Why study physics?

Why Study Physics?

Why Study Physics?

The goal of physics is to understand how things work from first principles.  We offer physics courses that are matched to a range of goals that students may have in studying physics -- taking elective courses to broaden one's scientific literacy, satisfying requirements for a major in the sciences or engineering, or working towards a degree in physics or engineering physics. Courses in physics reveal the mathematical beauty of the universe at scales ranging from subatomic to cosmological. Studying physics strengthens quantitative reasoning and problem solving skills that are valuable in areas beyond physics.

Students who study physics or engineering physics are prepared to work on forefront ideas in science and technology, in academia, the government, or the private sector.  Careers might focus on basic research in astrophysics, cosmology, particle physics, atomic physics, photonics or condensed matter physics, or in more applied research in areas such as renewable energy, quantum information science, materials development, biophysics, or medical physics. Careers could also include teaching, medicine, law (especially intellectual property or patent law), science writing, history of science, philosophy of science, science policy, energy policy, government, or management in technical fields.
The physics and engineering physics majors are great preparation for almost any career, because they teach students how to analyze complex problems and they give students a strong quantitative background that can be applied in any technical field.
You can find information on careers in physics, engineering physics and related fields at these very useful sites:

Where do I start?

  • Students who have never studied physics before and would like a broad introduction should consider one of the introductory seminar courses in Physics or Applied Physics. Those interested in astronomy and astrophysics might enjoy PHYSICS 15, 16 or 17, which is intended for nontechnical majors.
  • Students considering a career in science or engineering should start with the PHYSICS 20 & 40 series or PHYSICS 61, 71, 81.
  • The PHYSICS 20 series assumes no background in calculus, and is intended primarily for those who are majoring in the biological sciences. However, such students who have AP credit in calculus or physics should consider taking the PHYSICS 40 series, which will provide a depth and emphasis on problem solving that is of significant value in biological research, which today involves considerable physics-based technology.
  • For those intending to major in engineering or the physical sciences, or simply wishing a stronger background in physics, the department offers the PHYSICS 40 series and PHYSICS 61, 71, 81. Either of these series will satisfy the entry-level physics requirements of any Stanford major.  However, students majoring in Physics or Engineering Physics are required to take PHYSICS 61, 71, 81 -- possibly after completing PHYSICS 41 and 43. 
  • PHYSICS 61, 71, 81 courses are intended for those who have already taken a physics course at the level of PHYSICS 41 and 43, or at least have a strong background in mechanics, some background in electricity and magnetism, and a strong background in calculus. To determine whether you are prepared for PHYSICS 61, take the the Physics Placement Diagnostic.
  • The PHYSICS 40 series begins with PHYSICS 41 (mechanics), which is offered as a 4-unit course in both Autumn and Winter quarters, and continues with PHYSICS 43 (electricity and magnetism) in both Winter and Spring quarters, and PHYSICS 45 (thermodynamics and optics) in Autumn quarter.
  • Beginning in academic year 2023/2024, a five-unit version of PHYSICS 41 is offered in the Winter quarter: PHYSICS 41E (Extended). This course is designed to enable students who have had little or no high school physics background to succeed in physics. 
  • The PHYSICS 61, 71, 81 series begins in the Autumn quarter (only) with special relativity and a deeper dive into mechanics.   
  • While most students are recommended to begin with mechanics in the PHYSICS 40 series (PHYSICS 41 or 41E), those who have had strong physics preparation in high school (such as a score of at least 4 on the Physics Advanced Placement C exam) may be ready to start with PHYSICS 45 in Autumn quarter (and then take PHYSICS 43 in the Winter quarter), or to start with PHYSICS 61 in the Autumn. 
  • Students are individually advised on the best entry point into either the PHYSICS 40 series or PHYSICS 61, 71, 81 on the basis of their score on the Physics Placement Diagnostic, which is available online.