Course Requirements for the Physics Major

The departmental major provides a thorough grounding in the core areas of physics. It is suitable either as a preparation for careers in science and engineering, or as a spring-board for applying technical knowledge in such fields as business, medicine, law, public policy and education.

Physics Introductory Courses

[4 or 5 hours; note that only the second course in any sequence counts toward the physics major; as appropriate, any combination of 116a/118a + 116b/118b or 116a/118a + 121b or 121a + 121b or 121a + 116b/118b satisfies the Introductory Course requirement]:

  • first semester introductory, calculus-based physics (pre-requisite for the major):
    • PHYS 116a (General Physics I) with PHYS 118a (General Physics I Lab) [offered in both Spring and Fall] [4] or
    • PHYS 121a: Principles of Physics I with lab [Fall, 5]
  • second semester introductory, calculus-based physics [4 or 5]:
    • PHYS 116b (General Physics II) with PHYS 118b (General Physics II Lab) [offered in both Spring and Fall, 4] or
    • PHYS 121b: Principles of Physics II with lab [Fall, 5]

    Note: Students may combine one semester of the 116/118 sequence with the complementary semester of the 121 sequence. The first semester of either introductory sequence is a pre-requisite for the major, while the second semester begins the formal requirements of the major. Physics 105 and 110 are intended for students without strong backgrounds in mathematics or science. Neither course is recommended as preparation for further study in a natural science; neither is appropriate for engineering, premedical, predental, or pre-physical therapy students. Neither counts toward the physics major or minor.

    Core Curriculum [19 hours]

    • PHYS 225 or 225W: Concepts and Applications of Quantum Physics I [Fall, 4]
    • PHYS 226 or 226W: Concepts and Applications of Quantum Physics II [Spring, 4]
    • PHYS 223: Thermal and Statistical Physics [3] or PHYS 223C: Computational Thermal and Statistical Physics [Fall, 3]
    • PHYS 227a: Classical Mechanics I [Fall, 3]
    • PHYS 229a: Electricity, Magnetism and Electrodynamics I [Spring, 3]
    • PHYS 250: Physics Undergraduate Seminar [1]
    • ASTR 250: Astronomy Undergraduate Seminar [1]

    Nine Hours of Electives in Physics and/or Astronomy

    With a cap of 6 of these 9 hours that can be earned from any combination of Directed Study (Phys 289 or Astr 289), Independent Study (Phys 291 or Astr 291), and/or Honors research (Phys =296 or Astr 296) [9 hours]

    The electives required by the major may be satisfied by any combination of courses offered by the department that are at the 200 level or above, with the exception of the seminar courses Physics 250 and Astronomy 250 (one hour of each is already required for the major). A cap of 6 of these 9 hours can be earned from any combination of directed study (289), independent study (291), and/or Honors research (296).

    Other courses may count as an elective, such as courses offered by the engineering school (or other departments and schools) that are particularly relevant, such as a course in health physics, optics, or materials science. Such exceptions must be approved by the department’s Undergraduate Program Committee. Other courses, such as 100-level courses in the physics department or additional hours of the Physics or Astronomy seminar (250) will be considered with sufficient justification. The purpose of the above policy is to allow relevant courses to count without having to specify them in advance, since it is expected that the relevant courses offered by other departments and schools will change and it is not practical to attempt to maintain a list of approved electives. Majors should seek approval of an elective from their advisor prior to their taking the course and, if applicable, from the Department's Undergraduate Program Committee.

    A description of courses may be found in the Undergraduate Catalog

    Recommended Courses in other departments

    The study of physics and astronomy requires a solid background in mathematics. We recommend that physics majors take the following mathematics courses:

    • Math 155a,b: Accelerated Single-Variable Calculus I and II [4-4] --- we strongly recommend Math 155a, 155b over the parallel sequence Math 150a, 150b, 170
    • Math 175: Multivariable Calculus [3]
    • Math 194: Methods of Linear Algebra [3] or Math 204:Linear Algebra [3]
    • note: well-prepared students can also take Math 205a [4] + 205b [4] to learn multivariable calculus and linear algebra
    • Math 198: Methods of Differential Equations [3] or Math 208: Introduction to Ordinary Differential Equations [3]
    • Math 229: Advanced Engineering Mathematics [3]

    All fields of physics require the power of computers, and as a consequence we strongly recommend that students majoring in physics learn computer programming. Physics majors without previous experience (i.e., AP credit) in Computer Science should start with (note: we do not recommend CS 103 for Physics majors):

    • CS 101: Programming and Problem Solving [3]

    Advanced physics, astronomy, and mathematics courses that have significant computational components (and that also count toward the minor in Scientific Computing) include:

    • PHYS 223C: Computational Thermal and Statistical Physics [3]
    • PHYS 257: Computational Physics [3]
    • ASTR 253: Structure and Evolution of Galaxies [3]
    • ASTR 254: Structure Formation in the Universe [3]
    • MATH 226: Introduction to Numerical Mathematics

    Research Activities

    All majors are encouraged to participate in research projects under the direction of faculty and research staff. Students can undertake Directed Study, which allows a student to work together with faculty on their research projects, or Independent Study, which involves research projects conceived and undertaken by individual students. Students majoring in physics may apply, at the beginning of senior year, for admission to the departmental Honors Program.

    Achieving Excellence in Liberal Education (AXLE)
    (for Classes of 2009 and later)

    Physics majors in the College of Arts and Science must complete the Achieving Excellence in Liberal Education (AXLE) program, which consists of 13 courses that must be taken at Vanderbilt. Of the 13 courses, one will be fulfilled through a first year writing seminar and two more through writing intensive (W) courses. The '200-level W course' can be satisfied with PHYS 225W or 226W. Courses required for the Physics major will also 'double count' in satisfaction of the requirement for three 'Mathematics and Natural Science courses.'

    • Humanities and the Creative Arts (3 courses)
    • International Cultures (3 courses)
    • History and Culture of the United States (1 course)
    • Mathematics and Natural Sciences (3 courses, one of which must be a laboratory science)
    • Social and Behavioral Sciences (2 courses)
    • Perspectives (1 course)

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