Professors: Reinhold Blümel; Fred M. Ellis; Lutz Hüwel; Tsampikos Kottos; Thomas J. Morgan; Francis Starr; Brian Stewart; Greg A. Voth, Chair

Assistant Professors: Candice Etson, Christina Othon; Renee Sher

Associate Professor of the Practice: Lynn Westling

Undergraduate Program

Departmental Advising Experts: Greg Voth, Class of 2017; Christina Othon, Class of 2018

Department/Program Home Page

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, 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. 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), PHYS 111/112 (no calculus) and PHYS 113/116 (calculus). Associated laboratory courses, PHYS 121/122/123/124 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 four common gateways into the major beginning in the fall semester.

  • General Physics I (PHYS 113) 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 MATH 121. A student who has had no calculus is advised to take calculus during the first year, then PHYS 113 in the first semester of the sophomore year.
  • Students who have had a strong preparation in physics and calculus may take PHYS 215 Special Relativity and PHYS 217 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 MATH 121/122 and a solid course in mechanics with calculus at the level of PHYS 113.
  • Students from both of the above gateways merge into the electricity and magnetism course of PHYS 116 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 PHYS 213 Waves and Oscillations. Students who feel that they fall into this category should consult with a member of the physics faculty.

Laboratory courses. The PHYS 113 / PHYS 116 General Physics I/II sequence has associated laboratory courses, PHYS 123 in the fall, and PHYS 124 in the spring. These laboratory sections are half-credit courses associated with the lecture courses. PHYS 124 is required for the major. 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, 221, and 222 by the end of your sophomore year. It is desirable for those students 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, PHYS 213, 214, 316, and 324 (note that PHYS 324 requires MATH 222); and (b) at least four other course credits at the 200, 300, or 500 level, not including the laboratory courses or MATH 221 or 222. For most majors, the department strongly recommends PHYS 315, followed in importance by 313, and 358.
  • Two laboratory courses: PHYS 342 (Experimental Optics) and PHYS 345 (Electronics Lab). One of these two labs may be substituted by either one of the following three options:

    • Computational Physics: Algorithms and Clusters  (PHYS 340);
    • A 1.0 - credit thesis tutorial (PHYS 409 or 410) with a physics faculty;
    • 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. PHYS 215, 313, 315, and 358 are essential. In addition, the department strongly recommends MATH 222, MATH 226, PHYS 565, and MATH 229. 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 (b) above. This must be done in consultation with the physics major advisor, and the selections must constitute a coherent, coordinated program of study. Preapproved tracks are available to satisfy requirement (b).

Study Abroad.

The Physics Department encourages study abroad for majors because 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, because this provides the student with a natural community of fellow students with shared interests and backgrounds 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.

Capstone Experience.

The physics department offers the following capstone experiences:

Two-semester senior thesis, seminar in atomic and molecular physics (PHYS 507/508), seminar in condensed matter physics (PHYS 505/506), seminar in theoretical physics (PHYS 509/510).


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 Physics 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 the 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 noncalculus AP physics 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 the liberal arts. For all options, 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.

BA/MA Program.

This is a curricular option for those students who feel the need for the intensive research experience that an additional year of study can afford. During the additional year, the student will do additional course work and write an MA thesis based on original research. Students interested in this possibility should consult their physics major advisors as early as possible, since it takes some planning to complete the requirements for both the BA and MA degrees. For more information, please visit

Graduate Program

General Introduction.

The Physics Department offers graduate work leading to the PhD and MA. The small size of the program (10 full-time faculty and about 15 graduate students) permits the design of individual programs of study and allows the development of a close working colleagueship among students and faculty. The department wants its students to do physics right from the start rather than spend one or two years solely on course work before getting into research. To this end, graduate students are expected to join in the research activities of the department upon arrival and must have done some work in at least two research areas before embarking on a thesis project. An interdisciplinary program in chemical physics is available to interested students. For more details, see the listing for chemical physics in the Chemistry Department.

For the PhD degree, in addition, students must have taken (or placed out of) five PhD-level graduate core courses and five advanced topics courses. Students must have demonstrated proficiency in the main subject areas of physics by the time they have completed the program. Each student, after passing the first examination (see below), selects an advisory committee of three faculty members. The committee assists the student to design a program of study, monitors progress, and makes annual recommendations to the department regarding the student's continuation in the program. The advisory committee also administers subsequent examinations as described below.

Each student who has passed the candidacy examination (described below) is required to present an annual informal talk on his or her thesis work in a departmental seminar.


In consultation with the advisory committee (or, for incoming students, with the graduate advisor), each student plans a program of study that will ensure an adequate grasp of the main subject areas of physics, e.g., quantum theory, including atomic and condensed-matter physics, electromagnetism and optics, classical dynamics, and thermal and statistical physics. While these would normally be graduate-level (500) physics courses, under special circumstances, either a lower-level physics course, a course in a related discipline, or a tutorial may be chosen.

Progress and Qualifying Exams.

Three formal examinations serve to define the various stages of the student's progress to the degree. The first, usually taken at the beginning of the second year, is a written examination on material at an advanced undergraduate level. Advancement to the second stage of candidacy depends on passing this examination as well as on course work and demonstrated research potential. Usually during the second semester of the second year, each student takes the PhD candidacy examination which consists of an oral presentation before the student's advisory committee, describing and defending a specific research proposal. (The proposal might, but need not, grow out of previous research or be adopted by the student as a thesis topic.) The committee then recommends to the department whether to admit the student to the final stage of PhD candidacy or whether to advise the student to seek an MA degree. 


Although the emphasis in the program is on independent research and scholarly achievement, graduate students are expected to improve their skills in teaching and other forms of oral communication. Each student is given the opportunity for some undergraduate teaching under direct faculty supervision. While this usually consists of participation in teaching undergraduate laboratories, direct classroom teaching experience is also possible for more advanced and qualified students.


Experimental research areas are concentrated in atomic/molecular physics and condensed matter physics. Current interests include Rydberg states in strong fields, molecular collisions, photo-ionization, laser-produced plasmas, quantum fluids, granular and fluid flows, and dynamics in biological systems. Current theoretical and computational research areas include nonlinear dynamics, quantum chaos, properties of nanostructures, soft condensed matter, and wave transport in complex media.


Each candidate is required to write a dissertation on original and significant research, either experimental or theoretical, supervised by a member of the faculty. The work must be defended in a final oral examination administered by the advisory committee. This oral examination covers the dissertation and related topics and is open to all members of the Wesleyan community. It is expected that the candidate will submit the results of his or her work to a scholarly journal for publication.

General Introduction.

Master of Arts

Requirements for the degree. A minimum of eight credits with grades of B- or better is required for the MA degree. These may include three credits in research leading to the thesis, which is also required. Course selection is flexible and is done in consultation with the faculty advisor and with the members of the student's committee.