Physical Sciences 


Degrees Offered:

  • BA
  • PhD
  • Minor*

Department Website

Degree Requirements 

Sample Four Year Plan

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* = Minors are not technically a degree, but can be pursued to supplement a bachelor's degree

The Department of Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder offers award-winning programs, well-established and knowledgeable faculty and an unmatched educational experience. 

The curriculum offered by the department provides knowledge of the physical concepts that are basic to the laws of nature, and the ability to use these fundamental concepts to answer questions and solve real problems. Students also gain an understanding of the relationship of physics to other fields such as astronomy, biology, engineering, chemistry and medicine.

My work with the professors was instrumental. My coursework taught me physics, but it was my professors who taught me how to be a physicist."

— Carrie Weidner (MS, physics; PhD, physics)

Are you interested in science? What about understanding how things work? At the heart of both those questions is the role of physics. 

Physics is crucial to understanding everything from the smallest subatomic particles to the largest galaxies, and challenges how we view things as abstract as existence. And it has led the way on everything from curing cancer to developing clean energy technologies.

 

And at CU Boulder, the Department of Physics is ranked as one of the best in the world, with its graduate program ranked #14 in the nation, according to the most recent U.S. News and World Reports rankings. Additionally, the atomic, molecular and optical graduate specialization is ranked #2, and the quantum graduate specialization is ranked #6, by the same metrics.

For interested undergraduates, the department offers three different plans of study depending on interests:

  1. Plan I: This plan is primarily for students planning graduate work in physics.

  2. Plan II: This plan is for students desiring either an interdisciplinary or an applied physics program. The interdisciplinary program includes a combination of a physics major with a focus in another area such as astrophysics, atmospheric sciences, applied mathematics, biophysics, chemical physics, computer science, environmental sciences, geophysics, philosophy and history of science and pre-medicine. The applied physics program includes a focus on applying physics to a field such as biotechnology, optics, and electronic devices.

  3. Plan III: This plan is for students intending to become elementary or secondary school teachers.

In addition, the department has a number of excellent and award-winning faculty, and is home to multiple Nobel laureates, College of Arts and Sciences' Professors of Distinction, University of Colorado Distinguished Professors, MacArthur "Genius Grant" receipients, Presidential Early Career Award winners and Fellows for Packard, American Physical Society, the Optical Society of America, Alfred P. Sloan, the American Association for the Advacement of Science, Guggenheim and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The Department of Physics is nationally recognized in several areas of research, focusing broadly in nine categories: Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics; Biophysics; Chemical Physics; Condensed Matter Physics; Geophysics; High Energy Physics; Nuclear Physics; Physics Education Research; Plasma Physics; and History and Philosophy of Science.

Their diverse faculty are affiliated with many different research labs and institutions, both within the university (JILA, the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, the Laboratory for Nuclear Physics, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, Materials Science and Engineering, and the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute, Center for Integrated Plasma Studies, Center for STEM Learning, Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy, Center for theory of Quantum Matter and the Center for Imaging the Earth's Interior), in the Boulder area (the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory) and outside Colorado (CERN, FermiLab and the T2K Experiment).

For the undergraduate students pursuing a degree in physics, there are a number of research opportunities beyond just class work:

  • Physics majors are encouraged to work in a research laboratory. Such experience is especially useful if you want to pursue a career in science or engineering. Involvement in laboratory experimentation provides you with knowledge of modern electronic equipment and computerized instrumentation, such as digital circuitry and microprocessors. As a contributing member of a research group, you also get a real sense of the creative processes that are part of modern physics research.

  • As part of that, students may want to consider the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). This program offers you the opportunity to work alongside a faculty sponsor on original research. Learn to write proposals, conduct research, pursue creative work, analyze data and present the result. For more information, call UROP at 303-492-2596 or visit the UROP website.

  • The department also encourages faculty-advised research and honors theses. Graduating with honors requires a) a grade point average of 3.3 or higher, b) successfully completing two honors seminars and c) writing and defending an honors thesis based upon original research. Students who graduate with honors receive a designation of cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude depending upon the overall quality of their work.

  • Students should also consider the opportunity to study abroad during your undergraduate years. The university offers more than 100 programs around the world, and you may spend from a few weeks to a full academic year abroad, depending on the program you select. You may earn credit as if you had taken the courses here, sometimes fulfilling core or major requirements. Further information about study abroad is available from Education Abroad, 303-492-7741 or on the education abroad website.

Physics provides an excellent background for a wide variety of careers. Design and development work in industrial firms, government laboratories, and nonprofit research centers present opportunities to apply theory to specific problems. In such settings, physics graduates often work closely with those who have engineering backgrounds, complementing their more specific training with the physicist’s broader concepts. Other opportunities exist in industrial research and development including computational applications. Graduates can also go on to careers in business, law, or medicine, after appropriate graduate work. 

Career Services offers free services for all CU Boulder degree-seeking students, and alumni up to one year after graduation, to help students discover who they are, what they want to do, and how to get there. They are the bridge between academics and the world of work by discussing major and career exploration, internship or job searching, and graduate school preparation. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects: 

  • that 2016-2026 job growth for physicists and astronomers will be 14 percent, faster than the average for all jobs.
  • Median 2016 pay for physicists and astronomers was $114,870, according to the bureau.

According to the 2017-18 College Salary Report by PayScale Human Capital: 

  • the median salary for someone with a bachelor’s degree in Physics and 0-5 years of experience is $58,000;
  • median salary for 10-plus years of experience, $108,000.

Estimated Physics Salary Info

At CU Boulder, Physics graduates earn less than the nationwide average of comparable majors as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Payscale. CU Boulder alumni in this discipline earn an estimated annual salary of $89,102, based on a pool of 296 alumni who graduated between 1989 and 2018. This amount, however, is roughly the same as the average for all CU Boulder graduates with a bachelor's degree, according to a survey by Esmi Alumni Insight of 25,000 alumni who graduated during the same stretch.

The physics department has an extensive list of alumni that are either working or have worked in a variety of industries across the globe. Some alumni of the program include:

  • Neil Ashby (BS '55) is professor emeritus of theoretical math and physics at CU Boulder. His work is the basis for general relativistic correction being properly included in the Global Positioning System.
  • Joe Romig (BS Physics '63; PhD Astrogeophysics '75), founder of the consulting firm Ponderosa Associates, was a two-time all-American selection and runner-up for the Heisman Trophy when he played football at CU and a Rhodes Scholar. He also worked in the advanced planetary program section of Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) and contributed to NASA’s Voyager missions.
  • Stephen Halley White (BS '63) is emeritus professor of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of California at Irvine.
  • Polly Fordice (BS '00) is assistant professor in Genetics and in Bioengineering at Stanford University.
  • Taryn Elliott (BS '07) is an attorney specializing in intellectual property law and complex commercial litigation with the Polsinelli law firm in Denver.
  • Hosea Rosenberg (BS '97) is owner of Blackbelly restaurant in Boulder.
  • Thomas Bliska (BA '77) is general partner at Crosslink Capital in San Francisco. As an investment analyst and later as a portfolio manager, Mr. Bliska recognized the early signs of global warming and environmental degradation, anticipating the resulting challenges to the global economy.