The Physics & Astronomy Major
- Core Courses
- Concentration in Advanced Physical Theory and Experimental Techniques
- Concentration in Chemical Principles
- Concentration in Computer Techniques
- Concentration in Astrophysics
- Concentration in Business and Technology
- Concentration in Biological Sciences
- The Physics Honors Program and Senior Thesis
- The Master's Program in Physics
- Elective Courses
- Undergraduate Research
- The Informal Curriculum
- The Minor Program
- Double Majors
- How to Declare the Major
- Physics Course Roster
- Astronomy Course Roster
- See also the page on what you can do with a physics major after graduation
- See also the page on graduate school in physics.
We are proud of our undergraduate curriculum. Introductory Physics is taught in several formats, ranging from small, accelerated honors sections to larger lecture courses. (The main criteria for admission to the honors course is a sufficiently advanced math preparation to be able to handle the material at a higher level, and a willingness to work hard). We ask our very best faculty to teach in the introductory program; all of the department's major course offerings are taught by members of the faculty. Once past the year of introductory Physics, upper level courses are all taught in small classes. There are many opportunities for individual contact with the faculty. It is also straightforward to complete a double major. In recent years, students have combined the study of Physics with Mathematics, Economics, Electrical Engineering, and Chemistry. A large proportion of our graduating seniors go on to do graduate work in Physics at top-ranked institutions.
Because most of our faculty of 37 have active research programs, students have ample opportunities to be kept informed of, and participate in, the latest developments in cutting-edge research. Our research interests include Elementary Particle Physics, Condensed Matter Physics, and Astrophysics. We make a serious effort to involve interested undergraduates in the department's research activities, in the form of both independent research projects for academic credit and summer research jobs.
The basic Physics major program provides a solid background in classical and modern Physics. The development follows the historical origins of the subject, starting with mechanics and proceeding to electromagnetism and then to the contribution of the twentieth century, relativity and quantum mechanics. Pedagogically the program is cyclical: after an introductory survey the major provides courses focused on the primary divisions of the subject. Students planning graduate study in Physics will generally take several elective courses in the department while those intending to seek employment in industry, or further study in other fields after graduation, will take electives appropriate to their career objectives.
There are several flavors, or "concentrations" to the Physics major. All start with the same fundamental set of courses, but they differ in the choice of upper-division and elective courses:
- Concentration in Physical Theory and Experimental Technique:
This concentration is particularly appropriate for students contemplating graduate study in Physics. It provides a sound basis in Physics and Mathematics, with ample opportunities to take elective or even graduate courses and participate in research.
- Concentration in Chemical Principles:
This concentration is particularly appropriate for students planning to enter the health professions. In addition to core Physics courses, two years of Chemistry form an integral part of this concentration.
- Concentration in Computer Techniques:
This concentration is particularly appropriate for students contemplating a dual degree in Physics and Computer Science, or for those planning a career in the computer or electronics industries. In addition to core Physics courses, students choose from a selection of courses in Computer Science and computational techniques.
- Concentration in Astrophysics:
This concentration is particularly appropriate for students planning to attend graduate school in Astrophysics. In addition to core Physics courses, students choose from a selection of courses in Astronomy and Astrophysics.
- Concentration in Business and Technology:
This concentration is particularly appropriate for students whose ultimate goal is a career in modern industry involving both technical and managerial components. A student choosing this concentration will have a solid background in Physics, will be comfortable with both electronics and computers, and will have some appreciation of modern business methods and economics.
The major in physics is divided into a core requirement plus all of the courses in one of five concentrations: Advanced Physical Theory and Experimental Techniques, Chemical Principles, Computer Techniques, Astrophysics, or Business and Technology. There is an overall requirement of 17 1/2 or 18 1/2 credit units (c.u.), depending on the concentration chosen. There is also an honors program for ambitious students. A Master's Program permits qualified students to submatriculate and obtain a master's degree.
With each concentration, we supply a "sample program." There is no single physics program suitable for all, since students arrive at the University with diverse scientific goals and backgrounds. Many students enter Penn with advanced placement credit in physics, mathematics, or both. On occasion, they may wish to substitute courses taken in other departments for physics department courses. Students who have transferred to Penn often require highly individualized programs which maximize their prior coursework while challenging them to explore other areas of the discipline.
Accordingly, the sample programs provided should serve as guides indicating the overall flow of the program, rather than as rigid patterns. It is imperative that all students intending to major in physics consult the undergraduate chair as early as possible in their careers in order to plan their course of study. The planned requirements for a major in Physics include the core courses listed below plus all of the courses in one of the five concentrations.
