Undergraduate Handbook

Degree requirements & details for majors & minors

The Physics Department

The Department of Physics at Washington University is strongly committed to fundamental research and excellence in teaching.  The goal of the major program is to provide undergraduate students with an outstanding education in physics as preparation for successful careers in graduate school or in the workplace.   The physics department offers a major and a minor in physics, a major in astrophysics, a minor in astrophysics and astroparticle physics and a minor in biomedical physics as well as a biophysics track. 

All the courses in the major must be completed with a grade of C- or better.

Physics Major

Required Courses

Majors in Physics are required to complete the introductory courses. They may take either:

Physics 191 Physics I 3
Physics 191L Physics I Lab 1
Physics 192 Physics II 3
Physics 192L Physics II Lab 1

Or (recommended for majors):

Physics 193 Focused Physics I 4
Physics 193L Focused Physics I Lab 1
Physics 194 Focused Physics II 4
Physics 194L Focused Physics II Lab 1

In addition, majors in Physics are required to complete the following courses:

Physics 217 Introduction to Quantum Physics 3
Physics 322 Physical Measurement Lab 3
Physics 411 Mechanics 3
Physics 421 Electricity and Magnetism 3

One Additional Upper-Level Laboratory Course

Choose from the following: 

Physics 316  Optics and Wave Physics Laboratory 3
Physics 321  Electronics Laboratory 3
Physics 360  Biophysics Laboratory 3
Physics 427 Introduction to Computational Physics 3
Physics 435  Nuclear and Radiochemistry Laboratory 3

Upper-Level Courses

Majors are required to complete a minimum of 21 units of advanced courses (300-level or higher) in Physics, excluding Physics 341, Physics 342, Physics 441, Physics 442, Physics 499 and Physics 500. These 21 units may include courses listed above and may also include one upper level engineering class from the following: ESE 351 Signals and Systems, ESE 429 Basic Principles of Quantum Optics and Quantum Information, ESE 436 Semiconductor Devices, ESE 438 Applied Optics, ESE 441 Control Systems, ESE 482 Digital Signal Processing, ESE 531 Nano and Micro Photonics, ESE 532 Introduction to Nano-Photonic Devices, ESE 582 Fundamentals and Applications of Modern Optical Imaging, or MEMS 3410 Fluid Mechanics. Students must receive letter grades for these advanced courses, and the course must be completed with a grade of at least a C-.

Math Courses Required for the Physics Major

Math 131 Calculus I 3
Math 132 Calculus II 3
Math 233 Calculus III 3
Math 217 Differential Equations 3

Students who have completed Math 203 Honors Mathematics I and Math 204 Honors Mathematics II will have fulfilled the requirement for Calculus I, Calculus II and Calculus III.

Math Courses Recommended for the Physics Major

  • Math 308 Mathematics for the Physical Sciences or ESE 318 Engineering Mathematics A (We recommend that this course precede Physics 421.)
  • Math 309 Matrix Algebra (We recommend that this course precede Physics 471)
  • Physics 501/Math 501 and Physics 502/Math 502 are also recommended. 

Science-Breadth Requirement

Majors must select 3 of the following courses to satisfy the science-breadth requirement.  One of the three courses must be Chem 103, Chem 104, Chem 105, Chem 106, Chem 111A, Chem 112A, Chem 401 or Chem 402. 

Biol 2960 Principles of Biology I 4
Biol 2970 Principles of Biology II 4
Chem 103 Advanced Placement Chemistry I 3
Chem 104 Advanced Placement Chemistry II 3
Chem 105 Introductory General Chemistry I 3
Chem 106 Introductory General Chemistry II 3
Chem 111A General Chemistry I 3
Chem 112A General Chemistry II 3
Chem 151 General Chemistry Laboratory I 2
Chem 152 General Chemistry Laboratory II 2
Chem 401 Physical Chemistry I 3
Chem 402 Physical Chemistry II 3
Chem 445 Instrumental Methods: Physical Chemistry  3
CSE 131 Introduction to Computer Science 3
CSE 132 Introduction to Computer Engineering 3
CSE 247 Data Structures and Algorithms 3
EPSc 201 Earth and the Environment 4
EPSc 202 Introduction to Earth, Environment and Planetary Science 3

Physics Major with Biophysics Track

Students wanting to have the biophysics track displayed on their transcript must complete this form at least one semester before their graduation date. If you have any questions, please send an email to the Director of Undergraduate Studies 

Physics majors may concentrate in the subfield of Biophysics by taking (as part of their distribution requirement) the following courses.

