Computer Science

Do I Need to Be Good at Physics for Computer Science?

Do I Need to Be Good at Physics for Computer Science?
Depending on your specialty and focus, physics might be more relevant to your computer science career path than you'd expected. Image from Pexels
Lucy Davies profile
Lucy Davies April 29, 2022

You may need to take physics courses to earn a computer science (CS) degree if you plan to work in software development, computer engineering, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.

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A quick look at Reddit and Quora will yield this answer the question do I need to be good at physics for computer science: “It depends.”

One Quora commenter, a senior software engineer, writes, “Computer science sits somewhere between physics and mathematics… we rely on mathematics for sure. Clearly, the way that computer hardware works is in the realm of electronics—which is to the left of physics… But what you need to know depends crucially on what FIELD of computer science you get into.”

The commenter goes on to state that if you’re interested in working on banking and accounting software, then physics is probably entirely irrelevant to you. However, if you’re interested in video games and computer graphics, then an understanding of physics (like Newton’s laws of motion) is essential. As well, if you intend to work on the Internet of Things or robotics, you need to be proficient in physics.

The senior software engineer concludes their post with: “So basically, it’s all over the map.”

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Do I need to be good at physics for computer science (CS)?

With “it’s all over the map” as our starting point, it’s probably a good idea to see what some top computer science degree programs require as prerequisites and entry requirements for incoming computer science majors, and what coursework is outlined for pursuing a CS degree. Most applicants for a bachelor’s degree in computer science will have taken high-level mathematics and physics and other relevant science courses in high school (or as A-Level subjects if they are in the UK). These applicants are interested in science—physics and otherwise—and are typically really good at math. (Either that, or masochists.)

Math proficiency is a given in data and computer science, but where does physics fit in? We’ll look at some top computer science degree programs and see what is expected to earn a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, and the kinds of jobs you can land with both.

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A master’s in computer science can open countless doors from coast to coast. It will expand your knowledge and can help you advance your career, opening doors to management and leadership roles and increasing your earning potential. Jobs are plentiful around the country in a wide variety of industries, from healthcare to finance, entertainment to manufacturing.

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Computer science degree program physics-related prerequisites/requirements and curriculum

As a fundamental scientific discipline, physics seeks to understand how the universe behaves, and uses mathematics to organize data structures. It also has led to advances in new and complex technologies in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

At McGill University, their computer science and physics curriculum is laid out fairly clearly and the connections are made for a joint major: “Physics and Computer Science are two complementary fields. Physics provides an analytic problem-solving outlook and basic understanding of nature, while computer science enhances the ability to make practical and marketable applications, in addition to having its own theoretical interest.” Coursework for this degree includes Dynamics of Simple Systems, Experimental Methods, Discrete Structures, and Algorithm Design. Their undergraduate degree provides graduates with a unique skillset designed for jobs like systems analyst, computational physicist, network administrator, video game, or web developer.

At Tufts University, first-year courses in their Bachelor of Science in Computer Science include physics coursework for both the fall and spring semesters, as well as one natural science or mathematics elective. Students might choose to study quantum mechanics, electromagnetic fields, or thermal and statistical physics. The remainder of the coursework is very math-heavy, but the physics courses are foundational requirements to be taken early in one’s course of study.

While the Tufts computer science faculty is stationed in the Department of Mathematics, some have secondary appointments in physics. Many list physics in their research interests (physics-based tomographic imaging, computational physics) or have degrees in electrical engineering and physics.

Loyola University Chicago offers a Bachelor of Science in Physics with Computer Science. The school website notes: “This major can serve as preparation for graduate study in physics, applied physics, computer science, and some areas of engineering. It is especially useful for students interested in inter-disciplinary areas, such as quantum computing, scientific computing, computational physics, intelligent systems, optics and optical communication, etc.”

Graduate study programs that follow this foundational degree can be found at Southern Methodist University, Stevens Institute of Technology, Tufts University, and other top schools.

There is value in understanding and utilizing physics in computer science, and it can be helpful in unexpected ways. According to the American Institute of Physics, students who have their undergraduate degree in physics score highly on MCAT and LSAT exams, second only to economics and mathematics majors, respectively. Many may not use their physics training to become computer scientists, but they do apply their skills to other careers in medicine, law, and finance.

Computer science jobs that require proficiency in physics

The American Institute of Physics examined jobs in the private sector and found that physicists employed in computer science jobs reported that the intellectual challenge was the most rewarding aspect of their work. Its report notes that “Physicists employed in industry and primarily engaged in computer science described working on software design, development, testing, debugging, optimization, programming including database development and maintenance, product implementation, and software maintenance.”

There are many jobs listed on Indeed.com and other job sites for software engineers with a degree requirement in computer engineering, mathematics, or physics. The same profile describes ideal applicants for software development, and programmer jobs—employers with open positions in computer science are looking for overlapping skill sets that are held by CS majors.

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Studying up on physics

Becoming better at physics takes some work—it’s as simple as that. The more you study it, the more you’ll see the connections between disciplines.

If you’ve already earned an engineering degree, you may be comfortable with your physics knowledge and skill set. But if you are finishing up your undergraduate degree and headed for a graduate program in computer science, you may want to add some physics to your computer science courses mix.

For computer scientists already in the work force, going back to school to pursue a master’s can be beneficial. Depending on your specialty and focus, physics might be more relevant to your computer science career path than you’d expected.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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Computer Science Programs You Should Consider

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