Physics Major and Minor

Haverford’s Physics major and minor bring together students and faculty interested in investigating the physical principles that animate the natural world. Our rigorous programs provide significant opportunities for first-hand experimental and theoretical investigations and a solid foundation in the basic principles of the discipline.

Our program is especially flexible, allowing majors to pursue a range of allied interests—among them, astrophysics, biophysics, chemical physics, computing and engineering.

Curriculum & Courses

Students can opt for a traditional physics major or an interdisciplinary major. Those interested in attending graduate school in physics follow the traditional major. Our interdisciplinary major is designed for students who are eager to explore physics along with a focused study of a different field. With fewer requirements than the traditional major, it allows more flexibility in course selection.

Students pursue a curriculum that includes coursework in mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity, magnetism, and special relativity. Required classes also cover waves and optics, introductory quantum mechanics, and lab work in electronics and wave physics. Majors must take Calculus III and and additional math course in addition to other upper-level courses in core areas of physics. Our Senior Seminar and the associated senior talk and thesis are also required.

Minors pursue a curriculum that includes coursework in mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity, magnetism, and special relativity. Required classes also cover waves and optics, introductory quantum mechanics, and lab work in electronics and wave physics. They must also enroll in at least one of our 300-level core theoretical courses.

Extraordinary teachers and mentors, our faculty also work at the cutting edge of a wide range of areas—including astroparticle and early Universe physics, soft condensed matter and granular physics, extragalactic astronomy, biophysics, and nanoscience—creating exceptional research opportunities for majors. Those opportunities, as well as others beyond campus, are enhanced by our robust funding and placement system.

  • Major Requirements

    Physics offers three distinct programs: a traditional major, an interdisciplinary major designed to accommodate a focused plan of study in a different field, and a minor. The requirements for these three options are listed below.  Students who wish to apply credits from outside the Quaker Consortium toward the major or minor requirements must consult with the department chair before taking such courses.

    Traditional Physics Major Requirements

    • PHYS H105 (or PHYS H101 or PHYS H115), PHYS H106 (or PHYS H102), PHYS H213, PHYS H214, PHYS H211, and PHYS H301 (or Bryn Mawr equivalents). Students often take the laboratory courses PHYS H211 and PHYS H301 concurrently with PHYS H213 and PHYS H214 respectively.
    • MATH H121 (or MATH H216) and MATH H215 (or one of: MATH H222, MATH B203 [the Bryn Mawr equivalent of MATH H215], or another 200-level mathematics course with permission).
    • Six upper-level courses from the Physics and Astronomy departments at Haverford or Bryn Mawr. 
      • One of these must be a laboratory course such as PHYS H326 or Bryn Mawr PHYS B305 or PHYS B331
      • Majors must take three of the four core theoretical courses: PHYS H302, PHYS H303, PHYS H308, and PHYS H309 (or their Bryn Mawr equivalents).
      • One of the six upper-level physics courses may be a 400-level research course. 
      • Majors may count either PHYS H459 or PHYS H460 as one of the six required upper-level courses.
    • PHYS H399F and PHYS H399I, including a presentation and senior paper based on independent work, and attendance at senior colloquia and distinguished lectures hosted by the department.

    Students may replace two of the six upper-level courses by upper-level courses in a related department, with the approval of the major advisor. (The department asks students to prepare a brief written statement explaining the relationship between the proposed courses and the physics major.) 

    Students considering graduate study in physics should, if possible, take all of the following five courses: PHYS H302, H303, H308, H309, and H326 (or their Bryn Mawr equivalents).

    Interdisciplinary Physics Major Requirements 

    We encourage students with multiple academic interests who are not likely to undertake physics graduate study to consider the interdisciplinary physics major, with a slightly abbreviated set of requirements students can complete in three years. The interdisciplinary major differs from the traditional physics major by offering more flexible course choices and by coordinating the physics courses with the student’s work in another field. In the version requiring the fewest physics courses, this major requires 8.5 instead of 12 physics courses, while both majors require 2 math courses.

    Students can discuss this track—which can also facilitate a concentration, an engineering option, or a minor in another department—with any member of the department. 

    The requirements are as follows:

    • PHYS H105 (or PHYS H101 or PHYS H115), and PHYS H106 (or PHYS H102).
    • PHYS H213 and PHYS H214 (our sophomore lecture course sequence) and PHYS H211 (sophomore-level laboratory course).
    • MATH H121 (or MATH H216) and MATH H215 (or one of: MATH H222, MATH B203 [the Bryn Mawr equivalent of MATH H215], or another 200-level mathematics course with permission). 
    • Three 300-level physics lecture courses, two of which must be drawn from these core courses: PHYS H302, PHYS H303, PHYS H308, and PHYS H309 (or their Bryn Mawr equivalents).
    • An upper-level laboratory course in the natural or applied sciences, such as PHYS H301, ASTR H341, BIOL H300 or BIOL H301, or CHEM H301 or CHEM H302. (Alternately, the student can request the substitution of an advanced laboratory course in another area of science or applied science.)
    • Two other courses, at the 200 level or higher in a related field, that are part of a coherent program, which the student proposes and the major advisor must approve.
    • Senior Seminar (PHYS H399F and PHYS H399I) and the associated senior talk and thesis.

