Majoring in Physics


Traditionally, many physics undergraduate majors continue in graduate school in pursuit of Ph.D. degrees. Students who complete a physics major also enter a variety of other fields, including among many others, archaeology, astronomy, biology, mathematics, computer science, high school teaching, law, medicine, environmental sciences, operations research, technical sales, industrial management, engineering and oceanography.

Because physicists are scientific generalists, undergraduate work in physics followed by specialization in other areas has become one of the preferred preparations for many activities that are setting new directions in society. The requirements for major in physics are relatively flexible, and are designed to prepare people for either graduate work in physics or for later specialization in other areas.

Requirements for Major

Students completing a major in physics must take Physics 101, 102, 201, 208, 251, 252, 313, 401, two of the four courses Physics 303, 314, 402, 403, and either the Senior Project (Physics 451-2) or Honors (Physics 495-6) (substitutions for these requirements must be approved by the departmental undergraduate committee and the chair). The requirement of Senior Project or Honors insures that all majors will engage in independent research during the senior year. Because of the extensive facilities available through the graduate program of the department, the senior projects generally deal with problems at the frontiers of physics. It is only through being actively involved in such pursuits that a student can appreciate the nature of the discipline.  It is strongly recommended that students take PHYS 256 and 301.

The departmental computing proficiency requirement (see below) is satisfied through the completion of required course work and, in addition, by demonstrating programming ability. For this purpose, it is strongly recommended that physics concentrators take either Physics 256 or  Computer Science 141. Otherwise, programming proficiency may be demonstrated through the senior research project or by examination.

Students who plan to attend graduate school in physics should take all of the courses listed above (including Physics 303, 314, 402, and 403) as well as the junior laboratories (Physics 351-2) and the Undergraduate Seminar (Physics 309). To prepare for some engineering or professional programs it may be appropriate to substitute courses or elect additional courses.

Suitable mathematics courses should also be taken, including Math 111, 112, 212, 302, and 211.

Computing Proficiency Requirement
  • Programming ability.    This requirement can be met by taking PHYS 256 - Practical Computing (strongly recommended) or taking a proficiency test within the Physics Department, administered by the course coordinator of Physics 451-52/495-96, together with members of the computing committee and the thesis advisor. The test shall involve a programming project of at least 100 lines of code using a modern language such as Java, C++, perl, etc. Examples: Write a routine that calculates Clebsch-Gordon coefficients; write a program that simulates the statistical decay of a hot nucleus; write a histogramming package; solve an ordinary differential equation, etc. Ideally, this would be a program useful for the specific senior thesis topic.
  • Electronic literacy. The student will be required to know how to do electronic searches of research materials and journals via the Web. This requirement shall be taught by the library staff and verified by the course coordinator.

  • Symbolic Mathematics. The undergraduate courses in Classical Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics and Electromagnetism shall make use of Maple (the current university standard) in assignments so that all students develop a proficiency in symbolic mathematics programs.

  • Electronic publishing. The senior thesis shall be submitted to the course coordinator both on paper as required by the University, and electronically. An electronic archive of these theses will be kept in the Department. To meet this requirement, the student will need to use a modern word processor (MS Word, WordPerfect, TeX, etc.) that can typeset equations and include figures embedded within the document. The requirement shall be satisfied by the submission of the thesis as a single Postscript or PDF document that includes figures, tables, appendices, etc.