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Department of Physics
Undergraduate Students

The Physics Major

The Physics Major

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Roughly speaking, physics is to the inanimate world what philosophy is to the patterns of human thought. We observe, describe, categorize, synthesize, and abstract. At one time, in fact, physics was natural philosophy. But in the modern era, the two have parted company. Science moved away from the guidance of philosophers and adopted its own approach to truth, asserting that measurement is the precise form of questioning and that precise questioning is the beginning of understanding.

Major questions approached by the discipline have included: What is the fundamental structure of matter? What are the interactions between forms of matter? What are the natures of heat, light, sound, electricity, magnetism, and gravity? What are the properties, behaviors, (and yes, even uses) of more complex forms of matter? What are the nature and root cause of motion of objects, and the generalization to energy in its many forms? Beyond these rather fundamental questions, there are many sub-disciplines applying basic physics to the understanding of whole classes of phenomena, from oceans to planets, from weather to stars, from biological mechanisms to the origin of the universe.

Physics is the science of the properties of matter, radiation, and energy in all forms. As such, it is the most fundamental of the sciences. It provides the underlying framework for the other physical sciences and engineering and for understanding physical processes in biological and environmental sciences.

What are my options after completing a physics major?

You will have an overall view of basic physics and familiarity with its methods and some of its techniques. Your training can:

  1. Prepare you for employment in industrial or governmental laboratories.
  2. Prepare you for graduate study in experimental or theoretical physics.
  3. Provide a broad background for further work in other sciences, such as materials sciences, astronomy, geophysics, meteorology, radiology, medical physics, biophysics, engineering and environmental studies.
  4. Provide a science-oriented liberal education. This training can be useful in some areas of business administration, law, or other fields where a basic knowledge of science is useful.
  5. Provide part of the preparation for secondary school teaching.

What does it take to complete a physics major?

The main requirement is a real interest. Physics is not an especially easy major, and some hard study should be anticipated. A student must have at least a 2.5 average in the first two years work in physics and mathematics to be accepted as a Physics Major after completing Physics 241 or 244 or 205.

What are the requirements for a physics major?

The basic requirement is 30 credits from selected physics courses (but see "honors") plus an appropriate intermediate or advanced lab experience. The latter will normally be satisfied by 2 additional credits from 307, 308 and 407 (neither 321 nor 433 can be used to satisfy this requirement). However, equivalent research experience or non-physics lab courses, if approved in advance by the department, may be substituted. This is of particular interest to science and engineering students contemplating a second major in physics. (See below for a list of pre-approved substitutions.)

The 30 credits must include 207-208, 241 (201-202, 205 or 244 are allowable substitutes) 311 and 322. The remaining 11 elective credits must be from courses numbered above 300, (excluding 371, 472, and any courses used to satisfy the laboratory requirement). If more than 2 credits are taken from among 307, 308, and 407, the additional credit(s) may be counted as part of the remaining 30.)

The Physics Department strongly suggests that your program also include one course in Wave Motion/Optics (325, 625) and/or in Atomic and Quantum Physics (448-449 or 531). In any event you should obtain approval of your program and changes to it from an Undergraduate Advisor.

Note that the university has additional requirements on residency and minimum GPA for graduation.

Certification of Competence in Expository English in Major

A report from Physics 307 or 308 or 407 is examined by the professor teaching the laboratory for an evaluation of English competency. This is subject to change as the college moves toward required courses which are "writing intensive".

How and when do I declare a major?

You must declare your major by filing with the Physics Department a "Major Declaration Form", signed by an Undergraduate Advisor. This will normally be done after completing Physics 241 (or Physics 205 or 244), but in all cases must be done before the semester in which you will graduate. The form, along with a packet of materials can be obtained at the department office "window" in the hall.

In order to help you plan a schedule tailored to your specific needs, experience or talents, a course sequence form is provided which should be approved and signed by an Undergraduate Advisor. (You must bring a copy of your most current transcript of grades to the Undergraduate Advisor at the time this schedule is prepared.)

How can I find out more about the Physics Major Program?