    Senior Project

    The senior research program demonstrates achievement in depth in a particular subfield of physics or astrophysics. Students participate in PHYS H399, a year-long, ½ credit per semester senior seminar.  We assess students by their performance on a short talk during the fall semester, a comprehensive talk or poster presentation in the spring semester and a senior thesis written in the form of a scientific paper.

    In addition, as part of the year-long senior seminar, senior physics majors study topics in scientific integrity in two student-led meetings, using readings and role-playing scenarios to learn best practices in the ethical conduct of research. They also receive training in life after Haverford, including how to choose and apply to graduate schools, and what careers are available outside science for physics majors.

    Students are expected to place their senior research work in the context of the scientific literature in their field of study, and to present their results to an audience of professionals (for their thesis) and their peers (for the talk or poster). They are given training in searching and reading the scientific literature by each research supervisor, as well as specific materials through the senior seminar course.

    Most students also take a senior research course for credit (though this is not required). Their work in this course also assesses their research accomplishments. 

    Senior Project Learning Goals

    We expect senior research in physics to demonstrate:

    • a clear understanding of the scientific context of the research (including a review of the relevant scientific literature).
    • mastery of the content and findings of the research.
    • independent problem solving and ability to synthesize material.
    • an understanding of the forward looking implications of the research findings.
    • clarity in the public presentation of the research.

    Senior Project Assessment

    The evaluation of students’ overall work in the senior seminar includes both their content knowledge in their research area, and their ability to communicate this work.  In the fall semester, students write up the introduction and background sections of their senior thesis while getting training in researching and reading the scientific literature and properly referencing their bibliographic sources. They receive formative assessment from their senior thesis advisor on the fall paper, including suggestions for improvements on the final thesis. For the senior thesis, there are multiple rounds of assessment, since students get ongoing feedback from their research supervisors while writing their thesis, and they submit two distinct formal drafts which are read carefully by two faculty members who give extensive feedback. After each round, students must respond to this feedback while preparing their final thesis.

    Similarly, each student gives a first short (10 minute) research talk in the fall and is given department-wide comments about how to improve this talk before they prepare and give their final senior presentation. Typically, each student practices each presentation several times, receiving detailed feedback from a supervisor in between to ensure they present their work at a level comparable with that of poster presentations and short talks at the American Physical Society or other comparable annual meetings.

    The thesis research itself is evaluated for

    1. a demonstrated understanding of the context and content of the research (including a review of the relevant scientific literature),
    2. independent problem solving and synthesis, and
    3. success in understanding the forward looking implications of the research.

    The written and oral presentations of the research are evaluated for

    1. a clear and appropriate writing style and
    2. well-curated visual displays of the research.

    A further confirmation of quality is the number of senior research projects that lead to publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

    Requirements for Honors

    The departmental awards for honors in physics are based on the quality of performance in course work and the senior colloquium and paper. High honors carries the additional requirement of demonstrated originality in senior research.

  • Minor Requirements

    • PHYS H105 (or PHYS H101 or PHYS H115) and PHYS H106 (or PHYS H102); PHYS H213, PHYS H214, and PHYS H211 lab (or Bryn Mawr equivalents).
    • MATH H121 (or MATH H216) and MATH H215 (or one of: MATH H222, MATH B203 [the Bryn Mawr equivalent of MATH H215], or another 200-level mathematics course with permission).
    • One of the four “core” 300-level lecture courses in physics at Haverford or Bryn Mawr: PHYS H302, PHYS H303, PHYS H308, or PHYS H309.

Research & Outreach

Student research culminates with our required two-semester Senior Seminar. In it, majors develop, draft, and present a scientific paper, based on original research performed with a faculty member or on existing research on a particular topic. Students also explore ethics and other conventions of the discipline, learn about career options and graduate programs, and interact with an array of visiting scientists as well as our vibrant alumni/ae community in this discussion-driven class.

After Graduation

We are invested in the long-term success of our students and are committed to developing the skills and perspectives—as well as the relationships—that will enable our majors to thrive as grad students at top programs and in a range of careers.

Nearly half of our majors pursue graduate study at the Ph.D. level in physics or astrophysics. Others go on to graduate programs in areas such as mathematics, engineering, materials science, climate science, and computer science, while still others pursue careers in medicine, engineering, law, public policy, and teaching. Many continue to enrich the physics program long after graduation by mentoring current students and by providing input on program development.

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