Physical Geography is all about the processes that shape the Earth. Here’s our pick of the best university degree courses available
What is Physical Geography?
Physical geographers explore the spatial variations and temporal changes that occur across the Earth’s surface. Generally, the field of physical geography is concerned with the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and geosphere – the processes and patterns that govern the natural environment. The built, human environment is the domain of human geography.
What specialisms can I choose with Physical Geography?
If you’re keen to focus on physical geography there are two main options. You can either pick a physical geography degree, or do a more general geography BSc degree. Geography BSc courses will cover both physical and human geography but usually have a stronger focus on the physical side (as opposed to a Geography BA degree, which is more likely to prioritise human geography). Both options are included below.
With physical geography, you can study a wide range of sub-disciplines related to the natural environment. Sub-disciplines vary widely: geomorphology, hydrology, glaciology, climatology, meteorology, soil geography, oceanography, biogeography and environmental geography, are some options. While the sociological, cultural and economic relations of humans to the Earth are explored more closely in human geography, the anthropological impact of humans on natural systems are increasingly explored on the physical side of geography as well.
How is Physical Geography studied?
Physical geography is studied using a range of surveying, modelling and analytical techniques. Remote sensing and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are increasingly used as analytical and modelling tools in all physical geography sub-disciplines. The rise of supercomputing, big data and artificial intelligence is extending the frontiers of physical geography, allowing researchers to study Earth systems with greater accuracy, detail and power than ever before.
Geographical’s pick of the courses
The courses below are listed in order of entry requirements, highest to lowest:
Durham University Geography BSc (3 years)
- 97 per cent of students were satisfied with the quality of the Geography BSc course at Durham University (National Students Survey)
- Average earnings of £28,000 at 15 months after completing the course (Graduate Outcomes Survey)
- 80 per cent of students go on to work and or study within 15 months after the course
- 95 per cent of graduates find their current work meaningful (Graduate Outcomes Survey)
In Year One you’ll be introduced to the range of Durham’s research specialisms and research methods, including residential fieldwork overseas (for example Portugal). You’ll get the best of human and physical geography in the first year, before a broader range of optional modules allow you to specialise in your second and third years.
Your second year further develops your research and practical skills while allowing you to specialise in subjects of your choice. These range from ‘Climate Change’ to ‘Contested Environments’, to ‘Glaciers and Glaciation’ and ‘Mountain Landscapes’ – any sub-discipline in physical geography is there for you to explore.
In your third year, you’ll undertake a research project (dissertation) supervised by Durham academics. You’ll also choose from a selection of modules that involve material at the cutting-edge of contemporary research.
Durham sits among some of the finest architecture in the UK. Durham Castle and Cathedral are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The city has a friendly and quaint feeling, but is only 10 minutes by train from the excitement of Newcastle.
A Level: AAA/A*AB
Open days: For more information on open days see here.
Check out Durham University’s partner page
University of St Andrews Geography BSc (4 years)
- 94 per cent of students were satisfied with the Geography BSc course at University of St Andrews (National Student Survey)
- Average earnings of £22,000 at 15 months after the course (Graduate Outcomes Survey)
- 85 per cent are in highly skilled work 15 months after the course (Graduate Outcomes Survey)
In the first two years, you will develop an integrated vision of the world exploring the complex interrelationships between people and the planet. You will gain a conceptual and applied grounding in all of physical, environmental and human geography. You will also take required modules in at least one other subject, which will allow you to take Geography as a joint honours degree along with another chosen subject, such as biology or sustainable development.
In your third and fourth years, you will have the option to specialise in a range of different areas of physical geography, including climate and weather systems, glaciers and glaciation, natural resource management, and coastal processes. Final year students must complete a dissertation on a topic chosen in consultation with academic staff.
Throughout the course there are opportunities to undertake fieldwork both locally and overseas. Recent locations have included Norway, Iceland and Ireland.
The town of St Andrews has lots to offer. University buildings are located throughout the town; walking around you encounter ancient and modern buildings, parks and beaches, providing a rich and historic backdrop for student life. The unspoilt beaches provide fresh, clean air – the perfect antidote for the classrooms or laboratories.