Core Courses: The following courses must be taken by all Physics majors, no matter what their concentration:
Math 104, 114, 240, and 241
Physics 150 or 170, Physics 151 or 171
Physics 230, 250, 351, 361, 362, and 411.
- Concentration in Physical Theory and Experimental Technique (17.5 units)
This concentration is recommended for students contemplating future graduate study in Physics. A student electing this concentration must take the following courses in addition to the core:
- Physics 401, 412, and 364 or 414
- An additional elective, consisting of one course offered by the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the 300, 400, or 500 level.
Fall Spring Freshman Math 104, Phys 150 Math 114, Phys 151 Sophomore Math 240, Phys 230, Phys 364 Math 241, Phys 250, Phys 351 Junior Phys 361, Phys 411 Phys 362, Phys 412 Senior Phys 401, Phys 421 Phys 414
- Concentration in Chemical Principles (18.5 units)
This concentration is particularly appropriate for students planning to enter the health professions. Such students should be aware that, although not part of the concentration requirements, laboratories in general and organic chemistry and lecture and laboratory work in biology are generally required by professional schools in the health area. The concentration may also be appropriate for other students pursuing double majors in Physics and Chemistry or Biochemistry. A student electing this concentration must take the following courses in addition to the core:
- Chemistry 101 and 102
- Chemistry 221 and 222 or Chemistry 241 and 242.
- Physics 401
For students interested in biological applications of physics, Physics 280 (Biophysics) is strongly recommended. It recommended, but not required, that students in this concentration also take either Physics 364 or Physics 414.
Fall Spring Freshman Math 104, Phys 150, Chem 101 Math 114, Phys 151, Chem 102 Sophomore Math 240, Phys 230 Math 241, Phys 250, Phys 351 Junior Phys 361, Phys 411 Phys 362 Senior Phys 401, Chem 241 Phys 414, Chem 242
- Concentration in Computer Techniques (18.5 units)
This concentration is particularly appropriate for those students planning a career in the computer or electronics industries, or for those contemplating a dual degree in Physics and either Computer Science or Electrical Engineering. Students electing this concentration must take the following courses in addition to the core:
- Physics 401
- Physics 364 or 414
- Three other courses from the departments of Physics, Computer and Information Science, Electrical Engineering, or Mathematics, that stress computers and computation in the context of Physics-related problems. These courses are to be selected in consultation with the Undergraduate Chair, and should comprise an intellectually coherent sequence. Possible courses in this list might include: CIS 120 and 130, EE 200, EE 539, Math 320, or an independent Physics 299 or 499 course incorporating a substantial computational component.
Fall Spring Freshman Math 104, Phys 150 Math 114, Phys 151 Sophomore Math 240, Phys 230, Phys 364 Math 241, Phys 250, Phys 351 Junior Phys 361, Phys 411 Phys 362, EE 200 Senior Phys 401, Math 320 CIS 120+130
- Concentration in Astrophysics (19.5 units)
This concentration is particularly appropriate for students planning to attend graduate school in Astronomy or Astrophysics. Student electing this concentration must complete the following courses in addition to the core:
- Astronomy 11 and 12, Physics 401
- Two of the following: Physics 364, Physics 414, Astronomy 250
- One of the following: Physics 421, Physics 503, Physics 505, Physics 524.
Fall Spring Freshman Math 104, Physics 150 Math 114, Physics 151 Sophomore Math 240, Physics 230, Astro 11 Math 241, Physics 250, Astro 12 Junior Astro 250, Physics 361 Physics 351, Physics 362 Senior Physics 411, Physics 401 Physics 503, Physics 414
- Concentration in Business and Technology (19.5 units)
This concentration is particularly appropriate for students whose ultimate goal is a career in modern industry involving both technical and managerial components. A student choosing this concentration will have a solid background in Physics, will be comfortable with electronics and computers, and will have some appreciation of modern business methods and economics. Student electing this concentration must complete the following courses in addition to the core:
- Physics 364 or Physics 414
- One course from the departments of Physics, Computer and Information Science, Electrical Engineering, or Mathematics, to be selected in consultation with the Undergraduate Chair, that stresses computers and computation in the context of Physics-related problems. Possible courses in this list might include: CIS 120 and 130, EE 200, EE 539, Math 320, or an independent Physics 299 or 499 course incorporating a substantial computational component.
- Any four electives in business. These courses should provide a coherent course of study and should be chosen by consulting with the undergraduate chair. Recommended electives include: Accounting 101, 102; Economics 001, 002; Finance 101, 102; Legal Studies 202; Management 101; Materials Science and Engineering 266; Operations Management 102, 210, 220.
