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Undergraduate Physics Program

Should I major in physics?

Some information you should consider:

  • Students often underestimate how difficult the physics major is.
  • You are smart, hard working, and you really like physics. However, that may not be enough to ensure your success as a physics major. Mastering physics beyond the introductory level requires a specific type of aptitude. Not all smart, hard working people have that aptitude.
  • Many students do have the aptitude to succeed in the physics major, but fail to complete the degree due to outside circumstances. Family issues, money issues, and health issues (both physical and mental) can get in the way of success. The University has resources to help in some cases. In particular, the University Counseling Center is available to all students, free of charge. Unfortunately, these life problems are not easy to "fix". If you're dealing with depression, or you have to work 30 hours per week to pay rent, or you're taking care of a sick relative, it can be difficult to find the time and focus required to succeed in your college courses.
  • Physics requires a strong math aptitude. National studies have shown that it is rare for a student who makes less than 600 on the SAT-math test (equivalently 26 on the ACT-math test) to complete a physics degree. Our studies of physics graduates at NCSU support this assertion. Between 2012 and 2015, we had 83 graduates with known SAT-math scores. Only one (1) of these students had an SAT-math score below 600. The average SAT-math score for NCSU physics graduates is 705 (ACT-math equivalent 31).
  • The first physics major's course at NCSU is PY201. Although MA141 (Calculus I) is a co-requisite for PY201, many students in PY201 already have credit for MA141. Having a background in calculus before starting PY201 is helpful. Over the past two years, the average PY201 grade for all students who completed Calculus I before PY201 began was B. The average PY201 grade for all students who were taking MA141 at the same time as PY201 was C-.
  • Students who make less than B- in PY201 or PY205 (the engineering equivalent of PY201) are not likely to complete the physics degree. Over the past 6 years, we have had 146 physics graduates who took PY201 or PY205. Of those, 82 (56%) received an A+, A or A-, 52 (36%) received a B+, B or B-, and 12 (8%) received a C+ or C. None of the students who received a C- or below in PY201 or PY205 have completed a physics degree.
  • Between 2003 and 2009, we had (exactly) 200 freshmen enter the University as physics majors. Of these, 87 (43.5%) completed a physics degree and 52 (26%) completed some other degree (not physics) at NCSU. The remaining 61 (30.5%) students did not (or have not yet) completed a degree at NCSU.

Finally...If you're admitted into the physics program:

  • Does this mean you're well suited for the physics major? Unfortunately no. Admissions at NCSU is controlled entirely by the Admissions Office. I have explained the above points (for example, the SAT-math 600 rule) to the Admissions Office on several occasions, without much success.