Undergraduate Physics Concentrations


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.

Undergraduate physics majors taking graduate level physics classes must take the class for a letter grade even if the class is set-up as a grade option. 

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, 1110, 2217, 2218, 2210, 3318 and 3327.  Students with weaker high school preparation may find it advantageous to start in Physics 1112 and 1110 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 and 1110.

The Inside Concentration is comprised of additional physics and math classes at the 3000+ level, and is geared primarily towards students preparing for graduate school in physics or related disciplines.  Inside Concentrators must complete PHYS 4410 and PHYS 4230 as well as 7 additional units of 3000+ level classes in the physics department.  Inside Concentrators must also complete two additional math classes at the 3000+ level.  There is only one type of Inside Concentration; students do not need to declare a sub-field (e.g. solid-state physics or high-energy physics).   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, atmospheric sciences, business, chemical physics, computer science, economics, education, geophysics, government, history, law, math, meteorology, philosophy of science, and public policy. A combined biology/chemistry concentration is common for premedical students or those who wish to prepare for work in biophysics.

Courses used to fulfill requirements for another major or minor cannot be counted toward an outside concentration.

The Department particularly wishes to encourage students with an interest in science education.  Information about the education minor and can be obtained from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Education Minor, from the Physics Teacher Education Coalition, or from the Physics Director of Undergraduate Studies.

The core for students with outside concentrations may follow either PHYS 1112-1110-2213-2214 or the advanced 1116-1110-2217-2218-2210, 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.