5 Most Popular Colleges for Physics Majors

The top schools (and their price tags) for aspiring physicists.

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Majoring in physics requires a good understanding of theory and a lot of experimentation. And when it comes to experiments, there’s no shortage of colleges with excellent labs.

The following schools not only have some of the most popular physics departments, but they’re also known for producing some of the best graduate students. Here are the five most popular places to earn a physics degree, along with the cost of attendance.

5. University of California, Santa Barbara: $12,192 (non-residents add $857 fee)

The physics department at UCSB is one of the best in the country. It’s not just comparable to an Ivy League education – the program is considered better than Harvard’s. The faculty contains three Nobel Prize winners, and is known for its quantitative approach to the subject. Students are taught to apply their physics knowledge to any discipline they encounter, from financial analysis to biological experiments.

UCSB is also home to the renowned College of Creative Studies, which offers an impressive and challenging physics program. Undergraduates who show particular skill in the field are invited to join the creative studies program. As students enter their junior and senior years, the class size shrinks and lab work increases, allowing for one-on-one attention and specialization.

4. California Institute of Technology: $39,588

CalTech is home to a unique physics program. The department is small, with under 30 undergrads in the entire program – and students can choose the intensity of their curriculum. After freshman year, physics majors have the option to enter an intensive study program that increases both the workload and amount of research. With grants from NASA, the National Science Foundation, and Department of Health and Human Services, CalTech students have access to some of the most prestigious research funding.

Physics may be one of the top majors, but it’s by no means the most competitive. During the first two years, students are graded on a pass/fail basis. The entire CalTech student body is governed by an honor code that relies on individual honesty and responsibility. Thanks to this code, professors are allowed to assign take home exams, meaning students have a bit more freedom when it comes to scheduling study time.

3. Harvey Mudd College: $40,133

As one of the Claremont Colleges, Harvey Mudd encourages students to seek a well-rounded, multi-discipline education. Within the physics department alone, there are nine different programs for students to choose from – making Harvey Mudd one of the most diverse and specialized undergrad physics colleges. The school also graduates more physics majors every year than any other bachelor’s program in the country. Physics graduates from Harvey Mudd have an excellent chance at winning a National Science Foundation fellowship as well.

Student research at Harvey Mudd goes beyond completing experiments in a lab. Majors are required to design their own experiments and analyze all data on their own. Additionally, physics majors are given one free elective class each semester. This is designed to help students branch out into other departments and take other classes that appeal to their interests.

2. Princeton University: $38,650

It’s no surprise that Princeton makes the top of many lists when it comes to education. Their physics program is no different. Students study all types of systems, from molecules and fluids to galaxies and all living things. Understanding physical law is an important aspect of the curriculum, and so is student participation. With a student to faculty ratio below one-to-one, many students also assist their advisors in summer research.

Junior and senior students spend much of their time on independent coursework. Whether they’re developing papers on potential research projects or crafting their thesis, upperclassmen in the physics department get involved with the creation of physical laws. By the time students graduate, Princeton hopes they have recognized that they themselves are living, breathing subjects worth studying.

1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: $40,732

MIT isn’t all about technology. For the past decade, it’s also been home to the number one physics school in the country. Once relegated to a tiny classroom in the back of the architecture department, MIT’s physics department has grown to include 280 undergraduates and multiple state of the art laboratories. The program focuses on students’ conceptual understanding of physics, and combines research with traditional lecture classes.

When students begin their physics major, they can choose between two different paths. One path prepares students for graduate school and is intended for those who are already planning on a master’s or PHD in physics. The second path is tailored towards students who wish to enter a career field that may or may not be directly related to physics. No matter which path they choose, students will spend the initial three years of their education researching and preparing for their senior thesis project.

Quick Facts

  • Don’t worry about having a strong research background when applying to physics programs. Colleges recognize that high school courses often focus more on theory than application.
  • Physics programs sometimes overlap with math departments, so expect to take a few math classes no matter what college you choose.
  • Majoring in physics doesn’t mean you’ll have to go to graduate school. Students apply their knowledge in fields from architecture to engineering.

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