Born in Schickenhof, Bavaria, Stark was educated at the Bayreuth Gymnasium (grammar school) and later in Regensburg. His collegiate education began at the Munich University, where he studied physics, mathematics, chemistry, and crystallography. His tenure at that college began in 1894; he graduated in 1897, with his doctoral dissertation regarding some physics subjects of Isaac Newton.
He worked in various positions at the Physics Institute of his alma mater until 1900, when he became an unsalaried lecturer at the University of Göttingen. He moved throughout various physics colleges until 1922. In 1919, however, he won the Nobel Prize in physics for his "discovery of the Doppler effect in canal rays and the splitting of spectral lines in electric fields". From 1933 until his retirement in 1939, Stark was elected President of the Physico-Technical Institute, while also President of the German Research Association.
Stark was also a prevalent writer, having published more than 300 papers, mainly regarding electricity and other such topics. He was awarded prominently throughout his career, receiving (along with the Nobel Prize) the following awards: the Baumgartner Prize of the Vienna Academy of Sciences (1910), the Vahlbruch Prize of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences (1914), and the Matteucci Medal of the Rome Academy. He married Luise Uepler, and they had five children. Stark died in 1957 as one of the most prominent physicists of his time.