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College Physics Curriculum

  1. Dec 18, 2014 #1
    What are the common classes, and if it's not too much additional trouble, textbooks that are associated with then in the first year of college under a Theoretical Physics major?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 18, 2014 #2


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    In the US, most colleges and universities don't have a separate Theoretical Physics major. If there is such a major, it probably isn't significantly different from a standard physics major until junior year.

    At most schools, a first-year physics major takes two semesters of calculus-based introductory physics using a textbook like Halliday/Resnick/Walker "Fundamentals of Physics", Young/Freedman "University Physics" or a bunch of other similar textbooks. Also calculus, starting with Calculus I or wherever the math department places you based on what you've done in high school. Stewart and Swokowski are two common textbooks.
  4. Dec 18, 2014 #3


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    In a few places, an honors-physics freshman sequence is
    Kleppner&Kolenkow for intro-mechanics and Purcell for intro-electrodynamics.

    Some other places might actually start off with some modern physics before a typical calculus-based textbook like those mentioned above.
  5. Dec 18, 2014 #4
    I was also meaning to ask this — thank you for answering this in advance! I aspire to major in Quantum Mechanics, but I was unsure whether a bachelors in Theoretical Physics or General Physics would be more suited, or whether it would make any difference at all when pursuing a doctorate.

    I'm thankfully in possession of a James Stewart Single Variable Calculus book that I can study from in the time being, alongside this though I have Physics for Scientist and Engineers by Serway and Jewett, is this too advanced of a textbook to be studying from early on?

    Thank you. I was curious as well as to if colleges give separate classes for different areas of physics during the pursuit of a bachelors, such a class dedicated to strictly electrodynamics, quantum mechanics, etc.
  6. Dec 19, 2014 #5


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    I've never even heard of a major in "theoretical physics" or a major in "quantum physics" or anything like that. I'm not sure that such a distinction in undergraduate physics majors even exists. There is simply an undergraduate major in physics. Schools sometimes offer an applied physics major, which is closer to an engineering physics degree. If you're interested in theoretical and quantum physics, you want to simply major in physics.

    As others have already explained, you would take an introductory calculus sequence, along with differential equations and linear algebra, at minimum. You'd take the introductory calculus based physics sequence, which is typically three semesters. First semester is classical mechanics, second is electricity and magnetism, third is modern physics (relativity, thermodynamics, waves, optics, quantum, particles). After that, you'll typically have a couple semesters each of upper level classical mechanics, E&M, and quantum. A semester of thermodynamics, a semester of relativity, and some upper level labs. Many physics majors are also required to take an introductory programming course, and a general chemistry sequence. That's a fairly typical curriculum for a physics major. There is very little differentiation between them from school to school. Specialization in a more specific area of physics doesn't really come until grad school. You'll likely have some free space for some electives. These can be filled with physics courses or math courses that will appeal more closely to your areas of interest.

    Serway and Jewett is a fairly standard introductory calc-based physics text. As long as you have a solid handle on the basics of differentiation and integration, you'll be fine with it.

    edit-Whoops. I just saw that you were specifically asking about the first year.

    That depends. Physics majors will often start with calculus I and university physics I (classical mechanics), plus some other GenEd courses. Second semester would be calculus II and university physics II (electricity and magnetism), plus some GenEds.

    Some schools require calculus I prior to university physics I, in which case you wouldn't actually start your physics courses until the spring semester.
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