Physics Requirements

Physics 463 Statistical Mechanics & Thermodynamics 3

One of the following:

Physics 350 or 450 Physics of the Brain 3
Physics 355 or 455 Physics of Vision 3

And one of the following:

Physics 354 or 454 Physics of Living Systems 3
Physics 481 Critical Analysis of Scientific Data 3
Physics 509 Nonlinear Dynamics 3
Physics 453 or 563 Topics in Theoretical Biophysics 3

Biology Requirements

Biol 2960 Principles of Biology I 4
Biol 2970 Principles of Biology II 4

Astrophysics Major

Required Courses

Majors in Astrophysics are required to complete the introductory courses. They may take either:

Physics 191 Physics I 3
Physics 191L Physics I Lab 1
Physics 192 Physics II 3
Physics 192L Physics II Lab 1

Or (recommended for majors):

Physics 193 Focused Physics I 4
Physics 193L Focused Physics I Lab 1
Physics 194 Focused Physics II 4
Physics 194L Focused Physics II Lab 1

In addition, majors in astrophysics are required to complete the following courses:

Physics 217 Introduction to Quantum Physics 3
Physics 312 Introduction to Astrophysics 3
Physics 322 Physical Measurement Lab 3
Physics 411 Mechanics 3
Physics 421 Electricity and Magnetism 3

One Additional Laboratory Course

Choose from the following:

Physics 316 Optics and Wave Physics Laboratory 3
Physics 321 Electronics Laboratory 3
Physics 435 Nuclear and Radiochemistry Laboratory 3

Required Advanced Courses

In addition to the above requirements, students who are earning the astrophysics major are required to complete three advanced electives (300 level and above); students who declare an Astrophysics major AND complete both Physics 125A Solar System Astronomy and Physics 126A Stars, Galaxies and Cosmology will be required to complete only two advanced electives (300 level and above). Choose courses from the following list. Students must receive letter grades for these advanced courses, and the courses must be completed with a grade of at least a C-.

Physics 446 Galactic Astrophysics 3
Physics 456 Stellar Astrophysics 3
Physics 460 X-Ray & Gamma-Ray Astrophysics 3
Physics 476 Astrophysics 3
Physics 478 From Black Holes to the Big Bang 3

Astrophysics majors must also complete one additional course from the preceding five courses or one of the following courses: 

Physics 422 Electricity and Magnetism II 3
Physics 474 Introduction to Particle Physics 3
Physics 477 Physics of Finite and Infinite Nuclear Systems 3
Physics 547 Introduction to Elementary Particle Physics 3
Physics 558 Relativistic Astrophysics 3
EPSc 352 Earth Materials 5
EPSc 353 Earth Forces 4
EPSc 407 Remote Sensing 3
MEMS 3410 Fluid Mechanics 3

Math Courses Required for the Astrophysics Major

Math 131 Calculus I 3
Math 132 Calculus II 3
Math 233 Calculus III 3
Math 217 Differential Equations 3

Students who have completed Math 203 Honors Mathematics I and Math 204 Honors Mathematics II will have fulfilled the requirement for Calculus I, Calculus II and Calculus III.

Science-Breadth Requirement

 Majors must select one of the following courses to satisfy the science-breadth requirement.   