Fall Spring Freshman Math 104, Physics 150 Math 114, Physics 151 Sophomore Math 240, Physics 230, Physics 364 Math 241, Physics 250, Physics 351 Junior Physics 361, Economics 001 Physics 362, Economics 002 Senior Physics 411, Math 320 Accounting 101, Management 101
Concentration in Biological Sciences (21 units)
This concentration reflects increasing contributions of physicists (including members of our Faculty) to implications of Physics to Biological Sciences. Undergraduate students choosing this concentration will prepare themselves for careers in scientific research or professional Medical Physics programs that have been instituted at Penn and other Universities, among other possibilities.
The proposed Concentration is distinct from the existing Biophysics Major, although the two share several required courses. The Biophysics Major requires much more chemistry, making it appropriate for students interested in protein science and other topics within the well-established field of Biophysics The Physics major with a Concentration in Biological Science targets students with interests in the emerging field of Biological Physics, where researchers directly apply physical concepts and techniques to investigate biological systems; the emphasis is on developing new insights regarding biological systems from a perspective strongly rooted in Physics.
Concentration requirements (21 CU):
In addition to core requirements,
BIOL 121 – Introduction to Biology and Molecular Biology*
* - after consultation with the Undergraduate Chair, students with a strong background in Biology may be allowed to replace BIOL 121 with CHEM 251 or a BIOL elective.
BIOL 202 – Cellular Biology and Biochemistry
BIOL 221 – Molecular Biology and Genetics
PHYS 280 – Physical Models of Biological Systems (or PHYS 580)
PHYS 401 – Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics
Two additional courses drawn from the following list:
- PHYS 351 – Analytical Mechanics
- PHYS 364 – Electronics Laboratory
- PHYS 421 – Modern Optics
- PHYS 580 – Biological Physics
- PHYS 582 – Medical Radiation Engineering
- PHYS 585 – Theoretical and Computational Neuroscience
- Any BIOL course numbered 200 or higher
- CHEM 251 – Principles of Biological Chemistry
- CHEM 451 – Biological Chemistry I
- CHEM 452 – Biological Chemistry II
- BE 480 – Introduction to Biomedical Imaging
- CIS 537 (BE 537) – Biomedical Image Analysis
- MATH 584 – Mathematics of Medical Imaging and Measurement
Students may propose a relevant course not on this list as an elective by consulting the Undergraduate Chair before taking the class.
Example Curriculum for the proposed Physics Major with a Concentration in Biological Science:
|Freshman||PHYS 150, MATH 104, BIOL 121||PHYS 151, MATH 114, BIOL 221|
|Sophomore||PHYS 230, MATH 240, PHYS 280||PHYS 250, MATH 241, BIOL 202|
|Junior||PHYS 361, PHYS 411||PHYS 362, PHYS 351|
|Senior||PHYS 401, PHYS 580||BE 480 or PHYS 585|
The combination of PHYS 580 and PHYS 585 would provide a solid grounding in concepts of computational neuroscience.
Other suggested coupled electives:
- PHYS 500, BE 480, BE 537 would provide a very strong background in biomedical imaging.
- BIOL 536 Computational Biology and BIOL 537 Advanced Computational Biology.
- BIOL 436 Molecular Physiology and BIOL 410 Advanced Evolution
The department encourages students to enter the honors program. This program augments the regular major with the requirement that the student plan and carry out an individualized research project under the guidance of a faculty member. Research experience of this kind is invaluable to a future scientist: research is very different from course work, in that the latter is well-defined and bounded, while the former requires careful pre-planning on the part of the student and always involves an interesting element of risk.
To graduate with honors in physics, a student must achieve a GPA of at least 3.3 in major-related courses, must enroll for 2 c.u. of Physics 499 (Senior Thesis Research), and must write and defend a thesis describing his or her research. The addition of these two courses means that the minimum requirement is 19 1/2 c.u..
The honors program, which is a way of completing the degree in Physics, should not be confused with honors courses, which are accelerated courses in physics for ambitious students. Students hoping for a general honors degree need to take a certain number of honors courses; for more information you should talk to advisors in the College Advising Office. You do not need to be a physics honors major to take the honors courses (although many choose to do so) and you do not need to take the honors courses to be an honor major.
It is possible for a student to complete the requirements for a bachelor's and master's degree within four or five years. For students starting the study of physics and calculus at Penn this combined program requires careful planning and an intensive focus on physics. Even those with advanced placement in physics or mathematics will need to chart their course work carefully in order to be able to devote their fourth year to graduate courses in physics. Students wishing to pursue this option should speak to both the undergraduate chair and the graduate chair as soon as possible in their careers. as soon as possible in their undergraduate careers. (It is important that you apply for submatriculation before taking graduate courses in physics.)
