Physics & Astronomy Student Handbook cover

Student Handbook

Learn about the major, the department, courses, research and more in the Physics & Astronomy Student Handbook

Physics is the study of the natural world emphasizing an understanding of phenomena in terms of fundamental interactions and basic laws. As such, physics underlies all of the natural sciences and pervades contemporary approaches to the study of the universe (astronomy and astrophysics), living systems (biophysics and neuroscience), chemistry (chemical physics), and earth systems (geophysics and environmental science). In addition, the relationship of physics to mathematics is deep, complex and rich. To reflect the broad range of activities pursued by people with training in physics, the department has developed a curriculum that provides a solid background in the fundamentals of physics while allowing some flexibility, particularly at the upper level, for students’ interests in astronomy, biology, chemistry, computer science, geology, mathematics and neuroscience. 

The core physics program provides a course of study for those who are interested in physics as a liberal arts major, with career plans in diverse fields such as engineering, law, medicine, business and education. The department also provides a number of upper-level electives to deepen the background of those students intending to pursue careers in physics and closely related technical fields. 

Major Requirements

Students who wish to major in Physics are required to complete the following coursework: (Physics major checklist is available on page 13 of the Physics & Astronomy Student Handbook)

  • A comprehensive introduction to the calculus: MATH 111, 121, and 211 
  • An introduction to the core physics concepts of mechanics (PHYS 123 or 116), electromagnetism (PHYS 124 or 117), oscillations and waves (PHYS 125), relativity and quantum mechanics (PHYS 225), and statistical mechanics (PHYS 230 or CHEM 361). 
  • One advanced course in laboratory or observational techniques (PHYS 226 or ASTR 337)
  • Three advanced elective courses on physics, the application of physics in other disciplines, or techniques used in physics. These courses must be approved by the chair of the department in consultation with the faculty of the department. At least one must be a 300-level PHYS course. At most one may be counted towards a second major. 


The goal of the elective courses is to allow students to explore at an advanced level their own interests in physics. Elective courses should be beyond the introductory level. Below are some examples of electives pre-approved by the department. The list is not exhaustive, and we encourage students to seek approval for other courses. Also included is a list of courses that do not count as electives. 

Examples of courses that satisfy the elective requirement 

  • Any PHYS or ASTR course at the 200- or 300-level not already required for the major 
  • Special topics courses PHYS 490 or ASTR 490 
  • Quantum Chemistry and Spectroscopy (CHEM 351) 
  • Environmental and Solid Earth Geophysics (GEOL 341) 
  • Groups, Rings, and Fields (MATH 350) 
  • Stochastic Processes (MATH 365) 
  • Neurophysiology (NEUR 351) 
  • Molecular and Cellular Biophysics (PHYS 400) 
  • Theoretical Statistics (STAT 370) 

Examples of courses that do not satisfy the elective requirement 

  • Any PHYS or ASTR course at the 100-level 
  • Senior departmental honors courses
  • Introductory coursework in other departments (for example COSC 111, STAT 135) 
  • Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics (PHYS 230) and Physical Chemistry (CHEM 361)
  • Coursework at the 200-level in Mathematics, Statistics, or Computer Science (for example Differential Equations (MATH 260), Linear Algebra (MATH 271/272), Data Structures and Algorithms (COSC 201)) 

Careers for Physics Majors

Many of our majors go on to some of the best graduate programs in physics and related areas, sometimes after a year of teaching or travel. Others choose to pursue further education in engineering, law, medicine or business, while yet others opt for employment after their graduation. (Here are more details on what some recent majors have done after graduation.)