Bardeen was born in Madison, Wisconsin. His father, Charles Bardeen was a Professor at the Medical School of the University of Wisconsin. He completed his bachelor's degree and master's degree in Electrical Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He completed his PhD in Physics at Princeton University in 1936.
Bardeen was a Professor of Electrical Engineering and Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 1951 to 1991.