Undergraduate Studies in Physics

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UVa Undergraduate Student Guide

Exploring the University and Charlottesville

Dear students,

I will assume that you came to this website because you are curious about physics and physics majors.

What is physics?

Physics is concerned with the most basic principles that underlie phenomena in the universe. Physicists ask: “How do things work?” Physicists seek understanding of the behavior of collections of particles ranging from quarks in nuclei and electrons in atoms to stars in galaxies; they strive for insights into the nature of space and time; and they explore the behavior of matter and energy. On a more human scale, physicists explore the behavior of matter and energy including devices of modern electronics, complex biological molecules, the atmosphere, and forms of energy and its uses. The principles of physics are the basis for much of engineering and technology. Studying physics can prepare students to push back the boundaries of knowledge in this most fundamental of the natural sciences; it can provide invaluable training in the concepts and methods of science for application in many professional areas; it can develop one’s capacity for clear analytical thought that is crucial in many fields, or it can simply increase one’s knowledge and appreciation of the wonders of the world around us.

The department has research programs in high energy physics, nuclear and particle physics, atomic, molecular and optical physics, condensed matter physics, gravitational physics, and medical physics. Where the research is not done in-house, our scientists have successfully leveraged the close proximity and collaborations with the Jefferson Lab, Oak Ridge National Lab., National Institute of Science and Technology, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). Researchers in high energy physics have played leadership roles in flagship experiments at Fermi National Lab and CERN. 

Majoring in Physics

To serve the wide range of interests of physics majors, the department offers both a BA degree and a BS degree in Physics, and jointly with the Astronomy Department, a BS degree in Astronomy/Physics. We also want you to know about the weekly and irregular meetings of our local chapter of the Society of Physics Students. The weekly SPS meetings offer special talks on topics related to physics by faculty members from Physics and other departments at the University. There are also presentations devoted to giving advice and commentary on graduate and professional schools, and talks about careers in science. At each meeting there are refreshments and time for students to talk to each other and to faculty members who are invited to attend. Membership in SPS is open to any student interested in physics. For relevant announcements, we have a mailing list; please contact us if you want to be included.

The physics department has recently modified the schedule for introductory phyics courses. A prospective physics major who does not have Advanced Placement credit or similar should enroll in MATH 1310 (Calculus 1) in fall, before enrolling in PHYS 1420 (Introductory Physics 1) in spring of the first year. Students who do have Advanced Placement Credit should talk to a physics major advisor to discuss possible accelerated schedules. All students should consider taking the optional courses PHYS 1930 (Physics in the 21st century) in their first semester, and students with no programming experience should consider taking PHYS 1660 (Practical Computing for the Physical Sciences ) in their first semester.

If you have questions about physics courses, programs, advising, or are curious about how a physics major may fit your interests, please contact one of the physics major advisors to learn about the various possibilities and to design a program to fit your specific needs. We invite you to visit the department. You can declare a physics major at any time during your studies. Even before the major declaration, contacting an advisor or lecturer might be helpful to discuss the majors, the course sequence, or to find opportunities for your own research.

The physics department has recently developed a Statement of Values and a Code of Conduct. Both documents serve as a guide in helping us, as an organization, to understand how to conduct ourselves, treat others and expect to be treated. We will all become familiar with it and try to incorporate it into our daily life at the university. We need these documents to enhance transparency, objectivity and clarity, and to address recurrent issues in a positive and preventive manner, and we want you to know about them.

We wish you a successful start into your life at our university.

Charles Sackett,
Director of Undergraduate Programs
for the Physics Department