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The basics
Study abroad : Subject Guides

Why study physical geography?

Ever wanted to know the how the land was formed? How those cool mountains came to be? Physical geography will tell you that and more.

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Always thought that nature was majestic? Want to study all about the land? How the weather has created such beautiful erosion patterns on the rocks? Have a strong desire to make a difference in the world? Then physical geography is the career for you.


What is physical geography?

Physical geography is concerned about understanding the Earth’s physical processes, you will look at climates, weather systems, earthquakes and rock formations and even what is happening to the ocean floor.


Entry requirements

In order to qualify for a physical geography degree, you will need to have good grades either at the high school level or A levels. Having taken subjects geography and related science subjects such as chemistry, biology, physics and mathematics will give you an edge. Depending on the university, you might be required to either take a test or attend an interview, where you’ll need to explain why you want to study physical geography and why this particular school. international students who come from a country that does not have English as their national language will be expected to furnish proof of their proficiency in the English language either through a minimum score of 6.5 in IELTS or another form of language test. If you’re applying to an American university, then you will need good ACT or SAT score.


Study route

Geography degrees are available at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level. They are awarded as either a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BSc) or a Masters of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MSc). While BA and MA usually refer to a programme that focuses on human geography, and BSc and MSc are to do with the physical geography, this might not be true in other countries.

A bachelor’s degree takes about three to four years to complete, while a master’s degree programme will last one to two years. Geography is taught through lectures, seminars and field work (though the extent of this is dependent on the university that you will be attending. Geography in general spans a variety of subject areas, so your degree programme might not necessarily have to be strictly in physical geography, you can have a mixture of both. A wide variety of optional modules are available for your choosing. Students will be assessed based on exams, coursework, assignments and field work projects, in some universities, students might be required to complete an internship.


A master’s degree typically combines research-intensive academic study with geography lab sessions, field trips and sometimes, you can even be involved in teaching assignments, where you are assisting a professor in conducting undergraduate courses. At the end of your course, you will be required to write a thesis. Several programmes offer specialisations in a certain area such as economic, or political geography. To qualify for a master’s you will need to have a bachelor’s degree in geography, and possibly a cover letter explaining your career interests and what you want to achieve in geographical studies. Students will be spending a lot of time on their own conducting independent research. Common subjects that you could be taking include:

  • Geography economics
  • Cultural geography
  • Fundamentals of climatology
  • Urban and rural geography
  • Biogeography studies

A master’s degree in physical geography will prepare you for a specialised careers in geography-related fields and what’s more, you can choose a concentration that fits your career goal.


Upon completing of your master’s degree, you can choose to take up a career in research or in academia by enrolling in a doctoral programme. In a doctoral programme, you’ll be able to get supervisory and research positions with universities, other research institutes, R&D companies and geographical organisations. PhD students can apply for grants, endowments and other any form of financial assistance for research.


Specialisations within physical geography

Glaciers and glaciations

A very interesting specialisation, here you can learn everything you need to about glaciers and glacial systems, this includes their effects on land formation and how they are impacted by climate change. Other modules that you will be covering would be glacier erosion and deposition, mapping and analysis techniques, and glacial ecosystems and environments. If you’re lucky, you might even score a trip to see an actual glacier, how cool is that??



Hydrology, as the name states, is concerned about all things related to water. You’ll be looking at the water quality, its movement, transportation, various uses and resources. You could be looking at agricultural water use, drainage management, hydropower, water supply and sanitation, and flood forecasting and safeguarding.


Other of areas of specialisation include:

  • Biogeography
  • Climatology
  • Geomorphology
  • Quarternary studies


Skills obtained when studying physical geography

Below are some of the common skills that you will gain upon completion of your course

  • Analysing different types of data and identify patterns and implications
  • Field work, mapping and sample analysis
  • Data collection, such as survey design and interpretation
  • Lab-based and technical skills such as mathematical modelling


Placement opportunities

Most universities today offer their students the opportunity to study overseas for a semester or more. They also have programmes in place for internships abroad. You’ll not only be experiencing the unique culture of the university that you’ve chosen, but you can expand your knowledge even further by exploring cultures from another country on top of that! For instance, the University of Oslo has a semester abroad programme for their students. Massey University has many placement opportunities for their students and even incorporates field work into their modules.


To find out more information regarding the kinds of internship programmes that universities or college have, we suggest that you contact them directly. We highly recommend that students to complete at least one internship or placement before graduation to better your employment chances in a highly competitive job market. Internships and placements not only provide you with invaluable job experience, they also are the perfect platform to network with industry experts. Who knows, your internship might turn into a full-time job once you graduate!



How much does a geographer earn?

According to a recent report by the U.S Bureau of Labour Statistics, geographers earn an average of $74,260 in May 2015. The highest salary being $102,930.



Career paths in physical geography

If you want to make a difference to the world, choosing to study geography is a good place to start. Geography careers offer graduates a multitude of opportunities to develop solutions to some of the most pressing problems for modern society, such as climate change, natural disasters, overpopulation, urban expansion and even multicultural integration. We’ve shortlisted some of the more popular career options for you here:



As a cartographer (even the name sounds cool!), you’ll be involved in developing and producing different types of maps and even producing related material such as diagrams, charts, spreadsheets and travel guides. If you’re interested in the past, then you could join a museum to restore ancient maps and historical documents. You can work in different sectors, from private companies to government agencies, in publishing, surveying and conservation. Today, you will be able to rely on advanced technologies such as geographical information systems (GIS) and digital-mapping techniques.


Town planning

Like being able to plan communities? Then being a town planner would suit you. As a professional town planner, you will deal with the management and development of not only towns, but villages, cities and even rural areas. Your geography skills and knowledge will come in handy to improve existing infrastructure and find solutions to environmental issues and making sure that new developments comply with the different policies and regulations. Part of your job will entail satisfying the needs of businesses and local communities and ensuring that they are sustainable and don’t harm the environment.


Environmental consultancy

As an environmental consultant, you will be required to provide guidance on a host of environmental issues such as assessing the level of air pollution, land or water contamination, waste management, compliance with related legislation, and developing environmental policy. Potential employers of environmental consultants include governmental agencies, engineering and construction firms, waste management companies, water suppliers, and conservation groups.



Do you love kids? Then maybe teaching might just be the thing for you. You can pass your geography skills and knowledge to the next generation. Students can opt to become a geography teacher in a secondary school, college or further education institution. However, like other teaching positions, you will need to complete a specialised teaching qualification and/or study to master’s or PhD level. A good teacher has excellent communications skills, understanding of youth psychology and plenty of creativity.



We mentioned this very briefly earlier, if you want to pursue a career in academia, then you would need to have completed a PhD or a research-based master’s degree. Careers in academic research typically combine independent or collaborative research projects with lecturing, teaching and supervision of undergraduate and graduate students. Graduates will be given opportunities to work with academics based at other institutions across the world, and to contribute to papers and books in your field of specialisation.

Other popular career options include:

  • Political geography
  • Geomorphology
  • Industrial Geography

Possible job titles could include- physical geographer, geographical technician, geoscientist and geographic information specialist.


Best places to study a physical geography degree



University of Glasgow

Cardiff University

University of Oxford

University of Cambridge



The Australian National University

The University of Melbourne

The University of Queensland



Pennsylvania State University

University of Minnesota

City University of New York


Other countries

The University of Hong Kong

Lund University

Utrecht University


Aside from the universities listed above, these countries also boast strong physical geography programmes- Sweden, Canada, Germany, Korea, Japan, China, Singapore, and Ireland.


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