Physics majors and minors

Physics Coursework

SPS can’t tell you what you need to do to finish your major or minor (that’s between you, your advisor, and the gloriously detailed details of the department webpage). However, we’re happy to parse through some of the information for you and let you know what’s available to take.

Undergraduate physics programs are generally divided into two parts. The first are the core courses that form the foundations of physics (classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, and electrodynamics). Students usually take a semester or two of each area in undergrad, and then investigate these same subjects at a more sophisticated level in their graduate studies.

You might want to take core courses early because sometimes they’re prerequisites for interesting electives. These introduce you to major areas of interest and current research like astrophysics, biomedical physics, lasers, nuclear physics, and quantum information.

Below, we’ve listed some of the Wash. U. undergraduate core and elective courses you might find of interest. Advanced students, you can also check out graduate-level course offerings. Most of the graduate courses DO NOT list necessary prerequisites in their descriptions; please speak with a professor to find out if you’re ready. We also created a guide about math and computer science courses that you might find helpful!


Undergrad Core Courses

Classical Mechanics

  • Physics 117/197 – freshman physics semester #1
  • Physics 411 – more advanced mechanics, required for major
  • Graduate: 507 (classical mechanics), 509 (nonlinear dynamics)

Electrodynamics

  • Physics 118/198 – freshman physics semester #2
  • Physics 421 – Electricity & Magnetism I, required for major
  • Physics 422 – Electricity & Magnetism II
  • Graduate: 505 and 506 (classical electrodynamics I & II)

Quantum Mechanics

  • Physics 217 – first semester quantum
  • Physics 318 – second semester quantum, plus lots of other random cool topics
  • Physics 471 – a more mathematically sophisticated quantum course; consider taking this if you plan on grad school!
  • Graduate: 523 and 524 (quantum mechanics I & II)
  • Advanced graduate: 551 and 552 (quantum field theory I & II)

Statistical Mechanics

  • Physics 463 – not required for the major, but important if you plan on graduate school!
  • Graduate: 529 (statistical mechanics), 530 (advanced topics)

Undergrad Physics-Related Electives

There are a ton of areas of physics to explore. If you’re planning on graduate studies or even trying to find a physics-related job, you definitely should branch out from the core courses to figure out what you like. Also, we’ve listed types of university departments you could look into for more courses, research opportunities, or graduate programs. Every university divides up researchers differently!

***Note that a lot of these courses are offered only once every few years, so plan ahead.***

Also, this list is by no means complete, so please explore other departments’ offerings (note that MEMS, EECE, and ESE are the abbreviations for engineering departments). You can also look into graduate-level courses if you have the prerequisites.

Astrophysics, Astronomy, Cosmology, and Relativity

  • Physics 312: Introductory Astrophysics (a prerequisite for most upper-level astrophysics courses)
  • Physics 446: Galactic Astrophysics
  • Physics 456: Stellar Astrophysics
  • Physics 460: X-Ray and Gamma-Ray Astrophysics
  • Physics 478: From Black Holes to the Big Bang (general relativity)
  • courses in our Earth and Planetary Sciences Department
  • Departments: Physics, Astronomy/Astrophysics, Earth Sciences, Planetary Sciences, Mechanical Engineering, Aerospace Engineering

Biological and Biomedical Physics

  • Physics 314 – Physics of the Heart
  • Physics 350 – Physics of the Brain
  • Physics 354 – Physics of Living Systems
  • Physics 355 – Physics of Vision
  • Physics 360 – Biophysics Lab
  • courses in our Biomedical Engineering Department
  • Departments: Physics, Biophysics, Biology, Chemistry, Bioengineering, Medical Schools

Condensed Matter Physics and Materials Science

  • Physics 318 – Introduction to Quantum Physics II
  • Physics 472 – Solid State Physics
  • MEMS 3601 – Materials Engineering
  • MEMS 3610 – Materials Science
  • EECE 305 – Materials Science
  • Chemistry 465 – Solid State and Materials Chemistry
  • courses in our Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science department
  • Departments: Physics, Applied/Engineering Physics, Chemistry, Materials Science, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering

Dynamics and Fluid Mechanics

  • MEMS 305 – Fluid Mechanics and Transfer Laboratory
  • MEMS 3410 – Fluid Dynamics
  • MEMS 4310 – Dynamics and Vibrations
  • MEMS 5410-3 – Fluid Dynamics, Computational Fluid Dynamics
  • MEMS 5520 – Advanced Analytical Mechanics
  • Physics 411 – Mechanics
  • Physics 509 – Nonlinear Dynamics
  • ESE 551-2 – Linear Dynamic Systems
  • ESE 553-4 – Nonlinear Dynamic Systems
  • ESE 557 – Hybrid Dynamic Systems

Energy and Environmental Physics

Geophysics

  • There’s an actual major in geophysics, but it’s housed in our Earth and Planetary Sciences Department, not in the Physics Department!
  • Departments: Physics, Geophysics, Planetary Sciences, Earth Sciences, Environmental Sciences, Environmental Engineering

Laser Physics, Optics, and Photonics

  • Physics 316 – Optics and Wave Physics Lab
  • Physics 318 – Introduction to Quantum Physics II
  • Physics 422 – Electricity and Magnetism II (topics vary depending on the teacher)
  • ESE 429 – Basic Principles of Quantum Optics and Quantum Information
  • ESE 438 – Applied Optics
  • courses in our electrical engineering (ESE) department
  • Departments: Physics, Applied/Engineering Physics, Electrical Engineering, Chemistry

Mathematical Physics

Particle Physics and Accelerators

  • Physics 318 – Introduction to Quantum Physics II
  • Physics 474 – Introduction to Nuclear and Particle Physics
  • Courses in astrophysics might cover topics of interest (cosmic rays, nucleosynthesis, etc.)
  • advanced, graduate-level physics courses in:
    • elementary particle physics (547)
    • quantum field theory (551-552)
    • special topics courses
  • Departments: Physics, Astronomy/Astrophysics, Mathematics, Applied Mathematics

Physical Chemistry, Chemical Physics, and Nuclear Physics

  • Physics 318 – Introduction to Quantum Physics II
  • Physics 435 – Nuclear and Radiochemistry Lab
  • Physics 436 – Introduction to the Atomic Nucleus
  • Physics 474 – Introduction to Nuclear and Particle Physics
  • Astrophysics courses might cover topics of interest (cosmic rays, nucleosynthesis, etc.)
  • Chemistry 401 – Physical Chemistry I
  • Chemistry 402 – Physical Chemistry II
  • courses in our chemistry department
  • Departments: Physics, Astronomy/Astrophysics, Chemistry, Chemical Engineering 

Quantum Information and Quantum Computing

  • Physics 318 – Introduction to Quantum Physics II
  • ESE 429 – Basic Principles of Quantum Optics and Quantum Information
  • ESE 439 – Introduction to Quantum Communications
  • Courses in our electrical engineering (ESE) department
  • Departments: Physics, Applied/Engineering Physics, Electrical Engineering, Computer Science

Special majors (design your own!)

If you have some specialized interest in a subfield of physics or some related area, it’s possible to create your own major. The application process requires you to write up why no current program of study fits your interests, what courses you’ll take, and to design a “capstone project” – for the sciences, this will be a senior thesis about your research.

You have to find a professor to sponsor/advise your major, as well as a second professor in a related department to sign off that the proposal is legitimate. Then you do an interview in front of a four-person committee and hope your major gets approved (don’t take the process lightly – there’s no guarantee that it will be). Check out bulletin.wustl.edu for the latest details.

Proposed Majors

Washington University SPS