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:
American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center
American Physical Society, Careers in Physics
Sloan Career Cornerstone Center
Where do I start?
For an overview of "where to start?" see the video narrated by Professors Pat Burchat and Hari Manoharan on the academic video web site.
- Students who have never studied physics before and would like a broad introduction should consider PHYSICS 19 ("How Things Work: An Introduction to Physics") or 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 or 60 series.
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 and 60 series. Either of these will satisfy the entry-level physics requirements of any Stanford major.
The PHYSICS 60 series is 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.
The PHYSICS 40 series begins with mechanics in Winter quarter, electricity and magnetism in Spring quarter, and thermodynamics and optics in Autumn quarter.
While we recommend that most students begin the sequence with mechanics (PHYSICS 41) in Winter quarter, 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 the sequence with PHYSICS 45 in Autumn quarter. You will be individually advised on the best entry point into either the PHYSICS 40 or 60 series on the basis of your score on the Physics Placement Test, which is given during New Student Orientation.