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FAQs for Prospective Undergraduate Physics Students

Why Caltech Physics?
I took an AP course/course at a local university or college; can I get credit for it at Caltech?
Can I do research?
What courses do you offer?
What are classes like?
Who teaches physics classes at Caltech?
Can I concentrate/specialize in a specific area of physics?
How many classes do I typically take at one time?
Can I double major?
Is financial aid available?
Will doing (insert activity/course/hobby) help me get into Caltech?
Can I study abroad?
Can I visit campus?

Why Caltech Physics?

  • The undergraduate physics program provides students with extensive training in the fundamentals of modern physics, ensuring that they have the foundation to pursue graduate study and careers in basic research.  Caltech physics majors indeed often become leading researchers in universities and industry.  Our program integrates classwork with modern research and provides students flexibility to tailor their courses according to their individual interests.
  • The program requires computational physics and programming classes, a writing and presentation class, mathematical methods courses, and a series of advanced laboratory courses. Connections between coursework and technological applications are emphasized through several innovative classes and freshman seminars.  Sophomore-level courses explore waves, quantum mechanics, and statistical mechanics. Elective courses taken during the junior and senior year allow students to explore their particular interests through broad survey courses as well as through more focused laboratory studies and research. Active involvement in research, both during the summer and school year, is strongly encouraged.

I took an AP course/course at a local university or college; can I get credit for it at Caltech?

  • In short, no you cannot. We do not accept any credits from other institutions. However, we do offer students the opportunity to satisfy certain requirements or earn course credit through advanced placement exams. In the summer before you begin at Caltech, students are offered the opportunity to take the Physics 1a advanced placement test. This test is completely voluntary. The summer before freshman year is the ONLY chance you have to take this exam. Based on the results of this exam, students may “place out” and be given credit for the course. Scoring exceptionally well on this exam may allow the student eligible for the Physics 1b advanced placement exam. Which may in turn allow the student to write the Physics 1c advanced placement exam. The Physics 1b and 1c advanced placement exams are written in person, after you have started at Caltech.

Can I do research?

  • Yes! There are a few ways you conduct research in the physics department.
  • Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURFs) are the most popular option. Students conduct paid research over the summer, working closely with a member of the physics department. The vast majority of undergraduate students complete at least one SURF during their time at Caltech. If you do not get a SURF after the end of your freshman year, don’t be discouraged. You often need to build up a strong foundation before you are ready for research.
  • Do a thesis (Phys 78/79) or take a research course (Phys 172). This allows a student to conduct research during the school year and obtain course credit.
  • Occasionally, some faculty members have funding available to provide students with a paid position to conduct research during the school year, or in the summer. This is solely at the discretion of the faculty member.

What courses do you offer?

  • Refer to the courses section of the Caltech catalog for a complete listing of all physics courses available. Note that not every course is offered every year. For a listing of all the courses offered this year in the physics department, please refer to our course listing page.

What are classes like?

  • All incoming freshman complete a general first year that includes their core classes, menu classes and some electives. Towards the end of the freshman year, students declare their option (major). After that point, physics students have a lot of freedom to customize their degree. Beyond freshman year, classes are not set up as sophomore courses, junior courses and senior courses. Most of the physics courses offered are available to undergraduate and graduate students. Courses numbered 1 – 99 are exclusively available to undergraduate students, 100 – 199 are available to undergraduate and graduate students and those numbered 200 + are advanced graduate courses.
  • Physics classes are generally quite small beyond Physics 1, 2 and/or 12 which are generally taken by everyone at the institute. Introductory level courses typically have between 20 and 70 students whereas advanced and topics courses may have 2 to 15 students enrolled.

Who teaches physics classes at Caltech?

  • Our physics courses are taught by our faculty members. Our lab courses are taught by a faculty member as well as our lecturers. Most of our classes also have graduate student teaching instructors. Larger courses, especially those taken by freshmen and sophomores, have weekly recitations (tutorials) are led by graduate student and faculty teaching assistants.

Can I specialize/concentrate in a specific area of physics?

  • Unofficially, yes you can. We have two suggested course schedules available here for students interested in focusing their studies in High Energy Physics as well as Condensed Matter/Quantum (QI) Information/Atomic, Molecular and Optical (AMO) Physics. You can also talk with your advisor about how to select courses that reflect your interests in a specific field.

How many classes do I typically take at one time?

  • Most of the physics classes offered are 9-unit courses. The course catalog provides a unit breakdown for all courses, in the form of 3 numbers (4-0-5), for example. The first number, 4, indicates the number of class/recitation hours per week. The second, 0, the number of hours in a lab and the third, 5, the number of hours per week students are expected to spend working on their own time.
  • A full course load is considered 36-48 units/quarter. The typical physics undergraduate schedule suggests that students generally register for 45 units/quarter.

Can I double major?

  • Yes, you can. You will need to sit down with your faculty advisor to plan your courses for the rest of your time at Caltech. This will help ensure that you fulfill the requirements for both of your majors and still graduate on time.

Is financial aid available?

  • Yes. All financial aid is handled centrally by the financial aid office. More information is available here.

Will doing (insert activity/course/hobby) help me get into Caltech?

  • All undergraduate admissions are handled centrally through the admissions office. The option does not admit students directly. Information about admissions is available here.

Can I study abroad?

Can I visit campus?

  • Sure! Information about visiting Caltech’s campus is here. Please follow all of the admission office’s guidelines and rules. Tours of labs, sitting in on classes and meetings with faculty are available only to admitted students.

 Still have questions? Contact Meagan Heirwegh (heirwegm@caltech.edu).