Skip to Content

Department of Physics and Astronomy

Home > Undergraduate Program > Course Requirements for Major

Course Requirements for 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 credit hours] 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; as appropriate, any combination of first semester calculus-based physics plus second semester calculus-based physics satisfies the Introductory Course requirement:

1. first semester introductory, calculus-based physics (pre-requisite for the major):

    • PHYS 1501 (Introductory Physics for the Life Sciences I) with PHYS 1501L (Laboratory for Introductory Physics for the Life Sciences I) [offered only in Fall semester] [4] or
    • PHYS 1601 (General Physics I) with PHYS 1601L (General Physics I Laboratory) [offered in both Spring and Fall semesters] [4] or
    • PHYS 1901: Principles of Physics I (includes lab and recitation section) [offered only in Fall semester] [5]

2. second semester introductory, calculus-based physics (pre-requisite for the major):

    • PHYS 1502 (Introductory Physics for the Life Sciences II) with PHYS 1502L (Laboratory for Introductory Physics for the Life Sciences II) [offered only in Spring semester] [4] or
    • PHYS 1602 (General Physics II) with PHYS 1602L (General Physics II Laboratory) [offered in both Spring and Fall semesters] [4] or
    • PHYS 1902: Principles of Physics II (includes lab and recitation section) [offered only in Spring semester] [5]

Note: Physics 1010 is intended for students without strong backgrounds in mathematics or science.  Physics 1010 does not count toward the major or minor in Physics and is not recommended as preparation for further study in a natural science or as appropriate preparation for engineering, premedical, predental, or pre-physical therapy students.

Core Courses [19 hours]

The following courses are required for all students majoring in physics.  Note that 3200 has a pre-/co-requisite of 2270.

    • PHYS 2250 or 2250W: Concepts and Applications of Quantum Physics I [Fall, 4].  Note: 2250 and 2250W eliminated effective 2017-2018.  Replaced with 2255 (lecture) and 2293L (lab).
    • PHYS 2260 or 2260W: Concepts and Applications of Quantum Physics II [Spring, 4].  Note: 2260 and 2260W eliminated effective 2017-2018.  Majors must replace these four credit hours with any other coursework that would otherwise count for elective credit for the Physics major.
    • PHYS 3200: Thermal and Statistical Physics [3] or PHYS 3207: Computational Thermal and Statistical Physics [Spring, 3].  Note: 3207 eliminated, effective 2017-2018.
    • PHYS 2270: Classical Mechanics I [Spring, 3].  Note: 2270 eliminated and replaced with 2275, effective 2017-2018.
    • PHYS 2290: Electricity, Magnetism and Electrodynamics I [Fall, 3]
    • PHYS 3600: Physics Undergraduate Seminar [1; Fall and Spring]
    • ASTR 2600: Astronomy Undergraduate Seminar [1; Fall and Spring].  Note: this course eliminated effetive 2017-2018.  Majors must replace this credit hour with any one credit hour from any other coursework that would otherwise count for elective credit for the Physics major.

Nine Hours of Electives in Physics and/or Astronomy

Students must earn a total of 9 credit hours of electives to complete the physics major.  At least 3 of these credit hours must be from a traditional course.  That is, a maximum of 6 of these 9 credit hours can be earned from any combination of Directed Study (Phys 3840 or Astr 3840), Independent Study (Phys 3860 or Astr 3860), and/or Honors research (Phys 4998 or Astr 4998) [9 hours]

The electives required by the major may be satisfied by any combination of courses offered by the department that are at the 2000 level or above, with the exception of the seminar courses Physics 3600 and Astronomy 2600 (one credit hour of each is already required for the major).

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 1000-level courses in the physics department or additional credit hours of the Physics or Astronomy seminar 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.

Note: current Physics majors effectively have either 9 (if they have completed 2260W and ASTR 2600), 10 (if they have completed PHYS 2260W but not ASTR 2600), 13 (if they have completed ASTR 2600 but not PHYS 2260W), or 14 (if they have not completed either PHYS 2260W or ASTR 2600) credit hours of electives.

A description of courses may be found in the Undergraduate Catalog

Recommended Courses in other departments

Some courses in other departments are pre-approved as 'eligible for Physics':

  • EES 4650: Physics of the Climate System

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

      • Math 1300, 1301: Accelerated Single-Variable Calculus I and II [4-4] --- we strongly recommend Math 1300,1301 over the parallel sequence Math 1200, 1201, 2200
      • Math 2300: Multivariable Calculus [3]
      • Math 2410: Methods of Linear Algebra [3] or Math 2600: Linear Algebra [3]
      • note: well-prepared students can also take Math 2500 [4] + 2501 [4] to learn multivariable calculus and linear algebra
      • Math 2420: Methods of Differential Equations [3] or Math 2610: Introduction to Ordinary Differential Equations [3]
      • Math 3600: Advanced Engineering Mathematics [3]
      • Math 2820: Introductory Probability/Mathematical Statistics [3] and Math 2820L: Statistics Laboratory
      • Math 3620: Introductory to Numerical Mathematics

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 1103 for Physics majors):

      • CS 1101: Programming and Problem Solving [3]

Additional computer science and scientific computing courses students should consider taking include:

    • CS 2201 (Program Design and Data Structures) or CS 2204 Program Design and Data Structures for Scientific Computing).  Note: students committed to a second major or minor in Computer Science should take 2201.  Students committed to a minor in Scientific Computing should take 2204.  Students unsure yet as to whether they will pursue CS or SC as a major or minor should take 2201.
    • SC 3250 (Scientific Computing Toolbox)

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

      • PHYS 3200: Computational Thermal and Statistical Physics [3]
      • PHYS 3790: Computational Physics [3] (formerly 2237)
      • ASTR 3600: Stellar Astrophysics [3]
      • ASTR 3700: Structure and Evolution of Galaxies [3]
      • ASTR 3800: Structure Formation in the Universe [3]
      • MATH 3620: Introduction to Numerical Mathematics [3]
      • MATH 4600: Numerical Analysis [3]
      • MATH 4620: Linear Optimization [3]
      • MATH 4630: Non-linear Optimization [3]

Research Activities

Directed and Independent Study - All majors are encouraged to participate in research projects under the direction of faculty and research staff.  Almost all research projects involve students participating in faculty designed and led projects.  Initially, when students require more supervision, they will enroll in Directed Study.  Later, when students are able to work more independently, they will enroll in Independent Study.

Achieving Excellence in Liberal Education (AXLE)

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 2250W or 2260W. 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)