produced acclaimed research and innovations in the areas of bio-health, astrophysics, and sustainable energies, all of which are upshots of CU’s formidable physics programs and research.

Standout Features of the Program:

Doctoral students can choose to research any of the 12 research areas available within the department. These include High Energy Physics, Astrophysics and Planetary Sciences, Plasma Physics, and Biophysics, to name. CU Physics is also home to various research centers and fellowships, such as the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute (RASEI), among many others. 

CU Physics offers other interdisciplinary Ph.D. programs such as Geophysics, Applied Physics, and Chemical Physics. The Applied Physics track has four concentrations: Biophysics, Imaging Sciences, Quantum Information Science, and Molecular Physics. Also, the department’s High Energy Physics faculty partook in the historical and collaborative Higgs boson particle discovery in Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider, which goes to show the world-class caliber of the CU Physics faculty. 

University of California – Berkeley

University of California Berkeley

Berkeley, CA

Ph.D. in Physics

In 1868, the University of California–Berkeley became the state’s first land-grant educational institution and the first school within the UC system. Berkeley’s Department of Physics pioneered high-energy physics research and, decades later, studied dark matter and neutrino science, as well. 

Standout Features of the Program:

Students can also explore research opportunities in any of Berkeley Physics’ research centers that focus on the following areas: cosmological physics, theoretical physics, and nanoscience and engineering. Students interested in interdisciplinary and collaborative hands-on work can also explore opportunities at the Berkeley Lab and the Space Science Laboratory.

The department is home to the Physics R&D Machine Shop, a materials science and manufacturing haven for physicists. This shop can create and deliver parts for laboratory experiments, demonstrations, and other academic purposes, from metallurgical works like machining, milling, and assembly to  computerized manufacturing, CAD/CAM, and 3D printing, this 

The University of Chicago

The University of Chicago

Chicago, IL

Ph.D. in Physics

Established in 1890, the University of Chicago operates for one purpose: research, or as Chancellor Robert Zimmer puts it, “inquiry.” The Physics Department, launched in 1893, was the true embodiment of this vision. The succeeding decades saw the department focus on experimental physics, emphasizing replicating previously successful experiments to hone students’ skills and prepare them for original research. 

Standout Features of the Program:

Chicago is home to ten research areas, which include Quantum Science and Nuclear Physics, among others. There are also ten research centers housed within the university, one of which is the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics (KICP). Chicago is also heavily involved in other research centers outside the university, such as Fermilab and CERN. 

Chicago’s Physics Department is responsible for many discoveries such as the photon, the nuclear chain reaction, new isotopes, solar wind, and rotating black holes and their properties.

University of  Arizona – Tucson

University of  Arizona - Tucson

Tucson, AZ

Ph.D. in Physics

Founded in 1885, the University of Arizona always played an important role in research, particularly space discoveries. From astronomer Gerard Kuiper’s Lunar Maps which aided the first moon landing in 1969 to the OSIRIS-Rex Asteroid study mission, UA consistently makes its mark as a viable and reputable institution for research and development.

Standout Features of the Program:

The department researches six areas of physics. Some notable areas include Optical Physics and  Astrophysics. It is also home to three research facilities: the Biosphere 2, the Life and Planets Astrobiology Center (LAPLACE), and the NSF-funded Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Lab.

Students interested in Applied Physics and Medicine can also join the Master’s Program in Medical Physics. Some of the required coursework includes topics on radiation oncology physics and imaging physics.

Completing the program, a combination of theoretical and applied learning prepares students for the American Board of Radiology certification. They are also eligible to apply to the medical residency program at the Department of Radiation Oncology.

Cornell University

Cornell University

Ithaca, New York

Ph.D. in Physics

Cornell University was founded in Ithaca, New York, in 1865. In 1872, the university launched the Department of Physics thanks to physicist William Anthony. It conferred its first Ph.D. degree twenty years after the department’s inauguration. From the 1930s to 1940s, the department focused its research on nuclear physics. During the Space Race era, the department established the Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics.

Standout Features of the Program:

Cornell Physics offers eight research areas, including Experimental Elementary Particle Physics, which students can focus on. The department is also home to nine research institutes that focus on particle physics, atomic physics, high energy physics, materials science, and nanoscience. One example is the Kavli Institute at Cornell (KIC) for Nanoscale Science, funded by the Kavli Institute.

During the 1940s, the Department of Physics welcomed to its faculty two famed physicists who were known for their participation in the Manhattan Project, Richard Feynman, who taught from 1945 to 1951, and Robert Wilson, who taught from 1947 to 1967. 

