First-Year Students' Guide

Chair: Professor Arjendu Pattanayak

Studying physics and astronomy opens many doors. The quantitative modeling experience, the computer programming and laboratory skills, and the thoughtful approach to problem solving are relevant in many arenas and prepare students for a variety of career paths post-Carleton. Physics majors in the past few years have gone on to graduate school in architecture, astronomy, civil engineering, earth and planetary science, electrical engineering, law, mechanical engineering, medical physics, and physics. And graduates who have gone directly into the work force have gotten positions in teaching, engineering, software development, and investment banking, as well as research positions.

There are several physics and astronomy courses available for first year students. Look below to learn more about how to get started on the path to a physics/astronomy major. For students interested in a general introduction to Astronomy, ASTR 110 is available in the Fall. This course satisfies the laboratory science graduation requirement and has no prerequisites.

Can I major in it?

Yes, a major in physics/astronomy is offered.

Courses cover topics in classical and quantum mechanics, special relativity, atomic and nuclear physics, electricity and magnetism, statistical physics and thermodynamics, astrophysics, materials science, optics, condensed matter physics, electronics, computational physics, contemporary experimental physics, as well as occasional electives in medical physics and general relativity.

How to get started

See the flowchart for an overview of the introductory courses in the physics and astronomy department.

Students interested in majoring in physics should plan on taking Physics 131/151, Physics 143, or Physics 144 in their first year. Note that Math 121 is a pre- or co- requisite for Physics 151, Physics 143, and Physics 144. All introductory courses have a required 4-hour lab each week associated with the course.

  • Physics 131 (fall) is taught during the first five weeks of the term and is designed for students who have not taken a high school course. This course should be followed by Physics 151 (fall) taught during the second five weeks of term.
  • Physics 143 (winter, spring) is a 10-week course designed for students who do not have a strong math and/or a calculus-based physics background. Students who have not taken calculus in high school should plan to take Physics 143 in the winter term. The spring term Physics 143 course contains extra problem-solving support and is designed for students who do not have a strong math background.
  • Physics 144 (winter) is a 10-week course, designed for students who have a strong math and/or calculus-based physics background. The winter term courses are freshman priority.

Students with a strong high school physics background are encouraged to take Physics 144 in Winter Term. In order to ensure that students maximize their potential for success, the physics and astronomy department has found, in most cases, it is not recommended that a student skip the introductory sequence, even if the student has taken a strong AP or IB course. Although some of the content may be similar to what students have seen in high school classes, the department finds that there are additional benefits that students gain from taking introductory physics at Carleton, including experience working collegially with other potential majors on problem sets and labs, as well as gaining a familiarity with the expectations of our department.

Pre-med students are required to take 2 full terms of physics (with labs). The topics covered in Physics 145 and Physics 165 are the most relevant for those wishing to take the MCAT, but pre-med students are not limited to those courses in the sequence.

3-2 engineering students are required to take two full-terms of physics. For 3-2 engineering students who intend to be physics majors, any of the following introductory courses are appropriate: Physics 131/151, Physics 143, or Physics 144. For 3-2 engineering students who do not intend to be majors, only Physics 152 and Physics 165 satisfy the program prerequisites.

Students are encouraged to discuss their potential schedule with any faculty member in physics and astronomy. Students interested in pursuing graduate studies in astronomy, astrophysics and most forms of engineering will find a physics/astronomy major will provide excellent preparation.