Goals of the Physics Major (USLI)

Goals of the Physics Major (USLI)

The goal of the Physics major is to provide the student with a broad understanding of the physical principles of the universe, to help them develop critical thinking and quantitative reasoning skills, to empower them to think creatively and critically about scientific problems and experiments, and to provide training for students planning careers in physics and in the physical sciences broadly defined, including those whose interests lie in research, K-12 or college teaching, industrial jobs, or other sectors of our society.

Physics majors complete a program which includes foundational lower division course work in math and physics and in-depth upper division course work; these topics are traditionally broadly divided into classical and modern physics.  Some core topics, such as special relativity, classical optics, and classical thermodynamics, are covered only in lower division courses.  Other topics, such as quantum mechanics, classical mechanics, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, and optics, are covered first at an introductory level in lower division and then at a more advanced level in the upper division courses.  Advanced elective courses provide students the opportunity to further their knowledge in specific areas (such as atomic physics, condensed matter physics, optical properties, quantum computing, biophysics, astrophysics, particle physics). A two-semester upper division laboratory course provides additional training in electronic instrumentation, circuits, computer interfacing to experiments, independent project design, and advanced laboratory techniques experiments.  This laboratory course also provides the capstone experience to the core courses, bringing the knowledge gained in different courses together and making the connection between theoretical knowledge taught in textbooks/homework problems and the experimental foundations of this knowledge.  Activities outside the classroom, such as independent research or study, allow students to further develop their knowledge and understanding.

A student graduating from Berkeley with a major in physics will understand classical and modern physics (as outlined in the course requirements below) and will also acquire the skills to apply principles to new and unfamiliar problems.  Their understanding should include the ability to analyze physical problems (often posed as “word problems”), be able to derive, and prove equations that describe the physics of the universe, understand the meaning and limitations of these equations, and have both physical and numerical insight into physical problems (e.g. be able to make order-of-magnitude estimates, analyze physical situations by application of general principles as well as by textbook type calculations).  They will also have developed basic laboratory, library, and computational skills, be familiar with important historical experiments and what physics they revealed, and be able to make both written and oral presentations on physics problems posed to them.

At graduation, physics majors will have a set of fundamental competencies that are knowledge-based, performance/skills-based, and affective. 


Our graduates will have:

  1. Mastered a broad set of knowledge concerning the fundamentals in the basic areas of physics (quantum mechanics, classical mechanics, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, optics, and special relativity). This does not refer to knowledge about specific facts, but rather to a working knowledge of fundamental concepts that can then be applied in many different ways to understand or predict what nature does.
  2. An understanding of the physical principles required to analyze a physical question or topic, including those not previously seen, and both quantitative and qualitative physical insight into these principles in order to understand or predict what happens.  This includes understanding what equations and numerical physical constants are needed to describe and analyze fundamental physics problems.
  3. A set of basic physical constants that enable their ability to make simple numerical estimates of physical properties of the universe and its constituents.
  4. An understanding of how modern electronic instrumentation works, and how both classical and modern experiments are used to reveal the underlying physical principles of the universe and its constituents.
  5. An understanding of how to use computers in data acquisition and processing and how to use available software as a tool in data analysis.
  6. An understanding of modern library search tools used to locate and retrieve scientific information.


Our graduates will have the ability to:

  1. Solve problems competently by identifying the essential parts of a problem and formulating a strategy for solving the problem.  Estimate the numerical solution to a problem. Apply appropriate techniques to arrive at a solution, test the correctness of the solution, and interpret the results.
  2. Explain the physics problem and its solution in both words and appropriately specific equations to both experts and non-experts.
  3. Understand the objective of a physics laboratory experiment, properly carry out the experiments, and appropriately record and analyze the results.
  4. Use standard laboratory equipment, modern instrumentation, and classical techniques to carry out experiments.
  5. Know how to design, construct, and complete a science-based independent project (specifically in the area of electronics).
  6. Know and follow the proper procedures and regulations for safely working in a lab.
  7. Communicate the concepts and results of their laboratory experiments through effective writing and oral communication skills.


Our graduates will:

  1. Be able to successfully pursue career objectives in graduate school or professional schools, in a scientific career in government or industry, in a teaching career, or in a related career.
  2. Be able to think creatively about scientific problems and their solutions, to design experiments, and to constructively question results they are presented with, whether these results are in a newspaper, in a classroom, or elsewhere.

The Physics Major Core Curriculum is designed to achieve these goals:
Developing a broad understanding of the physical principles of the universe requires a detailed knowledge of a wide range of topics, requiring a highly structured program of courses.  The program is also designed to develop strong mathematical and analytical skills, good laboratory skills, and effective written and oral communication skills, as well as knowledge of computer use and programming at a scientific level in the form of MatLab and LabView, and basic library search tools.  The program is also designed to empower students to develop and construct their own experimental projects.  The program has three required levels or tiers.  (Detailed course descriptions may be found at lower division courses; upper division courses)

Tier 1:
The lower division prerequisites to the major consists of five lower division courses, chosen to introduce students to fundamental math and physics concepts needed for upper division work:

  • Physics 5A-5C or 7A-7C, and Physics 89
  • Math 1A-1B, and Math 53*
    *Note: Math N53 is not accepted by Physics to satisfy Math 53.

The Physics 5 sequence 5A, 5B and 5C have replaced the 7-series honor courses. The 5-series is recommended for students with advanced placement credit.  They cover the same topics but use more sophisticated mathematics and provide a stronger introduction and preparation for the Tier 2 courses. 

