Discoveries in physics and astronomy expand our understanding of the components and interaction laws that govern nature from the smallest of scales – the quarks that are the building blocks of protons and neutrons – to the overwhelming largest of scales – the collections of galaxies in the universe. In the realms between, physicists generate new materials, develop the scientific basis for new technologies, and find the motifs and rules that make nature understandable.
In courses in physics and astronomy, students learn fundamental knowledge about mechanics and Newton’s laws, the magnetic and electrical properties of matter, quantum and statistical mechanics, dark matter and dark energy as well as the applied, quantum mechanical properties of nanodevices, the uses of lasers in genetics research and surgery, and the forces cells use to move. No matter what the question – How and when did the universe come to be? Why is matter sometimes left- and other times right-handed? How does a cell respond to the physical stimuli in its environment? Or even why does matter exist at all? – physics and astronomy contribute to discovering the answers.
Major and Minor in Physics
The Department of Physics and Astronomy offers a broadly-based major program flexible enough to serve as preparation for graduate study in physics, applied physics, medical physics, astronomy or astrophysics, or engineering, or for technical employment. We also offer a minor for students who wish to combine some study of physics with other majors. You do not have to be bound for a career in the physical sciences to benefit from a major in physics. In addition to the option for graduate study in a scientific field, physics majors build on their problem-solving, mathematical and computational-skills backgrounds to pursue careers in law, medicine, pharmacology, business, consulting, teaching, military leadership, and (increasingly) computer programming.
About half of our physics majors double major in mathematics; also, about half complete a minor in scientific computing or computer science, and some do both. Training in computer programming is especially important now, both as preparation for undergraduate and graduate research and for employment opportunities.
Minor in Astronomy
The minor in astronomy is designed for non-physics majors who wish to pursue their interest in astronomy. Students interested in scientific careers in astronomy should pursue a major in physics, supplemented with advanced astrophysics courses.
Undergraduate Research and Honors Program
All of our undergraduates have the opportunity to do research under the guidance of superb faculty representing many specialties, including biological physics, astrophysics, condensed-matter physics, computational physics, particle physics and nuclear physics. In the supportive settings of small classes and groups of researchers, they test their powers of logical and mathematical reasoning and use state-of-the-art tools to explore the largest galaxies, probe the tiniest sub-nuclear domains, develop new materials, or manipulate and control cells. Nearly half of our physics majors do senior honors theses and our undergraduates frequently are co-authors on significant scientific papers.
We strongly encourage physics majors who desire an international experience to study abroad, and about one-fourth of them do so. Though a study abroad experience is not required, we encourage physics majors to study abroad in English-speaking countries (England, Scotland, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa), where they can take physics and astrophysics courses while abroad.
The Physics and Astronomy community includes about 25 tenure-stream faculty, and nearly 100 other PhD-level scientists both in the department and across the university, including in the Schools of Engineering and Medicine. We also are home to about 60 PhD-seeking graduate students, and 12-18 physics majors in each graduating class. Our classes for physics majors are typically quite small, and physics majors with adequate preparation often enroll in graduate courses. Further, with only a few dozen physics majors across all years and nearly ten times that many scholars with whom they can become immersed in research, the research opportunities in physics and in astronomy are enormous.
Vanderbilt physicists and astronomers have conspicuous, leadership roles in several “big science” projects – e.g., CMS (201 institutions, 45 countries), PHENIX (77 inst., 13 countries), and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (35 inst., 11 countries). We also have collaborations with Oak Ridge National Lab and Fermilab and with 62 other domestic and international institutions plus 5 multinational corporations.
Many of our students continue in graduate school after Vanderbilt. Recent examples are
David Zhang, 2019, Stanford
X.G. Xu, 2019, Yale
Yuhan Guo, 2019, Columbia
Nicholas Belstein, 2019, MIT
Students are also recruited for research and development projects by big corporations like Nissan, Capital One, HCA Healthcare Inc., and Google.
Please contact us to arrange a visit. You are invited for a classroom or research laboratory visit and our faculty are ready to help and answer with questions your future physics studies at Vanderbilt.
Director of Undergraduate Studies
Department of Physics & Astronomy
Box 1807, Station B
Nashville, TN 37235
Phone: (615) 322-2828