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The University of Tennessee

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Physics Major Guide for 2008-2009

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 of study that lead to both Arts and Sciences and Engineering Physics 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?

Five to seven years after they graduate, 12 percent have earned a Ph.D. and 25 percent have a master’s degree. Thirty-four percent are in industry, with more than half of those in software, engineering, or lab-technician positions. More than 30 percent are in management or education.

If you plan a career in physics, astronomy, or such highly technical fields as engineering or computing, you should choose either the academic or applied concentration. The general concentration is a good choice if your interest is in teaching, journalism, law, or medicine.

Salary Trends in Physics

In 2000 campus recruiters nation­wide offered undergraduate physics majors an average salary of $42,000.

Obviously, the future is bright for physics graduates. According to the
U.S. Census Bureau, the median 2002 salary for physics B.A./B.S. graduates in the 35 to 44 age bracket was $78,000. The higher the degree, the greater the financial rewards, with master’s degree recipients in this age group earning $87,000 and Ph.D.’s, $95,000. Industrial salaries tend to be higher, academic salaries lower.

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 applied concentration introduces students to the physics and technology of today and tomorrow. Such a background is increasingly useful in technological and industrial fields outside 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.

Requirements for Physics

Prerequisites [See the undergraduate catalog for full course descriptions.]

  • Physics 137–138 (Honors) or Physics 135–136
  • Mathematics 141–142 and 241
  • Computer Science 102

  This major concentration consists of 41 hours.

  • Mathematics 231
  • Physics 250
  • Physics 311–312
  • Physics 321
  • Physics 361
  • Physics 411–412
  • Physics 421
  • Physics 431–432
  • Physics 461
  • Recommendation: Physics 401

APPLIED CONCENTRATION  This concentration consists of 41 hours.

  • Physics 250
  • Physics 311–312
  • Physics 321
  • Physics 361
  • Physics 401
  • Physics 421
  • Physics 441–442
  • Physics 453–454
  • Physics 461

GENERAL CONCENTRATION  This concentration consists of 40 to 41 hours.

  • Physics 250
  • Physics 361
  • Physics 380, 381, 382
  • Physics 441-442
  • Physics 453-454
  • One lab course chosen from Physics 421 or Physics 461 


  • Astronomy 217-218
  • Astronomy 411
  • Astronomy 490 (3 hours)
  • Physics 250
  • Physics 311
  • Physics 321
  • Physics 411
  • Physics 421
  • Physics 431
  • Physics 461

Physics—a minimum of 23-25 hours

  • Physics 137–138 (Honors) or Physics 135–136
  • Physics 250
  • 12 hours from physics and astronomy courses numbered 300 and higher

Astronomy—24 hours

  • One year of introductory astronomy
  • Astronomy 411
  • Astronomy 490
  • Physics 311–312
  • Physics 421

Special Programs, Co-ops, and Internships

At UT students have excellent opportunities to work in research with faculty members on campus, at nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory, or in national research experience for undergraduates programs. Employment by the department may be possible. Our students have enjoyed summer research experiences at laboratories across the country. The Tennessee Science Alliance, a program created to foster collaboration between the University of Tennessee and nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory, sponsors a summer research program for outstanding physics majors from across the country. Well-prepared high-school seniors are encouraged to compete for departmental scholarships, which provide $1000 per year for freshmen and sophomores and departmental employment for juniors and seniors.

Highlights of Physics

Physics majors at UT enjoy the advantages of a large university with the individual attention and camaraderie of small classes. Our classes for majors typically have only 10 to 15 students and are taught by dedicated faculty members, not teaching assistants. Majors have their own computer-equipped lounge in the department.  Upper-level students are eligible for summer Science Alliance research fellowships for collaborative work on campus or at nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory in bio-, atomic, chemical, computational, elementary-particle, molecular, nuclear, and solid-state physics. Our students have participated in national research experience for undergraduates programs at state-of-the art facilities across the country, and our graduates have been successful in many of the best graduate programs nationwide.

Ready for the World logoReady for the World

"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 website ( or the Ready for the World website ( for more information on upcoming cultural programs and activities. 
Students are also encouraged to develop a global perspective within their academic program through study abroad.  Visit the Programs Abroad Office website ( for information on study abroad opportunities.

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.

Sample Curriculum

Freshman Year Credit Hours
English Composition 6
Foreign Language 6
Physics 135-136 or Physics 137-138 8-10
Math 141, 142 8
Computer Science 102 4
Sophomore Year Credit Hours
Foreign Language or General Electives 6
Physics 250, 311, 312, 321 12
Non-US History Sequence 6
Math 231, 241 7
Junior Year Credit Hours
Physics 361, 431, 432 9
Communicating Through Writing 3
Humanities 6
Upper Level Distribution 3
Social Science 6
Upper Division Elective 3
Senior Year Credit Hours
Physics 411, 412, 421, 461 13
General Electives 4-6
Communicating Orally 3
Upper Level Distribution 3
Upper Division Elective 2
GRAND TOTAL (minimum) 120

For More Information

Dr. Soren Sorensen, Head
401 Nielsen Physics Building
(865) 974-3342



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.