Tier 2:
The upper division core courses are designed to teach our students the fundamental knowledge expected of physics majors, specifically quantum mechanics, classical mechanics, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, optics, and special relativity. These courses also teach problem solving skills, including the ability to set up problems and make numerical estimates. Grades on homework assignments and exams provide the primary system of evaluating performance at this level.  These courses are:

  • Analytic Mechanics (105)
  • Quantum Mechanics (137A-137B)
  • Electromagnetism and Optics (110A)
  • Statistical and Thermal Physics (112)

Tier 3:
These advanced courses give an introduction to fields of modern Physics and to modern experimental techniques, and provide a “capstone” to the program.

One or more of the following courses (referred to as “electives”) is required. The goal of the elective courses is to give the student an introduction to more specialized topics, drawing on the knowledge gained in the core curriculum, typically requiring knowledge drawn from all the upper division core courses to understand advanced topics in modern physics.  These courses also provide students with what is usually their first glimpse into possible career research directions.  The courses usually require written assignments and examinations.  Grades in these assignments and exams provide the primary means of evaluating performance at this level.

  • Electromagnetism and Optics (110B)
  • Particle Physics (129)
  • Quantum and Nonlinear Optics (130)
  • Modern Atomic Physics (138)
  • Special and General Relativity (139)
  • Solid State Physics (141A (and/or B))
  • Introduction to Plasma Physics (142)
  • Elective Physics: Special Topics (151)
  • Relativistic Astrophysics and Cosmology (C161)
  • Principles of Molecular Biophysics (177)
  • Bayesian Data Analysis and Machine Learning for Physical Sciences (188)
  • Quantum Information Science and Technology (C191) 

Students can request a course from another department be used as an elective; this requires approval of the Head Undergraduate Advisor. In these courses, students apply and extend knowledge from the core courses to modern physics topics.

2. The Advanced Laboratory Physics (111) 6-9 unit course sequence is required.

In the first part of this course sequence, students work in small teams to learn techniques of electronic instrumentation, digital and analog circuits, computer interfacing to experiments (via LabView, a standard experimental lab program), and are asked to design and implement an independent project of their own choosing. Students also learn to use MatLab for data analysis.

In the second half of the sequence, students again work in small teams to complete four experiments, choosing from among many different experiments ranging from classic Nobel Prize winning work (e.g., Optical Pumping or the Mossbauer Effect), to areas of current research interest (e.g. nonlinear dynamics and laser manipulation of atoms).  The Donald A. Glaser Advanced Laboratory provides a nearly unique opportunity among physics departments nationwide to do such experiments, and allows for students to develop their own ideas to test.

The students give both written and oral reports on their work thus gaining experience in communicating scientific results.  This advanced lab requires students bring together concepts from many different core courses, and connects their theoretical knowledge gained from homework and exams in previous courses to the experimental underpinning of this knowledge. The goal of Physics 111 –Advanced Laboratory – is to give the student the opportunity to apply the knowledge they gained in the core courses to understand real and important physical phenomena.  It also teaches students experimental techniques necessary for research in both industrial and academic positions. 

It is from students’ performances in the Glaser Advanced Laboratory (Physics 111) that we see how well the students are able to bring together all the material they have learned in courses and apply it to real physics problems that are in many cases completely new to them. This is where students learn they have become Physicists, and develop confidence to go on to the next stage of their careers.

Many students also participate in independent study or research projects in Physics faculty laboratories.  Such projects provide the best possible training in learning to apply classroom knowledge to real experiments, and allow further development of the creative process that is so necessary to being a researcher. 

Assessment Measures

Due to the highly structured program, performance in each core and elective course provides an ongoing measure of the students’ progress during most of the major.  We are also developing a means of assessing final outcomes of the major, using the framework of the Advanced Laboratory to provide an overall assessment that is more global in nature than the exams in each course.

In addition, the Physics Department:

  1. Annually provides Exit Interviews to all of our graduating seniors, which we encourage them to complete by providing a ‘graduating senior’ lunch annually. These exit interviews help us the affective goals of how students feel about the program and their career plans after graduation.  The Department also periodically (every 5-10 years) conducts more extensive surveys of our majors.
  2. Academic Advising by faculty advisors. Students are required to meet with their academic faculty advisor every term to discuss their program and progress in the major.  There is a faculty Head Undergraduate Advisor as well as the staff member head of our Undergraduate Student Affairs who meets with the faculty advisors and students to gather input.
  3. The Physics Department distributes, collects and analyzes course evaluations completed by students for each offered course every semester to monitor success of curriculum. 

To evaluate the outcomes of these assessment tools, there are two standing departmental committees that monitor the program and consider the need for changes in courses or in the major. One committee is responsible for the lower division courses and the other for the upper division program.  Feedback from the above evaluations/ interviews provides useful input in considering modifications of the major requirements.

There is a newly-created USLI Committee that is responsible for developing questions and assessment tools to be used in the Advanced Lab, and for analyzing data from oral and written reports to insure the Physics Department continues to meet set learning goals. The USLI committee will summarize its assessment activities at the end of each academic year and will then report the results to the Physics Department via the Department Chair.  The USLI Committee will make recommendations on how the major could be strengthened.  The Department will decide upon and carry out appropriate follow-ups to all assessment activities.

Maintaining Educational Goals

There is need to be sensitive to the evolution of knowledge in physics.  Many of the topics we now teach in lower division courses were previously the province of graduate courses.  These changes are usually made gradually as textbooks change or instructors add new material, and leads to the question of what traditional topics are left out to make time for the new material.  The above committees consider these questions or problems related to them and make recommendations for consideration by the faculty. The assessments described above are intended to ensure that educational goals set by the Physics Department continue to meet our high standards of an undergraduate curriculum in Physics. The Physics Department at UC Berkeley is ranked one of the top programs in the nation, an indication of the success of our program, and we intend to remain vigilant in monitoring our program and in looking for ways to improve it.