University of Texas – Austin

The University of Texas at Austin

Austin, TX

Ph.D. in Physics

The University of Texas (UT) in Austin was established in 1883. The Department of Physics was launched a year later. Ten years later, the university’s first master’s degree in Physics was conferred to George W. Pierce. Pierce would later emerge as the pioneer of communications engineering technology. 

Standout Features of the Program:

The department is home to an extensive list of facilities and equipment to help students and researchers conduct investigations and experiments. The list includes a supercomputer, a cryogenic laboratory, various spectroscopical equipment, and many more. 

The Department houses seven research centers and institutes focused on the different areas of physics such as quantum systems, gravitational physics, high energy physics, nonlinear dynamics, particle physics, and fusion studies.  

Johns Hopkins University

Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, MD

Ph.D. in Physics

In 1876, Johns Hopkins University (JHU) was established as the first educational institution with a heightened focus on research. Every member of its faculty is involved in different studies and research, a tradition that continues today. Graduate students, especially those under the Department of Physics and Astronomy, are expected to be involved in original investigative work as early as their first semester.

Standout Features of the Program:

The department researches six areas of physics. Their work in Condensed Matter Physics is complemented by the department’s own Raman scattering machine housed at the Raman Laboratory.

JHU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy is well-equipped. Not only does it have its clean room, but it also has at least five furnaces, two magnetometers, various X-ray and spectroscopic equipment, and much more. It also has its machine shop, capable of designing and creating materials for investigations and experiments,  

Purdue University

Purdue University

West Lafayette, IN

Ph.D. in Physics

Established in 1862, Purdue University is a land-grant educational institution that used to be an A&M (agricultural and mechanical) college. Physics courses were taught at the university by 1874, but it wasn’t until 1904 that the discipline would have a department. 

Standout Features of the Program:

Purdue Physics conducts studies in ten research areas. Some of the notable and distinct focus areas include Planetary Physics and Geophysics, and Quantum Information Science. The department also holds regular seminars in these focus areas. 

Purdue Physics collaborates with other departments and the university’s other research institutes located in the “Discovery Park” area campus. For biophysics, there is the Bindley Bioscience Center. For nanoscience, there is the Birck Nanotechnology Center.

For particle and accelerator physics, there is the Purdue Rare Isotope Measurement Laboratory or the PRIME Lab. And for quantum physics and atomic and molecular optics (AMO), there is the Purdue Quantum Science and Engineering Institute.

Georgia Institute of Technology

Georgia Institute of Technology

Atlanta, Georgia

Ph.D. in Physics

Established in 1885, Georgia Tech was originally a trade school with a focus on engineering. Its transformation to a research university mirrored the state’s transformation from agrarian and skilled-trade roots to an industrial hub driven by research and development.

While physics has long been taught at the university, it wasn’t until 1938 that the discipline would have its own home. 

Standout Features of the Program:

Georgia Tech has six physics areas for research work. Some notable areas of focus include Non-linear Physics, Astroparticles, and Soft Matter Physics, to name a few. The department also houses two research centers: the Center for Non-linear Science and the Center for Relativistic Astrophysics (CRA).

In collaboration with UC Santa Barbara, Georgia Tech is currently doing groundbreaking – literally  – investigations on the subterranean landscape, using a robot that can burrow through soft ground, like sand, for example. This is an interdisciplinary research endeavor co-founded by several government agencies like the NSF, NASA, and the Army Research Office.

University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign (UIUC)

University of Illinois

Urbana, IL

Ph.D. in Physics

The University of Illinois is a research and academic hub founded in 1867. It is known to spearhead groundbreaking research such as digital education with PLATO, LED technology, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI, which is the pride of UIUC’s Department of Physics. Its doctoral offering requires the completion of 96 credit units, including individual research and a dissertation.

Standout Features of the Program: 

This is one of the top 20 doctoral physics programs in the US, according to Clarivate Analytics, currently ranking 15th (24th best in the world). The department receives close to $30 million in funding annually from the NSF and other benefactors. 

The department is home to thirteen Nobel Prize laureates. In 2003, it took home two prizes – one for Physics, through Dr. Anthony J. Leggett’s research on superconductors and super-fluids, and the other for Medicine, through Sir Peter Manfield’s discovery of MRI and its use in Medicine.

Columbia University

Columbia University

New York, NY

Ph.D. in Physics

Columbia University is New York’s oldest university, founded in 1754. It is also the fifth university to be instituted in the US. More than a hundred years later, the Department of Physics was established.

