Majoring in Physics, Astrophysics or Chemical Physics

A major in physics involves the study of the universal principles underlying phenomena ranging from the behavior of subatomic particles to the structure of the universe.

It also entails the applications of these principles to the phenomena we observe every day and to the technology used to explore the world and address people’s needs. Important components of the major are: modeling, problem-solving, and developing the critical thinking skills necessary to address fundamental questions about Nature. To acquire these skills our majors engage in active inquiry in the classroom and teaching laboratories and in performing research. In addition to preparing students for graduate study in physics or engineering, a major in physics is an excellent basis for a career in other sciences, business, public policy, medicine, law and the arts. Physics majors will also be prepared with fundamental intellectual tools to support their lifelong learning in a rapidly changing world. Within the major, the interdisciplinary option provides a foundation in physics supplemented by coursework in related scientific fields. Interdepartmental majors in Astrophysics and in Chemical Physics provide additional options for students interested in these two fields.

Goals for the Major

  • The Wellesley physics major is designed to give students an effective and engaging sequence of experiences to prepare them for graduate study or any of the subsequent paths listed above.
  • Physics courses for the first three semesters have laboratory components that provide hands-on training in investigating the physical world and exposure to modern equipment and analytical tools.
  • There is also a two-term mathematical methods sequence that focuses on the link between mathematics and physics that is central to the modeling process.
  • Our core upper-level courses include advanced work in three fields fundamental to the understanding of the many special topics within the discipline as well as an advanced laboratory course that gives students experience in modern experimental techniques.

Requirements for the Major

A major in physics begins with PHYS 100 and ordinarily includes PHYS 100, 107, 108, 120H, 205H, 207, 208, 210, 302 and two other units of physics at the 300-level. PHYS 104 can be taken in place of 107 in certain circumstances. Calculus at the level of MATH 115 and 116 as well as MATH 205 and 215 are prerequisites for several courses in the major. Independent study and thesis courses (350, 355/365, 360/370) do not count toward the major. The department also supports interdisciplinary pathways through the major -- see Interdisciplinary Option below.

All students who wish to consider a major in physics should complete the introductory sequence (PHYS 100, 107 and 108) as soon as possible, certainly by the end of the second year.

Students interested in graduate programs in physics are strongly recommended to complete PHYS 302, 305, 308 and 310, as well as 322H and 323H.

For students matriculated in 2018 or before, major requirements normally include PHYS 107, PHYS 108, PHYS 202, PHYS 207, PHYS 208 or PHYS 308, PHYS 302, PHYS 305, and PHYS 310. The following math courses are also required: MATH 215 and either MATH 205 or PHYS 216. After the 2019-20 academic year, PHYS 202, will no longer be offered, but can be replaced by PHYS 100 and PHYS 205H. Students are also encouraged to work with major advisors to develop individualized plans.


Requirements for the Minor

A minor in physics (six units) should ordinarily include: 100, 104 or 107, 108, 205 or 210, 207 or 208, and one 300-level course. MATH 205 and 215 are prerequisites for some of the physics courses. 

Thesis work and Honors in Physics

The route to honors in the major is writing an honors thesis and passing an oral examination. To be admitted to the honors thesis program (PHYS 360/370), a student must have a grade point average of at least 3.5 in all work in the major field above the 100 level; the department may petition on the student’s behalf if the GPA in the major is below that threshold. See Academic Distinctions.  Students who do not meet the GPA requirement can still complete a (non-honors) thesis (PHYS 355/365). If the student demonstrates excellence in research during PHYS 355, they may petition to enroll in the honors thesis program. That student would then be eligible for honors in the major.

Interdisciplinary Option

For students interested in exploring the intersection of physics and related disciplines, the interdisciplinary option can serve as an underpinning for future careers and study in interdisciplinary subjects such as biophysics, geophysics, environmental physics, materials science, and other applied sciences. It has fewer course requirements within the Physics Department and additional elective requirements chosen from courses offered in other departments. We invite students interested in this option to work with a faculty member to craft an interdisciplinary route through the physics major. Students choosing the Interdisciplinary Option can also take advantage of the opportunity to cross-register for courses at Olin College of Engineering and at MIT. A key element in the design of this route to the physics major is that it should form a coordinated program of study that draws on and relates to a student’s physics background. Please note that the college offers Interdepartmental majors in Astrophysics and in Chemical Physics; these majors are distinct from the Physics Interdisciplinary Option.