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Physics and Astronomy Majors

Rules for the Physics Major,effective Summer 2017 (for the Classes of 2021 and later):

The departmental major provides a thorough grounding in the core areas of physics. It is suitable either as preparation for careers in science and engineering or as a springboard for applying technical knowledge in such fields as business, medicine, law, public policy, and education. The major in the Department of Physics and Astronomy consists of 31-32 credit hours of course work, distributed as below. Students considering majoring in physics are strongly encouraged to consult with the Director of Undergraduate Studies before registering for classes.

Any introductory first-semester introductory physics course (1501, 1601, 1911, 2051) and any second-semester introductory physics course (1502, 1602, 1912, 2053) are appropriate as pre-requisites for students planning to begin the major in physics.

Requirement for the concentration in physics:

  1. Core courses covering the major subdisciplines of physics—students must complete four of the following (12 credit hours): Modern Physics and the Quantum World (2255); Classical Mechanics (2275); Electricity, Magnetism, and Electrodynamics I (2290); Statistical Physics (3200); Quantum Mechanics I (3651).
  2. Laboratory work (3-4 credit hours): Either a) Laboratory Principles I (1912L), Laboratory Principles II (2255L), and Introduction to Experimental Research (2953L) or b) 1501L or 1601L, 1502L or 1602L, 2255L, and 2953L; the latter sequence if the student has entered the major by taking 1501 or 1601, 1501L or 1601L, 1502 or 1602, and 1502L or 1602L. Students considering majoring in physics who begin in 1501 or 1601 and 1501L or 1601L in the fall semester are encouraged to take the combination 1502 + 1912L or 1602 + 1912L in the spring semester. Students may not use AP credit for 1601L and 1602L to satisfy any portion of the laboratory sequence requirement.
  3. Electives (9 credit hours): Pedagogical course work in physics and/or astronomy; research hours (3850, 3851, 4998) do not count toward this requirement. The course electives may be taken from any 2000-level or higher PHYS or ASTR courses not used to satisfy any other requirement of the major. Other courses may count as electives, such as courses offered by the engineering school (or other departments and schools) that are particularly relevant, such as a course in environmental studies, health physics, optics, or materials science. Such exceptions must be approved by the Director of Undergraduate Studies.  
  4. Capstone (7 credit hours): Computational Physics (3790), three credit hours of research (3850, 3851, or 4998) taken across one or more semesters, and the Seminar in Presenting Physics Research (3600). Physics-related research done in other departments and programs, supervised by Vanderbilt faculty and pre-approved by the Director of Undergraduate Studies, is also permitted in satisfaction of the research requirement. 

Computer Science course work (strongly recommended but not required):

All 2000-level and higher PHYS courses assume students have working skills in programming. These skills may be learned outside of a regular course, but should be equivalent to that taught in CS 1101: Programming and Problem Solving. Students who do not already have these skills are strongly advised to take this class in the first semester, prior to beginning the three-semester laboratory sequence in the second semester. In addition, the following Computer Science and/or Scientific Computing courses are strongly recommended for all physics majors: Program Design and Data Structures (CS 2201) or Program Design and Data Structures for Scientific Computing (CS 2204); Algorithms (CS 3250) or Scientific Computing Toolbox (SC 3250); and High Performance Computing (SC 3260). Physics majors pursuing a second major or minor in Computer Science should take CS 2201; physics majors pursuing a minor in Scientific Computing should take CS 2204.

Mathematics course work (strongly recommended but not required):

All physics majors are expected to have high-level skills in mathematics in order to be successful in PHYS classes and to prepare for graduate work. MATH courses are not formally required for the major in physics; however, most physics courses identify MATH prerequisite or co-requisite courses in order to indicate the mathematical skill-level assumed for that class. Multivariable calculus is a co-requisite for 2255 and a prerequisite for all other 2000-level or higher PHYS courses. Physics majors are expected to develop a working knowledge of single-variable calculus, multivariable calculus, and ordinary differential equations.  The following courses are those strongly recommended for physics majors:

  1. Accelerated Calculus I (1300) and Accelerated Calculus II (1301);
  2. Multivariable Calculus (2300) or Multivariable Calculus and Linear Algebra (2500 and 2501); and
  3. Methods of Ordinary Differential Equations (2420) or Ordinary Differential Equations (2610).

Note that MATH 2400: Differential Equations with Linear Algebra) is not recommended as a replacement for #2 and #3, above, for most physics majors.  For physics majors who have decided on a career path outside of the physical sciences or engineering (e.g., medical school or law school), MATH 2400 may be appropriate.

