Which courses are essential in a Physics degree?

My department’s physics majors degree is very minimally prescribed compared to most places. Our students take the standard Mechanics and E&M in the intro sequence and I am putting my question out there for everything beyond that being up for grabs. Which topics, skills or courses are the ones that you think a student absolutely should have if they are to receive a piece of paper saying that they have a college physics degree.

This is my personal list and it is meant to cover either experimental or theoretical interests so there are no real experimental requirements and the theory is as much as an experimentalist would need.

Must have at least intro textbook level

These are topics that the really thick (“with modern physics”) intro textbooks cover at a sufficiently high level that they prevent the students from having severe gaps in their general physics knowledge. These topics show up in 2nd year courses in most programs if they were not part of the intro sequence.

  • Mechanics (including intermediate topics such as forced and damped oscillation, but these are covered in the thick intro texts)
  • Circuits
  • Geometric and wave optics
  • Thermodynamics
  • Relativity
  • Wave-particle duality
  • Nature of the atom
Update: My opinion is that the standard intro version of E&M (the stuff other than circuits) comes too soon in the curriculum and that it is better to wait until the students have more math under their belt before tackling it. Since it shows up in my upper-year course list, it is still something that I consider essential, just not essential at the intro level.

Must have at least one upper-year course

Every person with a recent physics degree should take at least one upper-year course in these topics or the majority of physicists would consider this person to have severe gaps in their physics knowledge. These are in addition to the very important math topics of vector calculus, and ordinary and partial differential equations.

  • Quantum Mechanics
  • Electricity and Magnetism

It seems crazy that a physicist might not have this course (or skill), but I guess they don’t HAVE TO have it

  • Classical Mechanics
  • Solid state physics
  • Statistical Mechanics
  • Standard Model
  • Skills: computational modeling, experimental design

So my list of must have upper-year courses is only two. It was hard to move stuff like solid state and stat-mech to the “should” from the “must” list, but I did.

What did I miss? What did I put on there that shouldn’t be?

Update September 1, 2011 – Chad Orzel has posted a poll on this very topic using example textbooks to demonstrate the level of the course.


13 Comments on “Which courses are essential in a Physics degree?”

  1. bretbenesh says:

    Hi Joss,

    This is a great question, and I have been thinking about the same question with respect to mathematics. It is not easy to answer.

    As a non-physics guy, I don’t have much to add to the list. However, it seems odd to me that classical mechanics is not essential. Could you explain why you do not think it is essential for a physics major?

    • Joss Ives says:

      Hi Bret,

      I think that mechanics, to the depth that it is covered in the very thick intro texts is essential (and have slightly updated the post to make this more clear). But the standard intermediate/junior-level stuff that cannot be found in an intermediate text, like Lagrangian Mechanics and Euler angles is stuff that I don’t consider essential. Personally, I took intermediate classical mechanics and grad-level classical mechanics and do not feel that these were foundations for other physics courses or feel that they enhanced my greater general physics framework in any significant way. I know that many grad schools are no longer requiring grad-level classical mechanics.

      • bwfrank says:

        So that’s interesting. My experience is the opposite. For me, classical mechanics was a very strong building block for the mathematical tool kit for everything else, but especially General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory… I’d also say that, because we did a lot of classical perturbation theory in classical mechanics, it was the foundation for QM. But, I also think that thinking about normal modes problems in classical mechanics is a good foundation for QM. For me, classical mechanics was the place to really learn about vector spaces… it was the place to learn that solving differential equations is all about vector spaces, that doing fourier series is about vector spaces, that finding normal modes is about vector spaces.

      • Joss Ives says:

        Interesting indeed. Well I was definitely one of those students that usually failed to see the common threads between all my courses and definitely failed to gain the sort of insight that you did. I have no idea how much of it was me and how much of it was my classical mechanics courses.

  2. Eric Martell says:

    We have a pretty stripped down curriculum, since we only have two faculty in our department. We started from our learning goals, which are (in simple form) that physics majors must be able to:
    – solve complex problems, integrating knowledge from multiple areas
    – design and carry out experiments
    – communicate their knowledge both in written and oral forms to multiple audiences,

    and we knowing that anyone going to grad school should have a reasonable foundation in a few sub-fields in order to score well on the GRE, and that we have a decent number of majors who want to pursue careers in engineering and thus need some hands-on practical experience, we put together this curriculum:

    1) Intro year – pretty standard, mechanics in the fall, E&M/Optics/Waves in the spring. We left Thermo out for time considerations, but require a year of Chem, so they see some in there.