Chem 103 Advanced Placement Chemistry I 3
Chem 104 Advanced Placement Chemistry II 3
Chem 105 Introductory General Chemistry I 3
Chem 106 Introductory General Chemistry II 3
Chem 111A General Chemistry I 3
Chem 112A General Chemistry II 3
Chem 151 General Chemistry Laboratory I 2
Chem 152 General Chemistry Laboratory II 2
Chem 401 Physical Chemistry I 3
Chem 402 Physical Chemistry II 3
Chem 445 Instrumental Methods: Physical Chemistry 3
CSE 131 Introduction to Computer Science 3
CSE132 Introduction to Computer Engineering 3
CSE 247 Data Structures and Algorithms 3
EPSc 201 Earth and the Environment 4
EPSc 202 Introduction to Earth, Environment and Planetary Science 3

Requirements for Minors

Students who develop a significant interest in one or more fields of study beyond the major may choose to pursue a minor in those fields. A minor is not required to earn the degree. All the courses listed for the different minors below must be completed with a grade of C- or better, and at least half of them must be completed in residence at Washington University.

Physics Minor

Required Courses

Minors in Physics are required to complete the introductory courses. They may take either:

Physics 191 Physics I 3
Physics 191L Physics I Lab 1
Physics 192 Physics II 3
Physics 192L Physics II Lab 1

Or (recommended for minors):

Physics 193 Focused Physics I 4
Physics 193L Focused Physics I Lab 1
Physics 194 Focused Physics II 4
Physics 194L Focused Physics II Lab 1

In addition, minors in Physics are required to complete the following courses:

Physics 217 Introduction to Quantum Physics 3

Physics 318
or 
Physics 319

Introduction to Quantum Physics II
or
Quantum Theory of Matter

3

Elective Courses

At least one additional course at the 300 level or above (with the exception of Physics 303, Physics 304, Physics 341, Physics 342, Physics 441, Physics 442, Physics 499 and Physics 500) with a grade of C- or better. 

Astrophysics & Astroparticle Physics Minor

Required Courses:

Minors in astrophysics and astroparticle physics are required to complete the introductory courses. They may take either:

Physics 191 Physics I 3
Physics 191L Physics I Lab 1
Physics 192 Physics II 3
Physics 192L Physics II Lab 1

Or (recommended for minors):

Physics 193 Focused Physics I 4
Physics 193L Focused Physics I Lab 1
Physics 194 Focused Physics II 4
Physics 194L Focused Physics II Lab 1

In addition, minors in Astrophysics and Astroparticle Physics are required to complete the following courses:

Physics 217 Introduction to Quantum Physics 3
Physics 312 Introduction to Astrophysics 3

Two courses from the following:

Physics 318
or
Physics 319
Introduction to Quantum Physics II
or
Quantum Theory of Matter
3
Physics 446 Galactic Astrophysics 3
Physics 456 Stellar Astrophysics 3
Physics 460 X-Ray & Gamma-Ray Astrophysics 3
Physics 474 Introduction to Particle Astrophysics 3
Physics 476 Astrophysics 3
Physics 478 From Black Holes to the Big Bang 3

Biomedical Physics Minor

Required Courses

Minors in biomedical physics are required to complete the introductory courses. They may take either:

Physics 191 Physics I 3
Physics 191L Physics I Lab 1
Physics 192 Physics II 3
Physics 192L Physics II Lab 1

Or (recommended for minors):

Physics 193 Focused Physics I 4
Physics 193L Focused Physics I Lab 1
Physics 194 Focused Physics II 4
Physics 194L Focused Physics II Lab 1

Elective Courses:

Two of the following courses:

Physics 350 Physics of the Brain 3
Physics 354/454 Physics of Living Systems 3
Physics 355 Physics of Vision 3
Physics 481 Critical Analysis of Scientific Data 3

One of the following laboratory courses:

Physics 316 Optics and Wave Physics Laboratory 3
Physics 321 Electronics Laboratory 3
Physics 322 Physical Measurement Laboratory 3
Physics 360 Biophysics Laboratory 3

Additional Information

This is a minor for students interested in the discussion and application of methods and techniques from physics to topics in the area of biology and medicine. The program may be of interest to the pre-medicine student or the research-oriented science major.
 