A Level: AAA–ABB
Open days: For more information about visits and virtual open days click here.
Other geography degree options
University of Southampton Geography BSc (3 years)
- 93 per cent of students were satisfied with the quality of the Geography BSc course at Southampton University (National Students Survey)
- £24,000 average earnings 15 months after the course (Graduate Outcomes Survey)
- 92 per cent of students go on to work and or study within 15 months after the course (Graduate Outcomes Survey)
Highfield Campus, where Physical Geography at Southampton is based, is the oldest and largest of the university’s seven campuses. It has beautiful gardens, historic buildings and modern study spaces.
Year one provides a broad academic foundation in physical and human geography. Statistical and computing skills are an important element in the early stages. A module called ‘Dangerous Worlds’ will explore all aspects of climate change, including risks, exposure, vulnerability, resilience and sustainability. You’ll also attend an in-depth field course within the UK, and begin to choose your path into physical geography with optional modules.
In year two, core modules will immerse you in the field of physical geography. You’ll learn about remote sensing for earth observation and global water resources. Optional modules are diverse: you can study anything from Geographical Information Systems to Coastal Landscapes, to Energy in the Environment and much more.
In your third year, you’ll undertake a research project on a subject of your choosing. Optional modules give you the choice of specialising or diversifying your geographic interests. You’ll also have the option to travel and study in Switzerland or Cambodia.
A Level: AAB
Open days: Information on open days is available here.
Newcastle University Physical Geography BSc (3 years)
- 78 per cent of students were satisfied with the quality of the Physical Geography course at Newcastle University (National Student Survey)
- £27,000 average earnings after 15 months of completing the course (Graduate Outcomes Survey)
- 90 per cent of graduates after 15 months find their current work meaningful (Graduate Outcomes Survey)
- Top 100 in the Geography Category (QS World University Rankings by Subject 2020)
- 10th in the UK for research quality (Research Excellence Framework 2014)
In your first year, you’ll explore global environmental issues alongside physical geography concepts and techniques. Compulsory module topics include glacial processes, volcanic and tectonic activity, flooding and fluvial processes, biogeography, geohazards and coastal processes.
In Year Two you’ll study advanced research techniques in physical geography. These will help you to deepen your understanding of key concepts and processes in physical geography research. You’ll choose between Ireland, Iceland, Morocco and New Zealand for your second-year field course. The remaining topics will be optional, giving you the opportunity to engage with cutting-edge research areas of your choice.
In your third year you’ll have a choice of optional modules and will complete a major piece of independent research in your dissertation, which represents a third of your studies. Specialist optional modules are linked to the research interests of high profile academics, providing cutting-edge research insights in physical geography.
A Level: ABB
Open days: More information on open days available here
University of Chester Geography BSc (3 years)
- 100 per cent of students were satisfied with the quality of the Geography BSc course at the University of Chester (National Student Survey)
- £24,000 average earnings after 15 months of completing the course
- 85 per cent of graduates go on to work and or study within 15 months of completing the course
Year one provides a broad-based introduction to physical and human geography as well as opportunities to complete independent fieldwork. As well as compulsory modules in both human and physical geographies, you’ll learn foundational skills in geology, world development and natural hazards.
In year two, you can begin to specialise into fields of physical geography of your choosing. The course at Chester University places lots of focus on careers and employability, helping you to work out how the learnings of your physical geography degree can be applied to your career choices.
In year three, students complete a research project on a topic of their choice, as well as optional modules across human and physical geography. You can focus on Climate Change, Coastal Dynamics, Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems – there are plenty of physical geography specialisms to choose from.
Situated on the River Dee, Chester’s campuses are rich with natural beauty and relaxation spaces. Grosvenor Park and the famous Roman Gardens are highlights for Chester students. The cathedral is a landmark archaeological treasure that hosts exhibitions and events, as well as your induction and graduation ceremonies.
A Level: BBB/BBC
Open days: For more information on open days click here.
