Jul 18, 2024  
2021-2022 General Catalog 
2021-2022 General Catalog ARCHIVED CATALOG: To search archives, MUST use search box to left. Current catalog: catalog.usu.edu.


Department Head: Jan J. Sojka
Location: Science Engineering Research 250A
Phone: (435) 797-2857
FAX: (435) 797-2492
E-mail: physics@usu.edu
Website: http://physics.usu.edu

Associate Department Head:
Charles G. Torre, Science Engineering Research 232, (435) 797-3426, charles.torre@usu.edu

Academic Advisor:
Karalee Ransom, Science Engineering Research 250D, (435) 797-402, karalee.ransom@usu.edu

Degrees offered: Bachelor of Science (BS), Bachelor of Arts (BA), Master of Science (MS), and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Physics; BS in Physics Teaching; BS in Composite Teaching—Physical Science (Physics)

Undergraduate emphases: BS—Professional Emphasis or Applied Emphasis

Graduate specializations: Upper Atmospheric Physics (MS only)—Restricted access MS degree that emphasizes upper atmospheric and space physics applied knowledge for space weather operations clientele.

Full details of the learning objectives, assessment plan, student outcomes, and evidence of continuous improvement for these programs of study can be found at www.physics.usu.edu/assessment/assessment.htm.

Undergraduate Programs


The Physics Department embraces undergraduate students from all quarters of the University—in introductory courses required for majors by various departments, in courses for more general audiences that are part of the University Studies Program, and in upper-level courses designed primarily to fulfill bachelor’s degree requirements in Physics. These courses, and the degree programs offered, are strongly impacted by the department’s central goals:

  1. to communicate the beauty and utility of the fundamental principles of the physical universe and the power of describing nature in quantitative terms,
  2. to create new knowledge,
  3. to foster critical and creative thinking,
  4. to enhance the ability of citizens to participate in a technological democracy,
  5. to assist in the preparation of elementary and secondary school teachers,
  6. to provide opportunities for students to sharpen their communication and interpersonal skills, and
  7. to develop new tools and texts to improve physics pedagogy.

The degree programs of the department are constructed to be rigorous, yet flexible, and are intended to help students prepare for careers in academia, government and industrial laboratories, medicine, law, teaching, and business. Required course and laboratory work in these programs carefully balances theory and experiment. Because the department believes one must participate in discovery to understand science, undergraduates are encouraged to engage in departmental research early in their studies, and a formal research experience is integral to most departmental programs. The department’s Microgravity Research Team (MRT) activities provide excellent opportunities for students of all backgrounds to participate in space-related research.


Departmental Admission and Graduation Requirements

New freshmen admitted to USU in good standing qualify for admission to the degree programs in Physics. Admission in good standing for students transferring from another institution requires a minimum transfer GPA of 2.2, while students transferring from another USU major are required to have a minimum total GPA of 2.0. Students wishing to complete the Teaching Major in Physics must apply for admission to the Secondary Education program as well. Requirements for admission to the Secondary Teacher Education Program (STEP) include a minimum GPA of 3.0 in PHYS 2210 PHYS 2215 , PHYS 2220  and PHYS 2225 ; and at least 60 total credits completed with a minimum GPA of 2.75. A Composite Teaching Major in Physical Science is available through either the Physics or the Chemistry and Biochemistry departments. Students applying for admission to the STEP with the Composite major must satisfy the latter requirements, plus a minimum GPA of 3.0 in CHEM 1210 , CHEM 1215 , CHEM 1220 , and CHEM 1225 .

Students may use no more than one course with the P-D-F option to satisfy a major or minor requirement in Physics. All other courses used to satisfy major or minor requirements must be completed with at least a C- grade, and the total GPA in all required Physics courses must be at least 2.3. The Teaching Major and Teaching Minor in Physics and the Composite Teaching Major in Physical Science require a 3.0 minimum GPA in Physics courses and a minimum 2.75 overall GPA for graduation.

Suggested Four-year Plans

Suggested semester-by-semester four-year plans for students working toward a Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts degree in majors are available in the Department of Physics.

Students should consult with their advisor to develop a plan of study tailored to their individual needs and interests.

Undergraduate Research Opportunities

The Physics Department at Utah State University has a long record of successfully involving its undergraduate students in research and extracurricular scholarly activities. Learning what science is, requires more than just doing homework and taking exams; it requires getting involved in the pursuit of knowledge that is not yet in any textbook. Undergraduates can take PHYS 4900  (Research in Physics) for academic credit. However, many students participate in research activities without credit, because they enjoy being immersed in the act of discovery. Having a meaningful research experience and working closely with faculty are useful for applying for employment, admission to graduate schools, and applying for competitive scholarships. For more information, contact Charles Torre at charles.torre@usu.edu, or visit the following website: http://physics.usu.edu/research/undergrad.html

University Honors Program

The University Honors Program offers students in all colleges and majors the unique opportunity to deepen their educational experience with hands-on practical applications of their academic knowledge. The Honors Program admits incoming, transfer, and existing USU students based on application. High achieving students with at least one year remaining are encouraged to apply.  See the University Honors Program catalog entry and website (honors.usu.edu) for more information.

