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How Long Does It Take to Finish a Physics Major?

by Elissa Hansen

Time to degree depends on a number of factors, but students who declare a physics major in their first year of study should be able to finish in four years without the massive course loads that some four-year degrees require. Frequent meetings with an academic adviser will help ensure that every course counts toward the degree.

General Education

At most colleges and universities, general education credits compose about a third of the required credits for a bachelor’s degree. These courses are designed to give students breadth of knowledge before they focus primarily on their major coursework. Full-time physics students generally complete these requirements within their first two years while also beginning their physics coursework. Depending on the school, some of these credits count toward major course requirements for the physics degree, removing a couple of courses from the list.

Major Coursework

Schools design major coursework so that students who begin a physics program in their freshman year can finish in four years of full-time study. For example, Santa Cruz requires four lower-division physics courses, three lower-division mathematics courses and one computer programming course, which students usually complete in their first two years. The advanced major requirements, which students begin in their second year and continue through their fourth year, consist of 14 courses and two labs, covering topics such as thermodynamics, quantum mechanics and electricity. Students must also complete a senior thesis research course in addition to writing their thesis, which the university recommends completing in two quarters.

Support Courses and Electives

Some degree programs give physics students the opportunity to take support courses and electives outside of the physics department, often to earn a concentration or a minor in another subject. For example, the physics major at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology allows students to use such coursework to create their own focus on an additional discipline, such as astronomy, nanotechnology, the history of science, philosophy or science teaching. Students need to begin this work in their sophomore year if they want to graduate in four years.

Course Load

The number of credits in which students enroll each term effects graduation time. The federal government defines full-time study as 12 units per term, whether semesters or quarters, for student loan purposes. Students who take 12 units per term will earn 96 semester units or 144 quarter units in four years. However, bachelor’s degrees in physics generally require about 120 semester units or 180 quarter units, meaning that such “full-time” students will graduate in five full years rather than four. To graduate in four years, students must enroll in at least 15 units per term. Alternatively, to graduate in six years, ten units per term suffice.

About the Author

Elissa Hansen has more than nine years of editorial experience, and she specializes in academic editing across disciplines. She teaches university English and professional writing courses, holding a Bachelor of Arts in English and a certificate in technical communication from Cal Poly, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Wyoming, and a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota.

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