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 & Sciences and the main Cornell Admissions site. Please email Professor Liam McAllister, the Director of Undergraduate Studies at email@example.com with any questions about the Physics Major at Cornell.
Freshmen Interested in Majoring in Physics
Incoming freshmen interested in majoring in physics should attend our Orientation for Prospective Physics Majors on Monday, August 23 from 11:00 am-1:00 pm in 700 Clark Hall.
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. After completing as much of the form as possible, print the form and bring it to the meeting with the DUS, Prof. Liam McAllister to complete their physics major form and admission to the major.
2) After meeting with the Director of Undergraduate Studies (see DUS Office hours below), new majors will meet virtually with their major advisors to go over their Physics Major Course Plan (2nd page of Physics Major Form).
3) After having their Course Plan approved by their advisor, students will return the Major Form to Sue Sullivan (firstname.lastname@example.org) in the main Physics Office (Clark 117). (Due to COVID, staff are working remotely and forms should be emailed to email@example.com).
Requirements at a Glance
The minimum grade for a course to count towards the physics major is a C-.
Course Requirements at a Glance (updated August 2021 to reflect the new labs)
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 1110 – Intro. to Experimental Physics new course
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 1110 – Intro. to Experimental Physics new course
PHYS 2217 – Physics II: Electricity and Magnetism
PHYS 2218 – Physics III: Waves and Thermal Physics
PHYS 2210 – Exploring Experimental Physics new course
PHYS 2207 students with life/chemical/health science interests who decide to switch to the physics major may complete:
Mathematics courses covering single and multivariable calculus, linear algebra, series representations, and complex analysis:
MATH 2230 – Theoretical Linear Algebra and Calculus or their equivalents
Five upper-level courses beyond the three-semester introductory sequence, consisting of:
(2) At least three semester hours of laboratory work selected from:
PHYS 3310 – Intermediate Experimental Physics
PHYS 3330 – Modern Experimental Optics (crosslisted)
PHYS 3360 – Electronic Circuits (crosslisted)
PHYS 4410 – Advanced Experimental Physics
AEP 3640 – Modern Applied Physics Experimental Design (replaces AEP 2640/ENGRD 2640)
ASTRO 4410 – Experimental Astronomy
BEE 4500 – Bioinstrumentation
(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 3327 – Advanced Electricity and Magnetism
Physics 3323 and 3327 have been merged so all physics majors should take Physics 3327.
*NOTE: Students who complete the PHYS 1112–PHYS 1110–PHYS 2213–PHYS 2214 or PHYS 2207–PHYS 2213–PHYS 2214 introductory sequence are advised to complete the 1-credit course PHYS 2216 before taking PHYS 3316.
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.
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.
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
JUNIOR YEAR FALL SEMESTER
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
JUNIOR YEAR SPRING SEMESTER
Students working on a senior thesis are encouraged to consider staying over the summer to work on their thesis research (dependent on funding)
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 15 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 15 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 early May, 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 14.
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://testgraduateschool.pantheonsite.io/wpcontent/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 peer reviewed 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.
- A maximum total of 4 credits from all research related 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.
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.
Courses used to satisfy the physics core requirements may be counted toward the requirements of another major, when permitted by the other department. Inside concentrators may in addition count toward the requirements of another major any applicable courses used to fulfill the inside concentration requirements, again with permission of the other department. (The above criteria are often met for inside concentrators who are double majors in Mathematics, as an example.) However, outside concentrators may not count toward the requirements of another major any of the courses used to fulfill the outside concentration requirement. Moreover, outside concentrations in the same area as a student's second major will not be approved.
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. Please visit www.physics.cornell.edu/waitlist if you are unable to enroll in a class.
Non-physics majors in all Cornell colleges are eligible to earn a Physics minor. To apply to the Physics Minor, download the Physics Minor Application here, fill it out, and scan it to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Undergraduate Coordinator or Director of Undergraduate Studies will email you with the results. While most applications are accepted on a rolling basis, applications are due for seniors graduating in December no later than December 1, and May 1 for May graduates.
Admission to the minor requires:
i) An average of B- or better in two of the introductory physics courses
Requirements for the Minor
To earn a minor in physics, a student must complete the following requirements, with a minimum grade of C-, and take all courses for a letter grade:
1. Completion of one of the 3-course Introductory Sequences (including special relativity, either in 1116 or 2216. PHYS 2207 and 2208 can be used as replacements for 1112 and 2213 respectively). Starting fall 2021, PHYS 1110 must be taken with PHYS 1112 or 1116, and PHYS 2210 must be taken if taking PHYS 2218.
2. Quantum Physics I (Physics 3316)*;
3. An intermediate physics lab course, chosen from PHYS 3310, 3360, 4410, AEP 3640, ECE 2100, BEE 4500, or ASTRO 4410.
4. One additional 3000+ level PHYS course of at least 3 credits.
*Students with credit for another quantum mechanics class (such as AEP 3610, CHEM 3890 or ECE 4060) may substitute a different 3000+ level physics course for PHYS 3316.
Each year the Department of Physics gives five 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 2021 Yennie Prize was awarded to Junkai Dong.
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 2021 Kieval Prize was awarded to co-recipients Daniel Longenecker and Boris Tsang.
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 2021 Hartman Prize was awarded to Erik Szakiel in Physics, and Ellen Lee and Kevin Zhang 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. The 2021 Cassel Prize was awarded to Erik Szakiel.
Bethe Thesis Prize
An award to a senior undergraduate physics major who has completed an outstanding honors senior thesis. This prize commemorates Professor Hans Bethe (1906-2005) who performed pathbreaking research in the department from the 1930s to the 1990s. Funds for this award are provided by Peter Lyman, Cornell class of 1985.
The 2021 Bethe Thesis Prize was awarded to Junkai Dong.
DUS Office Hours
DUS Office Hours will be held via Zoom on Wednesdays starting September 1 through December 8, from 4:00-5:00 pm EST:
Meeting ID: 998 7264 4539
In-person DUS Office Hours will be held on Mondays starting September 13, 3:00-4:00 pm, in room 403 Physical Sciences Building.
Office Hours will not be held on the following days: