Requirements: Physics

Natural Sciences Division

Physics is the study of the most basic principles of nature that describe the world around us, from subatomic particles, to the motion of everyday objects to the galaxies and beyond. Courses in physics allow students to develop a sound knowledge of these principles as well as the analytical, computational and experimental techniques necessary to apply them to a broad range of theoretical and experimental problems. A physics degree is excellent preparation for graduate school in physics and engineering and for careers in the health sciences, law and teaching.

The Kenyon College faculty voted to change from Kenyon units to semester hours. This change will go into effect for all students who start at the College in the fall of 2024. Both systems will be used throughout the course catalog with the Kenyon units being listed first.


The Curriculum

The Department of Physics offers three options for students wishing to begin their exploration of physics.

  1. Students interested in exploring physics as a potential major or minor should begin by taking PHYS 140 and 141 and PHYS 145 and 146 in their first year. Together with PHYS 240 and 241, these courses form a calculus-based introduction to physics particularly suitable for students who plan to take upper-level courses in physics, chemistry and/or mathematics. PHYS 140 and 145 require concurrent enrollment in or credit for "Calculus I and II," respectively, and each has a co-requisite laboratory course. PHYS 141, corequisite to PHYS 140 for first-year students, is a weekly seminar open only to first-year students enrolled in PHYS 140 or holding credit for an equivalent course. It introduces students to laboratory work in physics in the context of one of the subdisciplines of physics pursued by faculty members in the department. Recent seminar topics have included nanoscience, cold atom physics, gravitation, astrophysics and particle physics. PHYS 131, co-requisite to PHYS 140 for upper-class students, and PHYS 146 are weekly laboratories, closely tied to lecture material; they make extensive use of computers for data acquisition and analysis.
  2. First-year students who have unusually strong physics preparation from high school,  may want to consider beginning their study of physics with PHYS 240 (plus PHYS 141 as their co-requisite lab course) in the first semester, followed by PHYS 145 and 146 in the second semester. Such preparation includes a high score on the Advanced Placement C-level physics examination, experience with quantitative laboratory measurement, significant use of calculus in high school physics and placement into Calculus III. Placement into PHYS 240 is determined in consultation with the instructor and chair of the department.
  3. Students who desire a more qualitative approach to physics and do not intend to major in physics or pursue 3-2 engineering can choose from an array of courses designed to engage learners in the physics relevant to various interesting subfields of the discipline. Recent course offerings in this series have included PHYS 100 (QR), PHYS 101 (QR), PHYS 102 (QR), PHYS 103, PHYS 104 (QR), PHYS 105 (QR), PHYS 106, PHYS 107 (QR), PHYS 108 and PHYS 109. These courses are suitable for diversification in the sciences and are accessible to any Kenyon student regardless of class year or preparation. Those including the QR designation also satisfy the College's quantitative reasoning requirement, making regular, weekly use of numerical, statistical and/or graphical techniques to help students explore the material in quantitative ways. All contain some laboratory sessions in which students gain experience with the phenomena discussed in lectures. Usually, one or two such courses are offered each semester.

Upper-class students seeking a one-year survey of physics with laboratory should take PHYS 130 and 135 and the co-requisite laboratory courses, PHYS 131 and 136. Entry into PHYS 130 and 135 requires sophomore standing; no first-year students will be admitted to these courses. Co-requisite laboratory courses must be taken in the same semester as the associated survey course.

A student preparing for graduate study in physics should enroll in several advanced physics courses in addition to the minimum requirements and is encouraged to take further work in mathematics and chemistry. A student preparing for graduate study should expect to average about 2.5 units/20 semester hours per semester. Care should be taken to satisfy the College's graduation requirement to take 9 units/72 semester hours outside of the major department.

A student preparing for graduate or second bachelor's degree work in engineering will need to complete a year of chemistry with lab as well as MATH 333. Note that MATH 224 does not substitute for MATH 333 for the purpose of pre-engineering course work.

All courses in physics numbered above 220 have as prerequisites PHYS 140 and 145 and MATH 111 and 112, unless otherwise noted. PHYS 131, 136, 141, 146, 241 and courses numbered 380–387 are laboratory courses involving substantial experimental work.