Recommended Course of Study

This is the suggested track for a student with no prior calculus

First Year Fall

Calculus I
Chemistry 105
CSE 131 or Chem 151
Writing 1 (Fall or Spring)
Electives

First Year Spring

Introduction to Mathematical and Computational Methods in Physics *proposed new course
Calculus II
CSE 247
Writing 1 (Fall or Spring)
Electives

Second Year Fall

Focused Physics I
Physics I Lab
Calculus III
Electives

Second Year Spring

Math 217 Differential Equations
Focused Physics II
Physics II Lab
Electives

Third Year Fall

Physics 217
Upper Level Physics Elective or Lab

Majors are required to complete a minimum of 21 units of advanced courses (300-level or higher), excluding Physics 341, Physics 342, Physics 441, Physics 442, Physics 499 and Physics 500.

Astrophysics majors need to take 312 in the fall of the 3rd yr, and 3 additional astronomy courses as detailed above.

Third Year Spring

Physics 411 - Mechanics
Upper Level Physics Elective or Lab

Fourth Year Fall

Physics 421 - Electricity & Magnetism I
Upper Level Physics Elective or Lab

Fourth Year Spring

Physics 322
Upper Level Lab

This is the suggested track for a student with prior calculus

This schedule assumes that students begin Physics in their first year. However, the Physics major can still be completed even if Introductory Physics isn’t taken until the sophomore year. Students should see the suggested track for students with no prior calculus for an example of how this can be done. 

First Year Fall

Focused Physics I
Physics I Lab
Calculus II
CSE 131 or Chemistry 105 (with or without Chem 151) or other elective
Writing 1 (Fall or Spring) or Elective

First Year Spring

Focused Physics II
Physics II Lab
Calculus III
CSE 131, CSE 247, PHY 130, or other elective
Writing I (Fall or Spring) or Elective

Second Year Fall

Physics 217
Upper Level Physics Lab
Math 217
Electives

Astrophysics majors would take 312 in place of either the elective or the upper level lab.

Second Year Spring

Physics 318 or 319
Physics 411
Math 308 or ESE 318
Electives

Majors are required to complete a minimum of 21 units of advanced courses (300-level or higher), excluding Physics 341, Physics 342, Physics 441, Physics 442, Physics 499 and Physics 500. 

Astrophysics majors need to take 3 additional astronomy courses as detailed above.

Third Year Fall

Physics 421
Upper level Physics elective or Lab 

Third Year Spring

Physics 322
Upper level Physics elective or lab

Fourth Year Fall

Upper level Physics elective or Lab 

Fourth Year Spring

Upper level Physics elective or Lab 

Students Preparing for Graduate School

Advanced courses are available to prepare you for graduate school. A possible program includes Phys 463 & 471 in the Fall of the 3rd year and 422 in the Spring of the 3rd year.

Some courses such as Physics 472 (Introduction to Solid State Physics) and Physics 474 (Introduction to Nuclear & Particle Physics) have Physics 471 as a prerequisite, and are not necessarily offered every year. Physics 501/502 (Methods of Theoretical Physics I/II) and many other graduate level courses are available. Consult your major advisor for advice on courses that will best prepare you for your future studies.

Students interested in graduate school are strongly advised to do an undergraduate research project (see Research Projects for Undergraduates). This will help you to confirm that you like doing research. Furthermore, your research advisor will be able to write you a strong recommendation letter after working with you on a research project . Your undergraduate research advisor, faculty advisor or course instructor will be happy to write letters of recommendation for graduate programs, scholarship opportunities, and fellowships. They will also provide advice on which graduate programs in physics or related subjects will provide the best match with a student's interests. Most graduate programs in the sciences provide tuition remission and a living stipend in return for work as a teaching assistant or research assistant.

Pre-Medicine Students Majoring in Physics

Students can fulfill pre-medicine requirements while pursuing a major in Physics. Exposure to hands-on applications of physics techniques in the laboratory can be a great advantage for research-oriented students interested in medical school. 

