Information for Physics Majors & Minors

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How to Apply

Students in the College of Arts & Sciences do not declare a major until their sophomore year. Nevertheless, students can indicate their interest in majoring in physics on their application for admission to Cornell University. Information on applying to Cornell can be found at the College of Arts and Science and the main Cornell Admissions site.  Click the Cornell Days Physics 2018 schedule for classes you can sit in on,  faculty office hours, and informational sessions conducted by our Society of Physics Students.

Freshmen Interested in Majoring in Physics

Incoming freshmen interested in majoring in physics should attend our Orientation for Prospective Physics Majors on Sunday, August 19th at 2:00 pm in 120 Physical Sciences Building (NOTE: New day, time, and location due to changes in orientation schedule). Freshmen can also request a current junior or senior majoring in physics to serve as an informal peer advisor. Prospective majors are encouraged to join the student-run Society of Physics Students, and are also welcome to discuss pre-major course selection with the Director of Undergraduate Studies.

Sophomores Declaring the Physics Major

Sophomores meeting the entrance requirements for the major (at least 2 physics and 2 math courses taken at Cornell with an average grade of B- or higher in the aforementioned courses) may apply to the major by following these steps:

1) Download and fill out both sides of the Physics Major Form here:  After completing as much of the form as possible, print the form and bring it to the meeting with the DUS, Prof. Kyle Shen to complete their physics major form and admission to the major.

2) Choose one or two possible physics major advisors.  If students do not have any preferences, a major advisor will be assigned to them by the DUS.

3) After meeting with the Director of Undergraduate Studies, new majors will meet with their major advisors to go over their Physics Major Course Plan (2nd page of Physics Major Form).

4) After having their Course Plan approved by their advisor, students will return the Major Form to Sue Sullivan ( in the main Physics Office (Clark 117).

Requirements at a Glance

The minimum grade for a course to count towards the physics major is a C-. 

Course Requirements at a Glance (PDF)

The Physics Core – All physics majors must complete a core of physics and mathematics courses as follows:

Three-semester introductory physics sequence plus special relativity:

PHYS 1112 – Physics I: Mechanics
PHYS 2213 – Physics II: Heat/Electromagnetism
PHYS 2214 – Physics III: Oscillations, Waves, and Quantum Physics
PHYS 2216 – Introduction to Special Relativity

Or its more analytic “honors” version:
PHYS 1116 – Physics I: Mechanics and Special Relativity
PHYS 2217 – Physics II: Electricity and Magnetism
PHYS 2218 – Physics III: Waves and Thermal Physics

PHYS 2207 students with life/chemical/health science interests who decide to switch to the physics major may complete:

PHYS 2207 – Fundamentals of Physics I
PHYS 2213 – Physics II: Heat/Electromagnetism
PHYS 2214 – Physics III: Oscillations, Waves, and Quantum Physics
PHYS 2216 – Introduction to Special Relativity

*NOTE: A transition from PHYS 2208 to PHYS 2214 is also possible for students with very strong math backgrounds.

Mathematics courses covering single and multivariable calculus, linear algebra, series representations, and complex analysis:

*NOTE:  Inside concentrators should complete at least one additional year of applicable mathematics such as AEP 4210 and AEP 4220.

Five upper-level courses beyond the three-semester introductory sequence, consisting of:

(3) An intermediate course in classical mechanics:
PHYS 3318 – Analytical Mechanics

Physics 3314 and 3318 have been merged so all physics majors should take Physics 3318.

(4) An intermediate course in electromagnetism:
PHYS 3323 – Intermediate Electricity and Magnetism or
PHYS 3327 – Advanced Electricity and Magnetism

*NOTE: Students who complete the PHYS 1112PHYS 2213PHYS 2214 orPHYS 2207PHYS 2213PHYS 2214 introductory sequence are advised to complete the 1-credit course PHYS 2216 before taking PHYS 3316.

Additional Requirements:

In addition to the core, each physics major must complete at least 15 semester hours of credit in an area of concentration that has been agreed upon by the student and major faculty advisor consistent with the guidelines found here.


Information on undergraduate physics concentrations.

Honors and Senior Thesis Option

A student may be granted honors in physics upon the recommendation of the Physics Advisors Committee of the physics faculty. There is no particular course structure or thesis requirement for honors.  However, we do have a senior thesis option starting with our current junior class.

Thesis Overview

Below is an overview of the basic timeline that physics majors intending to pursue a senior thesis should follow.




