Information for New and Prospective Undergraduates

The Department offers majors in Physics, Astrophysics, and Applied Physics.  The Physics and Astrophysics majors are designed to prepare students for advanced graduate study in more specialized subjects.  The Applied Physics major is good preparation not only for industrial careers but also for graduate studies.  In fact, all three share the same Undergraduate student researchersfoundational courses and differ mainly in some of the upper-division required courses and electives. 

The Department also offers a Physics minor comprised of the introductory sequence, modern physics, the intermediate lab, and an upper division elective.  The Astrophysics minor is offered by the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

If you are considering one of the majors offered by the physics department but have not yet made up your mind or declared, please get in touch with the undergraduate advisor, Maria Nishanian, and the coordinator of faculty advising, David Smith (contact information below).  We offer advising services to help prospective majors be prepared and make their decision, as well as advising students who have declared.  Because our major programs are very structured, it is easier to transition from physics to another program than from another program to physics.  If physics is one of your options, it's best to start as if you will end up in here, with Physics 5A and Math 19A (if you haven't placed out of it) at the start of your freshman year, if possible.  If you are already further along and are considering switching to physics, contact us as soon as you can so we can arrange the best plan for you.

Transfer students generally enter the program with preparation such that they can complete a physics major in two rqther compressed years, or three years allowing more time for undergraduate research and independent study; you are encouraged to discuss the relative advantages and disadvantages of these two possibilities with your undergraduate advisor.  

The following is a list of resources available for our new and continuing students:

Physics Honors Sequence (Curently NOT offered)

For first-year physics students desiring greater depth and breadth, each of the introductory physics courses in the 5A—5C series has a companion two-unit honors course taught by a different member of the Physics Department faculty.  The honors courses include some advanced treatment of the Physics 5 course material plus introductions to more modern topics and modern applications of physics.  See the General Catalog Course Descriptions for details.

Undergraduate Research

Involvement in original research as an undergraduate, usually as a research assistant working with a member of the faculty,  is a “second education” that can be as valuable as the education received in classwork.  These opportunities represent the biggest advantage of studying at a large research university.Physics Department Ballonfest

Finding the right research opportunity requires forethought and persistence.  Those who are planning to go to graduate school should start research well before the autumn of their senior year if possible, so that their research advisor knows them well and can write them a meaningful letter of recommendation.  Start looking by the start of your junior year, or even earlier if your grades are good and if you have fulfilled the Department's programming requirement early.  Contact faculty individually to make appointments to discuss possible research opportunities, and keep an eye on the student job listings as well.  You can find the research interests of the faculty members by visiting their websites.  You should also feel free to email faculty in other departments whose research interests you.  For example, members of the Astronomy and Astrophysics faculty often work with astrophysics majors.

While some majors each year fulfill their senior thesis requirement with projects of their own devising or by writing a review of a field of research, doing research with a faculty member is often the best way to find a good thesis topic.  In addition, summer research projects are available at universities and government laboratories throughout the country.  A partial list of these opportunities, with links, is available here.

Undergraduate Advising

Physics undergraduate advising is administered by the Division of Physical and Biological Sciences office of Undergraduate Affairs.  In addition, each declared or prospective physics ISB bridgemajor is assigned a faculty advisor whom they can email at any time to make an appointment .  While a student is welcome to approach either advisor with any issue, the Undergraduate Affairs advisor specializes in course requirements and progress towards degree, including consultations with your college advisor, while the faculty advisors specialize in issues like research opportunities, careers, and graduate school. Your advisors are also an important resource for help in how to study effectively and succeed in your classes.

All three major programs offered by the physics department involve a carefully constructed 4-year sequence of courses that build on the foundation established in Physics 5A/B/C in the freshman year.  Sample course planners and other information about major requirements are available here.

UCSC Frosh Orentation 


Undergraduate Affairs advisor: Maria Nishanian,

Coordinator of faculty advising: David Smith,

Society of Physics Students

The Society of Physics Students (SPS) is a professional association explicitly designed for students. Membership is open to anyone interested in physics. The only requirement for membership is that you be interested in physics. The SPS exists to help students transform themselves into contributing members of the professional community. Course work develops only one range of skills. Other skills needed to flourish professionally include effective communication and personal interactions, leadership experience, establishing a personal network of contacts, presenting scholarly work in professional meetings and journals, and outreach services to the campus and local communities.  Learn more about our local chapter of SPS at

Weekly Colloquium

Thursday at 4:00 p.m. is colloquium time.  Every week during the quarter a speaker talks on a subject of interest to upper-division physics majors, graduate students, and faculty.  Speakers come from other universities, from research centers, and from industry.  A few will be from UCSC.  A wide variety of subjects related to physics are discussed.  All students are encouraged to attend.  Astrophysics majors may also be interested in the weekly colloquium of the Astronomy and Astrophysics department, at 3:45pm on Wednesdays.  Being able to hear about cutting-edge research every week is one of the main advantages of being educated at a research university, so don't miss out.  More specialized research seminars also take place in the department every week.  These are usually more advanced and specialized than colloquia, but may still sometimes be of interest to you.  While the department webpages list some information on colloquia and seminars (links), the best source of detailed information is to look at the flyers posted each week.

Considering STUDY ABROAD?

Because of the highly structured nature of the course sequence in physics, it can be particularly difficult to take a quarter abroad without disrupting a four-year graduation plan.  Physics students who want to take a quarter abroad should begin planning very early and look into several possible schools.  Problems sometimes arise with availability or level of appropriate courses.  It is the responsibility of students considering education abroad to find out the details of course content and level at the institution they will be attending.  This is often most readily accomplished by finding out which text is being used and which sections are covered.  Contact the undergraduate advisor, Maria Nishanian,, for help with planning.

See Also