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Physics Major Guide for 2015-2016

What is Physics?

Physics is the branch of science that describes matter, energy, space, and time at the most fundamental level—so naturally physics forms the basis for the study of astronomy (and maybe every other natural science!). The physicist’s goal is to know the world as deeply as he or she can.

Everything in nature, from the smallest subatomic entities (have you heard about string theory?) to our universe itself, obeys the laws of physics. Understanding these laws allows us to predict the behavior of everything from rockets to lasers to computer microchips. In fact, there are principles of physics that relate to virtually any field you can name.

Artists and writers may do the best job of describing physical phenomena qualitatively, but the physicist chases the ultimate goal of creating a quantitative description that accounts for all physical phenomena using mathematics as the language of choice.

Pursuing that goal in the study of physics gives you a chance to develop an analytical, scientific approach to learning. You will acquire the skills of thinking logically, analyzing clearly, making reasonable assumptions and approximations, and solving problems. In effect, you will train your mind to be an instrument that will serve you well in anything you choose to do.

The course offerings of the Department of Physics and Astronomy reflect our awareness that students want a number of different results from our classes. We offer courses for non-physicists, as well as courses that lead to both Arts and Sciences and Engineering degrees. Whether you plan a career in physics or seek to apply your interest in physics to another field, we have a program for you.

Career Opportunities in Physics

What can you do with a bachelor’s degree in Physics?

Employment prospects are excellent for recipients of physics degrees. A January, 2013 CNN Money article reported (based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics) that astronomers and physicists enjoyed the lowest unemployment rates in the nation: 0.3%. By comparison, biomedical engineers were unemployed at rates of 0.4%, petroleum engineers at 0.6%, and physicians and surgeons at 0.8%.

Physics bachelor’s graduates have a number of career options.  Many – about 60% – choose to continue their education by pursuing a graduate degree in physics or a related field.  Of those who opt for a full-time position immediately after graduation, about 50% go into the private sector, with nearly three quarters working in fields associated with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).  Physics graduates also find their skills welcome in fields like K-12 education, finance, and journalism.

Salary Trends in Physics

Typical starting salaries for physicists working in private-sector science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) areas were up to $60,000+ for bachelor’s graduates in 2011 and 2012, according to the American Institute of Physics. Master’s graduates started at up to $70K, and PhD’s up to $100K. A January, 2015 USA Today study (“The 5 highest paying degrees of 2015”) used U.S. Census Bureau data and a survey of the National Association of Colleges and Employers to project average starting salaries for physics majors at nearly $65,000 in 2015.

High School Preparation

If your high school offers physics, take it, along with whatever math and science courses you can work into your schedule. Math is especially important—maybe even more than physics—because as we mentioned earlier, mathematics is the language of physics. The more comfortable you are with mathematics, the easier it will be to learn physics.

Don’t worry if you couldn’t or didn’t take physics in high school. That does not rule out physics as a major if you are interested in the field. Some of our best students never took a course in physics until college.

How to Major in Physics

Take the prerequisites for a physics major (listed below) in your first year. By your second year, you’ll be clearer on how you plan to use physics in your career and you’ll be ready to pick the concentration that best suits your needs.

  • The academic concentration is intended for students interested in professional employment or graduate work in physics.
  • The general concentration is intended for students who plan to apply a substantial knowledge of physics to such fields as secondary education, medicine, law, journalism, business, or any other field.
  • The astronomy concentration is for students who may wish to do graduate work in astronomy or astrophysics.

Minors in physics and in astronomy are also available.  There is also a physics minor program which, when combined with a BS degree from the College of Arts and Sciences (for example, in an area of science other than physics) or from the College of Engineering, provides for a path to a Master’s degree in physics in a fifth year.

Requirements for Physics


Physics 137-138 or 135-136, Mathematics 141-142, and Computer Science 102 are prerequisites to the major.  Engineering Fundamentals 151-152 and Physics 231-232, together, can replace Physics 137-138 or 135-136.  Students may declare a physics major before completing these prerequisites.

