Physics Major | Physics Minor

General Distribution Requirement

All courses in the physics and astronomy department except some topics courses and those numbered PHYS 614, PHYS 624, PHYS 634 and PHYS 644 count toward the general distribution requirement in mathematics and natural science.

General Education Requirements

Courses that meet the general education requirements in writing, quantitative thinking, internationalism and U.S. identities and differences will be posted on the Registrar's web page in advance of registration for each semester.

Additional information regarding the general distribution requirement and the general education requirements can be found in the graduation requirements section of this catalog.

Honors Program

The physics and astronomy department participates in the honors program. Eligibility requirements, application procedures and specific project expectations for the department are available from either the department office or the Academic Programs and Advising Office.

Topics Courses

PHYS 194, PHYS 294, PHYS 394, PHYS 494 

These temporary courses are offered by instructors at their own initiative or in response to student requests. The following are examples of recent offerings: Computational Physics, and Research in Astrophysics. To be announced at registration. (2-4 credits)

Independent Study

The department offers independent study options in the form of independent projects, internships, preceptorships and Honors independent projects. For more information contact the department and review the Curriculum section of the catalog.

Physics Major

Major Requirements

The major in physics provides a rigorous study of many topics in the field of physics that are fundamental for every scientific and technological discipline. The physics major is particularly appropriate for students wishing to pursue graduate study in physics, astronomy, engineering, medicine and related areas, as well as for those seeking positions in technology-oriented business and industry. For example, a double major in physics and computer science would be excellent preparation for graduate study in computer engineering.

The minimum requirements for the physics major are 35 physics credits. These include the nine courses numbered PHYS 226 - Principles of Physics I, PHYS 227 - Principles of Physics II, PHYS 331 - Modern Physics, PHYS 348 - Laboratory Instrumentation, PHYS 443 - Electromagnetic Theory, PHYS 461 - Mechanics, PHYS 468 - Statistical Mechanics, PHYS 481 - Quantum Mechanics, and PHYS 489 - Physics Seminar, and completion of an independent project to satisfy the senior capstone requirement (see below). All physics majors are expected to develop the computer skills necessary to obtain solutions for meaningful problems.

Students intending to pursue graduate study in physics, astronomy, engineering or other closely related disciplines should consult with a department faculty advisor to consider which advanced elective courses would be most appropriate for their career goals. For example, preparation for graduate study in physics should include PHYS 444 - Electromagnetic Radiation, Electromagnetic Radiation and PHYS 482 - Advanced Quantum Mechanics. These advanced electives are offered in alternate years.

The senior capstone requirement in physics and astronomy is satisfied by participation as a senior in the PHYS 489 - Physics Seminar, and completion of an approved research experience, an approved independent project, or a senior honors thesis. Students are expected to give a formal talk on their capstone project as part of the Physics Seminar, and to submit a capstone paper subject that is subject to a peer review process. Papers meeting appropriate standards are publshed in the Macalester Journal of Physics.

Starting with the class graduating in 2020, three semesters of PHYS 489 - Physics Seminar taken during the junior and senior year are required. One of these semesters must be the spring semester of the senior year.

The Physics Plus program was created based on feedback from alumni enrolled in premier graduate physics programs. Its purpose is to provide further preparation to those majors who intend to enroll in graduate school after graduation. The program requires majors to complete at least two out of three second semester courses in Quantum Mechanics (PHYS 482), Electrodynamics (PHYS 444), and Astrophysics, and at least one additional special topics course or elective, numbered above 331, beyond the core physics curriculum. The department provides majors who complete the Physics Plus program with an official letter, explaining the program and confirming that the student has met its requirements.

Students expecting to complete a major in physics are urged to make early contact with the department for help in evaluating advanced placement options and for assistance in planning course selections. A typical schedule for the first two years for a student without advanced placement follows:

Sequence of Courses

Fall semester Spring Semester
First Year PHYS 226 PHYS 227
MATH 135 MATH 137
elective elective
elective elective
Sophomore Year PHYS 331 PHYS 348
MATH 237 MATH 236
elective elective
elective elective


Macalester does not offer engineering courses. However, students who desire to pursue engineering as a career may earn a graduate degree in an engineering field after graduation from Macalester.

Physics Major with Astronomy Emphasis

This option is designed for students with a strong interest in astronomy and astrophysics who may be contemplating post-graduate work in these areas. The physics major with astronomy emphasis includes the following courses required for the physics major: PHYS 226 - Principles of Physics I, PHYS 227 - Principles of Physics II, PHYS 331 - Modern Physics, PHYS 443 - Electromagnetic Theory, PHYS 461 - Mechanics, PHYS 468 - Statistical Mechanics and PHYS 489 - Physics Seminar (1 credit). In addition, students must take PHYS 460 - Astrophysics and PHYS 440 - Observational Astronomy. The capstone requirements for a physics major with astronomy emphasis are identical to those for a physics major. For students with little or no astronomy background we strongly recommend starting with PHYS 113 - Modern Astronomy I and PHYS 120 - Astronomical Techniques. Students considering graduate work in astronomy or astrophysics should also consider taking PHYS 468 - Statistical Mechanics and PHYS 481 - Quantum Mechanics, mathematics through MATH 312 - Differential Equations, and having some computer programming experience (e.g. COMP 120 - Computing and Society or higher). Those students choosing a major with an astronomy emphasis will have this noted on their transcripts (e.g. Physics Major with Astronomy Emphasis).

Physics Minor

Minor Requirements

The minor in physics consists of PHYS 226 - Principles of Physics I, PHYS 227 - Principles of Physics II, PHYS 331 - Modern Physics and two electives in physics numbered above PHYS 331 - Modern Physics.