Requirements for the Major

The minimum requirements for a major in physics consist of the following:

  • PHYS 140: Classical Physics
  • PHYS 141: First-Year Seminar in Physics
  • PHYS 145: Modern Physics
  • PHYS 146: Modern Physics Lab
  • PHYS 240: Fields and Spacetime
  • PHYS 241: Fields and Spacetime Laboratory
  • PHYS 245: Oscillations and Waves
  • PHYS 270: Introduction to Computational Physics
  • In extraordinary circumstances, PHYS 130, 131 and 135, 136 may be substituted for PHYS 140, 141 and 145, 146 with permission of the department chair.
  • Four courses of experimental physics:
    • PHYS 380: Introduction to Electronics
    • PHYS 385: Advanced Experimental Physics 1
    • Two courses chosen from:
      • PHYS 381: Projects in Electronics 1
      • PHYS 382: Projects in Electronics 2
      • PHYS 386: Advanced Experimental Physics 2
      • PHYS 387: Advanced Experimental Physics 3
  • Two courses of theoretical physics:
    • PHYS 340: Classical Mechanics
    • PHYS 345: Astrophysics and Particles
    • PHYS 350: Electricity and magnetism
    • PHYS 355: Optics
    • PHYS 360: Quantum Mechanics
    • PHYS 365: Quantum Mechanics II
    • PHYS 370:Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics
    • PHYS 375: Condensed Matter Physics
    • At least one of:
      • PHYS 340: Classical Mechanics
      • PHYS 350: Electricity and Magnetics
      • PHYS 360: Quantum Mechanics
  • Additional .5 units/4 semester hours selected from experimental or theoretical physics courses numbered above 320.
  • MATH 111, 112 and 213, or equivalent; and any 0.5 units/4 semester hour course numbered MATH 220 or above. In rare cases, other courses may satisfy the requirement with department approval.

Requirements for the Minor

The department offers two minors, physics and astronomy. Students considering one of these minors should work with a faculty member in the physics department as the minor is being planned, since some courses are not offered every year.

Requirements for the Physics Minor

The program for a minor in physics consists of the following:

  • PHYS 140, 131 or 141, 145, 146, 240 and 241. PHYS 130 and 135 and their co-requisite labs may be substituted for 140 and 145 with permission of the department chair.
  • Additional 1 unit selected from physics courses numbered above PHYS 220 (Note: All courses in physics numbered above 220 have as prerequisites PHYS 140 and 145 and MATH 111 and 112, unless otherwise noted).

This minor is open to students with all majors, but it may be especially attractive to students in disciplines that have strong ties to physics, such as chemistry, mathematics and biology. Other combinations of introductory courses may also be acceptable. 

Requirements for the Astronomy Minor

The program for a minor in astronomy consists of the following:

  • 1 unit/8 semester hours of 100-level courses that cover topics in astronomy from among PHYS 101, 105, 106, 107 and 109;
  • A year of introductory physics with lab: PHYS 130 and 135 or 140 and 145; 131 or 141; 136 or 146.
  • An additional 0.5 units/4 semester hours selected from all physics courses (see suggestions below).

There are several options for the fifth course. While any of the 100-level courses could be used, specific intermediate courses accessible upon completion of the introductory sequence with lab are also good choices. For example, PHYS 240 and 241 provide further experience with the foundations of physics. PHYS 270 explores computational approaches to problem-solving using examples from astronomy, physics and other sciences. Other options may include individual study and special-topics courses related to astronomy.

Note: College policy prohibits a student from receiving a minor in the same department as his or her major. Thus, a physics major may not elect to minor in astronomy.

Senior Capstone

The Senior Capstone includes the presentation of a talk on a topic in physics at a department colloquium and a set of gateway examinations in physics.

More information about the Senior Capstone in physics is available on the department website.


Honors work in physics involves directed research on a specific topic in experimental, theoretical or computational physics, culminating in a written thesis, an oral presentation at a departmental colloquium and an examination by an outside specialist.

More information about honors work in physics is available on the department website.