Keele University Geography BSc (3 years)
- Ranked among the top three universities in England for student satisfaction (National Student Survey)
- Geography BSc is a Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) accredited programme
- 85 per cent of students go on to work and or study within 15 months after the course (Graduate Outcomes Survey)
- Average earnings of £20,000 15 months after completing the course (Graduate Outcomes Survey)
The Keele course allows you to focus specifically on your preferred area of physical geography, or to explore geography as an integrated discipline concerned with people and their environment. The course focuses on climate change, global responsibility, sustainability, and the application of professional geographical skills to real-world situations.
Compulsory modules in year one prepare you for the fundamentals of conducting geographical research. You’ll study fieldwork and research skills, the fundamentals of physical geography, climate change, and the role of geographers in society.
In year two, you can begin to hone your degree focus to a physical geography subject of your choosing. Year three will bring the dissertation on a subject of your choice. Further optional modules include subjects ranging from coastal environments, rural geographies, water resources, glaciers and glacial geomorphology, and many more.
The course also comes with the option for an international year, to study abroad, and to learn a language alongside physical geography.
The campus at Keele University brings everything to your doorstep. Student accommodation, teaching buildings, restaurants and cafes, sports centres and bars are all to be found on the vibrant campus. At 600+ acres, Keele is Britain’s biggest single-site campus university.
A Level: BBC
Open days: For more information on open days click here.
University of Greenwich Natural Resources Institute Physical Geography BSc (3 years)
- 96 per cent of current and former students recommend the University of Greenwich (National Student Survey)
- The Natural Resources Institute won a Guardian University Award for Research Impact in 2015
- 100 per cent of students are employed or in further education six months after completing the Physical Geography BSc degree at University of Greenwich (The Uni Guide)
- 60 per cent of students are employed in a role where the Physical Geography BSc degree was essential or beneficial (The Uni Guide)
In your first year you’ll make your way through compulsory modules, which will give you the foundational skills you’ll need to make choices between sub-disciplines later in the course. You’ll learn basic chemistry for Life Sciences, earth systems, environmental field skills and key research techniques. Fieldwork is an essential part of the course, with trips to the Lake District, New Forest and Spain funded by the university.
Your second year will feature an expanded range of compulsory modules that will develop your research skills in physical geography. You’ll be introduced to Geographic Information Systems, Biogeography and techniques at the forefront of environmental science and physical geography.
In year three you’ll have all the skills you need to complete a research-led dissertation of your choosing. More optional modules allow you to complement your knowledge of physical geography’s sub-disciplines, or expand your learning to new subjects. You can study topics from Water Resources Management, to Volcanic Processes and Environmental Systems, all the way to Conservation and the Environment and Climate Change.
Greenwich’s Natural Resource Institute is a specialist research, development and education organisation of the University of Greenwich that focuses on food, agriculture, environment and sustainable livelihoods. At Greenwich, you’re within 10 minutes tube ride from central London – needless to say, there’s lots to keep you entertained.
A Level: BCC
Bangor University Physical Geography and Oceanography BSc (3 years)
- 87 per cent of students were satisfied with the quality of the Physical Geography and Oceanography course at Bangor University (National Students Survey)
- 90 per cent of students go on to work and or study after the course
- 45 per cent go on to work in a ‘highly skilled’ area (Graduate Outcomes Survey)
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better location for a university campus. Nestled between the mountains and the sea, Bangor is surrounded by beautiful natural scenery. Nearby to Snowdonia National Park and surfing hotspots, options for outdoor activities are aplenty.
In your first year you’ll study compulsory modules including ‘Environmental Data & Analysis’, ‘Earth Systems and Processes’, ‘Fundamentals of Oceanography’, and ‘Earth, Climate & Evolution’, with two optional field courses in Snowdonia and Anglesey. This is a course where budding oceanographers can gradually specialise in ocean systems.
Your second year entails a ship-based field course, along with core modules on ‘Ice and Oceans’. Optional modules allow you to specialise in a field of your choice, ranging from ‘Water, Air & Soil Pollution’, to ‘Climate Change’, through to ‘Tides, Waves & Marine Energy’.
In year three you’ll complete your dissertation, along with a core module on ‘Rivers, Coasts & Oceans’. More optional modules allow you to craft your own final year study. From ‘Marine Pollution’ to ‘Applied Geophysics’ the options are broad.
A level: CC in two science subjects
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