The program listed below is one possibility for completing the major and assumes that the incoming student takes Introductory Physics during their first year, along with either Biology (Option 1) or General Chemistry (Option 2) during the first year, and delaying the other until the second year. However, the Physics major can still be completed even if Introductory Physics isn’t taken until the sophomore year. Students should see the suggested track for students with no prior calculus for an example of how this can be done. 

FIRST YEAR FALL

Focused Physics I
Physics I Lab
Calculus II
Option 1: CSE 131 or Option 2: Chem 105 and Chem 151 
Writing 1 (Fall or Spring) or other elective

FIRST YEAR SPRING

Focused Physics II
Physics II Lab
Calculus III
Option 1: Bio 2960 or Option 2: Chem 106 and Chem 152 
Writing 1 (Fall or Spring) or other elective

SECOND YEAR FALL

Physics 217
Math 217
Option 1: Bio 2970 and Chem 105 and Chem 151 or Option 2: Chemistry 261
Electives

SECOND YEAR SPRING

Physics 318, 319 or 411
Option 1: Chem 106 and Chem 152 or Option 2: Chemistry 262
Electives

THIRD YEAR FALL

Physics 360
Physics 421 or Upper level Physics elective
Electives

THIRD YEAR SPRING

Physics 354
Physics 411 or Upper level Physics elective
Electives

FOURTH YEAR FALL

Physics 421 or Upper level Physics elective

FOURTH YEAR SPRING

Physics 322

Students Preparing for Employment After the A.B.

Students who are not planning to continue to a graduate program in physics are encouraged to take additional laboratory courses.

Students who are seeking employment directly from college will find that technical and non-technical positions in many fields are available to physics majors, including:

Internships and entry-level positions with major corporations

Computer-related jobs including programming, system administration, and hardware and software maintenance

Laboratory jobs in industry, hospitals, and universities

Teaching positions in public and private schools; your major advisor can provide advice on teacher certification

The American Institute of Physics provides useful information in its publications and reports, as well as career resources on its web site. The College of Arts and Sciences,through its Career Center, also provides information, support and advice.

Labs

Laboratory courses provide hands-on opportunities for students to connect experimental observations with the knowledge and mathematical formalism obtained in traditional lecture courses. 

All majors are required to take Physical Measurements Lab (Physics 322), and at least one other upper level lab course. Students who double major in Electrical Engineering (EE) and Physics need not take Physics 321 (Electronics Lab), but instead should take either Optics & Wave Physics Lab (Physics 316) or Biophysics Laboratory (Physics 360). EE lab courses are not acceptable as substitutes for Physics 321. 

Introductory Labs

Introductory labs complement Physics 191/192 and 211/212. The labs comprise individual experiments describing general physics principles covering a range of topics including mechanics, light and optics, and electricity. Many of the experiments are designed to improve understanding the physics of everyday life, such as bicycles, baseball, and speakers.

The lab sessions are monitored by graduate students and staff. Typically the instructor briefs the students on the details of the experiment for the day's session and then breaks the group up into teams, assisting as necessary.

Optics & Wave Physics Lab (Physics 316)

The optics course provides the student with an introduction to ray and wave optics. Given the explosion of interest in optics driven by light-wave (fiber  optic) communication, the optics laboratory is an important course. 

Electronics Lab (Physics 321)

The electronics laboratory aims to make the student capable of using electronic circuitry and instruments.

Physical Measurements Lab (Physics 322)

In the physical measurements laboratory the student chooses from relatively sophisticated experiments, including: nuclear magnetic resonance, diode laser spectroscopy, positronium decay, superconductivity and other low temperature phenomena, ultrasonics, x-ray scattering, and scanning tunnel microscopy. The experiments in this course are pursued in greater depth than in the other laboratory courses, giving the student some of the feel of actual research.

Biophysics Laboratory (Physics 360)

The biophysics laboratory course consists of tabletop experiments in biological physics designed to introduce the student to the concepts, methods, and biological model systems in biophysics.