A thesis is a rewarding experience and your opportunity to do cutting edge science, which can take a lot of time. You should plan to 1) already be involved in research by your junior year, and 2) plan your schedule to leave large blocks of time for your thesis research


Students intending on pursuing a senior thesis should ideally already be working in the research group in which they intend to write a senior thesis


  • Students ask their research advisors if they will supervise senior thesis
  • After obtaining faculty permission, students submit a thesis proposal by  APRIL 1
  • DUS approves thesis proposals, in consultation with faculty advisors


Students working on a senior thesis are encouraged to consider staying over the summer to work on their thesis research (dependent on funding)




  • Students enroll in  PHYS 4498 : Senior Thesis I (3 credits min)
  • At the end of the semester, students submit 1 pg update to their advisor & DUS
  • All students participate in a poster session and/or short presentations based on their current thesis research on the last Friday of the fall semester




  • Given completion of the requirements in the Fall, and satisfactory performance in Fall PHYS 4499, students will then enroll in  PHYS 4499 : Senior Thesis II (3 credits min)
  • Students give a 15 minute “thesis defense” attended by other majors, faculty, and DUS in mid­April
  • Students submit their written thesis to the DUS and faculty advisor by  MAY 1  

First Steps towards the Senior Thesis

  • Students should already be working for faculty in their junior year to be considered as strong candidates for a senior thesis
  • Students & faculty advisor must mutually agree  upon a thesis topic before students submit a senior thesis proposal. Faculty are under  no obligation to supervise a senior thesis
  • Students submit a one page thesis proposal online to the DUS by  April 1 of their junior year
  • All physics majors (inside or outside concentrators) can pursue a senior thesis. Any physics faculty (and members of the field of Physics) can supervise a senior thesis. Students pursuing research outside the physics department can pursue a senior thesis, provided the thesis topic is related to physics. The DUS will determine whether thesis topics supervised by faculty outside the physics faculty are appropriate for a senior thesis. 
  • After reviewing the thesis proposal, student’s GPA, and any recommendations from the student’s potential thesis advisor & faculty advisor, the DUS will approve students to register for  PHYS 4498 : Senior Thesis I. Students will then enroll in  PHYS 4498  in the fall semester of their senior year and  PHYS 4499: Senior Thesis II in the spring semester.

Eligibility To Pursue Senior Thesis

Students should have a minimum of a 3.3 GPA in order to pursue the senior thesis

Students should have completed  all of their Core Requirements by the beginning of the senior year (exceptions made for students having only one Core Requirement remaining)

Students should fill out their senior thesis proposal by  April 1 of their junior year, with the written permission of their faculty major advisor & thesis advisor. All thesis proposals are ultimately decided by the DUS. 

Students should already be actively engaged in research leading towards their senior thesis by the spring of their junior year

Students should be pursuing thesis research either within the physics department, or if outside the physics department, that is physics­related (at the discretion of the DUS)


PHYS 4498 : Senior Year, Fall

  • During the semester, students will conduct their thesis research wholly under the supervision of their thesis advisor, in a manner similar to regular independent study / research (4490).
  • Near the end of the semester,  students must submit a 1 page written status report  on their thesis research, signed off by their thesis advisor, and to be submitted to the DUS for review.
  • At the end of the semester,  students will also give short presentations (10 minutes) or a poster session , attended by other thesis students, to provide an update on the status of their thesis research
  • At the end of the fall semester, a grade of “R” is given. That grade of “R” is replaced with the grade for PHYS 4499 when 4499 is also completed.

PHYS 4499 : Senior Year, Spring

  • Enrollment for the spring semester of PHYS 4499 is contingent on completion of the 1 page report, participation in the presentation / poster session, and strong performance (A­ or higher) during the Fall semester of PHYS 4498.
  • During the semester, students will conduct their thesis research wholly under the supervision of their thesis advisor, in a manner similar to regular independent study / research.
  • Sometime in mid­-April, students will present a 15 minute “thesis defense” to other thesis students, faculty, DUS, and any other interested parties. 
  • Students will submit their written thesis, approved by their thesis advisor, to the DUS by  May 1st.

Completion of Senior Thesis

  • The written thesis should be a minimum of 25 pages (not counting Abstract, TOC, Acknowledgements, Bibliography, or Appendices).
  • The thesis should be written and formatted following the Cornell Thesis and Dissertation Guidelines (https://test­graduate­­content/uploads/2018/05/Thesis­and­Dissertation­Guidebook_sp 2018.pdf) ,  preferably in LaTeX
  • With approval of the student & advisor, PDFs of the completed theses will be archived and/or posted.
  • If the student’s research work towards a senior thesis has resulted in a peer­reviewed publication where the student was the lead author, it is acceptable to substitute that publication, together with a brief introduction section, as the written senior thesis (the 25 page minimum is waived). The thesis itself should still be formatted following the Cornell Thesis and Dissertation Guidelines.
  • The senior thesis will be considered complete when 1) the oral “thesis defense” is completed, 2) the written thesis is turned in, and 3) at least 6 credits of  PHYS 4498 + PHYS 4499 are completed. 
  • Final grades for  PHYS 4499 will be assigned by the DUS, in consultation with the thesis advisor.  