    2) Either sophomore or junior year (all our upper-level courses are offered every other year): Electronics (analog/digital) is required in the fall – very hands on, very focused on using the circuit elements, and an advanced experimental course implementing LabVIEW is in the spring (not required, but all of our majors take it).

    3) Either sophomore or junior year (alternated with the electronics/LabVIEW courses) – fall: Modern physics with lab (special relativity, atomic, nuclear, particle) – the lab includes an introduction to Mathematica and writing in LaTeX. Spring: Mathematical Physics (not required, but again, everyone takes it) – vector calculus, partial diffEq, that kind of stuff.

    4) Either junior or senior year – Classical Mechanics in the fall and Quantum Mechanics in the spring (both required)

    5) Either junior or senior year (alternating with Classical and Quantum) – a year of E&M (only the fall is required.

    6) A senior research project (min 1 semester, we encourage them to do it over 2).

    • Joss Ives says:

      Hi Eric,

      I love your program for the more experimentally-minded students (of which I consider myself to be and to have been). Although I would like all of our students to have a solid experimental background, the truth is that some are very theory-minded or even experimental-phobic and I am trying to consider which courses are also essential for those planning on continuing on in theory in grad school (for example).

      I would love to hear more about how you manage to pull of senior research projects with only two faculty members. Feel free to send me an email if you don’t want to have blog-comment conversation.

  3. bwfrank says:

    It is pretty thin here: 2 semesters of intro physics, 2 semesters of modern physics, 2 semesters of mathematical methods. On top of that they have to do a thesis project, an advanced lab, and 3 electives. The standard electives offered are classical mechanics, semiconductor physics, analog electronics, digital electronics, lasers and fiber optics, thermodynamics, E&M1 and 2, QM, and some medical physics and astronomy courses. They also have to teach one semester, as an undergrad TA in intro physics.

    • Joss Ives says:

      Hey Brian,

      So of those electives, are there any that you would like to see get raised to mandatory status in your department?

      Yours is the first program that I have heard of that does 2 semesters of modern physics. Is it just the standard intermediate modern physics stuff (relativity, Schrodinger equation, atomic model, wave-particle duality, etc?), but just more in depth than most places would do it?

      • bwfrank says:

        I need to learn more. Find out what’s in math methods (called theoretical physics) and what’s in modern physics. Seems odd they have both no E&M and no Stat Mech. I’ll get back once I know more.

  4. Joss Ives says:

    Chad Orzel has posted a poll on this very topic using example textbooks to demonstrate the level of the course. See the bottom of this post for the link.

  5. […] I was out in Denver, Joss Ives had a nice post asking what courses are essential in a physics degree?. This is an eternal topic of discussion in undergraduate education circles, and I don’t […]

  6. I’m curious what constitutes a physics degree, though I’ve had no physics myself since high-school physics in 1969–70. I’ll be home-schooling my son using the Matter and Interactions text this year, so I’ll pick up at least Newtonian mechanics and E&M.

    I would have expected to see quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics as essential, since those are the two branches of physics that get frequent mention in the stuff I’ve done. The quantum mechanics comes up for understanding transistors (I used to teach VLSI design) and the statistical mechanics comes up for protein structure prediction (everyone likes to pretend that their cost functions are really energy functions—biophysicists being even more given to this pretense than others in the field).

    What level of “circuits” are you talking about? Do you mean the usual EE circuits course, with KVL and KCL, op amps, and AC signal analysis? Or do you mean hands-on designing of instrumentation amplifiers? Many EE departments have now gotten so theoretical and analytical in their presentations that they might as well be physics departments, since their students come out unable to design anything. (Note: this is not a slur on physics departments—just a difference in goals: physics is about studying the world as it is, so analytic skills are primary, while engineering is about creating new things, so design skills should be primary.)

    • Joss Ives says:

      I was thinking just plain old vanilla physics degrees that could be offered by any physics department no matter the size or expertise.

      For circuits, I was thinking a half step below your example of an EE circuits course. Yes to KVL and KCL, no to op amps. I would like all my students to have more than this, but I’m not able to convince myself that knowing how op amps work is mandatory for somebody with a physics degree. It certainly should be for anybody with experimentalist interests (although I didn’t personally learn about op amps until I got to grad school).

      As you have probably heard, Matter and Interactions offers a bit more than Newtonian mechanics and E&M. It weaves some thermodynamics into the mechanics and introduces relativity.

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