In addition, for Physics majors considering post-graduate work in Physics or in a related field, the following PHYS and MATH courses are strongly recommended as electives:

  1. Electricity, Magnetism, and Electrodynamics II (PHYS 2291), Quantum Mechanics II (PHYS 3652), Mathematical Methods of Physics (PHYS 4005); and
  2. Methods of Linear Algebra (MATH 2410) or Linear Algebra (MATH 2600); Introduction to Probability and Mathematical Statistics (MATH 2820); Statistics Laboratory (MATH 2820L); Complex Variables (MATH 3110); Introduction to Partial Differential Equations (MATH 3120); Fourier Analysis (MATH 3130); and Advanced Engineering Mathematics (MATH 3600).

Honors Program

The Honors program in the Department of Physics and Astronomy is designed to allow a student to engage in advanced research under the guidance of a faculty member, usually in an area related to an ongoing research program in the department. A student majoring in Physics interested in Honors (Honors in Physics or Honors in Astronomy) will work with a faculty mentor to develop an appropriate research project that will be conducted under the guidance of that faculty member. The Honors project must have a substantial grounding in physics or astronomy, but may be conducted under the direct supervision of any faculty member in any department at Vanderbilt. To be admitted to the Honors program, a student must submit a two-page research proposal describing the plans for their Honors project, which must be approved by the director of the departmental Honors program. In addition, a student must have completed 2953L, either 2255 or 3651, and meet the minimum GPA requirements for Honors programs of the College of Arts & Science.

 

To graduate with Honors, a student must

  • Have at least a 3.300 cumulative GPA and a 3.300 GPA in courses that count toward the major. 
  • Earn a minimum of six credit hours in research classes (3950, 3951, 4998), with at least two of these credit hours earned in 4998. A student who earns credit for 3852 may satisfy this portion of the requirement with three credit hours of research earned at Vanderbilt, including at least two of these credit hours in 4998.
  • Write a senior thesis of high merit, as evaluated by the student’s Honors Examination Committee; the thesis may be submitted at any time during the senior year.
  • Demonstrate high attainment on an oral honors examination in which they present and defend their work to the student’s Honors Examination Committee; the oral examination may take place at any time during the senior year.

The rules below are in effect for students who matriculated at Vanderbilt in Fall 2016 or earlier (Classes of 2018, 2019 and 2020).  

The Departmental offers a single major that 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. All physics majors are required to complete a set of core physics courses, nine hours of optional physics and/or astronomy courses, and the general education requirements for the College of Arts & Science (AXLE). Suggested courses and schedules for different 'tracks' within the Physics major are listed below in detail.Though not formally required for the major, students majoring in physics will also need to take calculus (Math 1300 and 1301), multivariable calculus (Math 2300), linear algebra (Math 2410 or 2600), differential equations (Math 2420 or 2610) (or the sequence Math 2500, 2501, and 2610) as co- or pre-requisites for selected physics courses. Physics majors are also strongly advised to take an introductory course in computer science (CS 1101, not CS 1103) and to strongly consider additional, computationally oriented courses (e.g., Phys 3207, Phys 2237, Astr 3700, Astr 3800), and other courses that count toward the Scientific Computing minor.

Students planning to major in physics may choose or will be assigned an advisor from the designated faculty advisors. Students are encouraged to seek advice about physics and astronomy and about careers and be mentored by any faculty member. The official advisors listed here are particularly knowledgeable on curricular matters and support systems at Vanderbilt University. They are also the ones who have the authority to sign official paperwork.

  • Core Courses - Required courses for all Physics and Astronomy majors as well as a list of recommended math courses. 
  • Professional Physics Track - This track is not a separate major.  It is advising for how to select electives for the physics major and for additional technical electives beyond the major that is designed to prepare students to undertake graduate work in physics and other technical fields. The complete program is best begun in the first year; however, under students who decide in the sophomore year to undertake graduate work in physics can complete sufficient work to succeed. 
  • Astronomy and Astrophysics Track - This track is not a separate major.  It is advising for how to select electives for the physics major and for technical electives beyond the major that prepares students to undertake graduate work in astronomy, astrophysics or related earth and planetary sciences. 
  • Medical Physics Track - This track is not a separate major.  It is advising for how to select electives for the physics major and for technical electives beyond the major that prepares students for medical school and for graduate study and careers in the health sciences. Because of the additional requirements for pre-medical students in the biological and chemical sciences, this major is best started in the sophomore year, after students have started on their pre-medical requirements in chemistry and biology.
  • General Physics Track - This track is not a separate major.  It offers advising that prepares students for applying technical knowledge in such fields as business, law, public policy and education. It is designed to be completed in three years, thus meeting the needs of a student who discovers in the first year that physics is an attractive major option. 
  • Honors Program - Students majoring in physics may apply for admission to the deparatmental Honors Program which involves completing a research project of high merit in the senior year, including writing a senior thesis and defending that thesis in an oral examination before a faculty committee.
  • 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.
  • Scientific Computing minor.