Before the end of the sophomore year, prospective Physics Majors should discuss their plans and curriculum with the appropriate Advisor. A list of advisors is available from the Physics Department Office, 2531 Sterling Hall. Students should consult the L&S bulletin for the general requirements for BA and BS degrees and those interested in high school teaching should consider the special curriculum administered jointly by the School of Education and the Department of Physics. Details of the program are described in the bulletin of the School of Education.


To earn the B.A. or B.S. with Honors, majors in physics must complete (a) the L & S general degree requirements, (b) the Honors Program requirements, and (c) the junior-senior honors curriculum in the department.

Honors candidates must present 35 credits of physics courses including 2 credits of laboratory physics, (from 307, 308, and 407) or equivalent laboratory experience (not 321 or 433) approved by the Department Chair, and Physics 448 and 449. Students may satisfy the thesis requirement by completing 681 and 682.

With the approval of the Department Chair, students may substitute an additional credit (for a total of 3) of laboratory physics or equivalent laboratory experience (not 321 or 433) and Physics 601 for the thesis. Honors credit is offered in all Physics courses numbered above 300, but neither Physics 371 nor 472 may be taken for Physics credit. There is an honors advisor in the department; see the department office or the committee assignment list for the name and number.


Distinction in the Major may be recommended by the department to the Dean for a student not in the Honors program who has done superior work in the Major (usually a Physics GPA above 3.5).

How can an engineering student earn an "additional major" in physics?

An undergraduate in the College of Engineering needs to complete the Physics requirements listed above for a Physics major. None of the other requirements of the College of Letters and Science need to be satisfied.

The following engineering courses are acceptable substitutes for Physics 307, 308 and/or 407:

  • Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics 427 and 428
  • Electrical and Computer Engineering 305, 310, and 314
  • Electrical and Computer Engineering 314 and 449
  • Mechanical Engineering 371 and one course chosen from above or from Physics 307, 308, 407.

The AMEP Program

This is a special intercollege undergraduate program integrating applied mathematics, engineering , and physics. It is described in a separate handout available in the physics department office.

Physics 307, 308, and 407

The recommended program shown on the next page lists all three of these courses, though only 2 credits are actually required.

Physics 307 and 308 can be taken in reverse order (308, 307) if they fit better into your schedule.

Physics 407 provides a lab experience closer to that of actual research, with more student initiative and less overall structure. Some students go directly from 307 to 407. If you are interested in this route you might discuss it with your 307 instructor, your advisor, or the 407 instructor. This option should be seriously considered by those intending to go on to graduate school in physics.

Physics 407 can be taken for 1 or 2 credits, but consent of instructor is required to take it without first having either 307 or 308.

Honors students planning to substitute an additional lab credit plus 601 for the honors thesis can take 307, 308, and 407 for 1 credit each, or either 307 or 308 plus 2 credits of 407.

Physics Undergraduate Colloquium

There is a weekly series of talks in the spring semester called "Physics Today", at which a topic of local research is described by one of the physics faculty. These are open and may be attended by anyone. They can also be taken as a course, Physics 301. See the timetable for location and time.

Suggested Curricula

The appropriate program for your goals should be established with the help of your advisor. The core program consists of Physics 207-208-241-311-322 plus two credits of intermediate or advanced laboratory chosen from Physics 307, 308, or 407. Also Math 221-222-223 or equivalents are necessary since they are prerequisites for other courses. As noted earlier, 201-202 plus 205 or 244 is a satisfactory substitute for 207-208-241. It is possible to enter the core program in either semester since 201, 202, 205, 207, 208, 241, 244 and 311 are given each semester. Students are urged to start the recommended sequence of courses as soon as they have the calculus prerequisite (Math 221 or equivalent). However, no important obstacle is met if the student does not begin 207 until the sophomore year. Students who start Physics 207 in the first semester of their sophomore year can take Physics 241 along with Physics 311, etc. in the fall of the junior year, if they wish to catch up and be in step with the recommended sequence in the junior and senior years.

Students who wish to begin graduate studies without deficiencies are advised to adhere closely to this program.

