Undergraduate Physics Concentrations

You are here


Physics at Cornell is extremely flexible, and is customized for each student.  It is structured as a common core set of courses followed by a concentration.  The concentration must be a coherent body of study which complements the core.

About half of our students concentrate in Physics: this means they take at least 15 more credits of physics to complete the degree. 

The other half concentrate in a complementary area.  The rules are that it must be cohesive, and it must complement the core.  For example a student interested in applying their knowledge of physics to the medical profession may concentrate in biology. Similarly a student interested in the aspects of law dealing with technology, may benefit from a physics degree with a concentration in law, business, history or public policy.  Students interested in teaching high-school science, may benefit from a physics degree with a concentration in education.  Other natural concentrations include mathematics, astronomy, education, computer science, or economics.  Students are encouraged to design their own concentration. 

Double majors: courses used to fulfill requirements for other majors can not be used as part of an outside concentration.

Students typically decide on a concentration at the end of their sophomore year.

Concentrations Within Physics

While not necessary, students planning professional or graduate work in physics are encouraged to take the more advanced and analytically rigorous versions of the core courses – PHYS 1116, 2217, 2218, 3318 and 3327.  Students with weaker high school preparation may find it advantageous to start in Physics 1112 and then switch to the advanced sequence in later semesters. The best prepared students, who may qualify for advanced placement credit for PHYS 1112 and/or 2213, are still strongly encouraged to start with 1116.

For a concentration within physics, the minimum 15 hours beyond the core must be composed of physics courses with numbers greater than 3000.  These 15 hours must include the senior laboratory course PHYS 4410 in addition to one of the lab courses listed for the core, so that a physics concentration requires a minimum of 7 credit hours of laboratory work.  The sequence followed by each student will depend upon his or her interests and pre-college preparation, and will be determined in consultation with the major advisor.  Majors are strongly encouraged to participate in the Department’s research activities.  If this work is done as an independent project, PHYS 4490, up to 4 credit hours can be applied toward the concentration.

In addition, the following Non-Physics courses may be counted toward a concentration in Physics:  ASTRO 3332, 4431-4432 & AEP 4340.

Concentrations Outside of Physics

For outside concentrations, the courses to be counted in the minimum 15 credit hours beyond the core must have internal coherence and lead to mastery in the area of concentration.  The course sequence must be worked out with and approved by the major faculty advisor. At least 8 of the 15 credit hours must be in courses numbered above 3000. Past areas of concentration include astronomy, business, chemical physics, computer science, econometrics, education, geophysics, history, and philosophy of science, law, meteorology, and public policy. A combined biology/chemistry concentration is common for premedical students or those who wish to prepare for work in biophysics.

The Department particularly wishes to encourage students with an interest in science education. Physics majors can obtain teaching certification by concentrating in education and then completing a one-year master of arts in teaching (MAT) degree. Information about the education concentration and MAT can be obtained from the Department of Education Cornell Teacher Education Program, from the Physics Department’s Teacher in Residence, or from the Physics Director of Undergraduate Studies.

The core for students with outside concentrations may follow either PHYS 1112-2213-2214, 3314 and 3323 or the advanced 1116-2217-2218, 3318 and 3327. Students concentrating in astronomy who might continue on to graduate school in that field are encouraged to take PHYS 3318 and 3327 in the core and ASTRO 4410, 4431, and 4432 toward the concentration.