Learning Objectives

The Physics Department has the following learning objectives. While many of these objectives are applicable to all six departmental programs, some apply only to specific programs. To see which program(s) includes each learning objective, see the footnotes which follow.

  1. Capable communication, written and oral 1,2,3,4,5,6
  2. Skepticism 1,2,3,4,5,6  
  3. Ability in critical thinking and problem solving 1,2,3,4,5,6    
  4. Knowledge of physics subjects to an advanced undergraduate level 1,2,3,4,5,6 
  5. Wide knowledge of physics subjects to an advanced undergraduate level 2,3
  6. Knowledge of focused applied areas of study to the undergraduate level 4  
  7. Experience in experimental physics 1,2,3,4,5,6  
  8. Experience in physics research 1,2,3,4,5,6  
  9. Knowledge of computer methods in physics 1,2,3,4,5,6  
  10. Knowledge of broadening subjects 1,2,3,4,5,6
  11. Knowledge of mathematics to undergraduate calculus level 1,2,3,4,5,6 
  12. Knowledge of mathematics to undergraduate differential equations level 1,2,3,4,5
  13. Knowledge of statistics to undergraduate level 5,6
  14. Knowledge of philosophy of science to the undergraduate level 1
  15. Knowledge of a foreign language to the undergraduate level 1         


The footnotes following each of the preceding learning objectives indicate which program(s) include that objective. The six undergraduate programs are as follows:

1 BA degree in physics
2 BS degree in physics
3 BS degree in physics with professional emphasis
4 BS degree in physics with applied emphasis
5 BS degree in physics teaching
6 BS in composite teaching physical science


The Physics Department supports an ongoing program of assessment based upon input from students, alumni, colleagues, professional organizations, etc. For details, see: http://physics.usu.edu/assessment/assessment.htm

Additional Information

Information concerning degree programs, recommended schedules of courses, career opportunities, and opportunities to participate in the Get Away Special (GAS) or Society of Physics Students (SPS) activities, and in other areas of undergraduate research may be obtained by consulting the Physics advisor in SER 250. Also see the department’s website at www.physics.usu.edu/.

Major requirement sheets, which provide details of undergraduate programs in physics, can be obtained from the department.

Graduate Programs

Admission Requirements

In addition to the general requirements for admission established by the School of Graduate Studies, the department admission committee bases its decisions for offering admission on the following criteria: review of applicants’ undergraduate records, letters of recommendation, performance in graduate courses (if any), performance in research (if any), and scores on the Graduate Record Examination. Students whose native language is not English are strongly encouraged to submit to the School of Graduate Studies results of the Test of Spoken English (TSE). Regardless, nonnative English speakers must submit a score for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). If a satisfactory score on the TSE is not provided, such students will be required to take a test given by the Intensive English Language Institute (IELI) at USU. The purpose of this test is to guide the selection of remedial language courses, if needed, to help with physics coursework comprehension. (See also Financial Assistance)


Prior to registering for graduate courses for the first time, each student will consult with the Graduate Student Tracking Committee and the departmental advisor. Based on these discussions, the student will be advised to register for courses in either the Physics Department standard curriculum or advanced curriculum. Continuing advisement concerning courses will be provided by the Graduate Student Tracking Committee, the departmental advisor, and the student’s graduate supervisory committee.

Qualification Requirements

Each student enrolled in the PhD program will be evaluated for qualification for PhD work. Consideration of qualification will occur no later than the end of the second semester after the student has been admitted for study in the PhD program and has taken a first graduate course in physics. Evaluation will be based on whatever relevant information the student wishes to have presented on his or her behalf (coursework, research, TA performance, subject GRE, etc.), but must include  a faculty evaluation of coursework in physics for courses taken at USU. Normally, the student should present the results of at least four physics courses.  Based on the various pieces of information presented on behalf of the student, the department will judge whether or not the student is qualified to continue in the PhD program. If not, a student already having an MS in physics from USU will be asked to leave. A student without an MS in physics from USU will be invited to finish his or her MS degree. Upon completion, the student can reapply to the PhD program, but acceptance will be contingent on the evaluation of the student’s graduate work to that point.


