Major Requirements

Department/Program Description.

"Physics is the liberal arts education for a technological society." - Joseph Pimbley

Participation in research and proficiency in the main subject areas of physics are the twin goals of the physics program. The major program is designed to develop competency in quantum theory, electromagnetism and optics, thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, classical dynamics, and condensed-matter physics. Preparation in mathematical and computational methods is an integral part of the program.

Interested and qualified students may pursue several opportunities for advanced work, including graduate courses and participation with graduate students and faculty in research. The department encourages its students to "do physics" at the earliest opportunity by making arrangements to work with one of the research groups or by arranging an independent research tutorial. Research may be experimental or theoretical and may, but need not, result in a senior honors thesis. Most majors who intend to write a thesis begin research no later than the junior year and continue it through the summer into the senior year. Current research interests include chaos theory, soft condensed-matter physics, granular flow, third sound in superfluid films, laser plasmas, spectroscopy and collision studies involving excited atoms and molecules, and wave transport in complex media.

Many students also take advantage of Wesleyan's computing facilities in their research or course work. In addition to the usual workstations, the department has three state-of-the art computer clusters available for students working in the theory groups, and the University has a large computer cluster available to all who are doing research.

Each semester, opportunities exist to serve as a teaching apprentice, course assistant, or department assistant in one of the introductory or intermediate-level courses. Many physics majors have found that this is a stimulating way to learn more about the fundamentals of the discipline and how to teach them. The Cady Lounge in the department serves as a focus for the major by providing a place where students can study and discuss physics. There is also a study room where students in the introductory courses can come to get help and to work together. Students are encouraged to attend the weekly colloquium series and to participate in the weekly research seminars in atomic and molecular physics, chemical physics, condensed-matter physics, and theory. The Society of Physics students is also a great resource for sharing ideas and questions with like-minded students. 

Courses for Non-Majors.

The Physics Department offers two two-semester survey courses covering many of the main subject areas of physics (mechanics, electromagnetism and optics, thermodynamics, and kinetic theory), PHYS111/112 (no calculus) and PHYS113/116 (calculus). Laboratory courses, PHYS121/122/123/124 are also offered. Either of these two-semester course sequences (with the lab) should satisfy the physics requirement for admission to most schools of medicine, dentistry, or architecture, but occasionally schools require the calculus-based series, so attention to these details is necessary.

Admission to the Major.

The appropriate course for students considering a physics major depends primarily on their preparation. There are three common tracks beginning in the fall semester.

  • General Physics I (PHYS113) is a calculus-based introductory mechanics course requiring one semester of calculus, taken in either secondary school or in college, at about the level of MATH121. A student who has had no calculus is advised to take calculus during the first year, then PHYS113 in the first semester of the sophomore year.
  • Students who have had a strong preparation in physics and calculus may take PHYS215 Special Relativity and PHYS217 Chaos. These two half-credit courses are offered sequentially in two halves of the fall semester but are not sequential in content. They are intended for majors but are available to first-year or other students who have had both integral and differential calculus at about the level of MATH121/122 and a solid course in mechanics with calculus at the level of PHYS113.
  • Students from both of the above tracks merge into the electricity and magnetism course of PHYS116 General Physics II in the spring. Students intending to major in physics should complete either track no later than the end of their sophomore year and preferably by the end of their first year.
  • Exceptionally well-prepared students may begin with PHYS213 Waves and Oscillations. Students who feel that they fall into this category should consult with a member of the physics faculty.

Laboratory courses. The PHYS113/PHYS116 General Physics I/II sequence has associated laboratory courses, PHYS121 in the fall, and PHYS122 in the spring. These laboratory sections are half-credit courses associated with the lecture courses but are not required. We encourage students to take the laboratory courses for a firsthand opportunity to observe, both qualitatively and quantitatively, some of the physical phenomena discussed in the lectures.

Major Requirements.

To major in physics, you must complete PHYS116 no later than the end of your sophomore year; if you can complete it by the end of your first year, it will give you more flexibility to construct your major. You should also have completed MATH121, 122, and 221 by the end of the sophomore year. It is desirable for those who are considering graduate work in physics or those who wish to pursue an intensive major, to also complete PHYS213 and 214 by the end of the sophomore year. You should note that a few of the advanced courses may not be offered every year, and you should plan your program of study accordingly.

