Academic Programs

Majoring in Physics: An Overview

Physics is the science which investigates and attempts to explain the physical universe. The study of physics ranges from the very small to the very large. At the very small scale, physicists probe the basic particles out of which matter is made, and the interactions between them. Among the particles are familiar ones, such as electrons and protons, and those less well known, such as neutrinos and quarks. At a larger scale, physicists study and explain the physical properties of small and large collections of atoms. Research is being done on the properties of materials such as electrical conduction, magnetism, electric polarization, mechanical strength and changes with heating and cooling.  A topic of particular interest is nanophysics, which investigates how all these properties change when a material is only a few thousand atoms in size.  At the largest end of the scale, physicists study the origin and structure of stars, galaxies, and the entire universe.

The results of physics research over the last hundred years have fundamentally changed our world.  Physical understanding has led to tremendous advances in technology such as transistors, lasers, and microwaves. There has been a steady stream of devices from physics laboratories to use in industry, medicine, and everyday life.  Beyond just practical applications, however, physics give us tools to see aspects of the world around us which are invisible to our ordinary senses.  The study of physics is an exploration of the universe we live in.  

Physics majors learn the physical laws which explain the workings of the universe and which are the foundation of our technology. Students also learn how to apply these laws to different situations. In applying the laws of physics to solve physics problems, students get training in analytical skills and laboratory methods. The skills one develops while studying physics, especially problem-solving, are attractive to many employers in many areas from financial modeling to product development.

The primary research specialties within the department are materials physics, beams physics, and elementary particle physics. Materials physics (or condensed matter physics) studies microscopic and macroscopic physical properties of matter, such as high temperature superconductivity, whereas particle physics (or high energy physics) studies the basic forces and particles at the sub-atomic level. Beams physics explores the science and technology of producing high intensity beams which are then used in many other areas including materials science, particle physics, and medical physics. Two premiere national laboratories, Argonne and Fermilab, are located within an hour's drive of NIU. Most of the department's faculty collaborate with physicists at the national labs and utilize equipment there. Some staff members from Fermilab and Argonne teach courses at NIU and occasionally supervise the research efforts of our graduate students.  Three current members of the Physics faculty have been named fellows of the American Physical Society, six have been named University Research Professors; one has been named as a Presidential Teaching Professor, and one a Board of Trustees Professor.

A Bachelor of Science degree in physics can lead to a variety of post-graduate careers. It is the usual prerequisite to enrolling in graduate school in physics. An undergraduate degree in physics can also lead to graduate work in engineering, business, or medical school. It is an especially appropriate degree for a joint Ph.D./M.D. in Medical Physics or related research areas in medicine. Finally, a physics B.S. can be a terminal degree leading to employment in a number of applied physics fields in either the public or private sector, or, with the appropriate certification in education, employment as a secondary school science teacher.

During the past decade, students receiving B.S. degrees in physics from NIU have followed all of the above career paths. Almost half continued on to graduate school, predominantly in physics Ph.D. programs. Most graduate students in physics are financially independent, with jobs as research or teaching assistants. About 10% of our graduates became high school teachers while the rest are employed as engineers, technical research assistants, sales representatives, or editors.