Additional Notes

  • A maximum total of 4 credits from all research­related classes ( PHYS 4490 : Independent Study OR  PHYS 4498 / 4499 : Senior Thesis ) can be used towards the inside or outside concentration. For instance, if a student has already used 4 credits of  PHYS 4490 towards his/her concentration, they may not also use  PHYS 4498/4499 credits towards their concentration. 
  • While enrolled in PHYS 4498/9, students are not permitted to also be performing that work for pay. 
  • The senior thesis will be factored into the determination of Latin honors at graduation. The thesis will not be the sole determining factor (students graduating without a thesis can graduate with high honors), but it will be factored in to some extent.



Double Majors

Students are welcome to pursue a physics major concurrently with another major; either in the college of Arts and Sciences or in another college through the concurrent degree option. Any course used to satisfy a requirement of another major may be used in satisfaction of physics major requirements only if the student’s concentration is within physics.


The concepts and methods of physics impact nearly all areas of human endeavor. The Department of Physics offers courses in physics for the entire Cornell community. There are general education courses for non-scientists, well-designed introductory sequences for science and engineering majors, more advanced courses for physics majors, and rigorous programs of graduate study, up to doctoral-level independent research.


Non-physics majors in all Cornell colleges are eligible to earn a Physics minor.  To apply to the Physics Minor, fill out the Minor Application and bring it with you when meeting with the DUS (check for DUS office hours online), or stop by 117 Clark Hall and pick up the minor form or email for a copy, and then visit the Director of Undergraduate Studies during office hours or contact to schedule an appointment.

Admission to the minor requires:

i) B- or better in two of the introductory physics courses [see introductory sequence below]
ii) B- or better in two of the mathematics courses which are listed as prerequisites for those courses.

To earn a minor in physics, a student must complete the following course sequences, with a minimum grade of C-:

Introductory sequence with special relativity. This requires one course out of each of the following four categories:

i) a calculus-based introductory mechanics course (Phys 2207, Phys 1112, or Phys 1116*)
ii) a special relativity course (Phys 2216* or Phys 1116*)
iii) a calculus-based introductory electromagnetism course (Phys 2208, Phys 2213, or Phys 2217)
iv) a course on waves (Phys 2214 or Phys 2218)

*Phys 1116 may be used to satisfy both requirements (i) and (ii).

Students are encouraged to talk with a physics advisor to discuss which sequence is most appropriate for them.

At least 3 additional physics courses, totaling 9 or more credit hours from the following:

i) Quantum Mechanics (Phys 3316*) is required
ii) A lab course such as Phys 3310, 3330, 3360, 4410, AEP 2640, BEE 4500, Astro 4410 or experimental physics research conducted as Physics 4490 (3 credits) is required
iii) A third physics class at the 3000 level or higher

*Students with credit for another quantum mechanics class (such as AEP 3610, CHEM 2870-2880 or ECE 4060) may substitute a different upper-level physics course for Phys 3316.

Additional Stipulations:

i) With the exception of Astro 4410, AEP 2640, and BEE 4500 all courses must be taken in the physics department.
ii) No more than 3 credits of Phys 4490 may count toward the minor.

Undergraduate Awards

Each year the Department of Physics gives three awards to outstanding undergraduate students:

The Yennie Prize
An award to the outstanding senior student majoring in Physics who shows unusual promise for future contributions to physics research, and who intends to earn the doctorate.

Professor Yennie was a long-time member of the Cornell Physics faculty, internationally known for his work in theoretical physics, especially in quantum electrodynamics.  He was also known to his students and colleagues as a wise and dedicated teacher.  This prize is endowed in Professor Yennie’s memory by his family and colleagues. The 2018 Yennie Prize was awarded to Jixun (Katherine) Ding.

Kieval Prize
Prize awarded to a senior Physics student who demonstrates unusual promise for future contributions to the physics research.

The funds for this award were given by the late Harry S. Kieval, Cornell ’36, a long-time professor of mathematics at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California.  The 2018 Kieval Prize was awarded to Zachary Mayle and Kenneth Vetter.

Hartman Prize
This prize honors Paul Hartman, who was a long-time professor in both departments and who played a crucial role in teaching experimental physics to students in both programs.  The prize is awarded to recognize outstanding work in experimental physics by an undergraduate in Physics and/or Applied and Engineering Physics. The 2018 Hartman Prize was awarded to Sean McBride in Physics and Mustafa Ansari and Christian Leefmans in Applied and Engineering Physics.

Erik Cassel '90 Prize
An award to an undergraduate majoring in physics who has demonstrated exceptional creativity and promise in applying computer programming to a project in physics or related fields. This award was established in memory of Erik Cassel, Cornell '90.

As a physics major, Erik developed the first data analysis software used in the department's introductory physics laboratory experiments. This accomplishment, and an innovative course project integrating physics content with computer graphics, laid the foundation for his successful career as a software engineer in two startups that made extensive use of physics and computer graphics. Erik's family provided the funds for the award.

DUS Office Hours

DUS office hours for spring 2019 are Thursdays from 2:00-4:00 pm in room 532A Clark Hall.