Space Science

The Physics Department is active in the field of atmospheric and space science, in close association with the interdisciplinary Center for Atmospheric and Space Sciences and the Space Dynamics Laboratory. Atmospheric and space science involves many areas of physics, in addition to such disciplines as engineering, chemistry, and meteorology. At USU, these groups enjoy a strong cooperative relationship and, as a result, the atmospheric and space science program has flourished for many years. Once the departmental requirements have been met, students may select courses from the offerings of the associated departments suited for their particular interests and needs while they gain research experience on challenging problems in atmospheric and space science. Opportunities are available for students in both experimental and theoretical projects. These include participation in instrument development and data analysis related to rocket, satellite, and space shuttle projects and projects in experimental design and data analysis related to incoherent-scatter and coherent radars, ground-based magnetometer, and ground-based optical instruments including a LIDAR system. Opportunities also exist in theoretical modeling of physical processes occurring in both the neutral atmosphere and in the plasma in the solar-terrestrial environment.

Plasma Theory and Confinement

Research in the field of magnetic confinement fusion at Utah State University includes the theoretical development of improved hybrid fluid/kinetic models for terrestrial and astrophysical plasmas. This work provides theoretical support for next-step fusion experiments such as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).

Surface Physics

The surface physics group has an active experimental research program studying the structure, growth, dynamics, electronic properties, and optical properties of surfaces, interfaces, and adsorbed layers. The group has expertise in the interactions of electrons, ions, and photons with materials. Experimental techniques used within the group include atomic force microscopy (AFM), Auger electron spectroscopy (AES), infrared spectroscopy, ion scattering spectroscopy, ion implantation, low-energy electron diffraction (LEED), photo emission spectroscopy, scanning electron microscopy (SEM), scanning tunneling microscopy (STM), secondary ion mass spectroscopy (SIMS), thermal deflection spectroscopy, ultra fast femtosecond laser spectroscopy, vapor pressure adsorption isotherms, and x-ray diffraction. This interdisciplinary research brings together the fields of solid-state physics, surface physics and chemistry, optics, physical chemistry, and electrochemistry through active collaborations between Physics, Chemistry and Biochemistry, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and other departments. It includes both basic and applied research.

Physics of Quantum Devices

The rapid advance of technology has made quantum physics an indispensable foundation of the nanoscale devices. The Physics Department is positioned to explore this new field with two complementary research themes. The first theme is to study the growth of novel electronic/photonic materials involving group III-V elements using a commercial, state-of-the-art molecular beam epitaxy machine. Also, novel semiconductor quantum nanostructures are studied using an in-situ scanning tunneling microscope directly attached to the machine. The second theme is to use the most advanced surface science techniques to fabricate nanoscale structures on semiconductor surfaces. The interdisciplinary nature of this field provides a stimulating research environment for faculty and students with backgrounds in physics, electrical engineering, material sciences, and chemistry.

Fields, Astrophysics, and Spacetime Theory

The fundamental theoretical physics group at USU engages in research in selected areas of: general relativity and gravitation, supergravity, string theory, unified field theories, black hole astrophysics, mathematical physics, computer algebra. The research group benefits from a strong collaborative connection with the researchers from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics.

Physics Education

The USU Physics Department is engaged in the study of how to improve the teaching and learning of physics. The program currently emphasizes introductory and general education courses and involves the development of hands-on, inquiry-based curricula for lecture and laboratory, development of associated laboratory and multimedia equipment and modules, preparation of new texts and workbooks, sponsorship of undergraduate research, and outreach to the precollege community.

Complex Materials and Dynamics

Current work at USU in the interdisciplinary area of complex systems includes development of new data analysis techniques for uncovering evidence for determinism and computation in biological systems.

Financial Assistance

Financial assistance in the form of teaching assistantships and fellowships is awarded by the department. Research assistantships are available from research groups or individuals. Some support for teaching laboratory sections or grading papers is available. To be eligible for a teaching assistantship (TA), a student must successfully complete a graduate TA workshop. Nonnative English-speaking students must pass a test of spoken English (or submit a satisfactory TSE score) administered by the Intensive English Language Institute before being admitted to the TA workshop. The MS specialization in Upper Atmospheric Physics is a Western Regional Graduate Program, see School of Graduate Studies .

Career Opportunities

Master’s degree holders in physics are generally employed by industrial or government laboratories as either physicists or engineers. Some are hired as teachers by high schools and by two-year colleges. Holders of the PhD in physics will generally be hired as research and development physicists by industrial or government laboratories and as professors in universities (though this may require additional postdoctoral research experience).

Additional Information

Regularly updated information about Physics Department activities and programs may be obtained via the Web at www.physics.usu.edu/.

FACULTY - College of Science