To fulfill the major in physics, a student must complete the following:

  • Eight lecture courses, including (a) four core physics courses, PHYS213, 214, 316 and 324 (note that PHYS324 requires MATH222); and (b) at least four other physics course credits at the 200, 300, or 500 level, not including the laboratory courses or MATH221 or 222. For most majors, the department strongly recommends PHYS315, followed in importance by 313, and 358.
  • Two laboratory courses: PHYS342 (Experimental Optics) and PHYS345 (Electronics Lab). One of these two labs may be substituted by either one of the following three options:
    1. Computational Physics (PHYS340);
    2. A thesis tutorial with a physics faculty;
    3. A 1.0 credit research tutorial (which may be taken as two 0.5 credit research tutorials) with a physics faculty
  • Students planning graduate study in physics should take a minimum of 14 credits, at the 200 level or higher, in physics, mathematics, and computer science. PHYS215, 313, 315 and 358 are essential. In addition, the department strongly recommends MATH222, MATH226, PHYS565, and MATH229. Graduate physics courses may be elected with permission, and experience in computer programming is also extremely valuable.
  • Students not planning graduate study in physics and who are interested in applying their knowledge of physics to other areas of the curriculum may choose up to four courses from other departments to satisfy requirement 1(b) above. This must be done in consultation with the physics major advisor, and the selections must constitute a coherent, coordinated program of study.
Study Abroad.

The Physics Department encourages study abroad for majors since it allows our physics majors to play an active part as citizens of the world scientific community. As with any major, careful planning is needed to be sure that requirements for the major are fulfilled, and sophomores intending to declare a physics major are strongly urged to study these requirements for the major so that they can determine the optimum semester to study abroad. At Wesleyan we believe that the best study-abroad experience will include work done in the major, since this provides the student with a natural community of fellow students with shared interests and background and greatly facilitates the process of cultural integration. Physics majors are thus urged to consider direct enrollment in a university abroad where they can take courses related to their major interests.

The Physics Department cooperates with Dublin City University in Ireland to offer a preferred exchange program for physics majors. The spring semester opportunity allows students to study in a fully integrated environment under the guidance of members of the Dublin City physics faculty who engage in collaborative research work with members of the Wesleyan Physics Department. Students will be placed in a laboratory and will participate actively in current research activities, working closely with Dublin City physics faculty.

Honors.

To be a candidate for departmental honors in physics, a major must submit a thesis describing the investigation of a special problem carried out by the candidate under the direction of a member of the department. In addition, the candidate must have attained a minimum average in the eight lecture courses applied to the major, except those taken in the final semester of the senior year, of B (85.0) for honors and B+ (88.3) for high honors. Honors status is voted by the faculty on the basis of student's thesis work.

Advanced Placement.

Students may receive a maximum of two physics AP credits; one with a score of 5 on the AP physics C mechanics exam and one with a score of 5 on the AP physics C electricity and magnetism exam. However, special regulations apply. Please check with the registrar or a departmental advisor. Students may also receive AP credit with a score of 5 on the AP physics B exam. Again, special regulations apply.

Related Programs or Certificates.

Dual degree programs in science and engineering. Wesleyan maintains dual degree programs with Columbia University, the California Institute of Technology, and Dartmouth College for students wishing to combine the study of engineering with a broad background in liberal arts. All options have in common that participating students receive two degrees, a BA from Wesleyan and a BS or BE in engineering from our partner school. In the most popular option, the so called 3-2 program, students spend their first three years at Wesleyan, followed by two years at the engineering school. Only at the end of the fifth year and after completing all degree requirements from both schools, do students receive the two bachelor degrees. During the first three years, prospective 3-2 students complete the minimal requirements of their elected Wesleyan major and, in addition, fulfill science and mathematics requirements for the first two years of the engineering school and engineering major of their choice. During the two years at the engineering school, students follow the regular third- and fourth-year curriculum in whatever field of engineering they selected. During that time, other courses may also have to be taken to satisfy the degree requirements of Wesleyan and/or the engineering school.

Two other options exist to pursue an engineering degree. For Columbia University, the so-called 4-2 option allows students to complete four years at Wesleyan before pursuing the engineering degree. Otherwise, requirements are the same as those for the 3-2 program. Dartmouth offers a so-called 2-1-1-1 option in which students spend their junior year at Dartmouth, return to Wesleyan for their senior year and graduation, and then spend the fifth year to finish the engineering degree. Contact the department's dual degree advisor for further information. Please also consult with your class dean to ensure that you can meet all Wesleyan University requirements for graduation. 

Certificate Program in Informatics and Modeling.The Certificate Program in Informatics and Modeling enhances student choices and options and is an ideal supplement for interested physics majors. The certificate program provides students with a coherent set of courses and practical instruction in two pathways: (1) integrative genomics science and (2) computational science and quantitative world modeling.