Physics majors are strongly encouraged to take elective courses in physics, astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, or other sciences. The department offers mixed undergraduate and graduate courses in modern optics, condensed matter physics, and nuclear and elementary particle physics, special and general relativity, and astrophysics. And for the really ambitious student, there is the entire set of first-year graduate courses from which to choose. Many students take a course in computer programming (often CSE 110 or ESE 115) or in numerical methods using computers (e.g., Mathematics 320 and 321). Students with a theoretical bent frequently take electives in mathematics. Majors planning a career in the health professions must take courses in chemistry and biology; such students should consult a health professions advisor for advice on the specific courses required by the professional schools.
Pennsylvania is a research university. Physics majors are encouraged to participate in this aspect of the department's activities. To introduce students to research programs in the Department the Department offers Physics 295 "Introduction to Research in Physics and Astronomy" in the Spring term. This is a 1 credit unit seminar that meets for two evenings each week. Faculty from the Department of Physics and Astronomy give a series of lectures, for an undergraduate science and engineering audience, introducing current topics in physics and astronomy with an emphasis on research activities at Penn. Students who are have completed the introductory courses Physics 150 and 151 or Physics 170 and 171, are strongly encouraged to take Physics 295.
Apart from the individual research done as part of the honors program, students can carry out supervised research projects under the rubric of Physics 299 or Astronomy 399 (not to exceed 2 c.u. per semester) and can often obtain paid research positions both during the academic year and the summer intersession. A limited number of awards and scholarships may be available. Other students gain valuable research experience participating in summer internships at Penn or other universities and research programs at national facilities and laboratories. Click here for a description of faculty research interests.
In order to receive permission to register for PHYS 299 (independent study) or PHYS 499 (dissertation), students must submit a mini-proposal of estimated length 2-4 pages, including figures and reference s. The "target audience" of the mini-proposal should be a trained physicist who may not be an expert in the specific field of research. This mini-proposal should contain the following elements:
- Title of the Project
- Objective and Significance: what is the primary objective of your project and why is it important?
- Background and Preliminary Results: background information on the field, also preliminary results from student's own work and/or work done in student advisor's lab. The point is to demonstrate that the student has identified is a realistic goal.
- Work Plan: a description of the methods the student will use and sub-projects that will be undertaken in order to attain primary objectives.
- Cited References
At the end of the semester, the student must turn in a final report (or thesis if this is the conclusion of an Honors Project). The estimated length of a final report is 5-10 pages, while a thesis could be substantially longer. The "target audience" is again a trained physicist who may not be an expert in the specific field of research. The report should cover the following:
- Project Title
- Abstract, which should include a summary of the major findings of the work
- Objective and Significance
- Background and state of knowledge before the project started
- Summary of the methods used in the project
- Major findings, results and analysi
- Summary including a discussion of important areas and questions for future research projects.
- Cited References
The Department of Physics and Astronomy endeavors to provide a variety of informal opportunities for undergraduates to acquaint themselves with aspects of current research. For lack of a better term we dub these activities the "informal curriculum." Included in this category are Physics Club activities, departmental colloquia and seminars, and similar activities. The Departmental Colloquium (held nearly every Wednesday) is a forum in which speakers present aspects of their research at a level usually intelligible to advanced undergraduates. The Undergraduate Physics Club sponsors a number of activities, including lectures and discussions, field trips, and other events, specifically addressed to undergraduates. And at the "first-year seminar," a lecture series designed to acquaint graduate students with the various opportunities for thesis research in the department, undergraduates can gain insight into current research interests and problems.
The Physics minor consists of any 6 Physics courses (not units, but courses). No more than two of these can be at the 100 (introductory) level. A recommended minor is Physics 150, 151, 230, 250 and TWO advanced course at the 300 level or above. This program provides an introduction to physics through the 100 level courses, a full survey of the field through the 200 level courses, and advanced training in at least one area through the advanced course. Students may propose other minor programs to be approved by the undergraduate chair (e.g. replacing 200 level courses by more advanced courses.)
It is possible to pursue a major in physics simultaneously with a major in geology, engineering, mathematics, or other subjects. Interested students should consult the undergraduate chair.
The process of declaring the Physics major is very simple. Please just submit an "Unofficial Transcript" and an "Official Worksheet" to the Physics and Astronomy Office located in room 2E5, DRL. Make sure that your name and email address are written on your documents. The department will notify you by email once approved and recorded. Either before or after declaring the major, you are encouraged to discuss any questions that you have about the major with the Undergraduate Chair during office hours.