Nuclear & Radiochemistry Lab (Physics 435)

The radiochemistry lab explores the role of nuclear physics in scientific and biological applications.

Advising

Students who declare themselves Physics majors should see Professor Kenneth Kelton or an assignment from among the Department's major advisors. General advice is contained in this handbook, but all physics majors are strongly encouraged to discuss their plans for the major with their advisor. 

Latin Honors and Senior Honors Thesis

Senior Honors

Students are encouraged to work toward Latin Honors (cum laude, magna cum laude, summa cum laude). To qualify, students must meet the academic requirements of the college and successfully complete a suitable project under the supervision of a faculty member in the department. The project, whether experimental or theoretical, should demonstrate the student's capacity for independent work. Honors candidates must apply to the Undergraduate Studies Committee no later than the first day of classes of their senior year. The application should include a description of the proposed project, co-signed by the supervising professor. A written report of the completed work must be submitted to the committee by a March deadline. By enrolling in Physics 499, students may earn up to 6 units of credit for the honors project. 

Departmental Distinction

The Department of Physics also offers physics majors the possibility to earn departmental distinctions. These distinctions require the same GPA cutoff as Latin Honors but are calculated exclusively from the grades in physics courses (courses with the prefix L31). Three levels of distinction are offered: (1) highest distinction, (2) high distinction, and (3) distinction. The highest and high distinctions require at least one semester of undergraduate research and a senior thesis describing the results; these distinctions are limited to the top 15 percent (highest distinction) and top 15-50 percent (high distinction) of the physics majors in their senior year ranked by their GPA in the physics courses. Students meeting the GPA cutoff but who do not undertake undergraduate research and a senior thesis may only receive the third level of distinction. Senior Honors Thesis Information

Research Projects for Undergraduates

The Washington University Physics Department hosts strong research groups in the fields of Astrophysics, Biophysics, Condensed Matter Physics, Materials, Medical Physics, Nuclear Physics, Particle Physics, and Space Materials. Undergraduate students are encouraged to participate in research at all levels of their undergraduate career. 

The research can be carried through while classes are in session or during the summer. It can count for credit after approval of an advising professor by filling out the independent study form, or can be rewarded with an hourly salary.  Please note that research requires a substantial time investment. Research done while classes are in session typically requires between 6 and 12 hours per week. Summer research can take up to 40 hours per week. 

Your research findings may be summarized in a report, presented at a conference or published in a Physics journal. Students in their senior year are encouraged to do a senior thesis or an honors thesis

If you are interested, contact professors whose research interests you, or schedule a meeting with the undergraduate research coordinator who will advise you about research opportunities that match your interests. All students wishing to do a research project should directly contact the advising professor. To find the research group which is right for you, investigate the descriptions on the departmental research web site or sign up for Physics 582 Research Seminar.

Undergraduate Research Projects

Undergraduate Fellowships and Prizes

The Department of Physics awards fellowships and prizes to students who have excelled in various ways.

 

Society of Physics Students

The Washington University in St. Louis Chapter of the Society of Physics Students hosts a range of fun physics events like observatory parties, experiment demo nights, lab tours, and panels on research and graduate admissions. They have connected students with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, such as a meet-and-greet with a Nobel Laureate and dinner with Neil deGrasse Tyson, and have led a wide range of endeavors to make our department more inclusive.

Learn More about SPS

Putnam Mathematical Competition

Physics Professor Alexander Seidel and Mathematics Professor Victor Wickerhauser coach the students who are preparing to enter the Putnam Mathematical Competition. Students prepare for the Putnam during Friday afternoon practice sessions with free pizza in the fall  semester. If you would like to learn techniques of problem solving and would enjoy interacting with this peer group of bright students, you are invited to attend the practice sessions. The Putnam consists of two three-hour sessions, during each of which competitors work on six problems. It is held each year on the first Saturday in December. More information about the Putnam Competition.

Have more questions about courses and requirements?

Consult WashU's catalog of programs and degree requirements 

Browse the Bulletin