    FRESHMAN YEAR, First semester *

  • Math 221, 5 cr

    Second semester **

  • 207 General Physics, 5 cr
  • Math 222, 5 cr

    SOPHOMORE YEAR, First semester

  • 208 General Physics, 5 cr
  • Math 223, 5 cr (or Math 234 and 235)

    Second semester

  • 241 Modern Physics, 3 cr
  • 301 Physics Today ***
  • (321 can be taken in this semester rather than the next)
  • Math 319 or 340, 3 cr

    JUNIOR YEAR, first semester

  • 307 Intermediate Lab, 1 cr
  • 311 Mechanics, 3 cr
  • 321 Electric Circuits and Electronics, 4 cr
  • Math 321, 3 cr

    Second semester

  • 308 Intermediate Lab (or 407, Adv. Lab, 1-2 cr), 1 cr
  • 322 Electromagnetic Fields, 3 cr
  • 433 Computational Physics, 3 cr
  • Math 322, 3 cr

    SENIOR YEAR, first semester

  • 415 Thermal Physics, 3 cr
  • 448 Atomic and Quantum Physics, 3 cr

    Second semester

  • 325 Wave Motion, 3 cr
  • 407 Advanced Lab, 1-2 cr
  • 449 Atomic and Quantum Physics, 3 cr


    The Senior year could include electives, such as:
  • 522 Advanced Classical Physics
  • 525 Introduction to Plasmas
  • 535 Introduction to Particle Physics
  • 545 Introduction to Atomic Structure
  • 546 Lasers
  • 551 Solid State Physics
  • 623 Electronic Aids to Measurement
  • 625 Applied Optics
The underlined courses are the "Physics Core Program". The Senior year could include electives, such as Computational Physics (433), Advanced Classical Physics (522), Plasma Physics (525), Particle Physics (535), Electronics (623), or Applied Optics (625).

* Some students take Physics 115 in their first semester to see if they really want to go into physics.

** Scientific Background to Global Environmental Problems (472) can be taken as an elective at this time. Physics majors should sign up in one of the cross- listed departments. (ATM-OCN, IES).

*** Physics 301, Physics Today, is an introduction to modern fields of physics research and, with permission, can be taken more than once (though counted only once toward the 30 credits requirement in physics.) It may also be attended as a colloquium series with no registration, credit, or requirements.


Mathematics courses other than or beyond those suggested should be chosen in consultation with your advisor.


A college course in chemistry is advised for all physics students. Courses in physical and organic chemistry are useful for physics students. Organic chemistry is particularly valuable for those interested in Biophysics or other life sciences.


Students should become familiar with scientific programming using FORTRAN (and probably C). The Computer Science Department offers introductory courses (such as 302). The computing center (MACC) also offers short courses to introduce programming. For those with a working knowledge of FORTRAN, we offer a course on Computational Physics (433) providing experience in numerical analysis of physics problems. What's so special about 433? It gives undergraduates the opportunity to access the NeXT Computer lab in Room 2409 Sterling. Students continue to have access to this room once they have completed the class. This in-house computing capability provides a real opportunity for those majoring in Physics to continue to apply computer principles to their physics work.

The Physics Mentor Program

Any student contemplating becoming a Physics major, is encouraged to obtain a mentor. A mentor is a faculty member with whom you can discuss physics, courses, careers, graduate schools, aspirations, personal philosophies, or what have you. Mentors are not primarily academic advisors. See The Physics Mentor Program handout for details.

Hourly Employment

There are opportunities for employment of undergraduate students in the various research laboratories of the Physics Department at an hourly rate of pay. Such employment is strongly recommended to Physics majors and prospective majors because it is an excellent way to participate directly in research activity and to become better acquainted with the staff of the Physics Department. The initiative in making such an arrangement is entirely with the student, who should contact directly the professor in charge of the laboratory where s/he desires to work. Your advisor or mentor can help investigate the opportunities available.

University Physical Society (Physics Majors Club)

Physics students and persons who share an interest in physics are often active in this group which presents films on technical subjects and sponsors tours to university, industrial and national laboratories. They also organize seminars, department and museum tours, and often have useful information on employment opportunities within the department, summer research opportunities for undergraduates and graduate school brochures. You do not have to be a Physics Major to join.


Last updated: 2/18/2007
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