The Physics Major

The physics major consist of 41 hours.  Physics 250, 311, 321, 361, 411, 421, 431, 451, 461 (29 hours) are required.

In addition, 12 elective hours chosen from 300 and 400 level physics courses, or from 200-400 astronomy courses, are required.

Students who wish to apply physics to other career goals, such as chemistry, mathematics, education, law, medicine or journalism should consult with the department curriculum chair about appropriate alternative elective courses.

Students planning graduate work in physics are advised to take Physics 312, 412, and 432.  Math 403, Math 435, and/or Math 443 are recommended.  Students completing Physics 312, 412, and 432 will have the Academic Concentration designation added to their transcripts.

Students planning graduate work in astronomy should take Astronomy 217, 218, 411, and 421.  Students completing these courses will have the Astronomy Concentration designation added to their transcripts.

Special Programs, Co-ops, and Internships

UT’s physics majors enjoy excellent opportunities to work in research with faculty members on campus, at nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory, or in national research experience for undergraduate programs. Our majors have worked with NASA, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, and the KamLAND project in Japan. The Science Alliance, a UT-ORNL Center of Excellence, sponsors a summer research program for outstanding upper-level physics majors, pairing them with UT faculty members to work on projects ranging from solar energy materials to growing superconducting crystals. Well-prepared high-school seniors are encouraged to compete for departmental scholarships, which provide financial support for freshmen and sophomores and departmental employment for juniors and seniors. Undergraduates can also work in the Physics Tutorial Center and help with equipment setup in the instructional labs.

Highlights of Physics

Physics majors at UT enjoy the advantages of a large university with the individual attention and camaraderie of small classes. Courses for physics majors typically have only 12 to 20 students and are taught by dedicated faculty members, not teaching assistants. Undergraduate majors have their own computer-equipped lounge and lead the department’s chapter of the Society of Physics Students, an active group famous for their liquid nitrogen ice cream sales and physics demonstrations during Homecoming weekend.

Ready for the World logo

Ready for the World” is part of a long-range plan to transform the UTK campus into a culture of diversity that best prepares students for working and competing in the 21st century.  Thus students are encouraged to actively participate in the diverse cultural programs offered on campus.  Some of these events include the guest lecture series, cultural nights at the International House, and international film screenings.  Visit the Center for International Education web site ( or the Ready for the World web site ( for more information on upcoming cultural programs and activities. Learn more about UT’s Ready for the World initiative to help students gain the international and intercultural knowledge they need to succeed in today’s world.

Students are also encouraged to develop a global perspective within their academic program through study abroad. Studying abroad options do exist for science majors! Possibilities include (but are not limited to) studying parasitology in Botswana, environmental chemistry in Fiji, igneous petrology in Iceland, or particle accelerator physics in London. Several research groups in the Department of Physics and Astronomy participate in international collaborations and have sponsored undergraduate research internships at facilities abroad (such as CERN and KamLAND, mentioned in the Special Programs section above). While these are not formally Ready for the World programs, they provide similar experiences. In addition to taking science courses abroad, many science majors have elected to fulfill their language requirement and/or general education courses overseas.

Consult an academic advisor early in your academic career about the best time for you to study abroad as well as what courses you may need to take. For more information about program options, the application process, and how to finance study abroad, please visit the Programs Abroad Office website.

Academic Plan and Milestones

Following an academic plan will help students stay on track to graduate in four years. For first-year, full-time, degree-seeking students, UT has implemented Universal Tracking (uTrack), an academic monitoring system designed to help students stay on track for timely graduation. In order to remain on track, students must complete the minimum requirements for each tracking semester, known as milestones. Milestones may include successful completion of specified courses and/or attainment of a minimum GPA.

To see a sample academic plan and milestones for this major, please visit the undergraduate catalog.

For More Information

401 Nielsen Physics Building
1408 Circle Drive
Knoxville, TN 37996-1200
(865) 974-3342 (phone)


The information on this page should be considered general information only. For more specific information on this and other programs refer to the UT catalog or contact the department and/or college directly.

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