The Pupin Hall, which houses the department and the Pupin Laboratory, was named after long-serving department chair, physicist Michael Pupin. He spearheaded the development of a cyclotron which was instrumental to the Manhattan Project research of the 1940s.

Standout Features of the Program:

The department conducts research in different interdisciplinary areas of physics such as Biology, High Energy Nuclear and Particle Physics, Molecular and Atomic Physics, Astrophysics, Gravitational Waves, and Cosmology, to name some. 

Aside from Columbia’s pivotal role in the Manhattan Project (the isolation of Uranium isotope 235, elemental to the atomic bomb creation), the university also saw the establishment of the American Physical Society.

University of Pennsylvania

University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, PA

Ph.D. in Physics

The University of Pennsylvania is one of America’s oldest universities. Founded in 1740, this Ivy League school has always been known for its top-caliber faculty and graduates. Its Department of Physics and Astronomy is one of the smallest heads, but its heightened focus and successful discoveries in key physics areas make its mark on the world stage.

Standout Features of the Program:

The department categorizes its research areas into three main topics: 

UPenn’s work in Particle Physics features collaborations with renowned research centers that have resulted in groundbreaking physics discoveries. Some of these include:

What is a Doctor of General Physics graduate program? 


What is a Doctor of General Physics graduate program? 

A Doctor of General Physics graduate program or a Ph.D. program in Physics is a research program that requires students to take a few core courses in preparation for dissertation work.

Compared to undergraduate or master’s degrees, which usually culminate with a choice between a capstone project, a thesis, or a practicum, a doctoral or Ph.D. program, especially in Physics, will always culminate with a dissertation proposal, and then, the public defense.

Most doctoral programs in Physics accept students straight out of the undergraduate level, which would seem like the doctoral program is a twofer – a master’s and a Ph.D. program rolled into one, which it is.

However, applicants must remember that most of these programs only confer the master’s degree in Physics once the student’s dissertation has been accepted by the department, meaning the student is moving on into the actual doctoral phase of the program, which is now all about the execution of the accepted dissertation topic.

A terminal master’s degree in Physics is rarely available, and Physics schools rarely accept applicants who only intend to earn a master’s degree.

What are the benefits of a General Physics doctorate?

A doctorate in Physics pays well. BLS reports that in 2023, physicists with a Ph.D. earned a median salary of close to $155,680 annually. Most physicists are employed by private and government-funded research institutes or centers, and normally, the entry-level requirement is a bachelor’s degree in physics or a related field.

But, undergrads will only land assistantship roles unless they apply to a graduate program. Published and acclaimed research increases a physicist’s marketability to join a renowned research facility or group, especially at the graduate level.

Doctorate in Physics Grad Schools - fact

Who can apply to the program? 

Most Physics Ph.D. programs will accept students with a bachelor’s degree in Physics or a related degree.

Otherwise, students can still be accepted into programs provided they can demonstrate competency in the following core physics courses: quantum mechanics, electromagnetic theory, statistical mechanics, and mathematical physics.

College graduates with a strong background in advanced mathematics, computational science, and engineering may also be a good fit for such a program.

Are GRE scores required? What are the other admission requirements?

GRE scores, as of writing, are optional, with some universities not requiring it at all. But make sure to check with the department’s admission office to confirm as GRE policies may change.

Other requirements are the usual ones required by graduate schools, such as letters of application, transcripts, essays, letters of recommendation, and a CV. 

What are the usual degree requirements? 

Accepted grad school entrants who still have to earn their master’s degree must complete a specific number of coursework credits. These need to be completed during the first two years of study.

Some rigorous programs are more stringent, requiring students to complete the coursework within the first year, with an added requirement of independent research to be presented and defended by the end of the second year of study.

A candidacy exam, which is usually oral, sometimes written, or a combination of both is required of students after completing the required coursework and before (or simultaneous with) the presentation of a dissertation proposal. This exam gauges the student’s core competency and readiness for doctoral research.

Once the committee has accepted the dissertation, which is usually in year 5 or 6, some programs require students to take another exam, usually an oral exam, synonymous with the dissertation defense. Once passed, the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Physics can be awarded to the student.

How long does getting a Doctorate in Physics take, and is it worth the time and money?

Getting a Doctorate in Physics typically takes 3 to 5 years (or possibly more) of study and research. It is worth the time and money if you are looking to pursue a career in academia, research, or the technical industry.

In addition to increased job options, people with a doctorate usually have higher salaries and an edge in the job market. On the other hand, if you are looking to pursue a career in a different field, a Doctorate in Physics may not necessarily be the best investment.

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